Genes, Bones, and Politicizing the Past

Genes, Bones, and Politicizing the Past February 28, 2019

Is paleogenomics poised to rewrite traditional origin stories? Or is it a high-tech update of old biases about culture?

The New York Times Magazine recently published a fascinating article called “Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?” in which Gideon Lewis-Kraus describes how scientists shed new light on the ancestry of the natives of the Vanuatu Islands in the South Pacific. It’s also the story of the different tools we use to establish facts about ancient history, and how we use them to reinforce the narratives we prefer.

Other Humans’ Origins

The islanders had always assumed that the original Melanesian inhabitants of the island were dark skinned travelers from Papua New Guinea who later dealt with migrating populations from Asia. A recent postage stamp even celebrated their heritage with a depiction of the dark natives they thought were their forebears. However, DNA extracted from skulls found in an ancient burial site tells a different story: the original inhabitants of the islands probably came from East Asia and were later joined by Papuan migrants called the Lapita.

This troubled the Vanuatu islanders, who are currently battling immigration and development by the Chinese who appear to be closely related to the islands’ first inhabitants. They worry about having their land claims questioned by populations who may consider the islands part of an ancestral homeland.

Prehistoric Power Plays

However, it’s not only the Vanuatu islanders who need to reconsider old beliefs. The dependence on grand narratives about peoples is one that archaeology has been getting away from. It’s a vestige of the simplistic “settlement archaeology” that inspired the Nazis. The article quotes British archaeologist Colin Renfrew describing this crude approach like this: “Prehistory was seen as a kind of global chessboard, with the various cultures as pieces shifting from square to square. The task of the archaeologist was simply to plot the moves — or, in other words, trace the path of the ‘influence’ as new ideas were diffused.”

Harvard’s David Reich runs the DNA lab that did the analysis on the skulls from Vanuatu, and he seems to describe what his data says in the same terms as Gustaf Kossinna a hundred years ago:

In the broadest conceptual terms, though, [Reich] saw the lessons of this once-enigmatic Lapita migration to be exceedingly profound. “I think the important finding for archaeologists and for historians and sociologists and anthropologists is that this group moved thousands of kilometers over many hundreds of years, through a region occupied by long-established, sophisticated people, and hardly mixed with them.” He 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.”

But the data seemed indisputable. “Now we can establish that definitively. That’s what this technology allows us to do. And then they” — meaning all those other disciplines, which heretofore had overseen the study of prehistory — “can get on with answering what really matters, which is try to interpret what happened.”

Other researchers involved in the study of the Vanuatu islanders’ history say that’s not solving anything, it’s just leaving all the heavy lifting to the archaeologists: “What Reich was wont to attribute to simple “migration” was just a restatement of the problem of what happened. The actual causal mechanism could have been malaria, or warfare, or volcanic activity, or some competitive advantage in agriculture.”

Dazzled by DNA

Oversimplified and trite though they are, Reich’s theories have a lot of enthusiastic support in the scientific world due to their employment of cutting-edge technology. Reich’s lab is a powerful player in the paleogenomics game, and many researchers say the Harvard lab’s prestige gives it an advantage over smaller labs. The extent to which Reich’s work made “claims that were essentially indistinguishable from the racialized notions of the swashbuckling imperial era” doesn’t seem as relevant as its appeal for an industry and public who think DNA sequencing is a lot more sexy than dusty old bone-hunting. The unprecedented speed with which Reich’s paper passed the approval process at the journal Current Biology, particularly when a rival paper about the Vanuatu matter by a team of conventional archaeologists was scheduled for publication, raises a lot of questions about the politics of peer review.

This controversy is about different philosophical approaches to history and the study of human origins:

The resulting schism has been easy to caricature as the old struggle between hard scientists and humanists — a suspicion of all geneticists as quantitative imperialists, a derision of all archaeologists as sentimental Luddites — but that isn’t quite accurate. Many archaeologists are thrilled about the arrival of the first genuinely new form of prehistoric data in generations. 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.

I highly recommend this article for people who are interested in the stories we tell about the past and about how our knowledge develops.

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  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Very interesting, Shem. The four-skull sample itself screams “sample size replication problems”! Otherwise, as someone who doesn’t believe in a lot of blacks and whites, and who does believe that Idries Shah’s “more than two sides” is often quite true, I of course am wary of grand narratives.

  • Chuck Johnson

    I read it and enjoyed the article.
    The controversies are not a surprise to me.
    This is commonplace in science when new evidence is coming in and scientists are struggling (and competing) to be the one to come up with the story that best describes the evidence that is available.
    I have seen this in many areas of science besides this one.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Grand narratives are warranted when grand amounts of reliable evidence are available.
    At present, tentative narratives are the ones that are warranted.

  • I really wasn’t suggesting that this sort of controversy is something new and unique in science, or that it should make us abandon scientific inquiry or anything. But I think it’s important to note that this is yet another instance where evidence doesn’t have the magic power to compel scientists into consensus. As it says in the article, this is a case where there are competing approaches to the study of human origins and the changing landscape of society. There are different conceptions of what we expect the data to convey, and what sort of information has more privilege and authority.

    Anyone over the age of twelve who still thinks science is all about the evidence needs to grow up and realize that it’s about a lot more than that.

  • As evidence increases does science become more and more about (1) the evidence, and (2) interpretations of it, until a point of ‘major consensus’ is finally reached where, say, at least about 90-95% of experts agree on the interpretation and data validity?

    What are the top 3 things that science is also about in addition to evidence, data interpretation and ultimate major consensus? Is expert consensus about AGW false or flawed by other concerns and thus not believable?

  • As this article describes, there are many factors involved in modern scientific inquiry apart from data and observations. There’s the economics of funding and research, and the prospect of profit for investors from applications of the research. There’s the preference the industry has for new and exciting (not to mention expensive) technologies like paleogenomics rather than the old, messy and labor intensive activities of archaeologists. And there’s the age-old appeal of the Grand Narrative that represents a definitive explanation for ancient mysteries. I’m not saying any of this makes scientific research “not believable,” it’s just that we have to acknowledge that it’s a human endeavor with a lot of cultural and economic baggage.

    Your question about AGW is so loaded you should watch where you point it! As I’ve said many times, I have no problem with any mainstream scientific theory, AGW included, and I don’t entertain conspiracism or crackpottery on this channel.

  • I use an AGW example to see how far legitimate skepticism would go. I believe the AGW theory. The question wasn’t about me or my belief. It was about what a principled skeptic like you would have to say. The question was not intended as crackpot or conspiracism. Your answer is reassuring.

    it’s just that we have to acknowledge that it’s a human endeavor with a lot of cultural and economic baggage.


    Guess we’re on the same page, at least on these matters.

  • In light of all my Disqus dealings with you over the years, I’d say we agree a lot more than we disagree. I wasn’t accusing you of peddling conspiracy theories by any means. It’s just that people regularly show up here and accuse me of being a denier and/or a crackpot because of their inability to understand science except in the most sanitized and idealized form.

  • Understood.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Denial of AWG is motivated by needs to deny it.
    Money, government politics, corporate politics etc. create a need (for self-serving reasons) to block the efforts to control carbon emissions.

    When people tell you that they are presenting science or undeniable science, they will often lie for self-serving reasons. Including Alien-Visitors stories.

    One of the reasons that I have studied science is to get past all of the fraud out there which is masquerading as science.

  • rationalobservations?

    The major problem for all things “Jesus” cult (exactly like the Yahweh cult and all other man made religions) is that there is no historical trace of their myths, legends and fables just as there is no historical trace of the existence of “Jesus” from within the 1st century and all the diverse and different, confused and contradictory myths and legends cannot be traced back to earlier than the 4th century and those first 4th century prototype bibles are very significantly different from any circulating today.

    The oldest/first politico-corporate business of “christianity” (that was also founded in the 4th century) agrees:

    “Our documentary sources of knowledge about the origins of Christianity and its earliest development are chiefly the New Testament Scriptures, the authenticity of which we must, to a great extent, take for granted.”
    (Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. iii, p. 712)

    The Church makes extraordinary admissions about its New Testament. For example, when discussing the origin of those writings,

    “the most distinguished body of academic opinion ever assembled” (Catholic Encyclopedias, Preface) admits that the Gospels “do not go back to the first century of the Christian era”
    – (Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. vi, p. 137, pp. 655-6).

    This statement conflicts with priesthood assertions that the earliest Gospels were progressively written during the decades following the death of the Gospel Jesus Christ.

    In a remarkable aside, the Church further admits that,
    “the earliest of the extant manuscripts [of the New Testament], it is true, do not date back beyond the middle of the fourth century AD”
    – (Catholic Encyclopedia, op. cit., pp. 656-7).

    There are millions of undetected and undetectable gods, goddesses and god-men among which the originally Canaanite god “Yahweh” and Roman’s god-man “Jesus” appear nothing unique, original or special and there is no evidence of the existence of any of the millions of undetected and undetectable gods, goddesses and god-men among which the originally Canaanite god “Yahweh” and Roman’s god-man “Jesus” appear nothing special.

    It’s not that we atheists pretend to know that any particular god does not exist. We observe there is no evidence of the existence of any gods, goddesses and god-men, (including the one(s) you fail to justify or excuse) and simply do not pretend to “know” that any of the millions of undetected and undetectable gods do exist.

    Christians are often baffled how atheists could deny the existence of their originally Canaanite god, “Yahweh” and Roman god-man “Jesus”, but they really shouldn’t be. Christians deny thousands of the very same undetectable and undetected gods, goddesses and god-men that atheists deny. Atheists just deny one more god than Christians do (or is that three gods and countless demigod “Cherubim” “angels”, “saints” and other ridiculous imaginary assorted beings, maybe?).

    It’s not that we atheists are “anti” any of the many millions of gods and goddesses that have been invented by men to gain power and wealth for themselves down the ages. We simply do not believe in any and all of them. I wonder if any unreconstructed religionists are “anti” Zeus, Odin, Apollo, Quetzalcoatl, Pratibhanapratisamvit, (Buddhist goddess of context analysis), Acat, (Mayan god of tattoo artists). Or Tsa’qamae, north american god of salmon migration, or any of the millions of other undetectable and undetected totally imaginary deities among which the Judaeo/christian gods appear nothing special and about which there is nothing unique or original? Some religionists accuse atheists of hating their god but hating an imaginary entity would appear as ridiculous as believing in it.

    Atheists and religionists are not so different, after all! Let us celebrate our vast agreement on the non-existence of millions of undetected and undetectable gods and other hypothetical and imaginary beings!

    As for any of the many diverse and different creation myths (including the two contradictory creation myths in GEN 1 and GEN 2)? There is nothing that the science of cosmology has discovered that corresponds to any of the myths that were invented by ignorant ancient barbarians.

    The infinite 13,820,000,000 year old universe has been measured and inspected and we have images of the hot dense young universe as it was shortly after it emerged and started the rapid and accelerating expansion we observe and continue to measure today.
    We understand the material evolution of the universe and accept the growing mountain of evidence that confirms the fact of 4,000,000,000 years of past, current and ongoing biological evolution of life on Earth.

    The alternative to understanding science and accepting the fact of evolution is not creationism – it is ignorance and superstition.

  • rationalobservations?

    Any blanket dismissal of evolution ignores important distinctions that divide the field into at least two broad areas: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution looks at changes within species over time—changes that may be preludes to speciation, the origin of new species. Macroevolution studies how taxonomic groups above the level of species change. Its evidence draws frequently from the fossil record and DNA comparisons to reconstruct how various organisms may be related.

    These days even most creationists acknowledge that microevolution has been upheld by tests in the laboratory (as in studies of cells, plants and fruit flies) and in the field (as in the Grants’ studies of evolving beak shapes among Galpagos finches). Natural selection and other mechanisms—such as chromosomal changes, symbiosis and hybridization—can drive profound changes in populations over time.

    The historical nature of macroevolutionary study involves inference from fossils and DNA rather than direct observation. Yet in the historical sciences (which include astronomy, geology and archaeology, as well as evolutionary biology), hypotheses can still be tested by checking whether they accord with physical evidence and whether they lead to verifiable predictions about future discoveries. For instance, evolution implies that between the earliest known ancestors of humans (roughly five million years old) and the appearance of anatomically modern humans (about 200,000 years ago), one should find a succession of hominin creatures with features progressively less apelike and more modern, which is indeed what the fossil record shows. But one should not—and does not—find modern human fossils embedded in strata from the Jurassic period (65 million years ago). Evolutionary biology routinely makes predictions far more refined and precise than this, and researchers test them constantly.

    Evolution could be disproved in other ways, too. If we could document the spontaneous generation of just one complex life-form from inanimate matter, then at least a few creatures seen in the fossil record might have originated this way. If superintelligent aliens appeared and claimed credit for creating life on Earth (or even particular species), the purely evolutionary explanation would be cast in doubt. But no one has yet produced such evidence.

    There is no evidence that suggests that evolution is losing adherents among the educated, scholars or the mainstream scientific community. Pick up any issue of a peer-reviewed biological journal, and you will find articles that support and extend evolutionary studies or that embrace evolution as a fundamental concept.

    Conversely, serious scientific publications disputing evolution are all but nonexistent. In the mid-1990s George W. Gilchrist, then at the University of Washington, surveyed thousands of journals in the primary literature, seeking articles on intelligent design or creation science. Among those hundreds of thousands of scientific reports, he found none. Surveys done independently by Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University and Lawrence M. Krauss, now at Arizona State University, were similarly fruitless.

    Creationists retort that a closed-minded scientific community rejects their evidence. Yet according to the editors of Nature, Science and other leading journals, few antievolution manuscripts are even submitted. Some antievolution authors have published papers in serious journals. Those papers, however, rarely attack evolution directly or advance creationist arguments; at best, they identify certain evolutionary problems as unsolved and difficult (which no one disputes). In short, creationists are not giving the scientific world good reason to take them seriously.

    Evolutionary biologists passionately debate diverse topics: how speciation happens, the rates of evolutionary change, the ancestral relationships of birds and dinosaurs, whether Neandertals were a species apart from modern humans, and much more. These disputes are like those found in all other branches of science. Acceptance of evolution as a factual occurrence and a guiding principle is nonetheless universal in biology.

    Unfortunately, dishonest creationists have shown a willingness to take scientists’ comments out of context to exaggerate and distort the disagreements. Anyone acquainted with the works of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University knows that in addition to co-authoring the punctuated-equilibrium model, Gould was one of the most eloquent defenders and articulators of evolution. (Punctuated equilibrium explains patterns in the fossil record by suggesting that most evolutionary changes occur within geologically brief intervals—which may nonetheless amount to hundreds of generations.)

  • No one here, or in the article I cite from the NY Times, is dismissing evolution. Your copy-and-paste job is totally irrelevant.

  • This has absolutely nothing to do with the topic here. Check out the Shem Commandments, particularly the one that prohibits the consumption of low-hanging fruit: “There’s no God, species evolve, let’s move on.”

    Take your self-infatuated rants elsewhere.

  • rationalobservations?

    Still copping out and running away from any serious discussions of that which confounds all religionists, Shem.
    Shame on you my friend.
    Your nonsense and therefore your rules….

  • You didn’t post anything that represented serious discussion on this topic. You just copy-and-pasted rhetoric that we’ve seen a million times.

    I doubt you could even engage with the subject of this post. This has to do with an actual scientific controversy and the network of opposing interests and approaches that define it. Ranting about creationists is more your speed.

  • S.M. Stirling

    I detect the distressed cries of those invested in a shattered paradigm. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that there was a strong element of ‘Lysenkoism’ in the dominant school of interpretation for the last few generations. The sheer horror displayed at the thought of previously banished ideas resurfacing powerfully reinforces this.

    The work of Reich and others in ancient DNA is demonstrating fairly incontrovertibly that yes, migrations do occur and are a major historical motor; and therefore yes, sometimes — quite often in fact — pots do mean people. Not in every case, but often enough that the anti-migrationist orthodoxy visibly distorts the record simply because its partisans don’t like the implications of admitting otherwise.

    The arguments against this were always shady — they required, for a beginning, believing that somehow historical causation became radically different the moment there were no literate observers. And that the radical difference, by some astonishing coincidence, agreed with the political, cultural, and institutional needs and preferences of those making it.

    So for example it can now be demonstrated that in Britain the arrival of the Beaker pots was indeed the product of a new population — and one which replaced the previous one with astonishing thoroughness, and which can be traced to a specific area.

    The previous neolithic population simply… ceased, for the most part, to have descendants visible in the record. And every increase in sample size reinforces this deduction, with none of it contradicting the thesis.

    How this happened is not yet clear; however, I seriously doubt that confronted with the cool, superior ceramic decorations of the newcomers the previous Neolithics decided on mass suicide and all swallowed hemlock or slit their wrists with their flint knives. That’s scarcely the most parsimonious explanation, no?

    Or I suppose one could argue that it’s -entirely a coincidence- that the genetic turnover, from a source population that already exhibited that material culture, resulted in the change in styles in Britain.

    The Vanatu paper is, so far, based on a much smaller sample size. But the size is increasing, and each new data-set supports the initial findings, and none contradict them.

    Falling back on complaints about sample size or casting political aspersions are the mark of a defensive crouch by a weak argument.

    Somewhere in Archaeologist’s Valhalla, Gordon Childe and Marija Gimbutas… and yes, Kossina… are smiling. They haven’t been proven absolutely right, but they’ve been demonstrated to be “more right” than their successors.

  • Sorry your post got stuck in the spam filter. I’ve been traveling for a couple of weeks and haven’t been checking the admin panel.

    Thanks for the contribution!