New Truths or Old Traps?
January 17, 2019 5:43 PM   Subscribe

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes for the NY Times on the promise and problems of ancient DNA: 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.
posted by ChuraChura (8 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I know that it's a Style, but I was so irritated at the 'imply huge mystery about the remains at Teouma' and then leave you hanging through a tedious recap of stuff you already know style that I stopped in the middle and went and googled. The exciting discovery about the DNA seems to be that it is related to Taiwanese aboriginals, which is what everyone had tagged for ages as the likely origin of Polynesia colonization due to linguistic and tool matching.

Perhaps I'll finish it later.
posted by tavella at 11:22 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe this is a real dumb question but what exactly is the sex bias? Is it that African women had more kids with European men than the reverse during this time period in the Americas? Was that true throughout the period?
posted by forgettable at 2:22 AM on January 18, 2019

Given that for centuries, African-ancestry female slaves were raped, repeatedly, by European-ancestry masters, I think that's exactly what they are saying, coated in an ironic veneer of academese.
posted by basalganglia at 3:23 AM on January 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I can’t recommend this article enough. I don’t have any expertise in these subjects so I’d be curious to hear feedback from those who do, but I get the sense that this article does a good job getting multiple divergent perspectives on the topics it covers. There’s good historical range, multiple disciplines, pov from the relevant populations, all well contentualized. This is excellent reporting and a well constructed story. I feel like social sciences has tried to develop mitigations for for some of its worst tendencies, but it’s interesting how those can be routed by well funded, high tech organizations with expertise in something else, who assume that elides the need for those mitigations on the assumption that they’re just smarter. Where have I heard this story before?
posted by putzface_dickman at 6:16 AM on January 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

I agree, this is an incredible article. The way that Lewis-Kraus introduces David Reich, at first seemingly as the hero of the story, only to slowly undermine him and his research, to the point that he ends up closer to a villain, is like something out of high-grade fiction. It’s so well done that the only thing I find hard to believe is that life could really give us such clear narrative, which I guess is also the point of Reich’s critics.
posted by Kattullus at 11:16 AM on January 18, 2019 [8 favorites]

tavella: Perhaps I'll finish it later.

You should definitely finish it, because things get complicated.
posted by Kattullus at 1:23 PM on January 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

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