A preview review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

So I read the final version of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. It’s good. You can finally set aside The History and Geography of Human Genes, though with the rate of change in the field of ancient DNA I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a major revision of Who We Are and How We Got Here in two to four years.

I’m writing up a full reaction for National Review Online, so I’m not going to say too much here in specifics. And, since the book is still not out for a bit over a week I think it would be kind of rude of me to spill the beans on anything too juicy (though if you read this blog closely there won’t be any huge reveals).

So let me say something in the generality first. I’ve told the story of my friend Barry* before. Barry is a smart guy. He has a Ph.D. in the physical sciences from an eminent university in the Boston area. Barry works as a senior research engineer at a major semiconductor firm. Barry is interested in many things about the world. In 2011 I mentioned in passing to Barry over dinner that researchers had published in Science last year the fact that most humans alive today carry appreciable Neanderthal DNA. Barry was shocked. This was news to him. When I expressed shock that someone like Barry would be ignorant of this fact, Barry suggested perhaps I needed to expand my horizons as to the nature of things that the typical educated and interested person knows about science at any given time. That’s fair enough.

Someone like Barry is a perfect audience for Who We Are and How We Got Here. Barry hasn’t taken much biology, so the review of concepts such as recombination (even if the author doesn’t use that word) and mutation are useful. But more importantly, Who We Are and How We Got Here catches someone like Barry up to the state-of-the-art knowledge that we have in terms of human history, deep and prehistoric.

But it’s not just Barry. I’ve talked to plenty of people who work in evolutionary genomics who are not totally up-to-speed on the ancient DNA revolution. They too would benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here front to back. I know people who work in the field of cultural evolution, who would also benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here. I know behavior geneticists who would benefit from reading  Who We Are and How We Got Here. And so forth.

If you can’t find it in yourself to read 200-page supplements top to bottom, Who We Are and How We Got Here also is what you need.

Last summer I had the pleasure of having lunch with the author of Who We Are and How We Got Here, David Reich. If you read the prose it’s hard not to hear his precise and careful words echoing in your mind. Who We Are and How We Got Here is not rich with the same stylistic flourish and engagement as one might find in a popularization by Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins. And I don’t think that was its intent, judging by how much space is given over to the four-population test! This is a serious book that is earnest in focusing on the substance of the science first, second, and last.

David expressed his discomfort with the opportunity cost that writing this book entailed for him when we spoke. While focusing on the book for the past few years he hasn’t had much time to do original analysis himself. His body language indicated the deep discomfort this caused him, and in Who We Are and How We Got Here he admits frankly that devoting himself to the book resulted in him not performing many analyses and publishing many papers.

One reason to write Who We Are and How We Got Here is that a book will reach outside the circle of those consuming and participating in the ancient DNA revolution. And a revolution it is! David Reich is already a highly eminent academic by any measure.  Who We Are and How We Got Here will do nothing to elevate his standing among his peers, because amongst them his stature is measured by the scientific papers published and projects in which he is involved.

So why make the sacrifice and write this book? Let me quote David Reich himself:

…I finally thank several people who repeatedly encouraged me to write this book. I resisted the idea for years because I did not want to distract myself from the science, and because for geneticists papers are the currency, not books. But my mind changed as my colleagues grew to include archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and others eager to come to grips with the ancient DNA revolution.

I would expand the purview here more broadly: all public intellectuals should know about the human past in its fullness. It’s a shadow that hangs over us and frames our arguments about the present. How we came to be where we are matters unless you are the most clinical of logicians. If you are Gilbert Ryle, turn away!

In Who We Are and How We Got Here Reich recounts an encounter with an impudent undergraduate at MIT who wondered at the end of a lecture how it was he got funding for his abstruse projects. He responded with the standard pitch that goes into NIH grant proposals, that to understand human disease, one must also understand human population structure, and to understand human population structure it helps to understand human population history. After recollecting this anecdote Reich observes that he wishes he had responded differently. He concludes:

The study of the human past-as of art, music, literature, or cosmology-is vital because it makes us aware of aspects of our common condition that are profoundly important that we heretofore never imagined.

To me, this goes back to the Greek distinction of techne vs. telos. Science as an instrument in expanding the limits of human longevity and health is important, but it is not the only thing that science is capable of. If we turn science into pure instrument, we lose something essential and integral in its purpose.

These are old, ancient, universal disagreements. In ancient China, there were groups of philosophers who outlined a vision that had little use for the fripperies of the past. Legalists who wished to turn the whole society into an instrument of production and power, for whom techne was prominent. The Legalists expressed a cold calculating face of practicality and instrumentality, but the universal altruists who followed Mozi ultimately had some of the same inclinations. How could men make merry with music when there was still suffering in the world? Shouldn’t nonproductive cultural practices be curtailed before we achieve the Utopia of plentitude?

Because the disciplines of Confucius won the ancient culture wars the Legalists and Mohists are remembered as crass caricatures. But the Confucian respect and reverence for accumulated human wisdom, the customs, and folkways of the past, were wise, insofar as a Confucian system persisted in China for over 2,000 years.** They gelled with deep human dispositions.

If we are to view human beings more than production and consumption machines shackled to the modern capitalist hedonic treadmill, then we need to consider the past as part of who we are. It is part of the treasury of human existence, which is more than just feelings of the present, but echoes down through the generations, through family lines, and cultures, and even in our genes. Humans without root float freely, but they are never truly free.

* I’m changing names, though if you know me from college or know me personally, you know who I’m talking about.

** Obviously this is a coarse generalization, one could argue that Legalism was laundered through State Confucianism!


4 thoughts on “A preview review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

  1. This sounds right up my alley. There’s not a lot of non-fiction I buy these days in book form that isn’t some kind of history.

  2. This preview of a review has sold me. I may not be as smart as Barry* but definitely just as ignorant of genetics and what it means for us in the past and present.

  3. To waffle somewhat on the thought provoking tangent of the Mohists and Legalists against Confucianism, I guess I would think based on my rough understanding (and their to some extent caricatured form) that, without dismissing your argument and while there is a contrast, all of these are philosophies which tend to be focused on the flourishing of the state and the success of the state. They formed in an environment in which questions were the questions of successful and unsuccessful states. Of course they have markedly different routes to that goal! But in pure unalloyed form each will perhaps always have something lacking in their provision for people to simply pursue science, art and knowledge without reference to whether that supports the state or society as a whole.

    I’d also think there’s an interesting point to be had that both philosophies offered emphasis on aspects that would eventually become strong points of Western civilization relative to Chinese.

    The Legalists offered a vision of a massive intensification of state organization and mobilization of resources and expanse of bureaucracy beneath the power of the executive, which Confucian visions for the role of the government tended to reject in favor of a more laissez-faire model of moral example and minimal governance. (Not least when actually funding the government required comproming on the moral and political authority of the “junzi” and the realisation of the idealised social order?)

    Mohism offered emphasis on a limited role for kin ties, and something resembling, if not individualism or legitimization for individuals to place emphasis on personal welfare and happiness, an emphasis on independent thought and innovation, and hence to channel individual aspiration to social/technological innovation (opposed to towards following social convention or the advancement of the kin group).

    But outside of the environment of the Warring States, where these philosophies offered an intellectual scaffold for the intensification of use of resources by the state and for innovation, and hence inter-state competition, the Chinese Dynasties didn’t have as much use for them. Once the competition between settled states ended, and once the pressure of waves of invasion from the steppe provided the right pressures to hold that empire together, what won out was an ideology that allowed that territory to remain culturally cohesive and simply draw resources from across its massive extent, whatever tendencies to perhaps be a bit maladapted to support intensification and innovation. I’m thinking of Confucianism as the “extensive, not intensive” ideology.

    (No doubt all this is debunked, or “Not even wrong”! E.g. as you mention in passing, how much of these philosophies were simply reborn under the auspices of Confucianism? But may as well throw it out there and see what sticks).


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