By Donella Meadows
–January 9, 1992–
Just before chainsaws and bulldozers roar in to bring “civilization” to the remaining remnants of the world’s native peoples, scientists are planning to roar in and sample those peoples’ blood.
The blood will be collected from indigenous populations such as the Bushmen of Botswana, the Pygmies of Zaire, and the Hill People of New Guinea. Anthropologists are volunteering to do the sampling in the field. Geneticists are figuring out how many individuals from each of the 200-500 identifiable groups should be sampled, and whether the blood should be collected at single locations or over widespread areas. They estimate that the project will cost $20 million and take two to three years. The idea has generated so much enthusiasm that federal agencies are offering to fund it even before being asked.
What, you may be wondering, is the point of this bloodletting? Says Science magazine: “[These] populations, isolated for hundred or thousands of years, contain in their genes clues to human evolution, migration, and diversity. But the opportunity to analyse those genes is rapidly vanishing as society encroaches upon these once-distinct peoples. Once the samples are collected … the researchers would establish permanent cell lines to preserve the DNA in perpetuity, allowing it to be studied even after the tribes have disappeared.”
The Science article is serious, as are the scientists. There is no hint that anyone involved in this project is wondering about the morality of a society, or the sanity of a science, that is willing to go to considerable trouble to preserve the chromosomes of a people, but not the people. In fairness to science I should say that this article came to my attention at a scientific meeting, where it was passed around with a feeling of profound outrage. The meeting was of field ecologists, who spend their time in jungles and tundra, coral reefs and savannahs, trying to understand the rich complexity of life on earth. They work on the rapidly moving boundary between what we call civilization and what we call wilderness. Year by year they see indigenous cultures, the plants and animals that sustain those cultures, and their own study sites disappear under an expanding wave of roads, villages, banana plantations, cattle pastures, mines, and dumps.
There are sciences and sciences. Some of them learn by taking the world apart into small pieces. That process has taught humanity to read the DNA molecule, the code of life. To be able to reconstruct from DNA samples the evolution and migration of the human species is a marvelous achievement and a worthy endeavor.
Other sciences try to see things whole. An ecologist may use DNA analysis to distinguish one species from another, but he or she will also try to understand what that species eats and what eats it, where it hides, how it competes with other species, how it depends on local soils or weather patterns, how it behaves. These things can only be learned by looking at the live creature in its intact environment.
If you learn by taking things apart, you have to guard against developing an unwitting arrogance. Teasing something into pieces, naming, measuring, and analyzing those pieces, can cause you to assume a superiority over that thing. It has become a collection of parts, its integrity, life, and purposes lost in the dissection. In one sense you have mastered it. In another sense, you understand nothing important about it.
When you try to understand each piece in its astoundingly complex interaction with every other piece, however, you may develop a feeling of wonder, but rarely one of mastery. Instead of reducing the world to dead objects made up of parts, you elevate it to an ever-unfolding, often-surprising, living totality. You know that there are lessons to be learned from native peoples far beyond the content of their DNA. That DNA produces unique bodies, which, alive and whole, might reveal something about the malfunctions our medical science understands least — cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, lupus, arthritis.
Those living bodies collectively create cultures that might give us badly needed insights about family, community, labor, leisure, equity, spirituality. (The last thing our arrogant culture would admit is that it has anything to learn from any other culture.)
Those living cultures are integrated harmoniously with their surroundings in ways we have forgotten, ways that we may have to re-learn for our own survival as well as theirs.
The field ecologists at the conference were not outraged at the blood-collecting project. They were angry at the apparent unwillingness of their scientific colleagues to fight to preserve more than blood samples. They were exasperated at their own society’s drive to lay waste peoples and ecosystems for narrow, ill-considered purposes, without even noticing what is being lost.
Most of all, I would guess, the ecologists were frustrated with their own inability to get others to see what they, out in the field, can see so clearly — that the so-called “primitive” peoples of the world are not mere research objects. They are not obstacles to “development.” They are fellow human beings, who have managed to preserve themselves, their cultures, their environment, and their DNA far longer than any of our laboratories can be expected to exist.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992