By Ezinne Adibe
The relationship that the African continent has had with the Western world has been one governed by an asymmetrical power dynamic for at least 200 years now. Africa and its descendents, particularly those considered black, often receive the short end of the stick. Not only have there been problems with people from other countries entering the continent with the intent to colonize, but there have also been problems concerning internal conflict that is based on European ideas.
When one thinks of colonialism, one usually thinks of the forceful subjugation of people through violence. The idea that the collection of human genetic material, specifically from continental Africans, as well as their descendants in South, Central and North America, could be considered an extension of a colonial history and practice is something that many human rights and African-centered groups have yet to explore extensively.
According to physician and biological anthropologist Dr. Shomarka Keita, who is affiliated with Howard University and the Smithsonian Institute, “the control of people’s bodies, their minds and ideas was a part of the whole colonization process,” he said. “We should not forget that some Africans were put on display in museums, as in New York. People were treated as specimens.”
Keita went on to explain that Asians and Native Americans criticized the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) in the early 1990s. These groups were against the collection of their DNA on the grounds that they were disappearing. One of the points of contention was that if these scientists were truly ethical and concerned, they would help them survive and worry about collecting their DNA later. “These people were basically saying that they didn’t want to be memorialized in a laboratory,” said Keita.
Even so, African nations, scientific bodies and individuals do not seem to have resisted having their DNA used for “diversity studies,” as evidenced by the scientific literature. Interestingly, there are almost never any African names on these papers.
The Ethics of Curiosity & Informed Consent
The extraction of DNA information from Africa is often done without truly informed consent, according to Keita. “People are not taking into account that it was Western science that was also responsible for many of the negative stereotypes and exploitation of African people,” he said. “When consent is obtained, people are not reminded of this exploitation.”