New neuroscience podcasts and Brazilian racial genomics

Vaughn at Mind Hacks points out several sites with good neurosciences lectures to download on a recent post, Lancet and MNI neuroscience podcasts. The ones from Lancet Neurology can be found here; and the ones from the Montreal Neurological Institute are here. In a post in February, Neurology podcasts – the shocking truth, Vaughn offers still more lectures available online from a number of sources (maybe we should try to do this at Neuroanthropology, especially if we can match Vaughn’s description of one podcast as an ‘excessively thorough lecture given by a voice synthesiser’ — now there’s something for which I can strive!).

On the Lancet Neurology site, there’s a number of good-looking lectures, but many are discussions of the whole volume by editor Helen Frankish. This might be an easy way to get a grip on a wide variety of current research, but they are more likely to be kind of technical for the non-specialist.

Perhaps better would be the lectures from the Montreal Neurological Institute. Some of them look quite good, although others may not be of very general interest. In particular, I’d strongly recommend the lecture from 8 May 2007 by Prof. Sergio Pena of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. Prof. Pena’s research on genetic markers of ancestry and ‘race’ in Brazil is wonderful, clear, and really undermines North American (and Australian, for that matter) ideas about how ‘race’ works genetically.

His team has a great article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS US) from the end of 2002, Color and genomic ancestry in Brazilians, that reports on research done on an individual basis into people’s genomic ancestry and phenotypic skin color. From the abstract:

Unlike previous studies that focused on genetic markers in whole populations, the researchers assayed genomic ancestry on an individual basis in two populations: 173 people living in a rural community, classified as White, Black, or Intermediate based on arm skin pigmentation, hair color, and nose and lip shape, and 200 men living in major metropolitan areas, self-classified as White. Using a panel of 10 genetic markers known to differ significantly between people from Portugal and Africa, each person was assigned an African Ancestry Index (AAI), which reflected the relative contribution of African versus European genes in each individual. AAI values differentiate Europeans from Africans with perfect reliability, yet there was little difference among AAI values of Brazilian individuals classified as White, Black, or Intermediate. White cosmopolitan men also showed AAI values intermediate between Europeans and Africans. These results indicate that, in Brazil, physical characteristics are a poor measure of geographic ancestry.

Too often, discussions of ‘race’ are only informed by naturalized categories from the US, and Pena’s work does a lot to unsettle this, in the process corroding some of the more pernicious assumptions about race that people use (such as that skin color is a reliable indicator of genomic ancestry, most obviously). He’s one of those researchers who is helping to bring an awareness of profound population differences into core biological disciplines.

For a more anthropological discussion of the research by the team at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, including an analysis of some of the public fallout from the original research, see a piece in Critique of Anthropology by Santos and Maio (abstract here). Although it’s a bit of anthro-speak, you get the idea from the Santos and Maio abstract: ‘By focusing on how this survey was received, we will explore some of the new, intense and abundant forms of relations between “nature/genetics” and “culture/society”, in which DNA appears as an outstanding player in the dispute between modalities for interpreting and transforming social and political realities.’

Thanks to Vaughn for pointing this material out, although I’m still not sure why he describes Mind Hacks as ‘The Perez Hilton of academic neuroscience podcast gossip.’

Parra, Flavia C., Roberto C. Amado, José R. Lambertucci, Jorge Rocha, Carlos M. Antunes, and Sérgio D. J. Pena.2002. Color and genomic ancestry in Brazilians. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PNAS 100(1): 177-182. doi/10.1073/pnas.0126614100 (Abstract available here)

Santos, Ricardo Ventura, and Marcos Chor Maio. 2004. Race, Genomics, Identities and Politics in Contemporary Brazil. Critique of Anthropology 24 (4): 347-378. DOI: 10.1177/0308275X04047841 (Abstract available here)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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