Friday, January 25, 2019

Are we city dwellers or hunter-gatherers?

David Graeber, David Wengrow
New Humanist
January 14th, 2019

From the article:

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilisation properly speaking. Civilisation meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilisation, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to “primitive communism”, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative: it isn’t true. Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the “big questions” of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris and others – still take Rousseau’s question (“what is the origin of social inequality?”) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

(read more)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Some Thoughts on David Reich's "Five Corrections to The New York Times" article "Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?" by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Marnie Dunsmore

David Reich publishes yesterday a response (Link) to Gideon Lewis-Kraus' article (Link) published in the New York Times on January 17th. In it, Reich outlines five "corrections" to Lewis-Kraus' article.

Grab a coffee.  This is tedious.

David Reich states in Correction 1 that the Lewis-Kraus article wrongly states that Skoglund et al. Nature 2016 (Link) was accepted after appeal “over the steadfast objections of two of the three peer reviewers on its anonymous panel.”  Reich makes this argument based on the fact that a fourth reviewer was added after the objections of two of three reviewers in the first round of review.  But the fact is that in the first round of review, Lewis-Kraus' statement is correct.  One has to ask why a fourth reviewer was added.  Also, in most cases, papers are not given a second round of review.  It's surprising that Reich tries to accuse Lewis-Kraus of making a false statement here. Perhaps our institutions, including Harvard, are so full of plausible deniability creators that it seems acceptable to him to use the addition of the fourth reviewer, after the fact, to try to falsify Lewis-Kraus' statements on this.

In Correction 2, Reich discusses whether or not the authors on Skoglund et al. Nature 2016 (Link) addressed the concerns of the reviewers. It is largely irrelevant that the reviewers eventually acquiesced to publication or that Skoglund et al. responded in the body of the paper to the critiques of the reviewers. The abstract of the paper was published saying this: "our finding that the ancient individuals had little to no Papuan ancestry implies that later human population movements spread Papuan ancestry through the South Pacific after the first peopling of the islands" leaving the reader with the impression that the original inhabitants of Vanuatu and Tonga had no Papuan ancestry.

In Correction 3 Reich states that Lewis-Kraus wrongly quoted him as stating that the Skoglund et al. Nature 2016 paper “conclusively demonstrated” no Papuan ancestry in the Teouma Lapita individuals.  Reich then goes on to discuss that in the body of the paper, they found low level Papuan ancestry in the Teouma samples.  The problem here is that this discussion is not described in the abstract of the paper. Reich discusses the results of several other papers finding higher levels of ancestry in the Teouma samples than what was found by the Skoglund team.  I think he only drives the nail into the coffin further here.  Bottom line is that the major assertion in the abstract of the Skoglund et. al. Nature 2016 paper is wrong, even against the assertions in the body of their own paper.

I will not go into Correction 4 in this post.  However, a good critique of one of David Reich's papers on the origin of Indo-Europeans is here (Link).

Finally, in Correction 5, David Reich says that Lewis-Kraus "wrongly states that Skoglund et al. 2016 "presumed to offer the final word on the history and ancestry of an entire region.""  Whether or not Reich and his colleagues have meant to use their paleogenomic results to override understanding of history from other fields such as archaeology or anthropology, Lewis-Kraus is right that these paleogenomic papers are now being interpreted as fact.  You only need to look at Wikipedia to see that.  It is not uncommon to see terminology such as "ANE", "WHG", and "CHG" asserted as factual historical populations on Wikipedia, when in reality, these populations are artifacts of low sample size ancient DNA results analyzed using tools like Admixture.  One indication of the tenuousness of these results is that the definition of "ANE", "WHG" and "CHG" keeps shifting as more ancient DNA results become available.  Yet these ideas have already become adopted as fact.

Furthermore, these papers, once published, are immediately taken up and politicized by blogs such as the West Hunter blog.  You only need to look at the follow up on these blogs, and their comment threads, to understand how problematic these papers, presented as fact, can be:

Think that no one reads the West Hunter blog?  I was quite surprised to discover, at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference a few years ago, that many researchers that publish in the area of genomics and paleogenomics both read and comment, usually under pseudonyms, on the West Hunter blog.

David Reich's corrections do not address a myriad of other problems within the ancient DNA research community.  One could start by asking if Vanuatu was really only populated three thousand years ago.  Maybe the skulls at Teouma are from tourists, wayfarers, passing through an already populated land?  Many lines of evidence indicate a much older arrival in Vanuatu.  One could look at the recent Matsumura paper on the populations of Southeast Asia (Link).  One could read Gunnar Landtman (Link).

I originally didn't interpret the article as a take down of Reich, but rather a thoughtful description of an over all disconnect within paleogenomics. If it is unsettling to David Reich that Gideon Lewis-Kraus is pointing out problems within the paleogenomics research community, then so be it.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus
The New York Times Magazine
January 17th, 2019

This extraordinary critique of the state of ancient DNA research and publication is a long read.  I will not extract quotes from the article, as it really is necessary to read the whole article, top to bottom, to begin to grasp what in wrong within ancient DNA research today.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Each Man Has His Own Friends: The Role of Dream Visitors in Traditional East Cree Belief and Practice

James Bay Cree Drum, Canadian Museum of Civilization

Regina Flannery, Mary Elizabeth Chambers
Arctic Anthropology
Vol. 22, No. 1 (1985), pp. 1-22 (22 pages)

Page 6:

Hunting songs were the ubiquitous gifts bestowed in dreams.  A man received a song when he dreamed he heard “someone” singing as he comes to him (an indirect reference to the powatakan).  On waking, he began “to sing just like he has been dreaming,” and might sing for several hours to fix it in his memory, but not after daybreak.  The content of the songs often consisted of brief phrases referring to the animals released to the hunter; for instance, one man’s song repeated, “Someone is walking around in the snow,” a reference to the caribou.  Because of their intimate nature, a man’s songs would never be repeated by others, even children, as long as the man was an active hunter.  Very old men, however, allowed young boys to sing their songs.

Since almost all daily activities in the bush are accompanied by singing, a good hunter might have had a large repertoire of songs, including those sung while making traps or stretching hides, for example.  While these, too, should not be sung by others, and the most important songs were those sung before and after a hunt.  Songs used in preparation for a hunt were sung only at night and were divinatory, as it was said "by his singing a man sees what he is going to hunt."

Whether the singer had a drum or a rattle, or both, or neither, to accompany his songs was again a matter of the individual dream experience.  A man had to dream the drum or rattle before he could make it, and dream the motifs for embellishing it.  The East Cree drum is doubleheaded with "snares" on both sides; the larger size drum, associated with the caribou, was often painted on both heads with a ring of red paint around the outer circumference and with varying designs composed of red dots in the center.  According to dream instructions, smaller drums, also doubleheaded, might have been decorated with a realistic depiction of a wavey [snow goose, Chen caerulescens], in flight or at rest, or a beaver.  These were said by Tommy Jacob to be "pictures" of the respective owner’s powatakan.  An individual’s drum had its own acahkw and ordinarily was never used by others except at a feast, when the host might pass his drum to other men to accompany the singing of their own songs.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

I Woke Up Like This

Beyoncé Knowles, Aaron Muka, Terius "The Dream" Nash, Chauncey Hollis, Raymond DeAndre Martin, Rashad Mohammed, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Parkwood, Columbia
(Link) wikipedia

James D. Watson
The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA 
(Link) amazon, first edition published in 1968 by Atheneum, New York

pages 16-18

". . . it was increasingly difficult to take Maurice’s mind off his assistant, Rosalind Franklin.

"Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called her from a distance. Just the opposite – almost from the moment she arrived in Maurice’s lab, they began to upset each other. Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction work, wanted some professional help and hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the situation this way. She claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice’s assistant.

"I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained – she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.

"Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA. Not that at times he didn’t see some reason for her complaints – King’s had two combination rooms, one for men, the other for women, certainly a thing of the past. But he was not responsible, and it was no pleasure to bear the cross for the added barb that the women’s combination room remained dingily pokey whereas money had been spent to make life agreeable for him and his friends when they had their morning coffee.

"Unfortunately, Maurice could not see any decent way to give Rosy the boot. To start with, she had been given to think that she had a position for several years. Also, there was no denying that she had a good brain. If she could only keep her emotions under control, there would be a good chance that she could really help him . . ."

Rosalind Franklin (credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

Beryl Lieff Benderly
Rosalind Franklin and the damage of gender harassment
August 1st, 2018

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be Feminists 
Anchor Book, a division of Random House 2015
(Link) amazon

"We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men."

Marnie Dunsmore
blog note, January 8th, 2019

I first read "The Double Helix" in the early 1980s while I was studying physics at the Royal Military College of Canada.  In this book, I found Watson's comments regarding Rosalind Franklin to be grossly antagonistic toward a professional colleague and intentionally subjugating on the basis of gender.

At the time, many of my physics professors were from the United Kingdom (Imperial College London, the University of Edinburgh, and Saint Andrews).  They would have been well acquainted with the search for the structure of DNA at the Cavendish Labs at Cambridge, and at King's College in London.  I'm sure most of them had read "The Double Helix".

On a few occasions, while studying physics, I did experience overt harassment.  I experienced quite a bit of unconscious bias, as well.  At the time, I had no language or context for this differential experience, and could not quite understand the motivation behind the hostile behavior on the part of some.  I most of all ignored this behavior and enjoyed the subject matter.  No one, however, ever spoke to me about gender based discrimination in physics.  My experience of harassment and gender bias, and lack of acknowledgement by my professors that women experienced harassment and discrimination in physics, was a dissociating experience.

Rosalind Franklin's experience of harassment and discrimination was there at the foundation of molecular biology.  It was written about in the 1960s. Why, only now, fifty years later, is there any open discussion of this?