Kennewick Man Redux?

Medical journals are usually thought of as being dry-as-dust, but read in the right spirit they are often able to provoke that most pleasant, reliable, and durable of emotions, righteous indignation.

For example, the New England Journal of Medicine dated July 15 had an article with the title "The Havasupai Indian Tribe Case -- Lessons for Research Involving Stored Biologic Samples." (It's online, but a subscription is required.) It was by Michelle M. Mello, of the Harvard Department of Health Policy and Management, and Leslie E. Wolf, of the Georgia State College of Law.

It made me cross.

Forty-one Havasupai Indians sued Arizona State University for alleged misuse of blood samples taken from members of the tribe. They claimed $50 million in damages for (inter alia) fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, and trespass. They settled -- out of court -- for $700,000.

The blood samples were taken for a study on diabetes, but consent was gained for a study of "the causes of behavioral/medical disorders." The plaintiffs objected particularly that the anonymised blood samples were used to study i) inbreeding, ii) genetic correlates or causes of schizophrenia, and iii) population genetics.

Who, if anyone, was harmed by this? Let us take only the third objection as an example. The results of the study of population genetics suggested that the tribe had migrated across the Bering Sea, contrary to its own "origin story."

Was not the claim of harm by the plaintiffs in this respect grossly dishonest? The idea that Amerindians have an Asian origin is an old one by now, with much evidence in its favor. So if the tribe’s origin myth were susceptible to destruction by evidence and rational argument, it would have been so destroyed a long time ago. If, on the other hand, myth and science belong to two different realms of thought, then the myth could not have been affected by the study of population genetics, whatever its outcome. Palaeontology, archaeology, and anthropology can refute only the literalist interpretation of the story of the Fall.