David Reich [Email him] Professor of Genetics at Harvard, has published a book about ancient human DNA: Who We Are and How We Got Here. He heralded publication with a March 23rd New York Times op-ed [How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’ ] that got the chattering classes a-chattering and the sputtering classes a-sputtering. What’s the fuss about?
DNA is, of course, the stuff that makes up your genome, the material in your cells that you inherited from your parents, and some of which, spliced with some of your mate’s, you will pass on to your children.
The genome is upstream from the phenome, the collection of all your observable traits that are under some degree of genetic control (from the Greek verb for “to appear”). Your size, shape, color, agility, disease susceptibilities, personality, intelligence, and characteristic behaviors: these form your phenome.
Not all your observable traits are determined by your genome. If you lose a leg in an automobile crash you will thereafter possess the trait “one-legged.” But nobody could learn that by scrutinizing your genome.
(Although there may none the less be a low-order cause-to-effect path from genome to trait. If the crash was caused by your being drunk, and if you are usually drunk because you are a chronic alcoholic, then your genome may be a causal factor in your one-leggedness.)
Some of your observable traits are accidentally determined like that. Some others, while under genetic control, are environmentally tweaked. North Koreans are on average shorter by two or three inches than South Koreans, in spite of having (presumably) statistically indistinguishable genomes. Nutrition is better in the South.
It is none the less the case that well-nourished South Koreans with many centuries of Korean ancestry are shorter on average by five or six inches than well-nourished Dutch people with many centuries of Dutch ancestry.
That’s because of regional differences in the human genome. Like any widely-distributed species, ours has developed regional varieties due to local inbreeding under well-understood genetic rules: founder effect, genetic drift, natural selection. The simplest name for these varieties—the one favored by Charles Darwin, the father of modern biology—is “races.”
That, of course, is what the fuss is about.
A very remarkable and fascinating scientific development of the past few years has been our ability to recover the genomes of human beings, and of extinct related species like the Neanderthals, who lived in the remote past—thousands or tens of thousands of years ago.
By comparing these ancient genomes to each other, and to modern genomes from various parts of the world, we can reconstruct humanity’s deep history, the great migrations and encounters of peoples that formed today’s human world.
This is scientific work of the highest degree of difficulty and deep intellectual complexity. If you get nothing else from Prof. Reich’s book, you will come away in awe at the diligence and ingenuity he and his colleagues (pictured right) have brought to their research.
For a glimpse of the procedural difficulties involved, read Prof. Reich’s account in Chapter Two of the pains taken to ensure that the samples of ancient DNA he has worked with are free from contamination by bacteria, human handlers, and fragments of modern DNA on microscopic dust particles.
On the theoretical side, I wasn’t surprised to see that the person Prof. Reich describes as “my chief scientific partner” is a mathematician, Nick Patterson. There is a ferocious amount of mathematical and statistical analysis indvolved in getting information out of genetic material.
This is, in short, heavy-duty science, on whose overall value very few of us—certainly not this reviewer—are qualified to pass judgment.
But then, Prof. Reich has chosen to write a book describing his work to the general public. Non-specialists can pass judgment on how well he has done that: how much we learn from reading the book, how difficult the reading is, and whether, when the author steps outside his specialist sphere, he says sensible things about other subjects.
Though I am no geneticist, I count myself a connoisseur of popular science books since having been given those by Andrade and Huxley to read back in the first Eisenhower administration. I’ve tried my own hand at the genre, too, so I appreciate the problems faced by an author.
So how does Who We Are measure up as a work of popular science exposition?
Before proceeding I should record again my profound respect for Prof. Reich’s energy and prowess as a scientist, uncovering facts about the world not previously known.
That said, I can’t say I enjoyed reading Who We Are. The style is dry and lifeless. There is very little of what makes reading pleasurable: colorful metaphors, amusing asides, rhetorical acrobatics, sly allusions, interesting historical or biographical titbits, snippets of verse. I’m certainly willing to believe that Prof. Reich is a very good scientist. He’s just not a very good writer.
Razib Khan, in an otherwise enthusiastic advance notice of the book, observed that: “Who We Are and How We Got Here is not rich with the same stylistic flourish and engagement as one might find in a popularization by Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins.”
Razib was being nice.
Knowing very much less about the subject matter than Razib does, I’d add that the science is not well explained. Time and again I found myself going back and re-reading, then re-re-reading two or three pages to figure out what was meant. A couple of times I was driven to a reference book or internet search for clarification.
This happened with, for example, Prof. Reich’s accounts of the Four Population Test and the related Three Population Test. I think I got the hang of them at last, at least well enough to go on reading. If you were to ask me to explain them now, however, as a closed-book exam, I would probably fail.
All right, this is difficult material. Still, with some felicity of style and some allowable over-simplifications, flagged as such, it could have been made more digestible.
Unnecessary confusions could have been avoided, too. In Chapter Eight, for example, we read that:
By using a principal component analysis, we found that the ancestry of the great majority of East Asians living today can be described by three clusters.
Hoo-kay; but then five paragraphs later:
Our analysis supported a model of population history in which the modern human ancestry of the great majority of mainland East Asians living today derives largely from mixtures—in different proportions—of two lineages that separated very anciently.
Three clusters, two lineages … wha?
Again, if you go back and re-read, the contradiction is resolved; but all this going back and re-reading makes Who We Are hard work.
But if you persevere through these shortcomings, you do learn a lot. The heart of the book—Chapters Five through Nine (of twelve)—describes what we now know, or can reasonably surmise, about the ancient demographic histories of, in turn, Europe, India, Native Americans, East Asia, and Africa.
Reich’s account of Indian genetics is especially striking. I never knew the caste system was so fractal. Nested within the caste system are thousands of jati groups—micro-castes—some of which have maintained strict endogamy for millennia, with the result that each is a tiny race. As Reich puts it:
People tend to think of India, with its more than 1.3 billion people, as having a tremendously large population, and indeed many Indians as well as foreigners see it this way. But genetically, this is an incorrect way to view the situation. The Han Chinese are truly a large population. They have been mixing freely for thousands of years. In contrast, there are few if any Indian groups that are demographically very large, and the degree of genetic differentiation among Indian jati groups living side by side in the same village is typically two to three times higher than the genetic differentiation between northern and southern Europeans. The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.
Amazing and fascinating.
There is, further, evidence that even at a comparatively late date the aristocratic part of the population of ancient China was of different origin from the plebeians … The plebeians had customs so far removed from those of their overlords as to make the hypothesis of racially distinct origin likely, even apart from other evidence …
Alas, there is nothing about this in Who We Are. Reich tells us, however, that it’s hard to get good genetic data from China “because of regulations limiting the export of biological material.
And then there is Reich’s flagrant Virtue Signaling in Who We Are, already much remarked on by Dissident Right commentators, notably Greg Cochran (who, like Razib, really knows genetics) and our own Steve Sailer.
Greg’s remarks can be found in several recent posts on his website, West Hunter. For Steve’s see below:
And more here—the "David Reich" tag has two pages of VDARE.com posts.
As we all know, a peculiar orthodoxy about human nature has come up among the Liberal Arts and Grievance Studies (LAGS) types who staff academic administrations, media, and government bureaucracies, including those that approve money grants to research scientists. A key tenet of this orthodoxy: There Is No Such Thing As Race. According to this tenet, race is a “social construct,” a sort of collective optical illusion.
(As weird as this is, it is not the weirdest thing LAGS folk profess to believe. You can, as I pointed out when addressing AMERICAN RENAISSANCE conference last year, find credentialed academics who will assure you that there is no such thing as sex: that men and women are biologically indistinguishable. We live in an extraordinary time: a good portion of our intelligentsia is clinically insane.)
For some reason, Prof. Reich feels the need to touch his forelock to this race denialism. That is not easy for him to do, as the science he’s been describing in the first three-quarters of his book makes plain what nonsense the LAGS orthodoxy is.
Prof. Reich spends the last three of his twelve chapters trying to square this circle, with results that are painful to read.
What, to take a sentence at random, am I supposed to make of this?
The centrality of mixture in the history of our species, as revealed in just the last few years by the genome revolution, means that we are all interconnected and that we will all keep connecting with one another in the future.
How does Prof. Reich know what will happen in the future? One can speculate, of course; but this is the guy who, eleven pages earlier, was chiding Nicholas Wade for including “entirely speculative” material in his 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance.
And isn’t the entire thrust of Prof. Reich’s results that some of us are a lot more mixed, a lot more recently, than others? We present-day West Eurasians, he has told us, are a mighty mixture of earlier West Eurasians; but we are not at all mixed with Andaman Islanders, nor has anyone else been for a very long time indeed.
Prof. Reich’s enthusiasm for “mixture” is repeated many times throughout his book; at the end of Chapter 4, for example: “Mixture is fundamental to who we are, and we need to embrace it, not deny that it occurred.”
But how did it occur? Well, now you mention it, that's actually rather awkward:
When the Bantu first expanded out of west-central Africa several thousand years ago, they had a profound influence on the indigenous rainforest hunter-gatherer populations they encountered … Even today, the overwhelming pattern is that Bantu men mix with pygmy women …
In the Antioquia region of Colombia, which was relatively isolated between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, about 94 percent of the Y chromosomes [i.e. from male progenitors] are European in origin, whereas about 90 percent of the mitochondrial DNA [from female progenitors] sequences are of Native American origin.
Massive sex bias in population mixture also occurred between four thousand and two thousand years ago during the formation of the present-day populations of India.
It is plain from the evidence, amply presented in this book, that many—perhaps most—of the “mixture” events Prof. Reich urges us to “embrace” in fact involved one group of human males killing off another group’s males and mating with their females. (Steve has had lively sport with this; see several of his posts, as above.)
Does Prof. Reich really expect males from that second group to “embrace” their annihilation?
The last three chapters of Who We Are are marbled with incoherent gibberish like this, punctuated with shamefully gratuitous insults to more honest and brave human-science writers like Wade, Cochran, the late Henry Harpending, and even the great James Watson.
What makes it all very odd is that these preposterosities and insults are interleaved with commendably frank statements about the reality of biological race differences, e.g.
If selection on height and infant head circumference can occur within a couple of thousand years, it seems a bad bet to argue that there cannot be similar average differences in cognitive or behavioral traits.
Reich’s lurching between PC pablum and honest race realism left this reader feeling positively dizzy.
Why is the book like this? The most charitable explanation: Prof. Reich believes he needs to do the signaling in order to preserve his funding.
Perhaps he does. Given the thoroughness of his work and the quantity of travel involved, funding requirements must be considerable.
Or perhaps there is a genuine mental struggle going on here. When human-science blogger Steve Hsu reproduced Prof. Reich’s pre-publication New York Times op-ed article, one of Steve’s commenters opined that (slightly edited):
The article is about the author's inner struggle between reality and ideology. During the first half, he is the cautious realist. But by the time we reach the second half, he is overtaken by a guilty conscience and swiftly reverts back into the dark cage of human ideology.
Who We Are itself is structured in a similar way to the op-ed article, those three last chapters trying to twist a dull but informative book into ideological orthodoxy.
A Jewish character in one of Chaim Bermant’s stories, seeing that his child has been gifted with a Christian Bible, angrily tears out the New Testament section at the end and throws it in the trash.
I wanted to do the same with the three last chapters of Who We Are.