“Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.” – Luke 6:42, or Robert Trivers
I have to apologize because my last blogpost was about The New York Times, but they won’t stop publishing stories that need to be attended to. For anyone who is following, on Thursday they published a hit piece on Harvard Med School professor David Reich. At 12,000 words, the piece was somewhat difficult to coherently sift through (they have a tendency to do this lately), but it made a number of accusations against both Reich’s lab and the field of ancient DNA in general ranging from scientific racism to methodological sophistry to the use of scare tactics to harass others out of the field and away from valuable skeletal samples in order to monopolize science.
Over the past two days, the commentary on the piece has steadily evolved, some of it has been productive, and some of it has been almost libelous including this tweet by Sarah Parcak claiming that Reich’s vindictiveness will be asymmetrically applied to women and scholars of color (see this separate tweet for an opposing view from a Reich lab member):
Right now it seems the conversation is really focused on several separate important discussions:
- The Reich lab as a scientific oligarchy seeking to monopolize aDNA samples
- The validity of ancient DNA in general (as compared to, say, archaeology)
- The scientific colonialism and exploitation of indigenous peoples by ancient DNA studies
- Censorship in the academic discourse
I’m going to briefly discuss some points with my own view of ancient DNA and the Reich lab and close off with a short point about the hypocrisy of all of this.
The Reich lab as a scientific oligarchy seeking to monopolize aDNA samples:
I think if the piece has any validity, it’s in the discussion going on here. Unfortunately, as the NYT likes to do, they mummy-wrapped it in a bundle of a hundred different issues, so any productive conversation about this is getting drowned out by blatantly stupid accusations of intimidation by other folks. Reich’s lab publishes a lot of research, enough that I could see the complaint about monopolization being legitimate. Several months ago I had the thought of acting with a friend in his lab to facilitate the movement of some bones from my alma mater to Reich’s lab for aDNA analyses; to my shock, I found that his lab already had some of the bones I thought might be useful for analyses.
For those who aren’t in his lab, I can see how this is frustrating – I have heard this story from other colleagues in the field of ancient DNA who have gone to request samples from their own native countries and were denied access because either Reich’s lab or the Skoglund lab (Pontus Skoglund being a Reich lab alumnus) already had them. There is at least one thread on twitter by someone who shares this experience. As stated in the thread, we can’t necessarily fault these institutions or Reich for this- if you want the best treatment, you send it to the best place. Of course the follow up question I ask people has been, “Did you follow up with Pontus or Reich?” I don’t know if that would help, but the authorship lines on these papers are huge.
In the NYT piece, they choose to focus on a conflict between Reich’s lab and another lab at MPI Jena run by Johannes Krause. In this case, a collaboration with Reich was opened to study the peopling of Vanuatu and later cancelled because Reich, “wanted too much control.” What would have been beneficial to this discussion is for the Jena team to explain what they meant by “too much control”. Was it because Reich, per his usual protocol, wanted last authorship on the publication? Was it because he wanted the samples to be indefinitely kept at Harvard? Was it because they wanted to use his method or was he actually locking the Jena folks out from contributing to the manuscript? We don’t know, but the NYT chooses to emphasize what happens after this: the teams went their separate ways and scandalously published separate papers based on separate bones.
What The NYT calls a scandal here, I see as standard practice. Although the Jena team had gone through months of peer-revision until their paper was accepted, Reich’s team submitted their paper on the day that the Jena paper was accepted. Reich’s paper was published only a day after Jena’s and was additionally published as a pre-print before the Jena paper came out. The NYT’s writer evidently sees this as unprecedented sacrilege to the scientific community, but it really isn’t all that uncommon for papers to get rushed in peer-review to be published alongside competing viewpoints, likewise pre-prints are usually published as quickly as possible in this field to prevent scoops. Not to mention the fact that there are competing viewpoints being published seems like healthy science to me. I’m not sure who is supposed to be up in arms about this, but evidently the NYT doesn’t understand that this is exactly how science works.
The validity of ancient DNA in general (as compared to, say, archaeology)
The title of the article is, “Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths- or Falling Into Old Traps.” In addressing the current paradigm that ancient DNA is pushing, there is an entire portion on the history of archaeology and anthropology that is so poorly written that I am seriously tempted to write an entire separate blogpost to address it, but I will try and keep it short here.
The approach that ancient DNA studies is taking right now is arguably an extension of a school of archaeology that was known as the culture-historical approach (the NYT incorrectly calls this approach settlement archaeology, which is an entirely separate field). What the culture-historical approach sought to address is literally the title of Reich’s 2018 book, Who We Are and How We Got Here. The purpose is to address movement of people and cultures throught global history to figure out who peoples in the archaeological record were and how they relate to modern groups. The culture-historical method relied on a number of assumptions including the idea that cultures (or artifact sequences) in the archaeological record actually represented people, rather than cultural transmission. These theoretical issues are currently being addressed at the intersection of both of the emergent fields of cultural evolution and ancient DNA, but evidently both are being called racist for addressing this incongruity.
Regardless, this approach is still fundamental to archaeology’s knowledge base and is how archaeology was carried out from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Although the NYT correctly makes the argument that this approach was applied by the Nazis to justify national stories about the Aryans, the culture-historical approach was not just Nazi science. All of the most important figures in archaeology during this time were culture-historians, including one of my own scientific heroes, the Marxist materialist Australian professor V. Gordon Childe who Bruce Trigger argued is the fundamental father of modern archaeology (Childe, a Marxist, literally wrote the book on the Aryans).
To denigrate this fundamental period in the history of archaeology as simply Nazi science is a serious misunderstanding of how archaeology evolved as a discipline. Even worse is that the NYT gets the follow-up even more wrong. During the 1960s, culture-history was abandoned in favor of Lewis Binford’s processual approach to archaeology. This poorly written hit piece argues that processualism arose in response to growing nationalist tendencies within archaeology, but this is flat out wrong. Binford’s 1962 classic, titled Archaeology as Anthropology, which is familiar to any serious students of archaeology, lays out the purpose of processualism pretty well: instead of simply tracking how it is that people replaced each other on the globe, why don’t we try to study how these people lived?
Binford’s push for his approach had nothing to do with a fear about growing nationalism, but had more to do with the influence of his advisor Leslie White (who I have written about here, here, and here) who was trying to make anthropology into a science. Archaeology in the United States had already been subsumed into anthropology since the beginning of its academic track due to the similarities Europeans recognized between archaeological cultures and the cultures of living Native Americans. All Binford wanted to do was unify cultural anthropology (through behavioral ecology) and archaeology (through processualism) by an approach he coined middle-range theory. Binford wasn’t replacing culture-history because it was racist, he was replacing it because he thought it was boring. It’s really as simple as that. As a matter of fact, it is the replacement of processualism by post-processualism which is guided by claims about scientific racism, not processualism over culture-history.
What you should pull from this is that archaeologists in the United States abandoned cultural-history for something cooler. Culture-history is still done by archaeologists, such as by my scientific role model, feminist archaeologist Rochelle Marrinan, but it has very much been replaced to ask different kinds of questions. When I see complaints from archaeologists about ancient DNA resurrecting an ancient evil science, my mind immediately goes to sour grapes. What ancient DNA has done isn’t about revealing new truths, at this point it’s about testing and falsifying old ones. Ancient DNA has turned the work and texts from former culture-historians and historical linguists, including Childe’s Aryans, from out-of-date and unreadable to worth a second glance. If anything, ancient DNA is revealing old truths and revealing new traps, it’s an approach archaeologists left behind that geneticists now get to finish.
The scientific colonialism and exploitation of indigenous peoples by ancient DNA studies
One of the largest issues that the NYT claims is at stake is a grave danger to indigenous peoples’ origin myths which might be ruined by science. This ethical dilemma has been ongoing even before the Human Genome Project got started. Of course there are different ways to approach this: you can not publish, you can publish alongside Native stories, or you can acknowledge that there is a scientific truth and a truth that Native peoples have for themselves. Personally, the first approach is a non-starter for me, and the second approach doesn’t seem proper for scientific journals. The third approach, which was used by Spencer Wells in his 2003 series The Journey of Man seems to be the best, although it has been argued against by other scholars who strongly prefer the first and second approaches.
There most definitely is something to be said about scientific colonialism and exploitation of indigenous peoples by genetics, but this is a discussion that is being rehashed and ongoing as the field develops. I’m not going to share my opinion here, but I do think that anthropologists (for obvious reasons) have a strict obligation to conduct these studies with the consent of the peoples they’re working with. But Reich shares this viewpoint himself, and even has an entire chapter on it in his book. The idea that this isn’t actively developing in the field and that ancient geneticists aren’t answering these calls is ridiculous and only serves to leave a sour taste in peoples’ mouths on the mention of Reich’s name.
Censorship in the academic discourse
This last discussion point developed organically on its own outside of the NYT’s reach, so I won’t fault them for this. In the tweet above, John Hawks and a number of other scholars feign shock at the anonymity of certain people quoted in this story, which I find absolutely disingenuous. Are we really flabbergasted that archaeologists are scared to comment to the NYT on ancient DNA? Is the implication here that David is going to read this article and start deep-sixing archaeologists’ careers somehow because they said they don’t like his approach? In case anyone is unaware, Reich is not in an anthropology department and he doesn’t even come to our meetings. The idea that Reich is going to make a phone call to a tenure review board and say, “shut it down,” makes me laugh out loud. Furthermore, that Sarah Parcak claims he’s going to target women and scholars of color is coming close to libelous (or at least this is how I would see it if I were David).
The really laughable thing about this outrage about anonymity is how deep the hypocrisy goes. We are currently in the throes of an academic culture war of sorts where entire careers are being decided over the “rightness” or “wrongness” of peoples’ ideas. Just yesterday, Areo published a book review I wrote of Johnathan Marks’ book Is Science Racist? under my real name where I have sought to partially address some of the madness that has taken over biological anthropology. To say that this review is a risk to my career in biological anthropology is an understatement. In anthropology right now, there are a lot of sacred cows. We have our own culture of topics which are taboo and we’re at a point where certain theoretical approaches to the fossil record are now openly called racist at our meetings. If anyone wants to have a discussion about anthropologists having to go anonymous or off-the-record out of the fear that we will face professional repercussions, feel free to reach out to me, I know plenty of folks.
A note on hypocrisy
I started this blogpost with a quote from the Bible which I’ve often heard Robert Trivers refer to in his lectures on evolution and self deception. What’s especially bad about this piece which has targeted Reich is that the issues they talk about are almost universal in science. Pick me a scholar, any big name scholar, hand me a thousand dollars, and I promise you I can whip something up just as bad, or possibly more condemning than what the NYT put out this week. People tend forget there is inside baseball talk going on in every field, about everyone. This isn’t to say that any of the issues brought up are justified or that any of these other scholars are “bad guys”, it’s just that, if anything, this is a condemnation of common scientific practices in general. As Razib said yesterday, “Don’t hate the playah, hate the game.” It’s just a shame people think they need to crucify Reich to get to the point.
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