Genetics, Ethics and Archaeology

By Evison, Martin P. | Antiquity, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Genetics, Ethics and Archaeology


Evison, Martin P., Antiquity


A further contribution on the issues raised by modern genetics, and on their relationship to the material evidence offered by archaeological remains.

Two recent articles (Pluciennik 1996; Mirza & Dungworth 1995) remind us of dangers in applying and interpreting genetic evidence. As an archaeologist with training in molecular biology, I cannot help feeling disappointed when careless associations are made between anthropological genetics and historical repression (see also Hedges 1996). Whilst we should avoid excessive faith in science (or any other philosophy) and beware of the abuse of any archaeological evidence, accusations of 'racism' levelled at modern genetics are not justified. Both scientific and social literacies are required for informed consideration of the ethical problems and for meaningful multi-disciplinary collaboration. A strong resemblance between responsible, critical perspectives in archaeology and science should encourage an atmosphere of mutual understanding. Carefully constructed interpretations of the past, derived from genetic, archaeological and other evidence, offer an imaginative way forward for archaeology.

In reference to The history and geography of human genes (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994), Pluciennik (1996) raises the possibility that geneticists will help Russian nationalists prove the disadvantages of racial impurity. Mirza & Dungworth (1995) suggest anthropological genetics may be used by the 'New Right' to exclude immigrants from a 'Fortress Europe'. As a result of an assumed lack of 'time resolution', Pluciennik presupposes, models of the past derived from genetic (and linguistic) data must 'squeeze out' history and difference (1996: 14). Do population geneticists conduct research into 'race'? Do they resemble the discredited Social Darwinists and attempt to divide human groups by judgmental stereotypes, such as 'primitive and uncivilized' or 'more like us'? Should archaeologists see genetics as a force out to repress history and difference?

There are, in reality, no grounds in Cavalli-Sforza et al. (1994) to suppose that geneticists classify human groups as primitive or superior, pure or impure. In considering historical abuses of science, Cavalli-Sforza et al. (1994: 19-20) explicitly remind us of the 'scientific failure of the concept of race' and that there is 'no scientific basis to the belief of genetically determined "superiority" of one population over another'. The message is strongly anti-racist.

Genetics is not a dating method. The 'time resolution' (Pluciennik 1996: 13) it may give depends upon the circumstances and the quality of the accompanying (and indispensable) archaeological, historical or environmental evidence. Nevertheless, myriad differences in human history are evident in the distribution of modern genes. In Europe, for example, there are 33 major zones of sharp genetic change (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994: 271, contra Mirza & Dungworth 1994: 347). Within the regions, such as Italy (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994: 277-80) or Sardinia (1994: 273-6), extensive local variability is evident. When interpreted in combination with archaeological, linguistic and ecological evidence, this genetic variability makes apparent a rich diversity of social histories. People of the Basque region are proud of their unique past, reflected in identity, language, culture, landscape and gene frequencies (1994: 276, 280-87), which have probably evolved interactively from as far back as the Palaeolithic. Many cases are known where gene distributions can be associated with the historically particular or even with individual lives (haemophilia A in the European royal families is a popular example), but statistical validation and its demand for large samples means that more general conclusions are also often drawn. The only constant which biomolecular archaeologists 'pretend' (Pluciennik 1996: 13) can be extrapolated back into the distant past is the genetic material. …

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