In August of 2010 Ann Gibbons wrote a perceptive column in Science about the literature finding evidence for positive selection in the human genome. She described the burst of papers in the late 2000s on the topic and how they had recently slowed to a trickle. Many investigators seemed to have concluded (correctly) that exploiting linkage disequilibrium between putatively selected SNPs had reached the end of the road and that new methods and approaches were in order.
We had been part of the flurry of such papers and we watched the chatter among colleagues about these issues with great interest. Perhaps part of the retrenchment, we thought at the time, reflected this email from nih.gov which many of us received. (Email addresses edited out.)
Dear Dr. Harpending:
The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) is planning a workshop to explore the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) raised by research on natural selection in humans. The impetus for this meeting is the sense of a growing need for more thoughtful deliberation by genomic researchers, ELSI researchers, science writers and science editors regarding the societal issues raised by natural selection research. The goals of the meeting will be to: 1) discuss the scientific design and interpretation issues pertinent to this research to determine whether a set of “best practices” can be identified for investigators and peer reviewers in this area; 2) discuss the relevant ethical issues and issues surrounding public understanding and reporting of the findings of this research to assess what issues science editors should consider when dealing with papers in this area; and 3) discuss future directions for genomic and ELSI research related to natural selection.
We would like to invite you to attend this workshop, which will be held in Rockville, MD on October 28, 2008. NHGRI will cover your travel expenses. An agenda for the workshop is attached. Please let us know by COB on Monday, September 8, 2008 if you would like to participate in the meeting, by replying to Chris Juenger (email) and Jean McEwen (email). Please do not hesitate to contact either Chris or Jean if you have any questions.
Remarkable, isn’t it? They have no shame in DC. This meeting was put on by the Bioethics people at NHGRI (National Human Genome Research Institute), who get 10% of the Institute budget. Ten percent of a lot of money is still a lot of money. This does suggest a place for our government to trim wasteful spending while at the same time making science better.
Unfortunately I stubbed my toe and was unable to attend. I also felt that since I was not a customer of this particular bank there was no good reason for me to show up.
Soon afterward we began getting subtle and not so subtle hints and warnings from colleagues that there was after all not so much selection in humans as we and others had proposed. A killer paper was being prepared by the Chicago folks showing this, pricking the selection balloon, and we needed to hunker down and get ready to retract things that we had written.
We waited and waited, until finally the dreaded paper appeared with the roar of a mouse. The argument seemed to be that since populations that differed in putatively neutral genes also differed in putatively selected genes, the pattern was really not so different, and many of the selection candidates were likely just neutral. Or something like that. We still have no very clear idea what they were saying: it is after all hardly a surprise that the Sahara, for example, would block both neutral gene flow and the spread of selected alleles.
Fortunately our government’s clumsy foray into censorship seems to have had no lasting effect. There is no record of this meeting at the NHGRI website that we can find, and a report on the meeting by Cho, Sabeti, and Tishkoff, cited as in press in several places on the web, apparently never appeared.
Studies of selection and differentiation of human populations are alive and well.