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Science is fact-based, but scientists can sometimes be charmingly naïve. One of the most common ways they display this naiveté is the coining of politically correct euphemisms. So, instead of the negatively charged term “race” you sometimes see the phrase “mutually inbred ancestral groups” which, at least to me, sounds even worse.
Despite the gloss, we at least now have a framework to allow us to collect and categorize those genes and polymorphisms that show different frequencies between races.
Called “Ancestry-Informative Markers” (AIM) this category of genes includes blood groups, markers of pigmentation and other SNPs that distinguish between races but don’t always result in some visually detectable difference. A collection of AIMs that distinguish African and European populations contains over 3000 highly differentiated SNPs. An example of an AIM gene is called “Duffy” and it codes for the Duffy blood group. A variant codes for a Duffy blood group type (Duffy Null allele) that is found 100% of Sub-Saharan Africans, but occurs very infrequently in other races. Interestingly, like some of the hemoglobins, this variant has been known to provide some resistance to malaria infection.
Looks like it’s time for another one of my semi-autobiographical digressions.
By the mid 1970’s I had completed the required college level classes to allow my application to a college of naturopathic medicine, since by then I had determined to follow in the footsteps of my father and enter this (at the time) obscure and curious profession. This was a time of great difficulties for this tiny healing art; more naturopaths were retiring and dying than entering the schools, and the future of the profession indeed looked rather bleak. There were tiny glimpses of hope however at least in the one remaining school, where the “Old Guard”--most often gentlemen who had learned their trade in the 1920’s and 30’s—- were giving way to “Young Turks”; aging hippies and other political rejects from the 1960’s. Unfortunately this was not at all harmonious, and at the time I was to apply we heard that the school was in uproar, as one faction or another had locked it opposite out, changed the locks, kidnapped the files –you name it.
So instead, we looked across the Atlantic, to The British College of Naturopathy and Osteopathy, and upon acceptance, I duly relocated to the “Post-Swinging London” of the late 1970’s, which as it turned out was in a rather downtrodden phase, with escalating energy prices, joblessness and at times civil unrest. This was the era of the “Urban Punk” and “Anarchy in the UK”. One only had to look around to see heart-wrenching tableaus of its more hypocritical aspects: Homeless folks sleeping against under banners proclaiming the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
Jobs were scarce, and as a foreign student, it would have been virtually impossible to get the few that were available. I had a small stipend, and made a “few quid” doing some odd jobs. Nonetheless the dire economic circumstances forced a series of relocations, each typically one level further down the social level than the one prior. Yet these were happy times, with great friendships and new experiences, more so when I landed at the charming London neighborhood of East Finchley, a quiet suburban backwater about five miles from London City Center.
Again, as long before, a pleasant and affluent suburb, East Finchley in 1977 was the infrastructure and architectural equivalent of a visit to an eccentric, wealthy, emphysemic great-aunt. While sipping tea and hearing of the “old days” you might gaze upon the fine wood details of the hand made furniture or the anonymous faces in the dulled and dusty photographs on the wall, often in the poses of stern solidity or in an exuberant moment of victory. It would seem that only the passage of time could dull the greatness of all that past glory.
If Great Britain was at its mercantile and military zenith by the beginning of the 20th century, even more so was its pre-eminence in the rapidly growing fields of genetics, statistics and evolutionary biology. In 1890, at the pinnacle of the gilded greatness that was Victorian England, doughty old East Finchley witnessed the birth of one the greatest of her sons, a man who in the words of a one historian was a “genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science.” His name was Ronald Aylmer Fisher.
The son of a successful businessman, Fisher was had a precocious intellect, and because of his poor eyesight learned mathematics without the use of paper and pen; leading to a marvelous ability to visualize problems in geometrical terms, and to forever frustrating both teachers and students by being able to produce mathematical results without setting down the intermediate steps.
Fisher published an important paper in 1918 in which he used powerful statistical tools to reconcile what had been apparent inconsistencies between Charles Darwin's ideas of natural selection and the recently rediscovered experiments of the Gregor Mendel. Among many and varied later accomplishments, it was this singular achievement that gave birth to modern evolutionary science. This was completed with the publication of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection in 1930.
In 1943 Fisher accepted the Chair of Genetics at Cambridge University. Photographs invariably show a bearded, white haired, bespectacled man, with very thick glasses owing to his extreme myopia. More often that not, a billowing pipe accompanies the picture. He was addicted to the crossword puzzles of the London Times, which in characteristic fashion he filled in only those letters where the words crossed each other. His eccentricities, termed by his student “Fisherania,” though sometimes embarrassing, where more often the source of great entertainment to his friends.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote that “Certain flaws are necessary for the whole. It would seem strange if old friends lacked certain quirks.” Certainly Fisher had his flaws. He was an early and enthusiastic proponent of Eugenics, a social theory advocating the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention, including sterilization, prenatal testing and screening, genetic counseling, birth control. Fisher was also opposed to the developing argument that smoking caused lung cancer, partially due to his dislike and mistrust of Puritanism and perhaps also due to the solace he had always found in his pipe.
Although he would rapidly wash his hands of the more dunderheaded students, Fisher was a inspirational mentor to his acolytes, many of who would go on to stellar careers of their own in the field of genetics, statistics and anthropology. These ranks included the previously mentioned A.E Mourant, who did work with Fisher on the epidemiology of Rh blood group genetics; Robert Race and Ruth Sanger (who my friend Gerhard Uhlenbruck once described as 'Being married-- but to other people.') themselves later on co-authored an acclaimed textbook on blood groups; A.W.F. Edwards and Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who studied the “relatedness” among various population groups.
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