Mla Bri Genetics and Anthropology in Northern Thailand

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!

Which Thumb is on Top? Questions about Culture from a Mlabri Village in Thailand

Explaining why people do things, even when it doesn’t seem reasonable to an American undergraduate is what I do for a living.  I’ve explained why people don’t agree with their political views, the persistence of “irrational habits,” why most people don’t want to move to America, why poverty persists in a world of abundance, and a whole bunch of things that the many undergraduates do not want to believe.  And after I’m done they undergraduates still don’t generally understand how people could have such persistent beliefs and practices which to them are just not logical.

I’m always looking for ways to explain to the American undergraduates why people are different, or just not “logical” by American standards.  And I found a new way to do this in a village of Mlabri people here in Thailand where I took eight American undgraduates last weekend, where an American missionaries Bunyuen Suksanae and his wife Wassana have been working for the last 30 years.  For anthropologists, the Mlabri are particularly interesting because until recently a big part of their economy was in hunting and gathering.  Indeed until the early 1980s about the time Bunyuen and Wassana first made contact with them, the Mlabri had an economy which included hunting, gathering, and laboring for local farmers in exchange for clothing.  They moved frequently, as hunter gatherers do, and were often victimized by the more powerful horticultural people in the area.

Since the early 1980s, the Mlabri have “settled” into four settlements in Nan and Phrae Provinces of Thailand; in one of these the Suksanae’s live with the Mlabri.  By settling down, the Mlabri moved into concrete block houses, gained access to health care, sent their children to school, and begun to participate in the local economy.  Still, though, the Mlabri retain many of the cultural characteristics associated with hunters and gatherers.  They are skilled in the ways of the forest, and will often spend time in the remaining forest seeking food.  They also remain in exploitative relationships with local farmers, even though land is now available to them for farming.

Last week when we visited the Mlabri Village with eight American undergraduates, the question inevitably came from the students, who asked Bunyuen: “Why don’t the Mlabri simply adopt the ways of the neighboring groups, and take up farming, sending their children to school, and so forth?” Bunyuen had pointed out that the Mlabri did things like abandoning fields due to fears of spirits, were unwilling to challenge non-payment by “employers,” reluctant to accept (and plant) readily available agricultural land, and disappear from the village at any sign of conflict.  Bunyuen pointed out that such practices are normal for a group which had recently lived in the forest.

In response Bunyuen asked the students to quickly clasp their hands together, an action they undertake many times every day.  Then he asked them which thumb was on top.  Of the six of us who were sitting there, four of us had the thumb from the right hand on top, and two of us had the thumb from the left hand.  Then Bunyuen said, “quick now pull apart your hands, and clasp them quickly together while putting the other thumb on top!”  In doing this, our hands quickly got tangled up in new ways.  “Now,” he said, you know why it is so hard for the Mlabri to change many habits, even when it would be advantageous (at least from an American undergraduate perspective) to doso.

For readers with a more social theoretical background, Bunyuen was describing what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus”.  Habitus are the various dispositions of perception, thought, interaction, and values we as individuals develop in response to the practical conditions we encounter as we are mature.  Such habitus often have an unthinking automaticity to them, just like when we automatically put a particular thumb on top when folding our hands together.  The Mlabri have such habitus too, developed in the context of their decades or centuries of hunting andgathering.  Much of this habitus is different from what my American undergraduates habitually assume to be “rational”.  But isn’t such automaticity normal?  Remember how difficult it was to put the opposite thumb on the top?