Who We Are: #1

Reich’s book, Who We Are and How We Got Here, is really two books. The first is an exposition of his excellent work using ancient DNA to understand prehistory. The second is about the impact of advances in genetics on our understanding of social issues, such as various forms of inequality and racial differences. It’s not obvious why that second book was written. It’s not his specialty, and it’s far more controversial. Which for sure doesn’t bother me, but might not be a good thing for Reich. Nor is it as good a book. While saying true things that would, if properly understood by the usual gang of idiots, get him into serious trouble, the book is interspersed with non sequiturs, falsehoods, and unjust attacks on people who committed the deadly sin of prematurely coming to the same general conclusions he has. It’s possible that he felt the need to cloak his general line of thought with clouds of toxic squid ink. I don’t much care what his reasons were: I’m going to praise and explain when he’s right, argue with him when I think he’s wrong, kick him in the goolies when he’s being a prick.

There are a few places – not many – in which this book is behind the fast-moving wavefront of research in ancient DNA. I don’t think that this is in any way Reich’s fault – it’s an inevitable consequence of how books are cooked. If I mention some recent result that has somewhat changed our thinking on something he discusses, something that he couldn’t have incorporated due to publication delays, I’m not dissing him.

On the other hand, Reich has some systematically wrong ideas about standards of proof. DNA analysis can yield tremendous amounts of high-quality information. We’re looking at billions of bases. We can therefore, analyze things more closely, and be far more certain of some results, than we could in the past. But that doesn’t mean that lesser kinds of evidence can’t be useful, or that nobody knew anything about the subject before modern geneticists (like David Reich) looked at it. For example, Reich mentions recent genetic work that strongly supports the idea that the genetic potential for height is generally higher in northern Europeans than in southern Europeans, and that this differences is the product of natural selection over the past few thousand years. He implies that we didn’t really know this until recently. Well, I was already pretty sure that Swedes run taller than Sicilians – and that those differences were still there when both groups had plenty to eat, since the same trend is observed in the US of A, land of the fat. Since Seneca and Tacitus noticed the very same thing (Germans are bigger than Italians), it’s not completely new information. The genetic work has told us more: we now know that height is influenced by many alleles, each of which accounts for a small fraction of the variance – and we now know the identity of those alleles. As for the height difference being the product of natural selection – well, isn’t everything?

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46 Responses to Who We Are: #1

  1. I thought his foray into racial differences was pretty weak, and that too was in two parts:
    1) Some of this new genetic stuff will upset you
    2) I am not a racist.

    • Smithie says:

      All that stuff should really be put somewhere after the footnotes.

    • Curmudgeon says:

      I am a racist. I believe that there are races and that there are differences between them. I can trace my mother’s Scandinavian family back over 800 years. I am convinced that none of my ancestors looked like Australian Aborigines, and my DNA is different from theirs. I also believe that the Aborigines survived in Australia, where other ancient races could not, because of their DNA.
      None of the above means that one race is superior to another. Each evolved and developed according to their genes. Inuit survive in the Arctic, Aborigines would not.

  2. dearieme says:

    My test will be simple, even simple-minded: what does he tell us that wasn’t pretty well known to my parents, or pretty easily guessed by them?

    For instance, the scale of the Bronze Age invasion of Britain would have been news to them. I look forward to finding out whether the Indo-Europeans mainly pushed on an open door, caused by the decline in Neolithic farming in Britain, or came a-slaughtering. Perhaps both: it’s probably easier to exterminate the survivors of a culture in decline than one that’s thriving.

    Can we call the invaders ‘Aryans’ do you think? It would save tedious typing, and spread pleasure to the world by offending people who enjoy nothing more than being offended.

    Did they spread fatal infectious disease, these invaders? if they did can we adopt the nickname ‘Aryanpox’, at least until such a disease can be identified?

    • ricardo says:

      Aryangitis, surely.

    • Frau Katze says:

      According to Wikipedia (and other things I’ve read) the term “Aryan” was used by the branch of Indo-European speakers that headed to what is now Iran (“Iran” derives from “Aryan”) and the subcontinent. It wasn’t used by the branch that headed to Europe.

      So I think it’s use for Europeans is inaccurate linguistically.

      Also, on the IE invasion in general: How different genetically are say, Finns or Basques, than Europeans speaking IE languages? They don’t look obviously different, AFAIK.

      One also has to consider how few people can alter the language of a group. I’ve havent read anything on this question. I haven’t seen any source on it.

      For example, how did the English get all the Celtic parts of the UK (plus Ireland) to abandon their original languages and become English-speakers? I’ve never read anything on this either. If you have any sources, I’d be interested.

      I understand that when it became clear that Sanskrit was related to Latin and Greek, it was very surprising.

      By the time they were done, IE languages were spoken from Iceland to Sri Lanka. That’s pretty impressive. And then came the expansion to the Americas. And Australia and New Zealand.

      • Jim says:

        Yes, “Aryan” if it is used at all should be applied only to the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European. It started out as a perfectly harmless linguistic term but was ruined for obvious reasons. If it is used it should only be used as a linguistic term not a genetic term.

      • Jim says:

        Also while the Indo-Europeans coming into Europe mostly were not Indo-Iranian or if you prefer Aryan speakers there was one group that was. They were the Alans.

        • Jim says:

          Later the Gypsies entered Europe. Hitler tried to exterminate them, the only European ethnicity that is truly “Aryan” (at least those who continue to speak Roma).

          • Name says:

            We have evidence that the entirety of Indo-Europeans called themselves Aryans, by either proto-Uralic terms and by how the term survived in many European peoples, such as the Alan (pronounced Aylean), Hellene (also originally pronounced Aylene) and the Irish (hÉireann Ayrian – hÉireannaigh Ayrianey).

            Also, Gypsies spoke an Indo-Iranian language, but genetically speaking, they were not “Aryans” at all, they have much of Indian (non-Aryan, Dravidian) ancestry.

            Do you even read the genetic papers Reich and co. write? The Aryan golden age was in the Bronze Age, where there was a continuum from Ireland to Central Asia of peoples who were European genetically, but things changed there with time, they acquired other ancestries, such as Dravidian and Turkic.

            • Jim says:

              It doesn’t matter what the Indo-Europeans called themselves. That doesn’t determine the correct use of the term Aryan in modern English. It has a clear meaning as denoting the branch of Indo-European also called Indo-Iranian but it has no definite genetic meaning.

              It is possible that names such as “Eire” or “Hellene” have some etymological relation to
              “Aryan” but that has not been demonstrated.

              The only clear meaning of the word “Aryan” is linguistic and by that meaning Roma speakers are Aryan.

              The notion of an Aryan golden age stretching from Ireland to Central Asia is complete, total and utter nonsense.

              • Name says:

                You’re just retarded. Are Haitians French then? They speak French, so they must be French right?

                The Roma is a population whose Aryan ancestry got dilluted by Dravidians, they’re not Aryans.

                And also, learn some genetics, from Britain to Andronovo, there was this entire corridor which was genetically the same.

                You’re just an ignorant on the matter, clearly, and those words have roots in Aryan, just like the Ari- from Aristrocrat.

                Go home, this discussion is too new to you, this have been happening for 3 full years now (genetically) before it became pop with Reich’s NYT article and Book.

              • Jim says:

                You can use a term like “French” with a pretty clear cultural meaning as opposed to the meaning of “French speaking” (actually in the case of Haitians their Creole is quite a bit different from French). The problem with using the term “Aryan” in a genetic sense is the total lack of any precision in what it would actually mean genetically.

                Our knowledge of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European is too murky to give a term for their genotype any precision. Although the reconstruction of PIE is a marvelous and astonishing accomplishment there are many features of PIE that are very poorly understood. Also what has been reconstructed is not a specific language spoken at some time and place but an average of many different variations over an unknown period of time.

                At the present time only the linguistic meaning of the term “Aryan” is sufficiently clear to make it a useful term. Non-linguistic meanings of the term are so poorly defined that such uses of the term are likely to engender confusion.

            • Hoverica says:

              “The Aryan golden age was in the Bronze Age, where there was a continuum from Ireland to Central Asia of peoples who were European genetically”

              Genetically, the “Aryans” were half Middle Eastern (CHG) and had a large indigenous Siberian component related to Native Americans (ANE).

      • John McWhorter does Great Courses and readable books on linguistics about the general topics of how one language pushes out another and how one influences another, but most of his examples and discussion are about the English language, including the Celts. Not all historical linguists agree with all of what he says, but then, they are a pretty contentious bunch.

        • Frau Katze says:

          For the case of the Celts, this must have taken place fairly recently. Certainly within historic time. Apparently my Celtic grandmother spoke Gaelic (and English). Her husband only spoke English. They were from the very far north Caithness.

          • dearieme says:

            Gaelic? Ruddy immigrants! A Norse tongue was spoken in Caithness until not too long ago. WKPD reports –

            “Norn is an extinct North Germanic language that was spoken in the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) off the north coast of mainland Scotland and in Caithness in the far north of the Scottish mainland. After Orkney and Shetland were pledged to Scotland by Norway in 1468–69, it was gradually replaced by Scots. Norn became extinct in 1850, after the death of Walter Sutherland, the language’s last known speaker.”

            • Smithie says:

              Scots, I believe, is a Germanic language/English variant, the tongue of Robert Burns. Used to be somewhat native to lowland Scotland, whereas Gaelic used to predominate in the Highlands and some of the islands.

            • Frau Katze says:

              Yes, Caithness was a Norse colony at one point. “Sutherland” is my maiden name.

          • Jim says:

            There are currently about 50,000 or so speakers both of Scotch Gaelic and Irish. The number of Welsh speakers is 500-600,000 and speakers of Breton number about 200,000.
            When my sister visited Wales a few years ago she told me that it was very common to hear people speaking Welsh.

            • Frau Katze says:

              Interesting. Thinking further on how English caught on: England, particularly London, was recognized even the remote Scottish Highlands as a sort of cultural center. That was where things were happening.

              It’s hard for me to imagine that this might have been sufficient reason to make sure your children learned English. It’s hard to imagine because at that time in history (say, mid to late 1800’s) people with a true mix of intelligence were all living in those remote places.

              We now think of people who willingly live in remote backwaters as not so bright. A good example is a book called “Methland” by Nick Reding. He was based in St. Louis but his parents or grandparents had moved to the city from the rural backwaters. As farming become more mechanized the concept of a “family farm” started to fade. Corporations owned some farms and they could afford to buy out neighboring smaller farms. Thus, there are far fewer people living in rural areas than had been the case as late as the 1970s, 80s.

              His book was blunt: he interviewed one man who had got an education and returned as a teacher. Why were all these kids in the rural towns making meth (for local consumption), why so different from even a generation ago?

              The phenomenon that Greg called “boiling off” was definitely at work. If you were reasonably intelligent and motivated you moved to the city. The people remaining were losers. Everyone knew it.

              Economic factors such as firing the whole unionized workforce at a meat packing plant and reopening but now with cheap Mexican illegals only made staying in the rural town worse.

              But that wasn’t the case in the 19th century. The sorting process hadn’t really even started. So everyone with a grain of sense in the remote Highlands of Scotland saw speaking English as the best option.

              Emigrating looked (and was) a smart option. My grandfather and three brothers left for Canada together a few years before WW I. Their speaking English made the choice easy.

      • Philip Neal says:

        The Indo-European language was once uncontroversially called Aryan, e.g. “Aryan kmtom gives Welsh cant pronounced qant not kant.” J. Morris Jones, A Welsh Grammar, p. 123 (the definitive work on Welsh historical linguistics, published 1913).

        The Celtic languages went into a decline in the nineteenth century mainly as a result of policy on schools: see Brad y Llyfrau Gleision.

      • Hugh Mann says:

        “For example, how did the English get all the Celtic parts of the UK (plus Ireland) to abandon their original languages and become English-speakers?”

        Some areas by replacement, like “the Englishry” in South Pembrokeshire, Wales, where Normans nicked the good farming land and left the hills to the Welsh, but mostly by “cultural hegemony” i.e. English was the language of power if you wanted to get on.

        But as late as the 1960s there were people in Wales, Scotland and Ireland who spoke no English at all – I remember as a child meeting old ladies with “dim Saesneg”.

        Then the final straw was modern communications – TV, radio, overwhelmingly English, plus mass immigration, which has driven the English into Wales and Scotland, where property is cheaper and urban “vibrancy” is unknown. This is not necessarily welcomed – in the 80s burning English-owned holiday cottages occurred in Wales, and there’s a strand of Scots Nationalism that bitterly resents what they call “white settlers”.

        • Frau Katze says:

          Good points. The era and situation have changed recently and quickly.

        • But as late as the 1960s there were people in Wales, Scotland and Ireland who spoke no English at all
          There were others who could but wouldn’t. In my schooldays around 1960 a party of us went on a hiking trip around the mountains of Merionethshire. In the little slate-mining villages there it was common for the storekeepers we tried to buy lemonade from to indicate they didn’t understand English. One actually sent for an interpreter. Our schoolmaster in charge of the party would mutter as we left: “They can speak English well enough when they want to…”

      • Ivan says:

        “If you have any sources, I’d be interested.”

        You may be interested in this book:

        It attempts to analyze the rise and decline of various languages that once dominated enormous geographical areas (Akkadian, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Arabic, etc). Even if one may disagree with some conclusions, especially in the light of the latest paleogenetic data, the book contains vast factual material and references so that one could make conclusions on one’s own.

        Celtic languages are covered in Chapter 7.

      • sprfls says:

        I was surprised to find out how relatively late people began to notice the similarities between languages in India and languages in Europe. Just the numbers should really jump out at you.

        Actually I guess a decent amount of traders did notice but didn’t care enough to write about it.

        • Frau Katze says:

          Most traders were not interested in learning Sanskrit. You needed a sufficiently large base of English living there to produce an eccentric who decided to learn it.

          • sprfls says:

            According to wikipedia the earliest record noting the similarity comes from Florentine merchant Filippo Sassetti, writing in 1585. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filippo_Sassetti

            What I’m saying is that there surely were merchants trading in India many centuries earlier who understood Latin and/or Greek and at the very least were familiar with Indo-Aryan-derived numbers. The similarity is impossible to miss — how can nearly all the numbers sounding the same be a coincidence!? It just took a Florentine steeped in Renaissance culture to think more deeply and actually write about it.

            • Frau Katze says:

              I answered your comment but it ended up as a new comment at the end of the entire comment section. Not sure why. Short version: I don’t know much about it and need to read that book on languages.

            • Noodle says:

              Easy. The sort of people interested in that kind question during that time period were all-consumed by a power pre-conception: They thought (for religious reasons) that the Ur-Language was actually Hebrew.

            • Simian similarity is also impossible to miss says:

              For all they knew, the numbers might have been loanwords.

  3. Zenit says:

    How we got there? Simple explanation: by cross breeding of ape and pig. 😉


    This theory is new and revolutinary, but it must be true, because Daily Mail published it, and because it explains everything you need to know about humanity.

  4. Ryan Baldini says:

    The prevalence of genetic diseases among Anabaptist groups is surely not due to natural selection.

  5. Frau Katze says:

    Amazon just sent me an email suggestion: the book under review. Now, how did they know that?

  6. Hoverica says:

    “the genetic potential for height is generally higher in northern Europeans than in southern Europeans . . . Seneca and Tacitus noticed the very same thing (Germans are bigger than Italians)”

    True, but the north-south height gap has decreased a lot since then, and southern Europeans are still getting taller:



  7. Frau Katze says:

    Good point. Maybe if I read that book on languages I’ll know more.

    Always something waiting to be read… I seem to have less free time than before I retired.

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