Humanity’s Map

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This morning the New York Times reported that the National Geographic Society has launched the Genographic Project, which will collect DNA in order to reconstruct the past 100,000 years of human history.

I proceeded to shoot a good hour nosing around the site. The single best thing about it is an interactive map that allows you to trace the spread of humans across the world, based on studies on genetic markers. I’m working on a book about human evolution (more details to come), and I’ve gotten a blinding headache trying to keep studies on Y-chromosome markers in Ethiopian populations and mitochondrial DNA markers on the Andaman islands and all the rest of the studies out there straight in my head. Thank goodness somebody put them all in one place.

Of course, the project is much more than a pretty map: it’s an ambitious piece of research. It’s basically the brain child of Spencer Wells, a geneticist who wrote the excellent Journey of Man a few years ago. As of now, only about 10,000 people’s DNA has been analyzed in studies on human migrations. Wells wants to crank that number up to 100,000. He’s going to gather DNA from indigenous populations, and he’s also inviting the public to get involved. You can buy a DNA kit, and when you send it back to the Genographic Project, you’ll get a report on "your genetic journey" and the information will get added to Wells’s database.

When Wells’s book came out, I reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review. I gave it thumbs-up for the most part, although I felt that he had glided over the difficult ethical issues involved in these studies. The biotech industry is very interested in them, because they may point the way to new–and potentially profitable–medicines. An isolated population may have a pattern of genetic variation that sheds light on how a disease works its harm, or may have evolved a unique defense against a pathogen. When I wrote my review, Wells was a consultant to Genomics Collaborative, a private Massachusetts outfit that manages a medical collection of DNA and tissue samples from thousands of people around the world. It appears that he no longer is associated with them.

There’s nothing wrong with this interest per se, but the fact is that it has led to some serious conficts. Critics have wondered why companies should be able to potentially reap great reward from the DNA of indigenous people, particularly when so many these groups face cultural extinction. DNA collections have in some cases ground to a halt because of these concerns. Wells didn’t deal with tricky issues in The Journey of Man, which I thought was a mistake. That sort of omission, I think, only makes people unnecessarily suspicious.

The Genographic Project poses these sorts of ethical challenges once again, and it’s good to see that Wells and his colleagues have confronted them head on. They have posted a long FAQ answering some of the big questions. No pharmaceutical companies are paying for the research. Instead, the Waitt Family Foundation has ponied up the cash for the fieldwork (to a total of $40 million), and IBM is supplying technology and PR.. Net proceeds from the sale of kits will go to education and conservation projects directed towards the indigenous peoples Wells will be working with. The identity of the DNA will remain confidential, but the database will not. Instead, it will be made free and public, along the lines of the Human Genome Project, so that any scientist can use it to study disease (or any other relevant question).

I’ll bet that in a few years Wells will have another book to write from this experience. I hope that there’s room in it this time for the ethics and the politics he’s dealing with. That would help show just how relevant the wanderings of our ancestors 50,000 years ago are to our lives today.

Update 4 pm: Bad link fixed.