Professor of Anthropology

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks
Department of Anthropology

phone: (704) 687-2519
fax: (704) 687-3209

The  HGDP Page

What was the background of the Human Genome Diversity Project?


           The brainchild of renowned population geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza, the HGDP was an attempt by human population geneticists to try and generate interest in "big science" the way that the medical genetics community had succeeded with the Human Genome Project. Cavalli-Sforza reinvented in the 1960s what used to be called the study of "racial history". An earlier generation of scientists, such as Harvard's Earnest Hooton, had been strongly impressed with the reticulate nature of human microevolution, to such an extent that Hooton drew it literally as a circulatory system. The computational and statistical breakthroughs associated with "numerical taxonomy" suggested an application to human genetic markers. Thus, Cavalli-Sforza and Edwards (1964) presented a dendrogram of the human species. The diagram became a lot simpler over the two decades since Hooton's figure from Up from the Ape (1946), which made the figure a lot easier to interpret.

           Only one problem: it was wrong. Cavalli-Sforza argued that the major conclusion of this genetic tree was that it linked Europeans and Africans, and juxtaposed them against Asians. Anatomy, on the other hand, seemed to link Europeans and Asians, and juxtapose them against Africans. However, other genetic studies (notably by geneticist Masatoshi Nei) didn't agree with Cavalli-Sforza's (e.g., Evol. Biol., 14:1-59). Finally, in 1988, Cavalli-Sforza acknowledged that the genetic result he had been promoting for twenty years as a result of the tree-building exercise was wrong. These trees are sensitive to many things beside divergence: gene flow, the clustering algorithm used, the markers selected, the demographic history of the populations, etc. They aren't phylogenetic, although they may look it. But there is a hope held out that with more populations and more markers we can get the ultimate microphylogeny of the human species. That's where the Human Genome Diversity Project comes in.

           The Human Genome Project was based on the medically-essentialized idea that you could represent the human species by a thing called "the human genome". Given that there is a "normal" cystic fibrosis gene, a "normal" Tay-Sachs disease gene, etc., they assumed that one could sequence a "normal" human genome. This, however, neglects much of the human gene pool. Many genes, after all, don't come as a "normal" and "disease" type, but as several normal alternatives -- like blood group genes. I was one of the first to point this out, in a sarcastic letter to Nature (322:590, 1986).

           In 1991, the journal Genomics published an article by Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Allan Wilson, Charles Cantor, Robert Cook-Deegan, and Mary-Claire King, proposing "a worldwide survey of human genetic diversity." Unfortunately, the proposal contained a lot of archaic anthropological assertions, such as the idea that studying the genes of the !Kung San will illuminate "our evolutionary history," and that indigenous peoples are genetically isolated. It was accompanied by great fanfare in the science media, being touted by Jared Diamond in Nature, and by Leslie Roberts in Science. The idea became merged with the need for immediacy as these indigenous populations were "now" becoming extinct.

           After the initial interest, the HGDP approached some anthropologists to try and sell the idea to the anthropological community. A number of other anthropologists raised some constructive criticisms of the HGDP at meetings, but to little or no avail, for its agenda had been set. It failed pitifully to engage indigenous communities, it was conceptualized in archaic racial modes, and when the issue of profiting from the genes of indigenous peoples came up, the HGDP again failed to take a strong stand. The images it conveyed were colonialist, exploitative, and racialized -- and it only seemed to get worse as time passed. It quickly managed to give a black eye to all serious students of human variation; the support it managed to engender within the community came mostly from scientists hoping to prosper from it.


           A study of the genetic diversity of our species would indeed be a valuable undertaking. But this was poorly problematized, and refused to improve.  It has now been treated from different perspectives by cultural historians.  The creepiest part is that it was re-invented as the Genographic Project—new faces, same old agenda.  Two differences: (1) the Genographic Project is rooted in the commodification of ancestry—telling you where you come from, for a fee—with interesting attendant issues; and (2) the Genographic Project has private funding.  In practice, of course, “private funding” translates to “ethics, schmethics”.