Good News From The Black Death

Every society has its myths. Foundation myths not only explain how the culture came to be, but also why they are God’s special people. Up until a couple of decades ago, Americans were taught in grammar school about the Pilgrims, religious liberty and the founding of the world’s first representative democracy. Other myths justify the existing order and the traditions of the people. In the West, this means believing in the equality of man, natural rights and so forth. Myths are a necessary part of who we are.

In America, politics, popular culture and policy debate all start from the assertion that all people are equal at birth. Everything about a person is determined by environment. Even things like heart disease, cancer, and body type are negotiable, despite science saying otherwise. Of course, sex and race are ruled irrelevant. Any differences between the sexes or races is assumed to be a carryover from past sins in the culture. Public policy in areas like education are aimed at eradicating these cultural shadows.

As is always the case with religion, myths and belief, science tends to be an enemy. The HBD folks have done yeoman’s work popularizing and expanding on ideas percolating up from the sciences, particularly genetics and evolutionary biology. Still, it is a small collection of people that follow this stuff and even a smaller group that think public policy should reflect the new knowledge. Superstition is the rule, but if you are the least bit optimistic, then stories like this one should give you some hope.

Enter Mihai Netea, an immunologist at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands. He realized that in his home country, Romania, the existence of two very distinct ethnic groups provided an opportunity to see the hand of natural selection in the human genome. A thousand years ago, the Rroma people—commonly known as gypsies—migrated into Europe from north India. But they intermarried little with European Romanians and thus have very distinct genetic backgrounds. Yet, by living in the same place, both of these groups experienced the same conditions, including the Black Plague, which did not reach northern India. So the researchers sought genes favored by natural selection by seeking similarities in the Rroma and European Romanians that are not found in North Indians.

Netea; evolutionary biologist Jaume Bertranpetit of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain; and their colleagues looked for differences at more than 196,000 places in the genomes of 100 Romanians of European descent and 100 Rroma. For comparison, the researchers also cataloged these differences in 500 individuals who lived in northwestern India, where the Rroma came from. Then they analyzed which genes had changed the most to see which were most favored by selection.

Genetically, the Rroma are still quite similar to the northwestern Indians, even though they have lived side by side with the Romanians for a millennium, the team found. But there were 20 genes in the Rroma and the Romanians that had changes that were not seen in the Indians’ versions of those genes, Netea and his colleagues report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These genes “were positively selected for in the Romanians and in the gypsies but not in the Indians,” Netea explains. “It’s a very strong signal.”

Now, why should Gypsy resistance to the plague matter? Well, as a cultural matter, it does not. What matters is the free and open discussion in a mainstream science journal about genetic differences in human populations. If genes matter in disease resistance, there’s no denying they matter in other areas. More important, if observable differences are genetic, then there is little point in arguing for environmentally based antidotes. That would be like trying to talk someone out of having cancer.

Now, there are plenty of these turning up every week and that supports for the above point. What’s important here is the casual discussion of gypsies, a protected class in Europe. Even though everyone hates them, no one is allowed to mention them. They are not quite on the level of American blacks, but they enjoy a similar status. When geneticist feel free to study and report on protected classes, then maybe the Overton window is moving in the direction of rationality. Even a little movement is a miracle.

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6 years ago

What is HBD?