Interview with Guido Barbujani

barbujani1Jordi Play

We are all Africans, the Italian geneticist and writer assures. And should we want to find «genuine» Europeans, we would have to go over 30,000 years back in history, to the time when the last Neanderthals became extinct. Through the study of the genetic code of our ancestors, Guido Barbujani (Adria, 1955) tries to draw the story of the great human migrations, those early hominids that left Africa to populate the planet and had to adapt to the conditions they found. Such mobility of our ancestors has shaped our species and, although we all have a very diverse DNA, Barbujani claims that we continue to be part of a genetic continuity.

Guido Barbujani is full professor of genetics and population genetics in the Department of Life Sciences and Biotechnology of the University of Ferrara, where he researches different aspects of human diversity. He considers that the concept of race cannot be applied to humans, that speaking about ethnicity is a mistake and the best term to collect all the richness and variety of humankind is populations.

Thirty years ago, along with the Australian biostatistician and anthropologist Robert Sokal, he tried to scientifically develop a Darwin theory to the effect that if we could draw a complete family tree of the world’s languages, we would get the complete family tree of human migration history. However, back then, such an endeavour was impossible and the project was abandoned. Now Barbujani retakes it. He leads an international project involving anthropologists, linguists and geneticists from different countries. During the next four years they will take genetic samples from populations around the world and study their languages. Because in the end, Barbujani claims, everything comes down to telling and deciphering good stories, which is what population genetics is about. Barbujani participated in the conference «Evolution and Culture» in Barcelona, organized by the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, CCCB) and B-Debate. «I am interested in hearing and telling stories. Evolutionary genetics, to which I devote myself, is like a long story, like a novel with many adventures and plot twists and extreme characters», he says. «Imagine: the life of the Neanderthals, the life of humans out of Africa, when they found each other… fascinating!»

What does the study of the genetics of past populations tell us?
A lot! Historical sources and archaeology cannot explain our history, which is very old. People with brains like ours were already in Africa 150,000 years ago. And while we have many details about the following millennia, we only have the information in our DNA, which is not very clear, about that first stage. We cannot simply open it, read it and find answers there. But we have statistical tools to ask questions and try to find explanations. And although we currently understand very little, better this than nothing at all, right?

Why is it so hard to read our story in DNA?
To answer this question, I tell my students in college that it is as if we had a sausage and we chopped it into two or three pieces. The sausage is coloured and you have some white pieces, don’t you? That’s fat. My work as a geneticist is, from the position of the white parts in one of the pieces of chorizo, to find out where all the fat is located in the whole sausage.

It does not seem easy…
It is not, but we can start extracting some data. We now have information from ancient DNA, so we can come to better conclusions and learn more. Only fifty years ago nobody knew that the human being is an African species. Now, however, we can confirm, thanks to the study of the genetic code, that we are all Africans.

That’s a somewhat controversial statement. It is doubtful that the far-right parties that are gaining more and more power with racist discourses in Europe will share that idea.
That is a problem, and a serious one. Look, the words race and racism, racist, are similar, have the same etymology. But they are very different things. Problems with the integration of different people exist, and they would also exist if immigrants came from elsewhere. When the first Albanians arrived in Italy we had the same problems that we now have in Lampedusa with the arrival of boats and canoes filled with sub-Saharan people. It is not a problem of skin colour, but a strong economic, social and psychological problem. And it’s not new. In the fifth century BC in classical Greece, considered the birthplace of Western culture, the world was divided into two: Greeks and barbarians, those who are like me and those who are different. That is always the case, a psychological reality that no biological study may change. However, the problems start if we just take this point and do not try to see if we have something in common with these people who seem different. The best example is the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. They killed each other, they hated each other simply because some were Tutsis and other Hutus. They forgot they had many more things that united them: they were all Rwandan, workers, Africans, humans. The important thing is not to dwell on what makes us different but look for those things we have in common.

Hutu and Tutsi believed they were two different ethnicities…
I hate the word ethnicity. I prefer using population. Only two centuries ago, people thought just as there are different breeds of dogs, horses, cats, there were also human breeds. And many human races catalogues were written… some even published by serious scientists. And then others such as The Negro, a Beast, published in 1900 in Saint Louis, U.S.A., which is a real outrage. Do you know the only thing all the race catalogues published by rigorous scientists had in common? They contradicted each other! There is a long history of failure of the concept of race. It is true that if you look at the DNA, differences can be found. But all this diversity represents different parts of a continuum. Talking about race is racist, but it is a mistake to think that mankind is made of very different groups, that you can put each individual in a drawer with a label above: Caucasian, Asian, black… And when we use the term ethnicity, in the heart we are applying the same concept as race; we are referring to a discontinuous diversity and that does not work, it’s neither helpful nor useful for understanding humanity. It is therefore more appropriate to talk about populations.

Evolutionary psychology often explained racism as a survival strategy: our ancestors had to know quickly if those in front of them were friends or enemies. And an easy way to find out was through physical appearance.
It may be so. But evolutionary psychology is a very weird science [laughs], which says that what we are now is a result of evolution in the past. And to some extent it is true, evolution is based on natural selection, but also relies heavily on chance. I’m not so sure everything we are now is what we need to be. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. It’s like talking about the horoscope, there is certainly some truth in the fact that one is Scorpio and is therefore this way or the other. It may be that, yes, the stars at the time of our birth affect the way we are, but there is no scientific basis to say they do. And in this sense I think evolutionary psychology affirms plausible things that are difficult to demonstrate empirically.



«Evolutionary genetics, to which I devote myself, is like a long story, like a novel with many adventures and plot twists and extreme characters»



barbujani2Jordi Play















«Problems with the integration of different people exist, and they would also exist if immigrants came from elsewhere»






barbujani3Jordi Play

What data does evolutionary genetics use to study populations?
In the recent past, fifty or sixty years ago, we only had blood group frequencies. The first DNA data were published in the nineties, and now we use genomic data, which gives us incredible firepower. We can read the entire genome of a person and that gives us a huge amount of data and information on the history of human populations, migrations, contacts between populations… Of course, we need models. I’ll give you an example: in recent years we started studying the Etruscans, one of the pre-Roman populations of Italy. At home my mother always said that we were Etruscans. My eye colour, which is not exactly blue, is Etruscan [laughs as he opens his eyes]. In my lab we had a small amount of DNA sequences dating back to the central period of Etruscan culture and wanted to know if they are the ancestors of people now living in the same areas where they did. We sampled current populations of several areas of Italy where the Etruscans had settled and try to see if there was a genealogical continuity simply through computer simulations. We compared on the one hand, models in which the Etruscans were the ancestors of the current inhabitants of these areas; and on the other, models in which they were not the ancestors and current Italians had a different biological origin.

And what happened?
A family catastrophe! Casino! We discovered that my family had nothing to do with the Etruscans. My mother still does not believe me, «are you sure, son?», she asks me [laughs loudly]. But we also discovered that there really are people now in central Italy who share DNA with the Etruscans, although it is mixed with others who migrated here. Interestingly, fifty kilometres away from where we have taken samples there are already populations that have nothing to do with the Etruscans. Our chromosomes are pieces of genetic codes of different origin. It’s hard to believe that all of our ancestors came from the place where each of us now live. And that fact shows in the DNA. In fact, the story of the great migrations is written in our genes.

And can we read it, just like that?
There are clear cases in which you can, like when we know history. For example, in the case of the colonization of South America, it is easy because we know what to look for. We have seen that the DNA of the inhabitants of the metropolises of Latin America have a higher male contribution from Europe and a higher female contribution by the natives who were already there; or from Africa. In other cases, when we have no historical idea what happened, it is much more difficult. In that sense, we have now been granted some European funds precisely to investigate genetic diversity further and clarify some still obscure chapters in the history of mankind. This is a project that retakes an old idea by Charles Darwin, who said that «if we possessed a perfect tree of human languages, then we would have the best tree of the history of populations».

Confronting genes and languages…

In the late eighties there were two research groups, one in California, led by Italian geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza and one in New York, with Robert Sokal. Both began working in this area the same year and fighting about who had been the first to do so. Back then I was in Sokal’s lab and we tried to develop methods to establish the comparison between genes and languages. The problem was that, although biologists liked it, linguists believed that comparing languages through their lexicon was erroneous.

Think of the Spanish word mucho and the English word much. They are almost identical and mean the same thing. However, linguists say that they have a very different origin. There are words that look very similar in different languages, but it can be by sheer chance. I recently spoke with a Chinese girl and asked how they said mom in Chinese and she replied mamma, just like in Italian! The lexicon approach has problems, linguists say that comparisons can be made within the same family of languages, but not between different families. In the nineties we abandoned these studies because it was a problem we could not solve.

But now you go back to that idea.
Recently an Italian linguist who lives in England, Pino Longobardi, developed a comparison method based not on words but on deep language structure, i.e. grammar and syntax. According to Longobardi, words change very fast, just think about pizza, for instance, which is universal. Instead, the position of the verb in the sentence, which in German is always at the end and in English in the middle, does not change. And these abstract language features are the ones that allow us to make long-range comparisons. The European Research Council fund we received is for establishing a comparison of genes and languages around the world using this method. Genetic samples will be collected by a group of anthropologists, and several linguists are already making comparisons of languages; around twenty at the moment. It’s really very complicated because you need a thorough knowledge of the language and it often involves learning it. In Ferrara we’ll make the biostatistical analysis of samples. Since at least four years will go by before all the material is collected, what we are doing now is, with those languages that have already been described, beginning to collect genetic data on the Internet, public data to make preliminary analysis and test if the method works and how we can apply it.

You may succeed in solving the mystery of Euskera, whose origin remains unknown.
We all came from Africa. The personal history of a Basque may be very different to that of another Basque. We are very complicated creatures and our identity is not only the music we like, the films we like, our sexual habits. I have something in common with Silvio Berlusconi!

Italian, male, perhaps with the same political affiliation…
No way! But we like the same football team and that’s part of my identity. Our identity is a thousand different things and when we start saying that only this or that part is important, our biological origin or the football team, then we begin to create conflict without any reason. When we talk about identity, we must always bear in mind that it’s such a complex thing that it cannot be synthesized in one single aspect. We are thousands of things! It’s a huge loss when you can define your identity with a word or two or three.

Cristina Sáez. Science journalist (Barcelona).
© Mètode 2014.



«The only thing all the race catalogues published by rigorous scientists had in common was that they contradicted each other»










barbujani4Jordi Play













«Evolution is based on natural selection, but also relies heavily on chance»




© Mètode 2014