Is there such a thing as a “perfect human being”? Many in Puerto Rico seem to think so. And those who do, believe the closest thing to one is, precisely, a Puerto Rican.
At least, that is what can be gleaned from the social media buzz generated by a blog post by Lior Pachter titled “The perfect human is Puerto Rican,” published on December 2 on his blog Bits of DNA, written in reaction to the news that James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA's molecular structure, would be auctioning off his Nobel Prize.
Watson was shunned by the scientific community after he made incendiary remarks about how research allegedly pointed to the conclusion that black people are less intelligent than white people. This was only the latest in a long string of racist and sexist comments made by Watson throughout his career.
Pachter, who is a computational biologist, was being more than a little ironic when he chose the title for his post. The idea was to conduct an informal thought experiment to underscore how absurd Watson's obsession with genetically “improving” human beings really is. Essential to Pachter's thought experiment was the data on Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, better known as SNPs (or “snips”) collected on SNPedia, an open database of 59,593 SNPs and their associations. The particular data Pachter used was collected by researchers at the Caribbean Genome Center at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.
Taras Oleksyk, one of the researchers involved in collecting the data, explained Pachter's thought experiment in a nutshell in a post published on the Caribbean Genome Center's blog a few days after Pachter's post went viral:
Using this genetic resource, Patcher [sic] looked at all the mutations in the database and notes the ones with a phenotypic effect. If the effect is positive, the mutation is beneficial. So the person with the most of the beneficial alleles and the least of the disadvantageous alleles must be the “perfect human”. It just happened that the sample that clusters the closest to this made up point was a woman we collected a sample from three years ago in Puerto Rico. She was therefore designated as the “perfect woman”.
Thus, the part of Pachter's post that gave it its title and that attracted the most attention:
The nearest neighbor to the “perfect human” is […] a female who is… Puerto Rican. One might imagine that such a person already existed, maybe Yuiza, the only female Taino Cacique (chief) in Puerto Rico’s history.
Leaving aside the historical error (Yuisa was not the only female taíno chief that we know of, nor can she be considered Puerto Rican), Pachter, to his credit, immediately admits that to try to define a perfect human is very misleading, at best.
Oleksyk, who is also a biology professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, felt obliged to offer some clarification in the post cited above, since it was the data that he helped collect that was used in Lior Pachter's exercise, even though he never imagined that it would help to cause such a firestorm on social media:
If the readers only read to the article’s conclusion, where they would notice that author is a fan of the “Puerto Rico All-Star Basketball Unicycle Team” they should ask themselves: How does this Berkeley professor know so much about Puerto Rico, while I live here all my life and I have never heard about such a thing?”
This is because the example is used to show that the author is sarcastic about this comparison. In fact, he is very happy that Puerto Ricans win the comparison, because he feared that the perfect human would be a white male of British descent such as Watson. For him, the exotic remoteness of the “winning” population is a great thing. As long as it were not Anglo-Americans, it could have been elves. Sadly, the audience did not see the subtle message, the resounding “Hurrah! We have won the race of the human race!” has made everyone unable to make a critical judgment.
This is no understatement. Spanish-language news agency Agencia EFE produced an article that treated Pachter's blogpost as a serious scientific study. That same article was later republished acritically in numerous news sites, including one of the most widely read Puerto Rican daily papers, Primera Hora, which, despite having the benefit of an interview with Lior Pachter himself, only helped to spread disinformation, leading many to believe that there really existed such a thing as a genetically “perfect” human and that the closest thing to one right now is a Puerto Rican.
Puerto Rican researcher Rafael A. Irizarry, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health, who is also one of the most highly cited researchers in mathematics and computer science, wrote a Spanish-language post on his blog Simply Stats out of concern for the mistaken and downright worrying interpretation of Lior Pachter's post in mainstream media. After explaining what exactly the human genome is, how genetic variation works, and concepts like “race” in simple language, he finishes his post with the following thoughts:
A pesar de nuestros problemas sociales y económicos actuales, Puerto Rico tiene mucho de lo cual estar orgulloso. En particular, producimos buenísimos ingenieros, atletas y músicos. Atribuir su éxito a “genes buenos” de nuestra “raza” no sólo es un disparate científico, sino una falta de respeto a estos individuos que a través del trabajo duro, la disciplina y el esmero han logrado lo que han logrado. Si quieren saber si Puerto Rico tuvo algo que ver con el éxito de estos individuos, pregúntenle a un historiador, un antropólogo o un sociólogo y no a un genético. Ahora, si quieren aprender del potencial de estudiar genomas para mejorar tratamientos médicos y la importancia de estudiar una diversidad de individuos, un genético tendrá mucho que compartir.
In spite of our current social and economic problems, Puerto Rico has a lot to be proud about. In particular, we produce great engineers, athletes, and musicians. To credit their success to the “good genes” of our “race” is not only scientifically absurd, but also disrespectful to these individuals who through hard work, discipline, and dedication have achieved what they have achieved. If you want to know if Puerto Rico had anything to do with the success of these individuals, ask a historian, an anthropologist or a sociologist, but not a geneticist. Now, if you want to learn about the potential that studying genomes has to improve medical treatments and the importance of studying a variety of individuals, a geneticist will have a lot to share.