Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sewell Wright: The Initiation of Agriculture

Evolution and the Genetics of Populations, Volume 4: Variability Within and Variability Within and Among Natural Populations
Sewall Wright

[blog comment

Sewall Wright is considered to be a founder of the field of population genetics.  If you've been following my blog, you can probably guess that I don't think anything terribly significant happened, from a human evolutionary perspective, in the last thirty thousand years [probably more].  Wright was wrong about agriculture serving as a measure of peak genetic intelligence. Wright couldn't have known about the detailed timeline of megafauna extinctions that happened at the end of the Pleistocene which obviated the need for full scale domestication of animals and plants.  Still, he could have looked into the culture of hunter gatherer societies, especially the Algonquian and Siouan speaking peoples of Massachusetts, Illinois and Wisconsin, where he had lived.  He surely didn't bother to do this and instead, rambled off authoritatively about something he knew nothing about.  I cringe when I read this.  In fact, many Native American groups had managed to live in concert with their natural environment for thousands of years, and had not exterminated the animals on which they depended to the same degree as Eurasians. Surely this must be a measure of intelligence. 

It's also clear from Wright's comments that he knew nothing about the broader picture of agriculture in Africa, and confined his comments to the African northeast 'corner'.

These kinds of dogmatic statements still permeate many academic genetic anthropology, linguistic and population genetics discussions.

My view:  apart from a few alleles like lactase persistence, there is no evidence that agriculture made us happier, smarter, or healthier.]

page 456:

"The initiation of agriculture and livestock breeding was a revolutionary advance from the hunting and gathering way of life, which could hardly occur until the genetic basis of intelligence had reached an advanced grade.  It is fair to assume that the regions in which these appeared first were at the peaks in the genetic basis for intelligence.  This implies a peak at southwest Asia at least 10,000 years ago, and presumably long before this, and peaks in China and Middle America where agriculture developed later but largely independently.  The genetic and cultural advance in each of these regions was not, however, restricted to a single people.  Neighboring people had presumably stepped each other up genetically and culturally by the analogous shifting balance processes and continued to do so thereafter.  Livestock breeding, however, could be practiced to advantage in semi-dessert grasslands not suitable for agriculture, by nomadic peoples in whom different genetically based traits would be favored by selection from those favored among settled farmers and inhabitants of the cities.  All peoples in Southwest Asia and the northeast corner of Africa presumably had high but somewhat diverse genetic capabilities and soon acquired relatively advanced but diverse cultures."

[blog note:  Here, Wright makes a bizarre switch from a general discussion about the transition to agriculture, to a discussion about Indo-European languages, clearly, by association, attempting to equate Indo-European languages with "peak genetic intelligence." ]

"Linguistic evidence indicates the establishment of an important center of diffusion in east-central Europe some 5,000 years ago from which wave after wave of peoples moved in all directions.  The Hittites carried an Indo-European language of the western (centum) type into Asia Minor and established an empire 4,000 years ago.  A thousand years later the Iranians, who had moved east into what is now Southern Russia and Turkestan, brought an Indo-European language of the eastern (satem) type into the original cultural center and later established the Persian Empire.  They also carried another Aryan dialect to India.  Other tribes moving south from the east central European center reached Greece in several waves which, after mixing with the indigenous people, produced classical Greek civilization."

[There you have it.] 

[For an alternative view:  The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers, Part VII:  Future Directions in Hunter-Gatherer Research, Vicki Cummings, Peter Jordan, and Marek Zvelebil, editors, Oxford University Press, 2014.]

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