14 January 2010

Dienekes' Anthropology Blog

Greek blogger Dienekes' "Anthropology blog is dedicated to human population genetics, physical anthropology, archaeology, and history."

Mostly, he is interested in the modern human and Neanderthal pre-history that can be revealed from mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome studies, with selective support from ancient historical documents, linguistics, contemporary primitive societies, pre-historic climate studies, genetic studies on the origins of domesticated plants and animals and archaeological artifacts that corroborate those findings. He posts a lot (about half as often as I do), and like most bloggers has a smattering of off topic personal posts (like a recognition of Greek independence day).

His standard modus operandi is to cite abstracts from academic journal articles and provide brief commentary that provides context and expresses his skepticism or lack thereof in the result. He also dabbles in subjects like the biological basis of musical ability and attractiveness.

Dienekes' Point Of View

Like most academic bloggers, he isn't afraid to present is own opinion on current debates in the field, although he is bounded by the evidence of the studies he cites (subject to their own flaws) in doing so. He isn't afraid to make educated guesses.

Most of those opinions are mainstream or nuanced variations from the mainstream. For example, he is a supporter of the "Out of Africa" hypothesis for human origins, with the caveat that at least one significant Asian population that had a notable impact on West African population genetics, probably returned to Africa at a later point in time via Chad. He also takes the position that farming first spread across Europe mostly through colonization by farming populations, rather than from existing populations learning how to farm themselves, although there was some post-colonial "admixture" of pre-existing hunter-gatherer populations and the new farming populations that moved into the area. In his view, there is still considerable genetic evidence of the historically ethnic basis of India's caste system and of the divide between its Indo-European language speakers (in North India) vis its Dravidian language speakers (in South India).

Controversial Views

Some of his positions, however, have uncomfortably close ties to ideas that are often considered suspect. For example, he devotes a number of front page links, and a number of posts to craniology (i.e. conclusions that can be drawn from skull size measurements), a field that was largely abandoned as a false start in the 20th century after vibrant interest in the 19th century. He also gives more credence with less disclaimers than most American scholars would to studies of "national IQ" in African countries (which is generally reported as significantly below average), although he does acknowledge that the Flynn effect means that this could change over time.

Perhaps most controversially, he takes the position that "race" is a biologically meaningful concept. His view on the subject is summed up in this post in which he notes:

An interesting paper worth reading, which considers the idea that Homo sapiens can be subdivided to subspecies against two diametrically opposite ideas, namely (i) that there are no human subspecies, and (ii) that human taxonomic differences warrant the rank of species. . . .

Personally I think that the evidence is clear that human races or subspecies exist, but the discovery that geographic differentiation exists at the level of races, ethnic groups, sub-ethnic groups, and that even villages can be subdivided into geographically distinguishable clusters, make renewed effort into formalizing taxonomy at the sub-species level an especially worthwhile endeavor.

A comment to that post echoes some of my concerns about the way he conceptualizes what he is discussing:

The lingering fascination some authors have with of using words other than "clade" and then worrying about which is the right "level" (genus, species, race) is in conflict with Darwinian evolutionary science. There are no fixed "levels" defined by nature, they are all only nominal and temporary. If you just call them all clades you get rid of a lot of confusion and a lot of unnecessary debate. It would also help writers whose interests are scientific from inadvertently giving fuel to pseudo scientific internet racism.

Dienekes is clearly a scientist first, and does not appear to have a strong racist political agenda. His use of the term "race" belies his sophisticated for the field recognition that male and female ancestral lineages frequently have different patterns, that population groups have fuzzy boundaries that are often gradated from one geographic area to another, and that back migrations of significant descendant populations to their place of origin are not unprecedented although they are rare.

In other words, as a geneticist trying to piece together humanities pre-historic migrations, he finds it useful to cluster people based upon their genetic makeup in ways that correspond roughly to conventional racial and ethnic groups. But, he himself is aware of the limits of those definitions, and does not give them the strong ideological gloss of moral rightness of a political and social hierarchy that 19th and 20th century racists and white supremacists do.

Still, he does give race considerably more weight and meaning than I would, and he seems almost oblivious to the clear evidence that the boundaries of the clusters of people that we call "races" are socially constructed (e.g. someone who fits in one category in one culture may belong to a different category in another), and that purely cultural elements of race generally have more social and practical relevance than actual biological differences in everyday life (e.g. while an African-American and a recent African immigrant may have the same great-great grandparents, the way that they are treated in society is likely to change the moment a person speaks and by his accent clarifies his ethnic-social origins). It wouldn't be hard, however, for someone inclined to do so to use Dienekes' comments and twist what he means when he makes them, in a way that would inaccurately seem to support a pernicious racist ideology.

Dienekes also accepts as valid stereotyping based on a literal brief visual glance in wide array of circumstances, based upon rather artificial academic experiments, rather than affording these experiments the suspicion that they deserve because stereotyping based upon appearance has the potential to produce pernicious negative outcomes that reinforce the stereotype even if it wasn't valid originally. He sometimes lets curiosity and fascination get in the way of healthy skepticism informed by conclusions from social science fields outside his own.

The main reason that Dienekes' Anthropology blog isn't in my sidebar along with academic content rich sites that have a fairly similar format, like the Legal Theory Blog or the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog or Science News, is that I don't want to make an implied endorsement of the controversial views Dienekes holds with which I disagree.

Dienekes' Anthropology Blog is still worth surfing. Some of the commentary, and a few of the cited papers, often flagged by Dienekes' for discussion, must be taken with a grain of salt. But, it provides one of the most concentrated digests of peer reviewed academic research in a cutting edge field that is starting to flood us with answers about our pre-history.

Why Care?

This research, piece by piece, is creating an evidence based pre-history and ancient history of the human race that is far more compelling, has nuances and depth, and provides far more insight into our present than the patchy, inconsistent and ideologically motivated myths and religious narratives we were limited to before genetics, linguists, physical anthropology and other scientific methods were used to reveal it. We are beginning to have an accurate and comprehensive picture of what our ancestors did tens of thousands of years before the first known writing was discovered. There will always be gaps. Most of those stories are forever lost. But, we have reclaimed more knowledge of our past with a greater level of accuracy and detail than anyone could have imagined would be possible two hundred years ago.

Some of the conclusions have been guessed at for a long time, but were never susceptible to being proved with any confidence. Increased certainty about these guesses can help us determine how much accuracy to ascribe to ancient historical accounts and other investigation methods generally. Multi-disciplinary agreement on what happened in the past make the conclusions of each type of inquiry more reliable and more useful for extrapolating into circumstances where the evidence is only fragmentary. Other conclusions resolve disputes that have raged for long periods, seemingly without any possibility of resolution (e.g. fixing the ancestral origins of the Polynesians), or provide completely unexpected insights (despite a lack of any other ties with the New World, there appears to be at least one instance when sweet potato made its way to Polynesia and became a staple crop despite a lack of evidence that even a single female ever migrated from the New World to Polynesia and left descendants).

We are starting to get some insight into human nature. For example, we are starting to get a definitive answer to the question of why species vanished upon human contact. We are learning what happened historically when people from different cultures encountered each other in the prehistoric world.

Are we basically a violent people that destroys what we do not subjugate? Can whole communities experience culture change from a little outside contact, or is one of the communities usually almost obliterated by the other? How stable are languages, artistic preferences and religious ideas in a culture? What larger forces led humanity to become so dominant when it did? What genetic and culture changes can humanity expect to see in the future based upon our past track record? When did we first develop various cultural traits and technologies?

Closing gaps in our understanding of our origins rules out worldviews that are simply empirically wrong. This science is filling a lot of the gaps in our ancient history. And, a reality based worldview that reaches back with as much detail as possible over as long a period as possible benefits us all by bringing us closer to the truth.

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