Many anthropologists are concerned with the tendency of biologists to reduce social life in general, and culture in particular to the genes people carry. As a sociologist, I share that concern. I think that such reductionist approaches give a false sense of precision to the concept of culture which while very real, is often messy at the edges in very human ways.
I came up against this tendency to “reduce” everything to genetics recently in an article about the Mla Bri of Thailand, a small group (200-300 people) speaking a Khmuic language in northern Thailand. As a group, they attract the attention of anthropologists because, until recently, they did a lot of hunting and gathering for subsistence, while also being engaged in exploitative labor practices with neighboring groups speaking a range of languages, including northern Thai, Hmong, Mien, and probably Khmu.
Anyway, in 2010, a second article about Mla Bri genetics was published in BMC Genetics using blood samples collected from Mla Bri in 1999 by visiting geneticists. These samples were then compared to blood samples in a bank from the other ethnic groups found in northern Thailand, including northern Thai, Hmong, Mien, Khmu and so forth. But the geneticists doing the work did all their work at the laboratory bench, and did not familiarize themselves with the geography of the Thai highlands, or the unequal relationships between the Mla Bri and the neighboring groups. Their conclusion was that the Mla Bri have been isolated culturally and genetically from the Hmong and other groups for a long long time. I am confident that their work at the laboratory bench was sound.
But, I did have a basis to question their lack of ethnographic context—you see, I have good friends who have lived with the Mla Bri as missionaries for the last 30 or so years. Gene and Mary Long speak Mla Bri, and were even present with the blood samples were drawn in 1999. They are also among the best “gut level” anthropologists I’ve ever met. Anywya, On the basis of what they knew about the Mla Bri, we evaluated the article in BMC Genetics, and wrote a comment which was posted this week. This posting makes the point that the genetics work published in 2010 would have been greatly enriched if the authors had talked to the people living in the village, whether it be the Mla Bri themselves, or the Longs. Indeed, it is well-known among the Mla Bri that despite strong norms for endogamy, extra-marital relationships do exist, and that exogamy does occur.
Our Comment in BMC Genetics is available here:
The article we are commentin on is here.
A similar exchange that I had about the Mla Bri in 2005 in the pages of PLoS Biology is here.
The original 2005 article about the Mla Bri genetics is here.
If you want to know more about the Longs and their work with the Mla Bri, there will be an article about suicide among the Mla Bri in the 2013 issue of the Journal of the Siam Society which should be on-line soon!
Bottom line: Be wary of the cultural reductionists, be they the selfish-gene type, the lab bench type, check the box type, or any other such type. For a comment on this, see here!