Saturday, November 04, 2017

Marie Lin's Genetic Claims: Handle With Care

Ok, another shot of the Dong 23. Just love the opening 10K.

Genetic researcher Marie Lin's fraught claims on Taiwan ethnicity were in the news recently, provoking much discussion on the intertubes. The Taipei Times reported her claims as Taiwanese, Han Chinese ethnically distinct: expert.
Decades of research using molecular technology to analyze human DNA and genetic markers had convinced her that most Taiwanese, as descendants of lowland Pingpu Aborigines (平埔族群) and highland Aborigines have mixed blood types, and are quite distinct from the genetic characteristics of the two main ethnic groups in China, the northern and southern Han Chinese.

Lin is internationally renowned for her pioneering genetic mapping and ethno-demographic studies of Taiwan’s population, with more than 150 papers to her credit.

“The main Hoklo Taiwanese and Hakka population in this nation have Pingpu and Aboriginal bloodlines in their ancestry from centuries of intermarriage, and the analysis of DNA and genetic markers reflects this new understanding of the close relationship between Taiwanese and Austronesians and Pacific islanders,” she said.

“Through the long history of ethno-cultural evolution on Taiwan, which was isolated from other main population centers, we can consider the result as forming a ‘Taiwanese people group,’ which is distinct from the Han Chinese people,” she said.
There are numerous problems with this, and with her, like this bizarre comment:
Genetic contributions from the Pingpu and Aboriginal bloodlines gave Taiwanese the traits of adventurous ambition, open hospitality to outsiders and a positive, sunny disposition in general, she said.
My friend Andrew Kerslake outlined some of the more serious problems on Facebook in a long and excellent comment post:
The results of Marie Lin's research in the past has served to excite Taiwan nationalists and independence advocates who are seeking evidence that they are not "Chinese". This is done primarily in response to the traditional ethnic nationalisms of both the PRC and the ROC, in which both entities have conflated blood with the nation state--an idea that had its root in the anti-Manchuism of the late Qing. For Taiwan nationalist the idea Pingpu roots has been irresistible evidence of their non-Chinese identity. Sadly, this road is a dead end and Marie Lin has been unethical in her interest in periodically stoking the flames of ethnic nationalism in Taiwan.

Lin's argument is not only scientifically unsound, but it is also morally repugnant and smacks of the same language of biological determinism that has allowed generations of pseudo-scientists to promote unsound theories of eugenics and more recently to use genetics as indelible proof that indigenous peoples are fundamentally different or "flawed" by their genetic composition without ever considering the impact of layered colonialism and social projects on the lives of indigenes. We have most recently see this appear in studies on alcoholism in indigenous communities as "genetic" and the "discovery" of the "warrior gene". Both of these studies were scientifically unsound and reached erroneous conclusions that acted to uphold negative stereotypes and denigrate indigenous peoples as a whole.

Moreover, Lin engaged in dubious collection techniques that violated the rights of her subjects for her lack of disclosure and in conducting her research she took possession of biological material that she used without consent. As far as her conclusions go, I think the degree of genetic flow between Taiwan's populations is quite high. I think it is impossible to determine how much genetic material various populations in Taiwan hold from indigenous ancestors. It really doesn't matter. After about eight generations it all washes out anyway. But for the purpose of argument, there are genetic markers that show up frequently in Austronesian populations and scientists can use these markers to provide some guidance into studies of human migrations. Take O-M119 a marker for the distribution of male genes in Austronesians. O1-a1 and its mutations can be high in Austronesians. It may be an indicator. But it may not. In mtDNA markers the B4 clade and M7 are frequent. These are simple reference points. These markers show up in Taiwan and other areas populated by Austronesian speaking peoples. The catch is that these haplogroups also appear in China and SE Asia among Han, Daic, and other groups.

[MT: Yup. Southeastern China was once a stronghold of the Austronesians, who blended with Han moving down from the north after the 8th century or so. That mixed population then moved to Taiwan. So merely finding Austronesian genetic markers in a Taiwan population -- even if you could be certain they actually came from Austronesian peoples -- would not say anything about where/when those genes entered the population.]

Genetic evidence also shows that the haplogroups above are not only not limited to Austronesian, but that Austronesian speaking peoples have a high variety of haplogroups E, C, A, D...etc. The laboratory alone can not tell where one's ancestors came from or who they were or how they identified themselves. Some genetic mutations may not have occurred in every carrier. O3, O2 and O1 are all found in indigenous populations. O2 is found in Vietnam, China, Japan and Mongolia. It is also found in some Siraya. Here, Marie Lin has essentialized the gradient of human migration and attempted to conceal the variation in populations for political purposes. The only effect these haplogroups have on our lives is in how groups of people are motivated by this type of research to act. This is the likely goal of Lin and her cohorts. But as I mentioned above, it is structured along the same lines as the two major Chinese nationalisms as an ethnic nation bound by blood--a 19th century relic to support the biological reasoning behind European colonialism. If Taiwan nationalists are looking for a means to support their belief that they are not "Chinese", rather than looking for biological support from "scientists" like Marie Lin, they need only to reject ethnic nationalism wholesale and embrace a civic nationalism.
Andrew also linked to Mark Munsterhjelm's Living Dead in the Pacific, which discusses how Lin acquired her entirely negative reputation among the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan. In the 1990s and in articles in the early 2000s, Lin claimed that the Pingpu and Kavalan aborigines had disappeared, a claim that was vociferously and correctly objected to by those groups. The Pingpu and other aboriginal groups also reject the "blood"-based nationalism of many Taiwan nationalists (like Lin). Lin's work has also been challenged on scientific grounds, and the discussion on p113 of Living Dead in the Pacific is telling.

In the early 2000s Lin also argued that the Taiwanese are descended from the Yueh people and not the Han, which caused an uproar around Asia (Straits Times, scroll down). Munsterhjelm observes that her claims about aboriginal ancestry vary over time. For example, she revised them upward in 2007 to claim 85% of Taiwanese have aboriginal ancestry, up from only 26% at one point. The Taipei Times reported at the time:
Eighty-five percent of Hoklo and Hakka people have Aboriginal ancestry, according to a study on the DNA of non-Aboriginal ethnic Taiwanese conducted by Mackay Memorial Hospital's transfusion medical research director Mari Lin (林媽利).
But even then she inserted the Yueh reference, saying that 90% of Taiwanese have "Vietnamese" ancestry from what is now the southeast Coast of China. If you reflect that Vietnam has a diverse population, and that "Vietnam" is a modern construction of colonialism, imperial expansion, and historical accidents, you can see how absurd the idea of retrojecting "Vietnamese" hundreds of years into the past is.

Munsterhjelm observes that Lin's nationalistic interpretation of her genetic data not only leads her to use it as the basis for a "Taiwanese ethnicity" founded on blood, but also to defend this research by arguing that if Taiwanese ethnic ancestry is not defended by Taiwanese scientists, then outside scientists will use it to define Taiwan. According to Musterhjelm, she pointed to a 2000 report from Chinese scientists arguing that the Taiwanese aborigines are not foundational in the Austronesian language group.

Many of Lin's claims -- like her absurd claim that only 3.5% of self-identified Siraya were "pure" Siraya --- are deeply racist, based on an antiquated, essentialist view of human identity as something primordial and blood-based. Any time her name comes up, what she says about genes and identity should be handled with care.
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