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Monday, October 12, 2020

Reviewing David Reich's methods

Fantastic deep dive in the New York Times from January 2019 that I missed  - Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

I hadn't been aware of Lewis-Kraus, even though I had read and liked his article about the Slate Star Codex for the New Yorker. I found he is highly esteemed, if a Twitter search on his name is any indication - lots and lots of praise for his work, which has covered a wide range of topics. To my amazement, he doesn't yet have a Wikipedia page, something I will find time to remedy soon.

The Lewis-Kraus DNA article focuses on David Reich and his dominance in the field of genetics. I've been interested in Reich since I discovered many hereditarians think Reich is on their side thanks to Reich's March 2018 NYTimes op-ed. This in spite of Reich's statement that race is a social construct. 

However, Lewis-Kraus makes an excellent point about Reich's op-ed:
He was careful to differentiate the idea of a genetic population from the old idea of race, which he agreed was a social rather than biological fact. But he nonetheless gave comfort to those who maintain that on the deepest of all levels our destiny is written into our genetic signature. It was hard not to see that conviction reflected in the findings of Reich’s papers, which seemed to blithely recapitulate discredited theories of Pacific expansion, making categorical claims not only about four individual skulls but about the shape of human history — claims that were essentially indistinguishable from the racialized notions of the swashbuckling imperial era.
Even more important to me, Lewis-Kraus provided a perfect illustration of the problem of trying to understand human societies strictly through genetics, which is something hereditarians Razib Khan and Sam Harris would like very much to do.

A thought experiment might help to illustrate this. Imagine that the written history of our current era were lost to time, and paleogenomicists of the future were trying to explain the peopling of North America on the basis of a few bones that dated from between the 16th and 20th centuries. If these bones included the descendants of British, Spanish and French colonists as well as those of Yoruba slaves, the researchers might conclude that European migrants arrived together with African migrants and that their “sex-biased admixture” created the people known henceforth as Americans. From our perspective, those geneticists wouldn’t exactly be wrong about all this — but nobody would accuse them of being right, either.
That David Reich appears to indulge in the same type of thinking as Khan and Harris is a sign he might be more aligned with the hereditarian point of view than I previously realized. And Lewis-Kraus demonstrates that Reich is seemingly getting special treatment by the big science magazines, to the detriment of researchers using different methods and to the possible detriment of science itself:
I sat in the dark next to Frederique Valentin, a French bioarchaeologist who was an author on Reich’s original Vanuatu paper; it was she who made the final contribution that rescued the effort, the Tongan petrous bone. As it turns out, in 2015 she submitted a manuscript to Nature that made an almost identical argument to Reich’s. She had reached the same conclusions upon examination of the cranial morphology of the exact same skulls, which she believed more closely resembled those of Asians than those of Papuans. But her paper was rejected by Nature. As far as she or many others could tell, the only difference between her conclusions and Reich’s were those of methods — hers old, theirs shiny and new — and rhetorical grandeur. I asked if she thought that Reich’s definitive statements about Lapita origins were warranted.

“A small sample,” she replied, “is only representative of itself.”

The controversy over paleogenomics was becoming a near-ubiquitous presence in archaeology journals, and Bedford, as an author on all three Vanuatu papers, had recently written the introduction to an academic forum on the subject, in the journal Archaeology in Oceania. The evident differences between the two competing follow-ups put him in a bit of a bind, because his name was on both of them. “Both papers,” Bedford maintained, “arrive at a similar conclusion,” that initial Austronesian settlement was followed by a Papuan gene flow. But as the introduction continued, it became increasingly clear that he could not, in fact, at all believe that both could be right, and he tipped his hand in favor of the Jena paper, with its emphasis on an “incremental and complex” process that accorded much better with the artifactual record as he had spent his career understanding it.

There may be good reasons why the hereditarians think Reich is one of their guys.

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