Friday, October 02, 2009

Māori and the Gene Pool: Do we filter, drain or dredge?

Here's a peer commentary I was aksed to write for a recent edition of the MAI review. It was declined as being too jokey, which I accept. Still, here it is regardless...

What is it about genetic research that reads like a Hollywood B-movie? Certainly the characters are straight out of a casting manual: the ascetic German monk (Gregor Mendel), an eccentric Englishman (Charles Darwin), clean-cut American hero (James Watson), another Englishman Francis Crick (who as a doctoral student in Blitz-torn London was presented with the perfect excuse when his lab was destroyed by a German bomb), a colonial (New Zealander Maurice Wilkins, born in Pongaroa, Wairarapa), an ‘moody’ woman (Rosalind Franklin), and villains galore in the form of capitalists and mad scientists, trying to patent genetic information while cloning dead pets on the side (Rose, Kamin, & Lewontin, 1984; Tudge, 2000; Verschuuren, 1995). And the storylines resonate with the great themes of world cinema. There are quests for knowledge, a host of quirky, competitive, difficult, sometimes plain dishonest colleagues, and the constantly changing political and professional contexts that force alliances one day only to drive them asunder the next. There are recurring historical narratives of surreal oppression - Lysenkoism in Stalinist Russia and the anti-Darwin/anti-evolution ‘Monkey Trial’ in Christian fundamentalist American heartland (Dayton, Ohio, to be precise) - and the corollary heroism of the idealistic scientist, Dobzhansky, or the small-town, bespectacled high school teacher, John Thomas Scopes. On the sci-fi shelf we have the Human Genome Project that, akin to the Supercollider of physics is, a) supposed to shed light on the meaning of life, and b) is very, very, expensive. The history of genetic research is ripe with outlandish personalities, drama and melodrama, and the high-wire politics we get out on DVD for a rainy weekend.

Yet the basics of genetics are so easily communicated, are they not? In the form of a shape (the rather nifty double helix), and ‘written’ in four base ‘letters’ which even more simply always pair up but in ways so numerous we have, drum roll please, the Code of Life. Simple as A, T, G, C. Of course things are never so simple. Mendel, the so-called father of genetics, failed his exams, twice, through anxiety, and his work, which took eight years to complete, was ignored for over three decades. Darwin, adhering to the undergraduate dictum ‘it’s never too late to procrastinate’, published after 20 years of studious deliberation, and then only on a prompt from Alfred Russell Wallace who had essentially come to the same conclusions. If female graduates still struggle against institutional sexism, imagine the experiences of Rosalind Franklin who was, among other things, Jewish and practically the only woman in the monastic labs of post-war Cambridge. (She was to die, age 37, from ovarian cancer brought on by her work with X-rays which had revealed the actual structure of DNA). The anti-evolution theory show trial of Scopes was thought up by several Dayton businessmen who saw an opportunity to put Dayton on the map. There is, after all, no such thing as bad publicity. If one might be so bold as to make a quick synopsis: genes spell trouble.

But the beauty of DNA is not just that it has a simple structure, amenable to change, but that it is wonderfully adept at explanation. On the walls of the Lincoln University gym is a poster proclaiming we are ‘hard-wired’ to crave fat and sugar: s/he/I couldn’t help themselves/myself … pass the coke please. Of course genetic determinism, like any other determinism, is fine if you get to do the determining and as Gary Hook points out, our ability as Māori to determine research in which we appear as a keyword is still lacking to the extent that Lea and Chambers (2007), while ostensibly seeking to illuminate issues of Māori and Pasifika health, step into something of a void but like the cartoon coyote keep running until they look down…

Marxist biologist Richard Lewontin (surely worth Googling on that introduction alone), warned of the dangers of fixating on DNA, as if through reductionist observation you could understand emergent life itself (1985; 1982). In this Richard Dawkins (while something of a gene-fiend himself) takes us towards useful territory with his musing upon the concept of the ‘meme’ (rhyming with cream, not mimi), a unit of cultural transmission, of imitation if you like. Memes are to be regarded as living structures, having real-world effects in operating as conceptual parasites that use the human as a vehicle of propagation. Thus when we hear the word ‘warrior’ in association with an ethnic group, we can quickly shut down confusion as the ‘world’ already matches up a set of manifestations – crime statistics, a preternatural ability to play full-contact sport, underachievement in education, and so on. This ‘savage’ meme arose through the blissful ignorance of Enlightenment thinkers to become official policy, supported by scientific research and perpetuated through popular media. It’s in the childrens’ stories of Enid Blyton, the racial profiling of the 1970s dawn raids, and the biography of George Nepia. Like a bad prawn curry, it just repeats.

All this, and more, has been dismantled by Stephen Jay Gould, the British evolutionary biologist and anatomist who became a historian through his work on biology in general and evolution in particular. Gould, who takes some delight in the dispute it must be said, destroys biological determinism in his Mismeasure of Man (Gould, 1996). The book was first published in 1981 (a year for, um, reflection on the New Zealand perspectives of racial categorisation if ever there was one) in reaction to the surge in popularity of biological determination vis-à-vis blacks and whites in the reactionary climate of 1970s America. It was subsequently republished in the aftermath of Herrnstein and Murray’ The Bell Curve. Just to remind us, the Bell Curve purports to prove Blacks are not as intelligent as Whites, and – as the James ‘The Father of DNA’ Watson was quoted saying in 2007 “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.” So don’t bother, there’s nothing that can be done about poverty in Africa, violence in the ghettoes, ethnic minority underachievement in education. It’s nobodies fault. It’s their genes…

As Gould points out, the impact of the Bell Curve cannot be put down to its science. So why the continued enthusiasm for genetic determinism? Well, why do people watch adverts for things they already own? To be reassured they have made the right choice. The recurrence of racist discourse is, simply, socio-political. Of course, by ‘simply’ I mean in concordance with the media sensationalism, blithe ignorance and curious disdain that characterises modern life. As Gould and others have detailed in horrific detail, ascriptions of character, psychology, and potential on the basis of biology underpin a political doctrine we barely discuss but cannot erase: violent, oppressive, rightwing, market-mimetic, fascistic, racism.

As for the limited study of Rakaipaaka genetics, it’s content can be, indeed has been, critiqued by the researchers’ peers (Crampton & Parkin, 2007; Merriman & Cameron, 2007). This is not to say that genetics is not important for Māori health: one day it may be the most important thing, the last bastion of personalised healthcare for Indigenous Peoples! But not yet, not when we’re still trying to get our tamariki on nutritional diets, remove cigarettes and alcohol from the purchasing power of teenagers, and properly housing our kaumātua. Countering the racism behind these struggles takes place in many dimensions and at various scales.

I have a sneaking suspicion the danger is not that such science takes place: there isn’t that much of it, and other scientists have been so brutally scathing of its approach and findings. Even if Māori could influence the destination of seven figure amounts in Crown Research Institutes, this is mere tinkering. When Mendel was breeding his sweetpeas, Karl Marx was tracing the hereditary nature of global capital which ultimately came ashore, first by sailing ship, now by internet, and continues to mate with us and itself in ways so perverse we have yet to properly name it all. The terrible thing is, Pakeha don’t understand it either.

So how do we change it? What memes to we want to spread? The moniker of ‘gardener’, in conjuring up bucolic productivity, sweet fruits, new potatoes and buzzy bees is more accurate and if we keep banging on about it, might just take hold. Or perhaps ‘fishers’, of land, kaimoana, and people. Of course, it would help immensely if we did more gardening, and the fisheries were healthier, and if we were safer, and told more people about it in ways they can understand and appreciate, and maybe even evolve. We have much to learn in all the tinkering needed to flourish in today’s world but we’re well placed to re-indigenise humanity! As a wiser commentator than me once said “Science is the work of human beings. The only way to get close to objectivity is through intersubjectivity”. More hui I’m afraid.

Somebody ought to make a movie of all this.

Follow-up: Here's a book review on bioethics

Also this critique by Jessica Hutchings and Paul Reynolds

Crampton, P., & Parkin, C. (2007). Warrior genes and risk-taking science. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 02-March-2007, Vol 120 No 1250, 120(1250). Retrieved from

Gould, S. J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.

Lea, R., & Chambers, G. (2007). Monoamine oxidase, addiction, and the “warrior” gene hypothesis. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 120(1250). Retrieved from

Levins, R., & Lewontin, R. (1985). The Dialectical Biologist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lewontin, R. C. (1982). Organism Environment. In H. Plotkin (Ed.), Learning, Development and Culture: Essays in Evolutionary Epistemology. Chichester: Wiley.
Merriman, T., & Cameron, V. (2007). Risk-taking: behind the warrior gene story. Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 120(1250). Retrieved from

Rose, S., Kamin, L., & Lewontin, R. (1984). Not in our genes: Biology, ideology and human nature. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tudge, C. (2000). The impact of the gene. New York: Hill and Wang.
Verschuuren, G. (1995). Life scientists: Their convictions, their activities and their values. North Andover: Genesis Publishing Company.

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