The Loom

Humanity’s Map

human map.gifThis 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.


  1. #1 The Commissar
    April 13, 2005

    The link to ‘Genographic Project’ doesn’t work.

    Links to NYT and the map are fine.

    Can you describe better the results that will be available to ‘non-indigenous’ participants (most of us)? The FAQ didn’t offer much on that.

  2. #2 The Commissar
    April 13, 2005

    If you happen to look at my blog, you might be interested to note that ‘Paul at Wizbang,’ the blogger being excoriated in yesterday’s post, is a noted anti-evolutionary creationist stalking horse. We’ve had a few pro- and anti- science debates over the past couple weeks.

    Google “Wizbang Paul evolution” and you can track it from there.

  3. #3 Pat Crenshaw
    April 13, 2005

    A minor note…National Geographic needs a good proof-reader. The “Era Overview” for the earliest era (200,000 years ago) cites the Lake Toba eruption caused worldwide temperatures to drop “by some 59 degrees Fahrenheit [15 degrees Celsius]“.

    You can see what happened. The researcher said 15 degrees Celsius, but the web-site producer figured he should convert it to F / it should have been converted as a 25-27 degree lowering of worldwide temperatures.

  4. #4 Dienekes
    April 13, 2005

    >> he 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.

    This paper by Peter Underhill is a great introduction to what we know about the origin and migration of Y-chromosomal clades. It also has the necessary references for further study.

  5. #5 John S Bolton
    April 15, 2005

    This is good that that the anti truth seekers mendacious sensitivities or ombudsmanship is not to stand in the way of those who care about the truth. The individuals in posession of the genetic diversity which is to be found can also be allowed to decide for themselves whether they want to participate. Are tribesmen to be presumed to be in need of an ombudsman of too precious racial sensitivity, or to exist only in collectivities with traditional representatives; but westerners can decide individually how their genetic information may be used. Once, we had brave truth seekers who endured hardships that the peddlers of racial sensitivity cannot even conceive of. How appropriate then, that an explorers’ society should be the one to support this search; and not our corrupted and viciously racialized government science.

  6. #6 George Bain
    April 16, 2005

    The maps are fine – BUT I cannot exactly relate them tp the work set out in P.A.Underhill,”Inferring Human History: Clues From Y-Chromosome Haplotypes” and the maps provided therein. For example, Haplogroup F is shown entering the area of Greece about -30K. I don’t see that on the NatGeo maps, also the peopling of northern coast of Medfiterranean is not recorded; neither is the return to Africa of some groups – the Berberseg. Perhaps additional work will add and refine the maps. Where is there reference to Cavalli-Sforza?

    April 16, 2005

    “Forced migraition due to the threat of warfare, ethnic cleansing & genocide has probably operated since …7mya?”
    XDT ’99