Free Tibet Based on Cultural Differences, Not Genetic Differences

Jake Meyer by Jake Meyer

A group of scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute has discovered the quickest example of human evolution to date.  A study revealed that at least 30 genes have undergone evolutionary changes in Tibetans in the timeframe of 3,000-6,000 years.  The discovery is interesting from a purely scientific standpoint, as an example of how quickly the human genome (and therefore, human body) can change and adapt to its environment.  Tibetans, who have long sought to have Tibet to be a sovereign nation, could be tempted to use this discovery to argue that Tibet should be recognized by China, but the characterization of Tibetans as genetically distinct could have unwanted consequences.

These genes are responsible for Tibetans’ ability to live and work at high altitudes.  The Tibetans live at altitudes of over 13,000 feet, where the air contains 40% less oxygen than at sea level, but Tibetans do not suffer from the effects of mountain sickness. The study found 30 gene variants that were rare among the 40 Hans Chinese in the study were much more common in the 50 Tibetans in the study.  A variant of the gene hypoxia-inducible factor 2-alpha (HIF2a) appeared in 87% of Tibetans in the study, and only 9% of Hans Chinese.  Tibetans with this variant of HIF2a had less red blood cells and therefore less hemoglobin in their blood, which would help explain less susceptibility to mountain sickness. 

It may be tempting for Tibetans to rely on the argument that they are genetically distinct from Hans Chinese and should be recognized as their own sovereign nation.  The reasons for Tibet’s sovereignty exist outside this evidence that they carry certain genetic variants – namely a unique history, culture, and language.  If the equities exist to grant Tibet sovereignty, the prevalence of genetic variants in a handful of genes among Tibetans should not be a factor.  Supporters of recognition of Tibet’s sovereignty could be tempted to use these genetic differences to promote a free Tibet, but such reliance would not be worth the racial categorization through genetic differences.  Racial categorization through genetic differences has led to many evils.

Defining people by their genetic differences reinforces the idea that people of differing race and ancestry are so distinct as to justify stereotyping, when in fact all humans are genetically similar.  Studies of human behavior that focus on genetic differences have lead to simplistic interpretations that reinforce stereotypes.  The Maori people were characterized as violent when a researcher published a study stating that the Maori had a gene variant dubbed “the warrior gene.”  This unfair characterization was later found to be based on bad science.  James Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, claimed that genetic differences in Africans caused them to be intellectually inferior.  Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, responded to Watson’s comments on race: “As scientists, we are outraged and saddened when science is used to perpetuate prejudice.”  Watson later apologized and stated that there is “no scientific basis for such a belief.”  Defining people by their genetic different can cause groups of people to be viewed as alien to others.  The most infamous example is the Holocaust, which was, in part, premised on a genetic construction of Jews as an “alien” race. 

Genetic variance within a population makes the concept of race as defined by genetics is inappropriate and also unworkable in a practical setting.  As an illustration, reliance on genetic differences between races isn’t very helpful for medicine.  To determine an individual’s ancestry, many different genes need to be analyzed.  In medicine, only a few genes are involved in determining if a specific drug will be effective on that person or not.  Therefore, an individual’s race is a poor indicator for diagnosis or drug response.  For example, the gene CYP2D6 is a gene involved in the metabolism of the drug codeine – individuals with certain variants can’t effectively convert codeine to its active form morphine.  The frequency of this variant is 7% in African populations and 26% in European populations.  Race is a crude indicator of codeine response, because both populations have the variant due to genetic variance.  This is also true of the population of Tibetans.  The HIF2a gene appeared in both the Hans Chinese and the Tibetan populations. 

The reliance on genetic racial concepts in the past has lead to stereotyping and atrocities.  Further, reliance on the concept of a genetic racial concept is not appropriate because genetic variation creates diversity within a population – some members of the population do have the variants and others do not.  Humans of all races and ancestries have much in common, and so few genetic differences, that we should not accentuate those differences.  The genetic similarity of any two individuals is very high, regardless of their race – 99.9% identical.  Despite the finding that many Tibetans carry variants that help them live at high altitudes, this concept of genetic race should not be used to justify the creation of Tibet as a sovereign nation.  The reasons for Tibet’s sovereignty exist in its diverse history, culture, and language.