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Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (David Reich)


Welcome to The Worthy House, where we offer
reality-focused writings on a variety of topics, but often on history, politics, and, in general,
on human flourishing in a post-liberal future. I am Charles, the Maximum Leader
of The Worthy House. Today we are reviewing “Who We Are and How
We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past,” by David Reich. We have all heard of the fad for DNA ancestry
testing. Being a paranoid, I haven’t joined the crowd,
because all testing companies are happy to hand over the results to the police, and what
if I need to keep quiet some heinous crime I commit where I leave my DNA behind? Not to mention, what those tests claim to
reveal about you is limited, in many cases, by inadequate comparison data, which the companies
fill in with lies. But that lack of comparison data is swiftly
being remedied, both in the present, and in the past, which is the topic of this book. David Reich is a prominent scientist in the
field of ancient DNA. This means that he and his colleagues collect
DNA from skeletons around the world and then slice-and-dice the data to figure who moved
where from where in prehistory-and to divide people into identifiable and distinguishable
groups. It is this latter enterprise that is fraught
with political peril, since if groups of humans are distinguishable on a genetic basis, then
it may appear that we are not all one big happy human family. Reich therefore threads the needle, with mixed
success. He has no doubt that groups of humans differ
in many important ways-but those aren’t necessarily the ways we think. His key point in the entire book is that all
human populations are mixtures, frequently of groups we would not expect, and so theories
based on the supposed historical purity of an ethnic group are inherently silly. Whether that keeps him out of controversy,
we will see in this review. Reich begins with a fairly detailed description
of the history and practice of DNA testing of samples from dead people. Nobody will ever accuse Reich of sparkling
prose, but he competently transmits to the reader the relevant information, which is
very interesting if you pay attention. Numerous very well-done maps and other visual
aids complement the dense text. This science is surprisingly recent-all in
the past ten years, and most of it in the past five. Thus, one of Reich’s frequently repeated points
is how fast the field is changing and how the amount of data available is exponentially
increasing. This does not change his conclusions, but
does suggest that refinement and ever-more-narrow focus will be possible when examining human
history through DNA (and, of course, that commercial DNA testing of live people will
be more accurate in its results). True, the author overstates the importance
of his own project, which vanity is natural, I suppose. He tells us that grasping the precise differences
between Neanderthals and humans, for example, will “take an evolutionary Manhattan Project.” That doesn’t sound like a great use of resources,
since last I looked into it the Neanderthals had all checked out. But Reich instead concludes “This Manhattan
Project of human evolutionary biology is one to which we as a species should commit ourselves. . . . I expect that the findings will be so complicated
. . . that few people will find the answer comprehensible.” Still, this “scientific question is profoundly
important.” Why? Beats me. Reich doesn’t tell us. Anyway, the key scientific point is that all
DNA contains mutations, and by comparing the resulting differences in sequences of DNA,
it is possible both to group human populations and to roughly calculate at which point they
diverged from a common ancestor. By this means a type of family tree can be
constructed. Thus, for example, it is relatively easy to
show not only that populations in Africa diverged from populations outside Africa about 50,000
years ago (the “out of Africa” hypothesis, now proven), but also that those outside passed
through a “population bottleneck” reducing diversity, while populations in Africa never
faced such a bottleneck, and therefore have more genetic diversity. (Actually, there were multiple bottlenecks-the
Finns, for example, are subject to a variety of unique genetic diseases, since all are
descended from two men about 3,000 years ago.) Tree, though, according to Reich, is the wrong
metaphor. It is more like a trellis, as human populations
combined and recombined over time, creating a tangled web of ancestry. Reich spends quite a bit of time on how we
became human-that is, homo sapiens as opposed to homo neanderthalensis or one of the other
proto-human lineages. The common perception is that that there was
a magic switch, perhaps not due to a large black alien monolith, but still some sudden
change that enabled human language and tool usage, distinguishing us not only from animals,
but from all our ancestors. Although this is not a focus of his book,
Reich says that this is unlikely, since the most recent shared common ancestor of all
modern humans was about 320,000 years ago, and the “switch” was about 70,000 years ago. Thus, different groups must have “switched”
independently. As Reich points out, while groups of humans
differ predictably and genetically on many traits, from eye color to height, it has become
clear that in most cases a large number of genes each contribute to each trait, suggesting
that a simple tale of natural selection for a particular gene is not accurate (although
it is for some traits, such as selection for lactose tolerance). For that reason, at least as far as we can
tell, there is no one single gene that enabled us to leap beyond all our ancestors. Since everybody wants to know, Reich talks
about sex with Neanderthals. Yes, they interbred with humans. Not all humans. Reich claims that “non-African genomes today
are around 1.5 to 2.1 percent Neanderthal in origin,” a percentage that has declined
linearly over time, something Reich attributes in part to hybrids potentially having reduced
fertility. (African genomes contain zero Neanderthal
genes, since only the populations that left Africa interacted with the Neanderthals.) The Neanderthals weren’t the only “archaic
humans,” though. DNA has shown evidence of more, including
the Denisovans (from DNA found in Russia) and the Flores Island “hobbits.” (And I see in the news today that an entirely
new one was just discovered in the Philippines). Again, the lineage of these other archaic
humans can be traced-those modern humans with the most Denisovan ancestry, for example,
are found only in New Guinea, the same place where modern humans have the most Neanderthal
ancestry, as it happens. In some ways this is the tip of the iceberg,
because, Reich tells us, the DNA data shows evidence of “ghost populations”-precursor
archaic populations of whom no skeletons have been found, even farther back in the human
family tree. The evidence suggests it is possible, for
example, that humans left Africa more than a million years ago, and sometime before 300,000
years ago returned to Africa, then left again in the migration we are more familiar with. Reich is certain this and many other puzzles
will soon be solved, and he’s probably right. In all his analysis, Reich doesn’t rely only
on DNA, fortunately-he ties in other archaeological data, and to the extent feasible, linguistic
data. At the same time, he gives DNA primacy, gleefully
pointing out various instances in which, he says, DNA has overturned received wisdom based
on archaeology. Among these are the destruction of Nicholas
Dirks’s claim that caste endogamy in India was a creation of British rule. Instead, the DNA shows ultra-strict caste
endogamy, even within very narrow caste subgroups, has existed for thousands of years (although,
naturally, Reich feels he has to virtue signal, noting “I find restrictions on marriage discomfiting,”
even though nobody asked him, and nobody cares what his personal opinions are). Reich focuses a good deal on Eurasia, trying
to trace the movements of peoples, and in particular focusing on the relationship of
farming to different identifiable groups, noting that farming spread in part by groups
replacing other groups, and partially by cultural transmission or local invention. In Europe, populations were repeatedly swept
aside by others-for example, the genetics embodied by the builders of Stonehenge, around
3500 B.C., were within a thousand years nearly totally replaced by those with Eurasian steppe
ancestry, the Bell Beaker people. And somewhat later, the Corded Ware people,
both a culture and an identifiable genetic group, came from the steppes and replaced
much of the European population in the second millennium B.C. This question of the relative importance of
replacement and cultural transmission in the movement of technology is fraught, since ever
since the nineteenth century brought us scientific racism, various proponents of racial purity
have claimed that their ancestors replaced inferior peoples, as shown by the spread of
technology, and therefore they are better and more deserving. Reich notes that the reaction to this line
of thought has improperly elevated the importance of mere cultural transmission, or, put more
accurately, politicized science and eroded its reliability. And, in fact, he says that German co-authors
on papers of his have resigned as authors, afraid that the DNA evidence supports German
racial theorists (pre-Nazi ones, but still). For all the fascination in this, Reich loses
the plot when he tries to stretch his narrative beyond his competence. Some of this is simple political correctness-Reich
consistently uses the annoying and inaccurate term “Native American” instead of the more
accurate, and normally used in anthropology (at least until recently-I’m not sure now),
term of “American Indian.” Reich kowtows to the ideology behind this
propaganda repeatedly, probably because Indian tribal demands to veto harvesting and use
of genetic data are a real problem for him getting the data he wants. Thus, we get abasement like “There is also
an awareness that some scientists have studied Native Americans to learn about questions
of interest primarily to non-Native Americans, without paying attention to the interests
of Native Americans themselves.” Well, yes. Why would it be different? On the other hand, when your studies involve
tearing apart the skeletons of a tribe’s ancestors so you can get at the richest source of DNA,
a bone in the inner ear, I have a lot of sympathy for horrified Indian elders. We also get dumb statements like “the last
five hundred years have witnessed repeated cases in which people of European ancestry
have exploited the indigenous peoples of the Americas using the toolkit of Western science.” I’m not sure what those “cases” are, since
none are named, though perhaps by “exploiting” he means the West blessing the natives with
our toolkit of antibiotics and anesthetics. Reich also offers examples, fortunately only
a few, of atrocious history. Most notably, he repeatedly cites the totally
discredited 1950s anthropologist Marija Gimbutas, whose fantasy of a wholly imaginary female-led,
pacifist early European culture is the stuff of comedy. (Among other silliness, she claimed that images
of young girls and bulls in Minoan Crete depicted a game where happy girls jumped over bulls
as part of their training in the matriarchy. What they actually showed, as real archaeologists
proved, was virgins being sacrificed by being thrown to wild bulls.) Gimbutas also believed that Neolithic Eurasian
cultures were peaceful, another joke disproven by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization,
although weirdly, still desperately believed by many. None of this really detracts from the book,
but when Reich sticks to hard science, his book is a lot better. No doubt mixtures are what all humans are. Reich makes that very clear, with no wiggle
room. What causes Reich his first problem is how
those mixtures came about. Namely, often by conquest, and his data repeatedly
confirms legends of conquest, most notably in the subjugation of the Dravidic peoples
of India by people from the North, just as the Rig Veda claims. Reich tries to soften this, aware of the Nazi
focus on the spread of Indo-European language by “Aryans,” and the current conflicts in
India over these matters, but the facts are what the facts are, and those line up with
the legends. Trying to avoid the hate patrol, he says “we
groped toward a formulation that would be scientifically accurate as well as sensitive
to these issues” of “cultural resonance.” Ha ha. Nicely put. So they slapped fresh labels on the relevant
people, calling the invaders “Ancestral North Indians” and the conquered people “Ancestral
South Indians,” said they were all mixed up in the modern era, and called it a day. Ah, but how did they get “all mixed up”? That’s where Reich’s second problem shows
up. This, not discredited racial theories of pure
group descent, is where Reich gets himself tied in knots. It’s easy enough to disprove racial theories,
or rather racial group origin theories, since it’s now easy to prove that human populations
repeatedly mix, and as I say Reich does so, covering all the continents. But the mixing isn’t uniform. Reich is just shocked, shocked, to find that
two things are true. First, when populations mix, usually a very
small number of men from Population A, the invaders, have the most children. Second, the women of Population B all give
it up only to men from Population A, so the genetic material of the men of Population
B mostly disappears. This is true, among other places, in India,
Latin America, and among descendants of those conquered by the Mongols. Who could have guessed? Not Reich, who maunders on and on about how
this shows “inequality” and that most dread of maladies, “sexual dominance.” He also name-checks “sex bias” and “sexual
inequality.” Welcome to the real world, where absent an
opposing moral code biology dictates human action and strong men get the women, many
and often. This isn’t a “genetic scar,” it’s how the
world works. And it’s a bit much for a geneticist to demand
“struggle” against the “demon” of “sexual inequality” because it is an “ennobling behavior”;
it may be, but on what basis an atheist materialist like Reich claims that, I have no idea. (Looking at Reich’s picture, one imagines
that he doesn’t think he’d come out among Population A’s winning alpha males, which
may account for his snippy reaction to reality. Unlike me-I look like the Kurgan in Highlander.) And for his pièce de résistance, Reich faces,
but then tries to slip by, his biggest problem. That is that racial mixing doesn’t obviate
his other finding, that as of today there are distinct populations, by which Reich means
“races,” and those populations have very different genetic characteristics. He admits that to say “race is a social construct”
is just a total falsehood, and the work of people like Richard Lewontin purporting to
show that groups cannot be legitimately distinguished has been totally falsified. The logical next question is what the differences
mean for the perceptible characteristics of those populations. Some are merely cosmetic, but are there others? Certainly there are-Reich himself notes many,
such as height, tolerance of high altitudes, and so forth. How about others, such as general intelligence? This is the third rail of genetic research,
though, understandably. True, the modern groups discerned by DNA testing
don’t line up with the old racial groupings, or at least not completely, due to the extensive
mixing in relatively recent history that Reich documents. But the visceral reaction against these types
of claims usually prevents any admission of them. It even prevents wholly legitimate medical
research that might be of profound help to some population groups. Reich narrates various demands to censor his
and others’ genetic research, among other things citing a Northwestern political scientist
who is demanding that Congress pass a law banning the publication of any federally-funded
research (i.e., almost all of it) that even mentions “genetics associated with variables
of race, ethnicity, nationality, or any other category of population that is observed or
imagined as heritable.” I personally find it of little importance
or interest if different races differ as to intelligence, though no doubt general intelligence
correlates with individual success in the modern world. Like Thomas Sowell, I suppose I’m open to
the idea that different races have different characteristics such as intelligence; I just
don’t care that much. First, I do not think a flourishing society
can take an instrumentalist view of human beings, reducing them to their capacities
on a set of defined traits. I therefore agree with Reich that whatever
the differences, “If we aspire to treat all individuals with respect regardless of the
extraordinary differences that exist among individuals within a population, it should
not be so much more of an effort to accommodate the smaller but still significant average
differences among populations.” The flaw in applying Reich’s reasoning, though,
is that it doesn’t appeal to our modern society, which is inherently instrumentalist, since
it has abandoned any coherent moral code at the same time it abandoned religion. I also agree with Reich that every person
should be given “every chance to succeed”-although that does imply that some groups will then
potentially succeed at greater rates than others. In practice, then, it becomes a question of
what, if anything, is to be done to alleviate inequalities across groups potentially resulting
from genetic differences. Second, as to any given society, even if the
average intelligence of that society were found to be lower than another, for whatever
reason, it would still have enough highly intelligent people to run the society as well
as any human society has ever been run-if the society has the right culture, able to
get everyone, even the less intelligent or less able on whatever measure is relevant,
to pull the society along together. Unfortunately, most cultures in human history
have been pretty crap, a few have been mediocre, and only one, the Christendom of the West,
has ever been excellent (and it’s mostly gone now, with the West now running on fumes, so
those in Europe complaining about Muslims swamping Europe are, in large part, barking
up the wrong tree). Reich, though, flails. He tries to establish his “I’m not a racist”
bona fides by attacking Nicholas Wade, the only major popular author in recent years
to suggest that heritable genetic characteristics created the success of the West, in part by
correlation of desirable genetic traits to “Caucasians.” Wade’s is a pretty mild point, in essence
that superior social institutions were the result of small genetic differences, and those
social institutions made the difference, which is impossible to argue, though the origin
of superior social institutions is open to question. Now, I had my quibbles about Wade’s book,
but Reich tries to have it both ways, saying that Wade “combines compelling content with
parts that are entirely speculative,” and “he does not identify any serious scholarship
in genetics supporting his conclusions.” But Wade’s point is that, as Reich himself
summarizes, “a politically correct alliance of anthropologists and geneticists has banded
together to suppress the truth that there are significant differences among human populations.” Given that Reich says the same thing, though
not quite so baldly, and that Reich is the type of person Wade thinks should be doing
the “serious scholarship,” yet he makes very clear he has no intention of doing so, one
can’t really complain that Wade doesn’t prove his points. Wade relies heavily on Gregory Clark, whom
Reich also tries to whack in passing. Clark suggests the possibility that the English
developed genes for thrift, hard work, and patience, which helped them outrace the rest
of the world and escape the Malthusian Trap in the Industrial Revolution. Reich points out that “transmission of culture”
could explain the same thing. Which is entirely true-but it suggests some
cultures are superior to others, something I am sure Reich knows he cannot openly maintain
and keep his job. I can, though, and I suspect that culture
is everything, and intelligence relatively little. Reich, finally, tells some anecdotes that
cast James Watson in a creepy light, but flunks his response to Watson’s claim that “African
intelligence” (not a unitary thing by any means, as Reich proves) is lower than “ours”
because that’s what “all the testing says.” This claim seems dubious to me, but Reich’s
rebuttal is that “No genetic evidence for this claim exists.” Watson’s claim, though, is obviously not about
genetic testing, which does not measure intelligence, but intelligence tests, which do, so this
isn’t much of a rebuttal. Reich is on somewhat more compelling ground
when he ascribes, at least as a possibility, the dominance of West Africans in sprinting
competitions to a higher standard deviation, that is, higher genetic diversity, than among
Europeans (though he does not relate this to average ability in sprinting, which perhaps
can’t be reliably measured, but is critical to such an analysis, and in other places the
center of Reich’s analysis). Such differences in standard deviation are
known to explain why there are many more male geniuses (and imbeciles) than females (despite
desperate attempts to pretend this is not true, yet another example of the corruption
of science). Reich, at least, is very clear that truly
enormous genetic differences separate men and women, although he doesn’t mention standard
deviation, aware that this data is busy being suppressed because it explains why men have
always made nearly all the spectacular intellectual accomplishments in human history, and always
will, at least if “spectacular” is judged by reality, not by hope and dreams. Reich is concerned that these political matters
will hamper his scientific research, his “Manhattan Project.” He’s probably right to be concerned, but since
this is a global effort (Reich gives full credit to his many collaborators), that’s
unlikely to hold the science back-though it may hold Reich back. He’s also probably right to fear the resulting
data will be mis-used in these conflict-ridden, atomized times, especially if those groups
currently demonized by identity politics start organizing on the basis of identity, like
others are encouraged to do, since no contradiction can exist indefinitely. He’s not responsible for that, though, and
his book is an interesting read simply for the science.

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