Wednesday, August 27, 2014

National identity vs genetics: Are haplogroups becoming the new race?

I just got back from the Africa to Aotearoa Project Presentation at the Governor General Residence in Wellington. It is part of Genographic, the National Geographic sponsored project on mapping the human ancestry. It was a fascinating evening at various different levels. For one, the lack of security going into the residence of the de-facto head of state of NZ and the legal representative of the Queen in NZ was pretty amazing. A police officer wanted to see our invitation card at the gate and then just waved us through. No security anywhere. Compare that with just a single trip to any US or UK embassy...
The Governor General gave a brief speech, followed by a great overview presentation by Lisa Matisoo-Smith, one of the NZ leaders of the project. She gave a nice and easily accessible overview of genetic diversity and the shifts that have occurred since we moved out of Africa. The glacial period and the neolithic transition (especially the invention of agriculture) were periods of major changes in our genes. As people moved around the world, further mutations occurred and it is now possible to track the genetic heritage of groups of individuals. Groups who share a common ancestor, that is they share similar mutations, are forming a so-called haplogroup. The haplogroups studied in the Genographic Project are associated with mitochondrial DNA (passed on by the mother) and the Y-chromosome (passed on by fathers). The amazing fact is that this information allows a pretty accurate placing of individuals in terms of their genetic ancestry.

Straightforward genetics and highly fascinating. The current Governor General Sir Sir Jerry Mateparae, the former Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand as well as Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon all provided their DNA and a fascinating review of their genetic ancestry was displayed. 

However, what turned the whole event into a slightly less positive light was the frequent mentioning of national identity. New Zealand is one of those places where national identity is highly contested and politically sensitive. Maori as the first settlers have been around for about 750 years, followed by the European colonization project that started about 200 years ago. Both the Governor General as well as various speakers after him referred to this project as helping to find or determine a national identity for NZ. Some reference was made to the ethnic mixing of people, after all, the haplogroups show how much mingling there has been between individuals and groups on the giant track out of Africa all the way to the end of the world in the Pacific. However, the labels that were applied to individuals - haplogroup R, M, U, etc. created little tribes of related individuals. Photographs were taken of the 'families'. 

There has been a long and controversial tradition of linking identity to race. Social and biological scientists concerned with identity have been battling the common conception that race is a biologically meaningful concept. Good news is that old school race and genetics linkages seem to be waning. But the event tonight seemed to replace this old idea of race with the more 'scientific' and empirical evidence of haplogroups. Despite all the efforts by speakers that we are all mixed, people may start identifying and separating themselves via their ancestral haplogroups. This is the slightly worrying thought for me, namely that simplified and stereotyped haplogroups become the new race in the definition of group identities. What about genetic testing in the future to determine whether you belong to us or not? What haplogroup can be a true New Zealander? 

Why do we need to link a highly fascinating project on our genetic ancestry to national identity? I thought it was a great evening, with some worrying undertones...

1 comment:

  1. hmmm what about comparing this to another form of human identity: gender. I (for example) can identify as female, but my 'belonging' to this group - biologically and socially - does not diminish the humanity I share with males or trans-gender people. I think we will always want to categorise and compare... where it gets tricky is the value judgements that get attached.