Middle East studies in the News
Nadia Abu el Haj and Junk DNA
by Jonathan Schwartz
The controversial Barnard College, Columbia University anthropologist, Nadia Abu el Haj, has been studying genetics now for about seven years now. Most recently, she has become interested in how "genetic origins emerge as a shared concern among those who may seek redress or recognition."
The fruits of this labor are beginning to appear.
"The Genetic Reinscription of Race," Annual Review of Anthropology 2007 (forthcoming)
Nadia Abu El-Haj, "'A Tool to Recover Past Histories'—Genealogy and Identity after the Genome," Occasional Paper of the School of Social Science 19, December 2004, Princeton.
And the paper we will consider here: "Rethinking Genetic Geneaology: A Response to Stephan Palmié." American Ethnologist 2007, 34:2:223-227
In this paper, Abu El Haj reminds us of why early twentieth century racial science is now suspect, it "presumed a causal relationship between biology and culture."
Anthropologists studying genetic genealogy do nothing of the sort. They study noncoding DNA, known colloquially as "junk DNA." This "work is a matter of tracing descent; this is nothing more than a mark, and it has no bearing on the question of inherited characteristics…(noncoding DNA) cannot generate cultural, behavorial, or, for that matter, truly biological differences between human groups."
This is wonderfully liberating. It enables anthropologists like Abu El Haj to study the genetic traces of the migrations of human groups without fearing the stigma of racism. After all, the markers of noncoding DNA "carry information regarding ‘ancestry' precisely because they are not subject to natural selection. 5 "
That "5" is the footnote number that appears at this point in Abu el Haj's elegant little paper. Did you follow her argument? It would be racist to study any DNA that codes for something with a biological function (such as hair color or musical ability) for clues about the history of human migrations. It is all right to study noncoding DNA because it does not code for anything biological. It's just there as a sort of archive, neutral as a court reporter taking notes on the human past, with a special interest, apparently, in the past of the Jews. The only two human groups that appear in Abu El Haj's paper to illustrate how genetics can illuminate the history of population movements are Sally Hemmings' great-great-grandchildren and… the Jews. Oh, and when she writes on what genetics has told us about the Jews, she gets it wrong. Errato. Falsch. Incorrecto.
But back to footnote 5. It reads: "This is no longer the reigning understanding of noncoding regions in the mainstay of genomic disciplines (biomedical fields, in particular)." Typically of Abu El Haj, she knows this not because she read the genetic literature but because someone told her so. "One genetic anthropologist told me, just how much natural selection noncoding regions are subject to will affect whether the historical claims based on them (and related methodological assumptions) still hold."
Did you get that? She wrote a nice little paper. (Nice, that is, except for the bad facts about the Jews, and the fact that it's wrong. But if you ignore the facts, the theory is very elegant.) And then somebody told her that the assumption upon which the paper is premised, that noncoding DNA is biologically functionless, is no longer valid. So her methodological assumptions do not hold. Yet she went ahead and published it. And, inexplicably, the American Ethnologist (edited by Abu El Haj's thesis advisor Virginia Dominguez) printed it.
Will somebody at the Medical School please phone Provost Brinkley and tell him he's nuts if he gives this woman tenure.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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