Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics

  • Jenny Reardon
Princeton University Press: 2005. 312 pp. $55, £35.95 (hbk)/$17.95, £11.95 (pbk) 0691118574 | ISBN: 0-691-11857-4

The Human Genome Diversity Project had a short and troubled life. The aim was to sample and preserve DNA from “isolated indigenous populations” before social changes rendered them useless for the purpose of answering questions about human evolution. But from its birth around 1991 to its unofficial death less than a decade later, indigenous-rights groups attacked the project as racist and neocolonialist, branding it the ‘Vampire Project’. The effort ultimately became an embarrassment to its funders. Today, research on human genetic variation flourishes, but under other rubrics and largely under the radar of Diversity Project critics.

As Jenny Reardon stresses in her book Race to the Finish, the project's leaders were well-intentioned and had impeccable anti-racist credentials. So why did their effort draw unremitting hostility from groups representing indigenous peoples, some physical anthropologists and others? And could the critics' fears have been allayed without gutting the project?

As Reardon tells it in this engrossing and even-handed book, the scientists never knew what hit them, and so were unable to mount a response to the project's detractors. The scientists involved believed they were in a race against time to answer compelling questions about human origins and migrations. But the peoples on whose cooperation the project depended — or at least those claiming to speak for them — were not interested in the scientists' questions about human origins (to which they already had satisfying answers), disliked being thought of as a resource, took umbrage at the assumption that they were vanishing, mistrusted the project leaders' motives, especially in regard to patent issues and, in general, did not see what was in it for them.

The organizers struggled to comprehend this reaction. A politically progressive and socially sensitive lot, they knew they were not out to make money, but to pursue what in their view was important and urgent research. To be tarred with the brush of racism — especially given their personal histories — must have been galling. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza had been a trenchant critic of William Shockley's claim of black genetic inferiority; Robert Cook-Deegan had a long record of involvement with Physicians for Human Rights; and Mary Claire King had worked with the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to identify children kidnapped during Argentina's dirty war. But avowals of their good intentions did not mollify critics, and organizers eventually set about addressing specific concerns.

Researchers faced opposition to their plans to understand the origin of indigenous peoples. Credit: H. NETOCNY/PANOS

Unfortunately, in trying to solve one problem, they often created another. For example, in addressing concerns over whether subjects could give truly informed consent, organizers drafted a model ethical protocol incorporating the innovative concept of group consent. But, in a particularly rich chapter, Reardon shows that instead of alleviating worries, it ultimately prompted new concerns about paternalism and the revival of old colonialist and racist categories.

In trying to respond to criticism and build legitimacy for the project, the evolutionary biologists and population geneticists who launched it constantly widened the circle of those consulted. Anthropologists and bioethicists were brought into the fold. But those who felt excluded wanted to speak for themselves. In time, indigenous-rights organizations, African-Americans and Native Americans were also invited to join the discussion, raising some thorny questions about the identity of groups and who was authorized to speak for them.

In any case, these groups were themselves divided and so were impossible to enrol as a unit. Thus there were both supportive and critical voices within anthropology — the most fractured of disciplines — and although some African-Americans and Native Americans were attracted to opportunities offered by the project, others feared co-option and saw efforts to include them as bribes. For some opponents, to even critique a proposal would grant it legitimacy.

Could the project have been saved? Reardon believes that it might have been had discussion gone much deeper, with sustained attention to questions of the nature of scientific knowledge and its relation to power. It seems that the moral of the story is the need to include scholars from the field of science studies, who could have introduced a more sophisticated framework for thinking about race and power in genetic research. Perhaps. But it may be that even then a solution that satisfied critics while preserving the project's core was simply unachievable.

In the event, the critics stopped the project in its tracks. Reardon sees little to celebrate in this victory. The project's proponents correctly predicted from the start that, if they failed, the research would continue but in a much less public and organized way. The study of human genetic variation is now fashionable, but it is being pursued without scrutiny of the deeper issues that Reardon believes essential to the pursuit of both a more reflective science and a more sensitive society. Funders have understandably tried to avoid the controversies that sank the Diversity Project. But the ironic result has been to narrow discussion of the issues at stake even further.