Anthropology

Understanding the complex relationship between Indigenous peoples and biotechnology

As biotechnology advances the horizons of human potential, our species has gained the power to manipulate life to its most fundamental building blocks. With this power comes a responsibility to wield it with ethical and moral standards: Can we responsibly manipulate the natural world for our own ends? When we do so, will the technologies we develop be equitable and sustainable? In answering these questions, Indigenous peoples offer perspectives on biotechnology that are integral to consider.

Since the second half of the 20th century, biotechnology has led to numerous tangible improvements. Through the Green Revolution, agriculturalists produced high-yield seeds which in turn were able to support a rapidly growing human population; genetically modified organisms were critical to mitigating the mass famines and starvation that would have otherwise arisen from the doubling of the global population. More recently, stem cell research has yielded potential to regenerate tissue to combat cancer and injury. However, the ethicality of these bioengineering techniques has been the subject of much controversy.

Western biotechnology runs starkly counter to Indigenous systems of thought. An important difference between Western and Indigenous systems of thought is in their relation to the natural world. That of the former is characterized by exploitation, and even environmentalist movements are restricted to working within a framework of industrialism. On the other hand, Indigenous peoples strive to live in harmony with nature as they recognize their dependence on it for survival. For example, Western fishermen may try to maximize their catches for profit, whereas Indigenous fishermen are careful to avoid overfishing to preserve their sustenance in future seasons. Positive relationships with nature are even evident in the animist religions of many tribes, in which all forms of life are valued.

However, through genetic engineering, humans can control the creation of new life, thus playing the role of the divine creator; this is a concern verbalized not just by Indigenous peoples but religious groups across the world. Additionally, the commercialization of biotechnology means that corporations own intellectual property rights to life forms, leading groups such as the National Congress of American Indians to issue declarations protesting the commodification of life. 

This is not to say that Indigenous peoples are against all biotechnology—on the contrary, societies across the world have been practicing natural biotechnology (e.g., selectively breeding crops) for millennia. Rather, two aspects of Western biotechnology—its artificiality and its association with settler colonial states—warrant criticism.

Indeed, from Indigenous perspectives, there is ample precedent to be wary of Western advancements in science. Historically, the federal government has purported several medical advancements that actually came at the detriment of tribes. For example, under the Population Research Act of the 1970s, American scientists sterilized up to 25% of Indigenous women in a malicious act of ethnic cleansing. This genocidal history has made many Indigenous activists skeptical of American biotechnology. For example, critics question the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), which is trying to collect human DNA from every population to analyze similarities and differences: Could the study of genetic differences revive theories of genetic determinism? Worse, could scientists create stratifications of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ genes and provide support for eugenicism? These fears were furthered by the fact that the HGDP refused UN supervision over its use of Indigenous genetic data.

Given America’s colonial history marred by genocide and ethnic cleansing—and its present disregard for Indigenous peoples—these are real concerns. However, some Indigenous scholars present an alternate solution to the issues posed by biotechnology. The onward march of Western science and medicine is inevitable. Therefore, Indigenous peoples should strive to ensure that their interests are represented in this new field through ownership agreements that can benefit their tribe. However, this may lead to cultural harm as it requires Indigenous communities to partake in the manipulation of life forms.

Evaluating the role of biotechnology in the future, it is critical to consider the impacts it may bring upon Indigenous communities—both positive and negative. In advancing the merits of biotech while minimizing harms, having discussions such as this one is a prerequisite to effective policymaking.


Further Reading

Haar, Jarrod. An Indigenous Perspective on Biotechnology in New Zealand: A Maori Scientist Perspective, https://www.anzam.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf-manager/1860_HAARJARROD_295.PDF.

Tauli-Corpuz, Victoria. “BIOTECHNOLOGY AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLES.” Third World Network, https://www.twn.my/title/tokar.htm.

“What Does Indigenous Animism Teach Us About Well-Being and Compassion?” Synthesis Retreat, 4 Dec. 2020, https://observatory.synthesisretreat.com/what-does-indigenous-animism-teach-us-about-well-being-and-compassion.

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