Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote a long piece in New York Times which is quite critical of the ancient DNA lab at Harvard led by David Reich. It has generated a lot of discussion and comments, themselves ranging from mildly to very critical – by Razib Khan, Steve Sailor, Greg Cochran, and others. The NYT article is not particularly well-written — too long and rambling, a lot of unnecessary details, flowery prose. Here’s how it starts:
A faint aura of destiny seems to hover over Teouma Bay. It’s not so much the landscape, with its ravishing if boilerplate tropical splendor — banana and mango trees, coconut and pandanus palms, bougainvillea, the apprehensive trill of the gray-eared honeyeater — as it is the shape of the harbor itself, which betrays, in the midst of such organic profusion, an aspect of the unnatural. The bay, on the island of Efate in the South Pacific nation Vanuatu, is long, symmetrical and briskly rectangular. In the expected place of wavelets is a blue so calm and unbroken that the sea doesn’t so much crash on the land as neatly abut it. From above, it looks as though a safe harbor had been engraved in the shoreline by some celestial engineer.
Nevertheless, I read the whole thing because it does raise a number of important issues. I’ll talk about two: the tension between general and particular and the issue of”oligopoly.”
On the first issue, Lewis-Kraus doesn’t hide where his sympathies lie. Here’s how he characterizes the two alternative 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 am obviously on the other side of the barricades, as I am keenly interested in understanding general principles explaining the evolution and dynamics of human societies. But, more broadly, I argue that the whole dichotomy is false. Human societies are very diverse, and in any particular instance — state formation in Java, imperial collapse in Italy — such events are a result of an interaction between particular factors, specific to the locality and time, and general processes of state formation and dissolution. Both the diversity and general principles are interesting and worth of study. In fact, the Seshat project does both. We document the differences between past societies in different places and different times, and then capitalize on this variability to test theories about general principles underlying the evolution of complex societies.
Perpetuating this false dichotomy, in fact, harms our collective enterprise of studying and understanding history, which is best done by a collaboration between specialists and generalists (as we practice in the Seshat project).
On the second issue, oligopoly, my take is less critical. A good nuanced discussion is by Razib Khan. See also this twitter thread. I agree that it has a potential to become a real problem. But whatever we do, we don’t want to harm the good thing we already have. Thanks to the mega-labs, like Reich’s, we are making extraordinary progress in making ancient DNA data available for the students of the past.
I am on the “data consumer” side of the equation, and so I want the data to be published as soon as possible, and to be as easily available, as they can be. Full disclosure: I am currently in discussion with several members of the Reich Lab that may lead to a collaboration, which will combine our cultural data in Seshat with aDNA data (I’ll write about the project in this blog soon). Last summer I wrote to David and his colleagues and they quickly and positively responded. The Harvard group appears to be genuinely interested in expanding their research focus from just genetic data to how aDNA results fit with other kinds of data.
What we need is not to nurture resentment (which the NYT article seems to do), but to work together. Because there are so many gaps in data about past societies, whether it’s genes, pots, languages, or institutions, we need a “totalizing” approach to history, which brings together everything we know about past societies. Only with such an approach we will be able to interpolate between the small islands of light and figure out what happened in the rest of the dark ocean of human history (see my previous post on a similar problem).