The ancient DNA oligopoly and the stories people tell about David Reich

There is a very long piece in The New York Times Magazine, Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?. It’s the talk of DNA-Twitter for obvious reasons. The very fact that you have a long piece in The New York Times Magazine on this topic means that David Reich is almost certainly going to made into something of a villain. The reason I say this is that these sort of narratives pitched to a general audience have to exhibit novelistic drama and plot, and so there are “spots” preexistent for both antagonists and protagonists. If the writer doesn’t create that narrative, the piece would probably never see the light of day. Who would read it?

So before the first pixel loaded, I knew:

1) David Reich was going to be the antagonist
2) And indigenous people, along with supporting archaeologists were going to be protagonists

This does not speak to whether this is “true” or not. It is simply how it was going to work out if the piece was ever going to be published because those are the elements of a story that would appeal to readers of The New York Times. This is a product strongly shaped by consumer demand.

One thing I want to address is a critique, expressed by some academics in the piece, that researchers in ancient DNA do not have the number of samples to make the generalizations that they make. This seems reasonable on the face of it, but one thing you have to consider is that when you obtain an individual’s DNA you get a window onto their whole pedigree. A single individual is actually a pedigree if you have its genome. A genome provides an enormous amount of data. It is an endpoint of a historical process of sexual reproduction that extends back many generations. This is how you can use a single whole genome to infer whole population histories. One of the consequences of humans being “evolutionarily young” is that we all bear the stamp of some common processes and events.

From a naive perspective, you can say things like “how do you know this person is related to other people in the area?” And taken in the aggregate there are cases where unrepresentative individuals will yield results that mislead researchers. But on the whole over the last decade or so these groups have developed certain intuitions and guidelines, and have been rather good at making inferences based on a few data rich individuals. They make mistakes. But most objections about the nature of the data are really unfounded (albeit, widespread).

Many of the aspects of the piece do ring true. There are only a few huge laboratories in the ancient DNA space which tend to hoover up samples and collaborators. I have a suspicion I know who this is: ‘One geneticist compared competing with the big labs to battling an entire navy ‘with a little dinghy, armed with a small knife.”‘ For Holocene period analysis, the two big players are the Reich group and that of Eske Willerslev (Johannes Krause is going to make a splash with Late Antiquity). Though Eske’s group is mentioned offhand, it is curious that he himself is not mentioned at all.

Young Eske

In many ways, Eske is a much more colorful figure than Reich, and many of the issues applicable to the work of the latter and his relationships with indigenous peoples and archaeologists apply to the former. But in the United States David Reich is a brand name to the general public that Eske is not, and there can be only one devil in the underworld. But from a narrative perspective, Reich presents less raw material. He is a soft-spoken and delicately built vegetarian computational biologist. Eske Willerslev is the scion of Vikings whose background is in fieldwork as an anthropologist. His autobiography, written in Danish, is apparently very colorful!

As a friend of mine is wont to say, “human geneticists have sharp elbows.” It’s a less collegial field than others because of the stakes, whether medical or historical and the glamor and publicity that it attracts. Academic science is one of the most feudal environments I have ever personally experienced, and human genetics perhaps even more so. A few large groups of collaborators with connected pedigrees share post-docs and promote each other’s work, and fund young researchers coming up through their network. Any researcher who crosses one of the lords of human genetics could be excluded from a whole patronage set, and sources of funding, as these networks populate the grant-review boards.

One aspect of David Reich’s op-ed in The New York Times is that it told me who truly had courage within the field. Though on the whole, I agree with much of the op-ed, those who vocally criticized it from within genetic science (as opposed to outside of it) showed themselves to have principle, because so many other people who would otherwise be loud and proud kept their mouths shut for fear of alienating David and people associated with him.

Then, there is the issue of science, and how Reich and others are doing it, and how it relates to indigenous groups. At some point, we need to take a step back and reflect on what science is about: it is about understanding the world, and disseminating that knowledge to the public. David Reich’s group has been instrumental in that process, transforming the field, and our understanding of the past. On the whole, they post their publications as preprints (or upload them to the lab website). Additionally, their software and data are also often public and widely distributed. Many of the key figures in the Reich lab are very accessible on Twitter or via email. I point this out because they are relatively transparent, and that is something that is often missing from these depictions of them as a powerful cabal because it diminishes the punch of the narrative.

The reality is in economics there are returns to scale, and these large ancient DNA laboratories are generating results as a commodity. For archaeologists and other researchers, this can cause problems. Instead of engaging in more independent work, they are faced with having to become part of a scientific machine. These are real problems of intellectual independence, even bondage, in this. If David or Eske come to a conclusion, and they are wrong, who is there to gainsay them? Life is about tradeoffs. But we shouldn’t ignore a positive aspect: these groups are pushing science out to the public very fast. We, the “consumers,” are benefiting. Contrast ancient DNA with the glacial rate of change in some parts of paleoanthropology, where a single researcher and a few initiates monopolize fossils for decades!

Finally, there is the issue concerning indigenous (and non-indigenous) sensitivities. These are real issues, but just because they exist does not mean they have necessary precedent. Years ago I remember the Creationist Duane Gish explaining that if you tell people they descend from animals, they will behave like animals. Large swaths of the American public are discomfited by evolutionary science, but that does not matter, because part of the nature of science is to tell society truths it does not want to hear. It seems that getting appropriate “buy-in” and “collaboration” from local communities in areas with colonial and exploitative history in relation to outside researchers is essential, difficult, and possible. But it is also the truth that scientists are almost certainly going to discover things that conflict with local oral history, just as common descent conflicts with Christian mythology.

If scientists do not work with indigenous people, then all that will result in ultimately is a lacuna about the histories of these people. Perhaps the world would be better for that, but I’m skeptical.

17 thoughts on “The ancient DNA oligopoly and the stories people tell about David Reich

  1. Media outlets like the NYT, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, whatever are in the advertising business. Their stories are slanted to maximize advertising revenue from their target audience. Truth/accuracy are secondary considerations, if considered at all.

    The sad reality is that most humans would rather have their preconceived notions reinforced, rather than have their minds opened.

  2. I wonder how this story would have read if they had chosen the BJP and the RSS, (the whole Airplanes in ancient India crowd) as protagonists.

  3. Thanks, Razib. Came straight here after reading the piece hoping you’d have something to say about it, and appreciate your perspective. And btw I am missing the insight podcast.

  4. This part made me lol:

    > But her paper was rejected by Nature. As far as she or many others could tell, the only difference between her conclusions and Reich’s were those of methods — hers old, theirs shiny and new — and rhetorical grandeur.

    Wow, who would have thought new methods will get you published in Nature and skull morphology won’t?

  5. So the Nazi / White Nationalist ancestry myth needed to be disproved at every facet, while the Vanuatu ancestry myths needed to be upheld … er, wait a sec, they had no myth about descent from the Lapita. On the contrary, the villagers maintained that the Lapita graves didn’t belong to their sacred ancestors … and instead of a holy myth, there a brand new Lapita postal stamp?
    I suppose that there is no genetic population research which wouldn’t put cracks into someone’s myth.

  6. 1. Really weird that Eske Willerslev is not mentioned by name. Maybe because he doesn’t fit the ‘evil scientist’ model in the narrative? My favourite photo of Willerslev is of him dressed in a natty tweed sports jacket, sitting on a rock at night around a campfire talking to some Aboriginal elders in a remote desert location in Australia. As much as I admire David Reich’s work and accomplishments, I can’t picture him doing that.

    2. Skull measurements – is NYT serious?

    3. Re. Vanuatu, of the two scenarios, given that modern Vanuatu populations are >90% Papuan ancestry but speak a plethora of Austronesian derived languages, slower more gradual replacement is the one that makes sense to me, rather than rapid replacement. In time scale there’s actually not a lot of difference between them.

  7. Like Macha I came here after reading the NYT article. I found your comments very insightful.

    I think it should be stressed that the DNA oligopoly is not just based on power that developed as a historic accident, but derives from scientific expertise. One little aspect is this. In his book Pääbo describes the decades-long struggle to refine the process of finding and extracting sufficiently clean DNA samples. That is extremely hard to do. Pääbo describes how other labs published results based on sloppy techniques, so that the results were not reliable, and how he was frustrated with this.

  8. It is naive to think that consumers demands create such content, because its this kind of biased propaganda which creates the political framework for a certain kind of social class. Rather they finance their own brainwashing, which is a great business model for those involved.
    Yet, under a lot of politicized rubbish, there is legitimate criticism.
    Because Reich et al have their own political preferences which shine through their pieces. A leftist tendency which tries to hide certain conclusions. But they dont forge fake pieces, state facts and their results are accountable. For the leftist mob, which has to be afraid of facts and reality since they created their house of lies, he is the devil who might tear down the dirty curtain by just stating the truth.

    Two criticisms I share with the article:
    Oligopols are rarely good, but I think its a matter of time anyway.
    To present new results as fast as possible is a good thing, but a rush to big conclusions from too little not always.
    Especially if the identity of the remains is disputed.
    Just think about foreign merchants, slaves and prisoners of war.

    But like written in the article: Such considerations are the job of the archaeologists and they should be happy for the additional pieces of evidence rather than crying around.
    Crybabies should have no place in serious science!

  9. Rota fortunae

    Not too long ago it was old-fashioned historical linguists who complained that they got no respect from archeologists. I used to run into some of these guys (the linguists) who said that Renfrew’s theory of Indo-Europeans as First Farmers couldn’t be right, because reconstructed PIE culture (wheels, weaving, etc.) didn’t fit at all; the evidence supported the Steppe theory. But the archeologists mostly shrugged this off. They could be pretty scornful, when they even bothered to pay attention: they were doing cutting edge Science, while the linguists were stuck in the nineteenth century. Now the wheel has turned, and it’s geneticists showing the linguists mostly got it right.

    And Jared Diamond also got the Indo-European story right in The Third Chimpanzee. I suspect that’s from talking to his UCLA colleague Chris Ehret. Ehret’s work on East Africa, finding widespread Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic strata underlying East Bantu (i.e. East Bantu were not First Farmers) might be worth revisiting in light of the latest genetic evidence.

  10. @Doug, seems a bit odd to suggest archaeologists as a whole generally preferred Renfrew and neolithic IE. If I’m recalling with any accuracy, they didn’t! Linguists vs archaeologists on IE, er, never happened.

    The Kurgan/steppe hypothesis and all its important proponents were trained in archaeology (Gimbutas, Mallory, Anthony). We’re really talking about a dispute between some archaeologists and linguists and others, largely based on emphasis on different methods (and reconciling some of the different implications of those methods are still not really solved yet, and all the existing models are probably lacking rather than any being quite correct).

    Wonder if we’re not getting into the territory of “goodies vs baddies” as Razib discusses in his article in a slightly different context. Rhetorically, archaeologists become the “pots not people” baddies, who eventually were vanquished, and so historical linguistics must be the goodies…

  11. @Doug Jones

    Exactly. Everybody exclaims ancient DNA is so revolutionary in bringing new insights. But it isn’t the new insights that is so revolutionary (Though some are). Ancient DNA just validates theories. What is so revolutionary is that it validates all the wrong theories.

    Archaeologists basically did this to themselves.

  12. “Wonder if we’re not getting into the territory of “goodies vs baddies” as Razib discusses in his article in a slightly different context. Rhetorically, archaeologists become the “pots not people” baddies, who eventually were vanquished, and so historical linguistics must be the goodies…”

    Frankly, you certainly have a point. Let me tone down: There was a tendency to call clear cultural turnovers “ideology change” in order to avoid being some sort of Kossinna in a substantial part of the archaeological academic world.

  13. The claim that there is a “grand narrative” of migration causing culture change bogus to me. The ancient DNA just tells you how those particular ancient people are related to other ancient or modern people. That may point to culture change being caused by migration or it may not. The method is not primed to find migration (unless you naively ignore the possibility of sample bias combined with pre-existing population structure I guess).

    A lot of these findings are confirming interpretations previously made by physical anthropologists (like the one studying Lapita crania in the article). I would really like to see serious attempts to rigorously work out what physical traits give the soundest phylogenetic signal with the help of ancient DNA, and then to apply it to the great mass of existing (as well as future) skeletal and dental data. I think I’ve seen one article along those lines somewhere.

  14. My prediction is that Vanuatu has a similar history to Haiti.

    So I predict initial settlement by Austronesians, who had the sailing technology, followed by transportation of Melanesians en masses as slaves or additional manpower to clear forest/mangrove swamps or whatever, followed by later revolt by said Melanesians and slaughter of male Austronesians.

  15. Paul, I appreciate your original ‘out of the box’ thinking, but it doesn’t pass the smell test in this case. Papuans are ferocious and warlike, fight in coordinated massed bands of skilled archers/axemen, and would have had overwhelming superiority of numbers, in both coastal PNG and the Solomon Islands.

    Initially, Austronesians would have had superior sailing tech, which the Papuans could easily have emulated by adding outriggers to their dugout canoes to fit them for open ocean sailing, a very simple thing to do once you pick up the idea just by observation, but they had no superior tech that would have given them any military advantage over Papuans that would balance their inferiority in numbers. Even early white explorers with modern firearms were at a distinct disadvantage against Papuans, simply because of fearsome aggression and ready mobilisation of big numbers.

    Captives would have to have been transported on long ocean voyages in small numbers. By the time Polynesians got to Hawaii they had developed very large twin hulled ocean going canoes, but there is no archaeological evidence for such large craft in the far western Pacific, except maybe NZ, which was the last to be colonised by humans.

    Plus there’s no evidence that disease played any substantial role in this case. Papuans were genetically isolated for 10s of 1000s of years, and still are in the mountainous interior, but PNG is full of very nasty endemic tropical diseases.

    I’m willing to be wrong, because what do I know?

    But, despite a veneer of Christianisation, Papuans and Torres Strait Islanders are still very scary people now, and violent crime rates are astronomical even in relatively ‘civilised’ Port Moresby. Not that Austronesians weren’t scary, but just on numbers and fighting on home ground close to their support base, capturing and carrying off substantial numbers of Papuans would have been a very difficult thing.

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