Life For Sale as Never Before: The Human Genetic Map Released

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by Marshall Kirkpatrick

Monday, February 12, 2001

Explorers have discovered a vast, untouched frontier, as full of riches and resources as anyone could imagine. This new world promises to change the human experience more than anything has for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Some of our most fundamental problems will be solved, we'll understand life as never before, and there's a whole lot of money to be made.

It should be no surprise, but someone else already lives there. Fortunately, they are of no use to us and aren't even human beings. They stand no chance of stopping our use of their home.

Sound familiar? It ought to, because the horrors of "discovering" a "new" place and colonizing it have been justified with the same language for hundreds of years. The process continues today. Now, though, it is the building blocks of life itself that are targeted for exploitation. The same indigenous people will suffer in this new wave of colonization, as will a whole new (and beautiful) level of life. On Monday February 12th, after years of research all around the globe, the genetic structures of human DNA were shown to the public for the first time.

Closely related to the taming of those fundamental mysteries is the destruction of the earth's last biocentric, indigenous cultures. As if colonization of the Genetic Frontier isn't frightening enough, in both its execution and its implications, this conquest is decimating tribal people and their ecosystems.

In recent years, both the publicly funded (by the National Institute of Health and, strangely, the Department of Energy) and privately funded efforts (by Celera Genomics, arguably the most powerful genetics corporation in the world) working to map the genetic structure of human beings ("the human genome") have been accused of a crime called Biopiracy. First-world scientists have traveled to undeveloped parts of the world to extract DNA from healthier, more robust indigenous peoples and the ecosystems they live in. The scientists then patent what they acquire form these samples, never sharing the huge profits reaped with those from whom the resources originated. No medicines are shared, because even if indigenous people could somehow afford them, the science is aimed at curing the diseases of industrial civilization.

In the typical logic of colonialism, those not exploiting their resources for maximum profit and industry are declared to be wasting them. The resources are taken from them and the people destroyed. This is how colonizing cultures have treated tribal people and their land all around the world. It this case, it is not the geneticists who wipe out indigenous societies, but they take from them whatever is of value, before they are destroyed by neoliberal economics, "The War On (Some) Drugs," foreign aid development projects, or simple military force.

Almost everyone can look back into history now and see that what Europeans did to Native Americans 500 years ago was wrong. Many people today, if they learn about it, realize that biopiracy and contemporary destruction of indigenous people and their ecosystems- are morally wrong as well. How many of us, though, pondered what ominous events are on the horizon when Rick Weiss, a reporter for the Washington Post wrote on Sunday February 11th the following passage in celebration of the human genetic map's public release.

"Most of the rest of the human genome is filled with weird lifelike entities that have settled in the genome like squatters. Among them are microscopic bits of foreign DNA that live like parasites on human DNA and even smaller bits that sponge off those parasites."

"Although scientists have known that such critters existed in the human genome, only now have they been able to see how many there really are, how they are distributed among people's genes, and how these complex communities evolved inside the cells of human ancestors over millions of years.

"Taken together, the new findings show the human genome to be far more than a mere sequence of biological code written on a twisted strand of DNA. It is a dynamic and vibrant ecosystem of its own, reminiscent of the thriving world of tiny Whos that Dr.Seuss's elephant, Horton, discovered on a speck of dust.

"Some parts of the genome are rich in human genes, like biodiverse tropical rainforests, where genes crucial for human life- and some that cause disease- perform their various jobs in the body...Hundreds of other [genes] are expected to turn up in the next few years, speeding the development of new drugs and diagnostic tests.


Other regions of the genome are essentially genetic 'deserts,' where there's nary a human gene for as far as the eye can see but where life, of a sort, perseveres nonetheless. Like genes, the entities living in these vast stretches of the human genome are made of DNA, the doubly coiled molecule of heredity. But they don't contain coded messages to make anything useful for the human body.

"Most are able to persist and replicate within the human genome but are so dependent on the genome that they can never leave it."

It might seem trivial to worry about life forms so small, standing in the way of such a wealth of information, power and profit. But who amongst us is willing to leap into exploiting the next "biodiverse tropical rainforest" inhabited by "complex communities" so dependent on their "dynamic and vibrant ecosystem" that they "can never leave it?" We certainly can't call such life forms "squatters!"

More important is the question of who will stand up and stop those who already are exploiting this new frontier, as well as the human bodies and "full- sized" ecosystems that these genetic communities created in the first place? Will we be able to prevent the same ignorant, cruel histories of destruction seen in colonialism's first wave from being repeated today? A movement has already begun, and it is based in the communities who have the best perspective and most at stake in the issue.

In 1995, 17 organizations created by indigenous people from North, South and Central America ratified the Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere Regarding the Human Genome Project. It reads, "Our responsibility as Indigenous Peoples is to insure that the continuity of the natural order of all life is maintained for generations to come. In the long history of destruction which has accompanied Western colonization we have come to realize that the agenda of non-indigenous forces has been to appropriate and manipulate the natural order for the purposes of profit, power and control. Genetic technologies, which manipulate and change the fundamental core and identity of any life form, are an absolute violation of the principles of nature and create the potential for unpredictable and therefor dangerous consequences. Therefor, we the indigenous people participation in this meeting, reject all programs involving genetic technology. We oppose the patenting of all natural genetic materials. We hold that life cannot be bought, owned, sold, discovered or patented, even in its smallest form. We denounce all instruments of economic apparatus such as NAFTA, GATT and the WTO, which continue to exploit people and natural resources to profit powerful corporations assisted by governments and military forces of developed countries. We call on our brothers and sisters of the indigenous nations around the world and concerned people in the international community to stand up and unite in our efforts to protect the natural diversity and integrity of all life."

By 1996 according to the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, the US Department of Commerce had already applied for patents of the genetic "cell lines" of indigenous individuals from Panama, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Referring to Indigenous populations as "isolates of historic interest (IHI's)" the Human Genome Diversity Project moved to collect DNA samples from indigenous people around the world, immortalize them with cell replication technology, and store them in gene banks, in order to "avoid the irreversible loss of precious genetic information." This presumes, of course, that the people themselves will be destroyed.

The Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism writes, "In this new age of bio-prospecting, indigenous knowledge and biological resources are extremely threatened by appropriation. Tribes must prepare to protect their biological resources from exploitation."

Herman Merivale once wrote, "The history of European settlements in America, Africa and Australia, presents everywhere the same general features- a wide and sweeping destruction of native races by the uncontrolled violence of individuals, if not of colonial authorities, followed by tardy attempts on the part of governments to repair the acknowledged crime.... Desolation goes before us, and civilization lags slowly and lamely behind."

Merivale made that observation not from the vantage point of history, but in 1861. According to anthropologist John H. Bodley, it was between the years 1800 and 1930 that indigenous societies around the world lost between 80 and 95 percent of their populations due to colonization. The last of those people, and the intact ecosystems they live in, are being ravaged once more as European culture seeks to plunder the tropical rainforests and complex communities of the newly discovered genetic frontier. Countless philosophers have theorized why some cultures seem obligated to perpetually expand, at every one else's expense. We need to get to the bottom of these issues, in our culture, so that the recurring narrative of colonialism can be challenged.

Marshall Kirkpatrick is a member of Eugene Oregon's Anarchist Action Collective

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