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.
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.