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  • Genetics and Genealogy: American Mythology

    Edwin M. Knights, Jr., M.D.

    Ancient Greece occupies a special place in the history of the western world, because it contributed so much to our culture and architecture and was the inspiration for our democratic form of government.  But we also enjoy their literature and find their mythology fascinating and somewhat amusing.  Many centuries from now, historians may look back at the United States and study its cultural, architectural, and technological achievements.  They will find our mythology quite humorous and somewhat bewildering — especially when it is promoted by our government.  Although the government makes critical decisions of public policy based upon a concept of race (which it admits has no scientific credence), there is no significant protest by the populace.  At least the Greeks were dealing with unproven, unverified concepts; we can hardly make that excuse!

    The U.S. Census

    If there is one document that appears more often than any other in a genealogical study, it is the United States Census.  It is admittedly imperfect, but since the first one in 1790 the Federal Government has tried to make improvements to make it a better mirror of the population.  Article II, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1787, includes the following:

    "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifth of all other Persons."

    “All other Persons” referred mostly to slaves; free men were counted as one person.  Congress agreed to carry out a census, recognizing the existence of slavery, but was powerless to deal with it politically.  This pattern continued for many years, asking if respondent was a free man, a slave, or an “Indian not taxed.”

    The 2000 Census

    The Census of Population has been updated every ten years and over time the U.S. Census Bureau has continued to slide deeper and deeper into a racial quagmire.  It was apparent that their racial concepts were not adequate but now there were new sociopolitical pressures placed on census-taking groups now classified as “minorities” who had suffered unjust discrimination in many ways.  The U.S. Census Bureau responded by issuing the following definition:

    "The concept of race as used by the Census Bureau reflects self-identification by people according to the race or races with which they most closely identify.  These categories are sociopolitical constructs and should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature.  Furthermore, the race categories include both racial and national-origin groups."

    The classifications were expanded to include White, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, some other race, and two or more races. In addition, a separate question asked whether the individual was Spanish/Hispanic/Latino.

    It soon became apparent that the new “non-scientific” classification was in big trouble.  The news media headlined the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States and the fact that Hispanics have surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group.  Over thirty-four million people marked only “black or African American” on the race question, while over thirty-five million individuals identified themselves as Hispanic.  The population is so diverse that there are many ambiguities, not the least of which is that some blacks are also Hispanic.  Depending upon how someone looked at the data, at least four different interpretations were possible.  And, of course, depending upon how someone looked at the data, the socioeconomic benefits varied markedly.

    Hispanic Diversity

    Persons from South America generally regard themselves as Hispanic, with the exception of over 170 million inhabitants of Brazil.  Of these, there is a wide divergence in published figures.  While fifty-five percent consider themselves of European origin (mainly Portuguese, Italian, or German), thirty-eight percent report “mixed parentage” and another six percent includes African, American Indian, or Japanese ancestry.  Another source reports fifty-five percent as mulattos, a mixture of black and white.

    Of the over thirty-two million residents of Argentina, fifty-five percent are Caucasian and fifty percent Mestizo (mixed native Indian and Spanish).  The rest are mostly native Indian groups, with the largest being the Guaran’es.  The Chilean population also includes many of European origin, with a higher percentage from Germany.  The 1992 census reported almost a million indigenous Chileans, largely consisting of Mapuche from southern Chile.  There are also Arabs, Koreans, and a Jewish population of 23,000.

    Of course the U.S. Census also included many millions from Mexico, plus Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and immigrants from the Dominican Republic and other Central American countries, together with others of Spanish origin.  Spain’s population is anything but homogeneous.  Beginning in the fourth century Visogoths, Ostrogoths, and Franks — all Northern European tribes — swept into the Iberian Peninsula.  Large numbers of Arabs arrived in the eighth century, conquering the area and remaining for many centuries.  And in 1492, it’s estimated that half a million Sephardic Jews lived in Spain, many of whom were later forced to convert to Christianity. 

    Race Not a Valid Concept

    As the U.S. Census Bureau admitted, the concept of race has no scientific basis.  The American Anthropological Association clarified their stand on this in 1999 with the following position paper:

    "It has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups... Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred.  The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained humankind as a single species...  Any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations is both arbitrary and subjective."

    Indeed, in the 2000 census, nearly seven million people identified themselves as members of more than one race.  Unfortunately the majority of respondents tried their best to answer an impossible question and assigned themselves to a “race” which does not exist.  The pseudoscientific approach of the U.S. Census Bureau evoked the following editorial from Dr. Robert S. Schwartz:

    "After 400 years of social disruption, geographic dispersion and genetic intermingling, there are no alleles that define the black people of North America as a unique population or race."

    Dr. Schwartz’s observations are echoed by the findings of the Human Genome Project, which show the remarkable overall similarity of the genetic make-up of all mankind.  It is true there are also significant differences, some obviously inherited mutations and others possibly representing responses to environmental factors, but these differences show no correlation with the artificially devised concepts currently misnamed “races.”  Despite our visual impression of variation between “races,” it turns out that about eighty-five percent of human variations occur among individuals in the same population, while less than ten percent of the variations were found when comparing Africans, Europeans, and Asians.  Indeed, increasing numbers of studies of human DNA suggest a common African ancestry, perhaps 200,000 years ago.  The Human Genome Project probably should be regarded as sequencing “a” human genome rather than “the” human genome, serving as a road map for further investigations to understand more about human genetic diversity and how it came about.

    The Human Race

    Even before the completion of the Human Genome Project, Alain F. Corcos, Professor Emeritus of Botany at Michigan State University, published his book, The Myth of Human Races. In it, he criticized the protagonists of the race theory for having based flawed research upon a number of specious assumptions, asserting that the idea that human races exist is a socially constructed myth with no grounding in science.  Regardless of skin, hair, or eye color, we are all of one species.

    At a conference held in June of 2000 to celebrate the successful sequencing of the human genome, Dr. Francis Collins, who directed the project, stated, “The human genome is our shared inheritance.”  Craig Venter, whose company, Celera Genomics, had already acquired extensive experience in sequencing and analyzing human DNA, went further. “Race has no genetic or scientific basis,” he stated.

    From the Human Genome Project and the many other studies now under way on human DNA, we are already learning much that is of medical value.  We are also learning that we can no longer tolerate racial distinctions in human biology and medical practice.  Yet biomedical researchers are faced with the problem of describing genetic differences among groups of humans without implying these groups are basically different.  Steve Olson, in the Atlantic Monthly, notes that the National Institutes of Health requires users of the primary genetic database to sign a form that they will not try to determine the ethnicity of the people who contributed the DNA.  The NIH has fallen into the same trap as the Census Bureau, because ethnicity can easily be determined by anyone who compares the samples with known DNA sequences.

    The scientific problem in this instance is easier to define and understand, although not easier to solve, than is the solution to the dilemma faced by the U.S. Census Bureau.  By discounting the evolutionary and historical factors, which led to new genetic patterns, the NIH has resorted to intellectual dishonesty by implementing a policy which will only delay the proper interpretation of various genetic changes associated with diseases.  The U.S. Census Bureau are now perpetuating a myth, or to put it more bluntly, ignoring the scientific truth about the concept of race.  Their motives may be commendable, for it is done in an attempt to devise just and impartial public policies and to protect the privacy and rights of individuals.  But is the suppression of truth a justifiable means?  Or should we be considering some fresh new ways to eliminate ”racism”?

    Genealogists are more than just passive onlookers on this chaotic state of affairs.  Many serious genealogists are intrigued with ethnic customs, some of which may still persist in their own families.  And in many instances they have uncovered several ethnic backgrounds, which have blended to create the generations of today and tomorrow.  Those who have researched medical problems rapidly become aware of the impacts of culture and environment superimposed on complex patterns of genetic inheritance.  In seeking the truth, they encounter official documents that inadvertently or deliberately obscure or conceal the truth. 

    The new knowledge derived from DNA research offers wonderful new opportunities to understand our past, learn about ourselves, and pave the way with knowledge for the benefit of future generations.  Ethnic traditions should be treated with respect and ethnic legacies can be preserved in the context of a rapidly expanding world population which continues to benefit far more from assimilation and tolerance than from diversity.  As Svante Paabo aptly notes in his comments on genomics and society in Science Magazine, prejudice, oppression, and racism feed on ignorance.  Knowledge of the genome should foster compassion, not only because our gene pool is extremely mixed, but also because everyone carries at least some bad alleles.  There is no excuse for stigmatizing any one group on the basis of ethnicity or carrier status for certain alleles. 

    It should not be necessary to resort to mythology.

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