BY TK OLEKSYK
Puerto Ricans are wonderful people, and over the time I have spent on the island, I have learned to love their culture, music, food, their friendliness, and the manner of talking as fast as humanly possible. They are everything above, but they are not the perfect humans.
Just like any other human culture, Puerto Rican believe in the most outrageous things, as long as it makes them feel good about themselves. In this one particular instance, the mass sensationalist hysteria was generated by the social media, and even some quite respectable press, catching most people completely by surprise in a giant wave of local pride. Unfortunately, as in many other cases, people did not look to their own experts for advice, but deferred to the loud titles of the authors who knew nothing about Puerto Ricans, except for the fact that they are different and live in some exotic place far away in the Caribbean. This proved to be an explosive combination.
Last week, Lior Pachter a blogger, and a professor from Berkeley (http://liorpachter.wordpress.com), disappointed by James Watson’s decision to sell his Noble Prize medal, wrote an entry to his private blog protesting this decision. Among other things, he attacked Watson’s infamous position on race. To make his argument, he turned to the recent human genome data. This data came mostly from SNPedia (http://www.snpedia.com/index.php/SNPedia), a resource that listed various genetic mutations discovered while bioinformaticians around the world studied genomes from sequences in the 1000Genomes project. He set out to prove that Watson’s views on improving the human race make no sense.
It needs to be said that the Puerto Rican samples for the data used in the argument Dr. Patcher built was collected by us (Dr. Juan Carlos Martinez-Cruzado, Julie Dutil and I) three years ago, and was intended for the public use. We could never imagine that it was going to be used in this type of argument. We feel therefore an obligation to speak in this case, as it was our effort that initially made this possible. The samples were collected all over Puerto Rico to represent fully the rich genetic background of its people.
Using this genetic resource, Patcher looked at all the mutations in the database and notes the ones with a phenotypic effect. If the effect is positive, the mutation is beneficial. So the person with the most of the beneficial alleles and the least of the disadvantageous alleles must be the “perfect human”. It just happened that the sample that clusters the closest to this made up point was a woman we collected a sample from three years ago in Puerto Rico. She was therefore designated as the “perfect woman”.
Patcher was really happy that this sample did not turn out to be of Irish/Scottish background, as he himself feared that that would give ammunition to the racists, who he believes to be exclusively white males. Inadvertently, he pushed many wrong buttons that ignited a squall of media attention in the Latin world. The blog is re-shared 160,000 times in one day. Puerto Rico was celebrating! This they believed to be the truth the always knew – supported by the fact that their women have won Miss Universe so many times!
The concept of the “perfect human” is not new. You can hear the echoes of eugenics in it, with the concerns made by the likes of Herbert Spencer. With the rise in genome sequencing, a question started to surface in the genetic and genomic circles – if there is a human who has perfect genes, what would that human look like? Watson was infamous to push this concept in his chosen circles as Patcher indicates. Personally, I tried not to pay any attention to these, for my personal belief is that when it comes to humans, nothing is perfect. However, now I can see that it was only a matter of time until someone would use this data in the argument, and the first perfect human be nominated – a Puerto Rican.
Now begins the race of the human race – an argument for the best and the worst human. This should have been every geneticist’s nightmare – at least ever since the holocaust and the WWII.
Since it was the data I collected the one used in this argument, and it is my obligation to give an opinion as a local expert, I have to say: Puerto Ricans are wonderful people, but they are not the perfect humans.
There are many reasons why perfect humans cannot exist, neither in Puerto Rico or anywhere else.
First of all, not every human population has contributed to the discovery of beneficial mutations so far, and it is not known how many other beneficial mutations are there and what populations carry them and which are do not. If the Native Australians and Northern native populations of Russia were all included in the equation, would the result be the same? No.
Second, we do not know nearly enough about our beneficial and disadvantageous mutations. The 60,000 mutations (or single nucleotide polymorphisms –SNPs) used in SNPedia is our current state of knowledge that keeps being augmented. This is only a fraction of millions of known, and billions of possible mutations with the unknown effects that are not recorded there. If all of these mutations were included in the equation, would the result be the same? No.
Third, not all of the populations have been used in the comparison. Why a Dominican never had chance to be the perfect woman? The answer is simple – we have never sampled the Dominican population. This argument is nearly same fallacy as is calling the USA baseball championship the World Series – someone always wins, but does it represent the whole world? No.
Fourth, the effect of mutations is relative to the environment. Some mutations are beneficial in African jungle, others in the Great White North. The most famous example is the mutation that protect you from malaria, but gives you sickle cell anemia. How are these classified? If different populates of humans are adapted to their environment, should there a case for perfect arctic human, a perfect jungle human, and a perfect desert human, etc.? Or there is a perfect renaissance man? Or this is all about the perfect hospital survivor?
Fifth, from the calculation used in the blog it is difficult to distinguish whether the “perfect human” has the best of all genes, or just biggest mix of all genes. However, most would agree, that the title “The most mixed up human is a Puerto Rican” would not attract much media attention and would probably place a culturally insensitive label on the author’s reputation, similarly to that to Jim Watson’s.
Finally, the author makes this point in the blog as well, if all the genetic factors are considered, the perfect human is not human at all. The only reason Puerto Ricans come closest among populations compared, is because it is the most admixed in the sample. That also means, that Puerto Ricans are also likely to have the worst human. So much for the “perfect humans” argument.
Not that anyone has really read the article. Taken by the flashy title – the perfect human is Puerto Rican, the news spread across the social media as a human wave in a stadium. Primera Hora picked it up with pride, and CNN Espanol followed with a picture of a prominent Puerto Rican female on cover. Many commentators went as far as thanking God for being part of such wonderful peoples. The frenzy is still going on.
What an example of short attention span!
If the readers only read to the article’s conclusion, where they would notice that author is a fan of the “Puerto Rico All-Star Basketball Unicycle Team” they should ask themselves: How does this Berkeley professor know so much about Puerto Rico, while I live here all my life and I have never heard about such a thing?”
This is because the example is used to show that the author is sarcastic about this comparison. In fact, he is very happy that Puerto Ricans win the comparison, because he feared that the perfect human would be a white male of British descent such as Watson. For him, the exotic remoteness of the “winning” population is a great thing. As long as it were not Anglo-Americans, it could have been elves. Sadly, the audience did not see the subtle message, the resounding “Hurrah! We have won the race of the human race!” has made everyone unable to make a critical judgment.
No offense to the unicycle team, they are famous now – the YouTube video has been seen over 22,000 times in the last three days, and their skills are outstanding. They are hardly the example of perfect humans. To get to the bottom of this, I even befriended the author on Facebook, and wrote a personal message asking him if he was really a fan, but he yet never replied.
Sadly also, if the readers finished reading the now infamous article, they would see the reference to our own Caribbean Genome Center built thanks to many individual contributions of the ordinary Puerto Ricans in a crowd-funding drive that made many of the scientific community impressed with their dedication to science and education in recent years, and brought Puerto Rican research in human genetics to the forefront of the experts’ attention.
Thus was the effort of ordinary people of the island, that a certain Berkeley professor was able to use the genome data from the certain unnamed Puerto Rican volunteer in his argument that James Watson is not a perfect human.
P.S. This morning I was riding a Dominican publico from the Haiti border to the capital of Santo Domingo. There were many beautiful people around me, both Dominican and Haitian, and a loud bachata music was playing nonstop for the last 4 hours. It gets lonely on the long rides in a foreign country, and I searched my memory for some comfort, and I recalled the face of my 10-month-old daughter Sophia. Here is the perfect woman, I thought, and the world around me smiled.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, December 7th 2014.
The Scientific American Magazine published a modified version of this article.