David Reich drops the mic

Update: David Reich asks for five corrections to the piece in The New York Times Magazine piece.

Didn’t mean to post so much about that crappy piece in The New York Tines Magazine. But there’s so much tendentious crap in it. That being said, I am probably not going to post much more on this, because David Reich’s response is up:

Letter in response to Jan. 17 article in The New York Times

January 19, 2019

To the Editor:

Gideon Lewis-Kraus (Jan. 17) profiles the nascent field of ancient DNA, which in the last few years has contributed to a transformation in our understanding of the deep human past. His article touches on important issues that we, as a field, have yet to deal with fully: including how to handle ancient remains ethically and in a way that preserves them for future generations; how geneticists and archaeologists can work in equal partnerships that reflect true respect for the insights of different disciplines; and how ancient DNA technology, which at present is applied efficiently only in large labs, can be made accessible to a wider group of scholars.

But Lewis-Kraus misunderstands several basic issues. First, he suggests that competition to publish is so extreme that standards become relaxed. As evidence, he cites a paper by my lab that was accepted on appeal after initial rejection, and another that was reviewed rapidly. In fact, mechanisms for appeal and expedited review when journals feel they are warranted are signs of healthy science, and both processes were carried out rigorously.

Second, he contends that ancient DNA specialists favor simplistic and sweeping claims. As evidence, he suggests that in 2015 I argued that the population of Europe was “almost entirely” replaced by people from the Eastern European Steppe. On the contrary, the paper he references and indeed my whole body of work argues for complex mixture, not simple replacement. Lewis-Kraus also suggests that I claimed that our first study of the people of the Pacific island chain of Vanuatu “conclusively demonstrated” no Papuan ancestry. But the paper in question was crystal-clear that these people could have had some Papuan ancestry – and indeed, to support his claim, Lewis-Kraus could only cite his own notes from an interview I gave him long after I had published a second paper proving that there was indeed a small proportion of Papuan ancestry.

Lewis-Kraus also suggests that I use small sample sizes to make unjustifiable sweeping claims. In fact, small sample sizes can be definitive when they yield results that are incompatible with prevailing theories, as when my colleagues and I described two samples that proved the existence of the Denisovans, a previously undocumented archaic human population. In my papers, I am careful to only make claims that can be supported by the data I have. In small-sample size studies, I emphasize that more samples are needed to flesh out the details of the initial findings. A major focus of my lab is generating the large data sets needed to do this.

Lewis-Kraus’s critiques are based on incomplete facts and largely anonymous sources whose motivations are impossible to assess. Curiously, he did not ask me about the great majority of his concerns. Had he done so, the evidence underlying his thesis that my work is “indistinguishable from the racialized notions of the swashbuckling imperial era” would have fallen apart. The truth, and the main theme of my 2018 book Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, is exactly the opposite – namely, that ancient DNA findings have rendered racist and colonialist narratives untenable by showing that no human population is “pure” or unmixed. It is incumbent on scientists to avoid advocating for simplistic theories, and instead to pay attention to all available facts and come to nuanced conclusions. The same holds true for journalists reporting on science.

David Reich
Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Boston, Massachusetts

6 thoughts on “David Reich drops the mic

  1. Perfect response of David Reich. It is always hard to watch decent scientists and good science being attacked for purely personal and political reasons by dishonest or plain stupid forces.
    If Davids interpretations are biased themselves, they are so in a leftist direction. But he doesnt leave the solid grounds of facts (so far).
    The problem of some politically extreme archaeologists, which hate his work is, that they never ever had a real argument for their anti-migrationist theories.
    They never had any credibility on scientific grounds and were merely based on the ideological distortion of facts and wishful thinking.
    Now their fraud and fake science being fully exposed. Of course they are angry now at those who did it, like any fraudster would be after being exposed and put to trial.

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  2. He nailed it. It is a short answer, a good one. And point to major misconducts and errors presents on NYT’s article, noting the responsability of its author for these things.

  3. I wish Reich wouldn’t keep on with this “Ancient dna now shows that we’re mixed and this is a win for anti-imperialism” business.

    The actual imperialists of the era of high imperialism seemed perfectly comfortable with mixtures of populations through history, if they thought about it at all, and the architects of old school physical anthropology that was au courant then believed in mixture too (frequently describing populations in terms of mixtures that wouldn’t be totally alien to Reich, like “Upper Paleolithic survivors” aka mesolithic WHG and neolithic farmers, though of course they got lots wrong).

    Neither did pre-adna era dna research suppose unadmixed populations; briefly perusing Cavalli-Sforza or noting popularity of ADMIXTURE algorithms would tell you that, and people did not start talking about admixture only when adna came out.

    Compared to that the pre-adna era, if anything adna tells us both that isolation and low rates of admixture was more common – ancient dna populations who were ancestral were actually more isolated than the estimated ADMIXTURE components – and that admixture was less common through much of human prehistory than we thought, the present day degree of low relatedness being explained more by pulses more frequently than thought, and continuous low rates less frequently. If you had a mind to, you could argue the adna evidence the other way, for group isolationism as a more powerful, common force in our species history than we had thought from modern dna – the adna doesn’t really support any “ought”, only an “is”.

    It’s understandable why Reich wants to present his work in this light (his own political background, the range of acceptable political positions). But it’s hard for me to see any thinking person being convinced by it, or to believe he is convinced by it when saying it, if you know more than nothing about the field. So I think it ultimately would tend to undermine the credibility more than just saying “The evidence is what it is” and refusing to justify his work as meeting some political ideal that the mainstream of our upper middle class currently believe to be correct.

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  4. Matt, considering this kind of work is easily misinterpreted by various elements Reich (rightly, in my view, and probably yours too) dislikes, who also are likely to believe in much more essentialist interpretations of “race” on average, it’s not a huge deal for the people working on this stuff to mention that kind of, true at any rate even if it came about in rather disagreeable ways, cliche.

    Regarding your comment about imperialism, it wasn’t exactly true all the time. During the height of global European influence, theories of racial purity, preservation and degeneration seem to have been rather in vogue and if anything started declining only post WW2 and they still color online discussions in this area sometimes. “Didn’t think about it at all” doesn’t seem that true for the recent European past at least. Regarding ADMIXTURE components and ancestral populations, you aren’t wrong, but I still recall weird statements about the insanely ancient, total isolation of the 1-component Kalash from misinterpreters.

    But I agree with you about not trying to support oughts like this, as if they could be in the first place. Otherwise, rape, murder and tribalism in general – parts of how we came about, in a big way, that are also constantly being illuminated by this kind of research – would essentialy be justified in similar terms. The broader point is that you can support all sorts of things depending on your ideology and your ideology usually precedes the evidence in this case, not nice versa, so why bother trying to justify it like this in the first place.

    Also, I do have to kinda ask out of curiosity: in whose eyes do you think Reich’s credibility is hurt by that specific statement?

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  5. The purity / superiority ideologists hardly ever contend that their ancestors were a homogeneous stock over the millennia. It’s more like, they derive their strengths from certain legendary ancestors, and they assign inferiority to anyone who derive some or all of their ancestry from a designated list “other” groups (typically contemporary). Some of them go as far as to attempt “purifying the ancestral seed” through incest (as a splinter group of the United Apostolic Brethren infamously did), an exercise leaving no doubts that they believe that the sacred ancestors contributed only a part of their DNA.
    So the Reich argument about undermining xenophobia by discovering ancient admixtures may only work when the origins of the admixtures clash with the set lists of “good and bad ancestor types” of a particular hateful ideology (like dark-colored or Asia-based ancestors of Western Europeans, or Korean-based ancestors of the Japanese).
    Viticulture hates hybrids, but when it was discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon was once a hybrid of Cabernet Frank and Sauvignon Blank, its prices didn’t budge. It is the contemporary hybridization which draws the ire of the wine ideologists, not the distant past events. So it is, typically, with the xenophobic humans.

  6. “The purity / superiority ideologists hardly ever contend that their ancestors were a homogeneous stock over the millennia”

    I agree with the general spirit of your post and the important point that has been brought up for me, to reiterate, is that everyone will end up interpreting the facts a little differently, under the light of their ideology and it’s probably not a good way to try and hang your ethics on “science” in general (will anyone start hugging their neighbors all of a sudden or suddenly dislike them instead *solely* due to this sort of thing that can be kinda esoteric in its finer details, anyway?) so it’s what you come with in the first place that matters much more, but I kinda disagree with that. It’s a common enough trope so I’d hardly say “hardly ever”. Also of course the set lists can change, even if they generally run more constrained gamuts for a number of reasons and ideology does play a certain role there – it’s not only just the “brute facts” that decide so.

    Either way, especially in the particular context of his response to the article, I thought his statement was quite appropriate. This kind of synthesis isn’t exactly some kind of neo-pan-Germanism that throws out everything archaeologists have been trying to contend with and that’s basically a bit of reassurance to a general audience that might hear “DNA and history” and wonder a bit, with recollections of unfortunate events (some much more recent than the Big One). It’s fine to find it annoying in some way but it happens.

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