As I’ve been pointing out for years, recent genomic breakthroughs have, on the whole, done more to validate old, politically incorrect scientific theories than the newer politically correct conventional wisdom about everything is Socially Constructed.
One obvious example is Ancient DNA research, as practiced by David Reich, Svante Paabo, and the like, where 19th Century ideas like, yes, the Aryans really did invade India, are often being upheld by scanning the DNA found in ancient skeletons that have been (more or less) grave-robbed.
Now the New York Times Magazine attempts to strike back against the new science with a massive chin-stroking article about how it’s All Very Complicated (which no doubt it is):
Geneticists have begun using old bones to make sweeping claims about the distant past. But their revisions to the human story are making some scholars of prehistory uneasy.
By Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Jan. 17, 2019
… In 1967, the molecular biologist Allan Wilson at the University of California, Berkeley, along with one of his students, Vincent Sarich,
I knew Vince, a great guy.
demonstrated that evolutionary relationships between species could be determined not only from fossils but also, via a quantitative analysis of blood proteins, from living specimens. Humans and apes, Wilson found, diverged only five million years ago — far more recently than previously believed.
Within the decade, researchers trained in the discipline of population genetics would get in on the historical act. Every contemporary genome is a mosaic of individual tiles passed along from thousands of ancestors; each of us thus contains not only our “own” ancestry but those of multitudes. With each new generation, random mutations, like misspellings, are introduced into a population; some of these will disappear over time, but others will increase in frequency until they are common enough to become a statistically significant part of a population’s genetic signature. If two populations have been distinct for a long time — that is, if people from one don’t tend to mate with people from the other — they will share fewer of these mutations; if they encountered each other and were fruitful, their mutation frequencies will overlap. These insights could be made relevant to prehistorians insofar as they could demonstrate that modern human populations were forged in the mixture of ancient ones. It was still mostly impossible, though, to conclude anything about when these groups might have mixed, or where, or how.
The answers to those questions required not just contemporary genetic data but actual prehistoric DNA. The idea that it might be preserved in old specimens has been around since 1984, when Wilson announced that his lab had extracted DNA from the salted skin of a quagga, an extinct equine species with the head of a zebra and the haunches of a donkey. The further possibilities suggested by ancient DNA were awarded a special place in the public imagination by the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” …
Over the past few years, a growing cohort of scientists has at last produced a fantastic answer. Ancient DNA, they believe, not only allows us to cut through what scholars once wrote off as “wrapped in a thick fog” of “heathendom.” It promises nothing less than what the Harvard geneticist David Reich has called “the genome revolution in the study of the human past.”
3. The Revisionist
David Reich’s lab is folded into a corner of a glassy, long-corridored labyrinth at Harvard Medical School. …
In his recent book, Reich ranks the “ancient-DNA revolution” with the invention of the microscope. Ancient DNA, his research suggests, can explain with more certainty and detail than any previous technique the course of human evolution, history and identity — as he puts it in the book’s title, “Who We Are and How We Got Here.”
I wrote three Taki’s Magazine essays on Reich’s book last spring:
The NYT Mag continues:
… Reich inherited from his parents a humanistic bent: His mother, Tova, is a novelist of some renown; his father, Walter, is a psychiatrist who was the first director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Tova’s comic novel My Holocaust fictionalizes David’s dad’s travails with more ethnocentric donors to his Holocaust museum.
… After abandoning medical school at Harvard for a postdoc at M.I.T., Reich returned to Harvard to establish his own medical-genetics lab. His chief interest lay in the effort to design novel statistical approaches to better explain how populations were related to one another. He showed, for example, on the basis of contemporary genetic data, that modern Indians are in fact a product of two highly distinct groups, one that had been on the subcontinent for thousands of years and another that formed more recently.
I.e., the Aryan invaders (e.g., Zarathustra) who fascinated Schopenhauer and Nietzsche:
He got his first opportunity to study ancient DNA when Svante Paabo — a Swedish geneticist who had worked with Wilson
Paabo, who will likely win a Nobel Prize eventually, is the secret biological son of 1982 Nobel Laureate Sune Bergstrom, obviously disproving all this hereditarian nonsense.
— enlisted Reich in his efforts, based out of a lab in Leipzig, to sequence the entirety of the Neanderthal genome. Reich’s analysis helped demonstrate that most living humans, with the general exception of sub-Saharan Africans, have some Neanderthal ancestry.
… So in 2013, Reich, along with a veteran of Paabo’s lab and a longtime mathematician collaborator
, retooled his shop at Harvard Medical School as one of the country’s first dedicated ancient-DNA labs….
Reich believes he has proved, to the contrary, that human history is marked not by stasis and purity but by movement and cross-pollination. People who live in a place today often bear no genetic resemblance to people who lived there thousands of years ago, so the idea that something in your blood makes you meaningfully Spanish is absurd.
After all, what is fifty or a hundred generations? Enough time to evolve traits useful in your environment, such as lactose tolerance, but who is counting?
Paabo had shown that early humans mated with Neanderthals, but that was only one small part of the swirling “admixture” that characterized human interbreeding. …
Ancient DNA’s “big bang,” as more than one geneticist described it to me, came with the 2015 publication, in Nature, of a Reich paper called “Massive Migration From the Steppe Was a Source for Indo-European Languages in Europe.” On the basis of genetic information culled from 69 ancient individuals dug up by collaborating archaeologists in Scandinavia, Western Europe and Russia, the paper argued that Europeans aren’t quite who they thought they were. About 5,000 years ago, a “relatively sudden” mass migration of nomadic herders from the east
I.e., Indo-Europeans or Aryans.
— the steppes of eastern Ukraine and southern Russia — swept in and almost entirely replaced the continent’s existing communities of hunter-gatherers and early farmers. These newcomers were known to exploit many of the cutting-edge technologies of the time: the domestication of horses, the wheel and, perhaps most salient, axes and spearheads of copper. (Their corpses sometimes featured cutting-edge wounds.)
The Reich team inferred that the major source of contemporary European ancestry — and probably Indo-European languages as well — was not, in fact, from Europe but from far to the east.
Uhhh, no, the Urheimat of the Aryans appears to be either in Eastern Europe or in Western Asia: Ukraine, Russia, or Kazakhstan. Stalingrad would be not a terrible guess: perhaps crossing the Volga might have been an important achievement in the Aryans breaking out of their homeland to invade either Western Europe or South Asia. (Nietzsche might have liked this speculation of mine as a possible example of “eternal recurrence.”)
With the relatively recent rise of everything we associate with “culture” — technologies like agriculture, metallurgy and eventually writing — much of this continuous “admixture” began to give way, it seemed, to discontinuous episodes better characterized as “replacement” or “turnover.” That is, about 5,000 to 9,000 years ago, human history was, at least in a few crucial places, less about various groups coming together and more about some groups blotting out their neighbors.
Robert E. Howard had a better understanding of ancient history than today’s cultural anthropologists.
This was not only relevant as an eccentricity of prehistoric demography, but broadly consequential for the ongoing study of culture itself — of where new ideas come from and how they proliferate. When we thought of populations as stationary and largely stable, we assumed that whatever evolutionary progress they made, from toolmaking to agriculture, reflected either a native innovation or the incorporation of some adjacent group’s avant-garde practice. Now it seemed as though culture was less about the invention and spread of new ideas and more about the mass movements of particular peoples — and the resulting integration, outcompetition or extermination of the communities they overran. Previously, it was possible to think about prehistory as a kind of grand bazaar. Now the operative metaphor (as multiple science journalists observed) was more like Risk, or even “Game of Thrones.”
… He [Reich] observed that “essentially everybody was surprised.” They were surprised, in part, because archaeologists since the 1960s had been trained never to assume the purity or coherence of a people, a slippery slope to the conclusion that certain peoples came by their advantages “naturally.”
…. Archaeologists, who feel as though they learned this lesson long ago, thus survey the rapid rise of ancient DNA with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. By once again giving “migration” pride of place in the story of prehistory, paleogenomics has resurrected some old intellectual ghosts.
By the time radiocarbon dating had come of age, in the postcolonial ferment of the 1960s, archaeology was already primed to relinquish its emphasis on narratives of migration. …
This new generation of practitioner agreed that just because similar pots were found in various places didn’t mean they were all made by one homogeneous group of people.
I.e., the Pots Not Peoples orthodoxy of later 20th Century academia: if, say, England of about 4,500 years ago suddenly had an all-new material culture — what old archaeologists called the Battle-Axe Culture but new ones renamed as the Corded Ware Culture in order to discourage heterosexual boys from taking an interest in their field — that must have been because a new interior decorating fad had swept Europe. Heaven forbid that anybody think that a bunch of battle-axe wielding barbarians had conquered England. That would be barbaric!
Instead, archaeologists retreated to a much more modest and fine-comb preoccupation with what they called the “processual”: very particular inquiries into very particular societal dynamics. They paid much closer attention to how individual cultures appeared to change and grow over time and much less attention to how Culture Had Changed — to the fantasy
Uh … the academics whose old theories are being disproved by the new data are the actual fantasists.
that some special key will unlock the secrets of history. This left a big-picture vacuum that paleogenomicists like Reich have been eager to fill.
…The more meaningful division is between two alternate intellectual attitudes: those bewitched by grand historical narratives, who believe that there is something both detailed and definitive to say about the very largest questions, and those who wearily warn that such adventures rarely end well.
Uh … the leftist dogmatists imperialized academia. How did that adventure end?
… But in practice, the paleogenomicists have totally altered the environment in which prehistory is being studied by everyone. The landscape is dominated by four well-funded, well-connected labs, three of which — Paabo’s in Leipzig, along with those of two of his protégés, Reich at Harvard and Johannes Krause, who runs a newer outfit in the small German city Jena — collaborate closely with one another, to the point that some critics accuse them of collusion. The power of these top labs extends to samples, data and even technology: Proprietary chemical reagents let them isolate and enrich ancient samples much more accurately and cost-effectively than other labs can. …
The selective pressure to collaborate with this state-of-the-art oligopoly is extremely strong, not only because of their advantages in funding, speed and operational scale but also because of the relationships they enjoy with the top-tier journals. …
So, part of what is going on is that Reich, Paabo, and a few others have set up a cartel of the best labs (which are much more technically proficient than the next tier of labs) and you have to play ball with them if you want to compete in the big leagues. Lots of good scientists like John Hawks are mad at Reich over his business practices.
There thus reigns, in the world of ancient DNA, an atmosphere of intense suspicion, anxiety and paranoia, among archaeologists and geneticists alike….
… As one ancient-DNA researcher in Turkey put it to me, “Certain geneticists see the rest of world as the 19th-century colonialists saw Africa — as raw-material opportunities and nothing else.” …
It has not gone unnoticed that the stunning, magisterial sweep of genetic revisionism, on the one hand, and a genetic emphasis on radical prehistoric migrations, on the other, bear more than a little in common. Some anthropologists and archaeologists accept this analogy with gallows humor. One told me that I should model this article after the format of the standard Nature paper: “Ancient DNA Reveals Massive Population Turnovers in the Humanities,” she suggested as a title, and proposed this as an abstract: “The aristocratic lab scientists arrived with their superior technology and displaced the pre-existing researchers and their primitive truth-implements and overcomplicated belief systems.”
Others saw less to laugh at. Some archaeologists who had collaborated on the 2015 paper about Indo-European invasions withdrew their names to protest conclusions they saw as echoes of Kossinna — the mass migrations of advanced Indo-Europeans into Central Europe. (Reich got the critics back on board by adding a note, on Page 138 of their paper’s 141-page supplementary materials, that said their work in fact contradicted Kossinna, not because he was wrong about mass migration but on a technicality: The European ancestral homeland had, in fact, been far to the east, near the Caucasus and nowhere near present-day Germany.) The analogue was hard to counter. Geneticists had indeed swept down from their laboratory enclaves to extend their sovereignty over what had always been the terrain of archaeology. And no single individual had as much influence or power as Reich.
Since David is the third person in his nuclear family to become prominent, does that make him the third Reich?
A lot of resentful cultural anthropologists seem to think so.
… Some critics believed that any association with Reich represented a betrayal, too, not only of the ni-Vanuatu but of anyone who believed that culture was as powerful a human determinant as the gene. Shortly before the publication of his book, Reich wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times in which he warned that the future was likely to demonstrate some meaningful genetic differences among populations and that we needed to be honest about such truths, lest they be abused by racist pseudoscience. He was careful to differentiate the idea of a genetic population from the old idea of race, which he agreed was a social rather than biological fact. But he nonetheless gave comfort to those who maintain that on the deepest of all levels our destiny is written into our genetic signature. It was hard not to see that conviction reflected in the findings of Reich’s papers, which seemed to blithely recapitulate discredited theories of Pacific expansion, making categorical claims not only about four individual skulls but about the shape of human history — claims that were essentially indistinguishable from the racialized notions of the swashbuckling imperial era. …
Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a writer at large for the magazine. His last feature story was about a private-jet dealer.
In answer to the article’s title question — “Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?” — ancient DNA science appears to be revealing Old Truths.