A Critique of Ancient DNA research in New York Times

Peter Turchin


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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).

Image credit: A DNA analyst sands a bone sample to remove surface contaminants before grinding it into a fine powder and extracting its DNA.


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Gene Anderson

Yes. Agree. Reich has sounded off prematurely and “ex cathedra” too much for my taste, though. I think he should stick to getting the data and getting it out.

Joe Manning

Precisely on point Peter, and timely. Just finished reading the piece too. The progress in the field is extraordinary and invisibly fundamentally important. There are dangers to mega centers diminishing and mistakes get made- clearly true in the ice core science worked in the last couple of years. But fundamental truths do emerge. Teamwork!


Ice core science mistakes? Off-topic, but could you please post a helpful URL?

Joe manning

“Obviously” came out as “invisibly” in authocorrect. Apologies.

Ross Hartshorn

I also enjoyed Reich’s book, and he is pretty clear in it about how the science is new and subject to later revision. I believe that it is probably not possible to avoid completely the twin issues of not explaining to the general public what it all means (and thus leaving that to people who don’t understand the science very well), or else explaining “too early” and having to revise later. Given the large gap in science understanding between the specialist and the general public, I appreciate when someone in the field, doing actual work advancing the frontiers of what is known, takes the time to explain it to a layman like myself. Even if they may (will?) have to go back a decade later and amend some of that.

Ross Hartshorn

Probably, there is some manner of society attribute that determines how handsomely the first one gets rewarded, and how much early mistakes get criticized. “First mover’s advantage” vs. “Last mover’s advantage” (which is that you learn from the mistakes of others before you). It applies to much of business and software, as well. I’m guessing that in society’s where mistakes have led to crushing disasters in the recent past, there is less of a “first mover’s advantage”, and in society’s that have been prosperous longer, more.

You can add this to your ever-lengthening list of hypotheses to test, if it is not already there. The longer since a society has had a disaster bad enough to cause a substantial population drop, the more it will tend to reward innovation. Although I’m guessing that your list of hypotheses to test using Seshat is already quite long…

Peter van den Engel

I think it is far more dependend on momentum differentials, athough the same general laws are also reoccurrent.
It might be the longitude of an installed hierarchy works against/ and not for it, because as a result it will be perceived as inflexible and a too long postponed revision.

It also depends on its flexibillity. But very often a title can only speak out if its adopted singular discipline.
Like a religieus believer cannot adapt into an atheist/ and visa versa. It is not expected to speak otherwise.

steven t johnson

The close analysis of DNA sequences to show descent groups is highly complex statistical modeling. One does have to be careful in such analysis, especially given complex statistics afford so many opportunities for the arithmetically gifted to trick themselves and others. If old stories and ideas about descent are contradicted by any such analyses that stand up to further evidence and critical re-analysis should be modified or dropped.

That said, a lot of this is about the notions of racial superiority. The thing there is that the relevant genetic analysis is not DNA sequences, which are largely junk DNA. Junk DNA is so useful for such analysis precisely because it is junk, and doesn’t matter, therefore is not selected. What matters for racial analysis is the analysis of alleles, not junk DNA. There is currently no rational racial grouping of allele sets. Viewing any analysis of ancient DNA in racial terms is BS, from the start.

Also, the notion that Y chromosome analysis reveals a massive replacement of males of a local culture by outsider males implies conquest is reasonable. What is not in the least reasonable is the automatic, apparently unconscious assumption that means the replacement of the local culture. More or less by definition half the original people are still there. It is not at all clear that moving into a woman’s home means she starts living every aspect of her life the way the man does. And a fortiori the notion that intruding men won’t be acculturated by the local women, co-creators of a way of life, a culture, appropriate to the are, is absurd.

Pretty sure Khan, Sailer, Cochran are up in arms for the wrong reasons. As to Reich himself, I’m going to read his book, which I had never heard of before.

Ross Hartshorn

Yes, I recommend you read his book, it was quite interesting. One of his recurring themes is that:
1) races exist, but
2) they keep merging and new ones form, racial mixing is a normal part of human history

This is, of course, not the orthodoxy of any part of the political spectrum, but that doesn’t make it incorrect (actually it makes it more likely to be correct, since there is no set of prior political biases that would lead you to that conclusion).

I fully agree that women do, and always have, had a role in determining the preserving the culture. But, when you see genetic evidence that all the males of a group died out, but the females did not, it doesn’t sound too much like a merging of cultures or a meeting of equals, does it? No doubt some traces of the culture will survive with those women, but it suggests a violent and literally rapacious conquest of one group by another.

This regarding release is much like a purging of the soul’s most inner concerns.
This can be implemented in two ways. Make regarding lights and torch
to examine any cracks or damages.

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