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One of the presentations from the MTA conference, on which I have spilled so much virtual ink, was a presentation on anthropology. During that presentation Franz Boas was mentioned, in approving tones, as someone who had done much to banish the racist notions of previous anthropologists. Now I don’t know much about Boas, but I had encountered his name recently, as someone peripherally connected to a new book getting coverage in most of the big newspapers: David Reich’s, Who We Are and How We Got Here. And, no I haven’t read it yet, (my copy arrived on Monday) but the book and it’s claims speak directly to a subject I covered in August of last year, after reading another book, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, by J.P. Mallory.

At the time I wrote this previous post, I had the strong sense that I was walking into a hugely controversial topic, one where I was definitely out of my depth, a topic which had been buried for awhile. But it wouldn’t have been the first time (or the last) so I didn’t let it deter me. My sense was that the subject was analogous to an old family scandal that no one talks about any longer, but simmers behind many intra-family interactions, and in this specific case, had something to do with Nazis and Aryans and the master race. Reich’s book, or at least the coverage and reviews surrounding it, have brought this “scandal” into clearer focus. At least that’s the impression I get from the coverage. I want to re-emphasis up front, that I’m definitely on the periphery of things. But, since Reich’s book appears to support several of the conclusions I drew in that last post, I thought it would be worth revisiting.

In that last post, I alluded to the fact that there is a debate between two anthropological schools of thought. (Again, as far as I can tell from the limited things I have read.) Both schools of thought agree that there was a nation or a race or what have you (maybe a loose confederation) of Indo-Europeans, or proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs). The question that people have been grappling with every since Europeans realized that nearly all languages spoken on their continent stemmed from a single source, is how did one language become so widespread? The answer to this question is what divides the two schools.

One school, maintains that it was spread through violence and conquest. That sometime in the unrecorded past the PIEs spread out from Central Asia conquering as they went, and over the next few thousand years they and their descendents ended up dominating nearly all of Europe, Asia Minor and much of the Indian subcontinent. How great of an empire they actually possessed or how cohesive it was is a matter of pure speculation, but whatever the case, outside of the Far East and Arabic speaking countries, today nearly every nation has an Indo-Europeon language as one of its official languages.

The second theory is that there was no great conquering event, no horde of Indo-Europeans who surged out in a series of conquering waves thousands of years ago. That what you had rather was a very successful example of trade, and cultural exchange. That the Indo-European language spread as far as it did largely by peaceful means. Some people have called this theory Pots not People, indicating that when artifacts of a similar design were found over vast distances (in this case the corded ware pottery) that it indicated trade in those pots, not that the people using these pots were all related to one another. That when you saw things being transmitted they were generally transmitted by culture not genetics.

It is my understanding, particularly in light of the abuse the first theory was subjected to by the Nazi’s,  that the second theory has been dominate for many decades. I alluded to all of this in my last post and said that it seemed obvious to me that the spread of the PIEs was violent. (I used the term, “conquer everything in sight.) The point of all of this, is that Professor Reich’s book backs me up.  As he basically claims that whatever indigenous populations existed before the PIEs, were almost entirely wiped out by them. Reich is a Harvard geneticist and he comes to this conclusion through conducting stunningly expansive DNA testing on ancient human remains.

Today, the peoples of West Eurasia—the vast region spanning Europe, the Near East, and much of central Asia—are genetically highly similar. The physical similarity of West Eurasian populations was recognized in the eighteenth century by scholars who classified the people of West Eurasia as “Caucasoids” to differentiate them from East Asian “Mongoloids,” sub-Saharan African “Negroids,” and “Australoids” of Australia and New Guinea…. [P]opulations within West Eurasia are typically around seven times more similar to one another than West Eurasians are to East Asians. When frequencies of mutations are plotted on a map, West Eurasia appears homogeneous, from the Atlantic façade of Europe to the steppes of central Asia. There is a sharp gradient of change in central Asia before another region of homogeneity is reached in East Asia….

One doesn’t even have to read between the lines to see a road that leads us right back into the Nazi/Aryan camp. And in fact it’s my understanding that some German scientists withdrew from the study as the implications became clearer. Meaning we’re left with a giant dump of new science with potentially troubling implications. If we assume that everything that Reich says is correct (and I see no reason for doubting it) what should we do with it? Obviously there are people who will use it in a way most find distasteful, and by all accounts Reich has bent over backwards in an attempt to avoid having his book made into a weapon to be used in the current culture war, for example avoiding the word “race” and using “ancestry” instead. And who could blame him? Despite these efforts he’s definitely taken some heat, and I’ll let you be the judge of whether he deserved it.

It is not my intention with this post to wade into that particular conflict, rather I want to look at how archaeologists and anthropologists like Franz Boas, who championed culture over conquest and genetic replacement, ended up being wrong about this issue. How articles on the spread of the Indo-European language could describe it as spreading peacefully, when Reich’s research makes it clear that it was anything but. (Reich’s research actually reveals strong invasive male replacement, implying all the indigenous males were killed and all the indigenous females were raped.)

Surely the error comes in part from the tension between our desire to find the truth and our desire to believe what makes us feel good, to believe what matches our prejudices. After World War II we were strongly prejudiced against anything the Nazis believed, and (selectively) finding evidence which disproved their favorite theory made us feel good. All of this is understandable and perhaps even expected, and mostly we just hope that, eventually the scientific method will work and that over a long enough time horizon truth will prevail over error. That said, this subject, along with things like doubts about human adult neuroplasticity, and of course the replication crisis in general show that science has by no means banished error even within its own walls.

(To say nothing of banishing it in the general population. We’re a long way away from eliminating all flat-earthers, and it’s my understanding that the numbers have been increasing.)

There’s several ways things could play out in the long run:

1- On balance we could end up with more truth than falsehood as errors are perpetually discovered and corrected. The trend line might be a little jagged but in the long term it always points up. Progress and enlightenment will continue until we reach our glorious transhuman future.

Many people who’ve thought about the issue deeply fall into this camp. Including Steven Pinker, whose book Enlightenment Now I’m hoping to cover in this space next week. That yes, there are frequent setbacks, but if you look at things since the Enlightenment, everything has been getting much better and will continue to do so.

If this is the case there’s no need to worry. But in order for it to be the case, errors do have to be corrected, and therefore anyone who points out errors, or who even think they’ve spotted an error should be given space to speak. In other words we have to love truth so much that we’re willing to put up with a lot to make sure that it gets out there. That’s definitely not the way things seem to be going. In fact I’ve read reviews of Reich’s book where people make the claim that what he’s saying is true but that the potential divisiveness outweighs the scientific value.

2- We are at the end of the scientific era, and as science becomes less able to deliver material progress and change we’ll become less convinced of the need for this sort of error checking and the tide will turn so to speak.

This possibility relies on the idea that the scientific revolution is part of a cycle, a cycle which could be reversed. Obviously there are cyclical forces in history, and the question is whether an increased emphasis on science and rationality is one of them. If it is, then, while it seems that we have entered a period of permanent, ever expanding upward progress, we are just at the top of the wave. And yes it’s been the biggest wave in history, but it’s finally about to crest.

On Ecosophia, John Michael Greer’s blog, he has positited something along these lines. In his estimation history cycles between eras of abstraction and reflection, and he is of the opinion that we’re nearing the end of an era of abstraction. In his words:

An age of abstraction dawns when a handful of well-chosen abstract generalizations offer a sudden, startlingly clear glimpse at the shape of some corner of the cosmos. The first great triumphs of modern science played that role in kickstarting the era of abstraction now winding to its end, just as geometry did in ancient Greek times and scholastic logic did in the Middle Ages.

Then at some point the abstractions start to lose their value as they become increasingly unable to describe the messiness of reality, at which point an era of reflection dawns, where:

…the achievements of the departed era of abstraction get sorted through and assessed, the good bits kept, the useless bits chucked, and the habit of letting some pompous windbag with credentials tell the rest of the world what the absolute truth is this week gets a well-deserved rest.

I’m aware of the fact that viewing history as an oscillation between high-level abstraction and inward-looking reflection, is itself something of a high-level abstraction, but I think it describes the world in a way that makes a lot of sense as I survey what’s going on and we’ll come back to it in a second.  

3- In general truth will accumulate at a faster rate than error, but one error will be big enough that it won’t matter.

The classic example of this is nukes. The error being that we thought it was safe to keep them around. Now it may be that given the fears and prejudices and game theory involved that there was nothing we could do to avoid or correct this error, but however true that is, it won’t matter if civilization ends because of it. Another example is global warming. As I said in a previous post, I personally do not think that global warming has the power to, entirely on it’s own, reverse progress. To say nothing of killing everyone, but some people do. If we decide to get more speculative, then we have all sorts of potential errors which people claim might be the error that overwhelms all of our accumulated truth.

I’ve covered many of these potential errors in past posts. And everything from job automation to AI are potential candidates, as is of course the one I’ve already mentioned, a reduction in the free exchange of ideas, though this is something of a meta-error. With all such errors (and I’m sure most people have their favorite) the key thing to remember is not the details or likelyhood of any one error, but the fact that it’s only in the last hundred years or so that option 3 has become possible. Somehow in our efforts to combat error we’ve reached a point where it’s conceivable that a single error could undo everything.  

(One variant of this idea may be that we’re coordinated enough to create the error, but not coordinated enough to fix it.)

At this point it may seem that we’re pretty far afield from where we started, but even errors made by anthropologists about the distant past can be usefully examined in this context. First because even if they seem benign, it’s a useful snapshot of the current health of our error correction system, and by extension a snapshot of whether progress is continuing. Second, I’m not sure they’re as benign as you think. I know they seem inconsequential, but this is precisely what makes them so pernicious.

As to the first, my sense, is that the snapshot it provides is of a system not as healthy as I would like. Yes we found an error and now it’s corrected. The system worked as it should have. Or at least that’s one way of looking at it. But how sure are we that this is a correction which will stick? Given the controversy the book is already engendering, are we sure that anthropology departments will immediately switch to teaching based on Reich’s data? I really have my doubts about that. In fact if I had to make a prediction I’d say that Reich’s book will largely be ignored in anthropology departments (Particularly given that Reich himself is a geneticist) and that whatever errors Riech’s data could be used to correct will remain uncorrected.

Moving outward from this specific topic, what are we to make of the replication crisis? Is it an example of a healthy truth gathering system which quickly discovers error and exposes it? At first glance it would appear so, but once again I think if we dig deeper, it’s more emblematic of the problem then the cure. In my opinion the replication crisis isn’t happening because the world is full of bad scientists who are intentionally cooking the books (though there have been a few of those) it’s happening because we’re reaching the limits of what experimentation can tell us, particularly the kinds of experiments that can actually be pulled off by a college social science department.

Perhaps this is just a temporary mis-match between what we want to know and the resources available for finding those things out. And maybe if Mark Zuckerberg wanted to, Facebook could discover once and for all whether ego depletion is a thing, whether power poses work, or whether hearing old words makes you walk slower. (All things which have failed to replicate.) But my sense is that even if you throw more resources at the problem we’re still reaching the end of what we can know in several important areas, particularly those involving the study of humans, since they often present a moving target. Though to be fair even in chemistry and physics there is significant failure to reproduce with over 80% of chemists and nearly 70% of physicists reporting that they had failed to reproduce someone else’s work.

If we have reached a state where additional truths get harder and harder to come by, then that’s bad news for the entire concept of progress. Because there’s no evidence of a similar slowdown in the rate of error creation. We have been in a situation were one bad error could wipe out progress since at least the 50s, and we may be entering an era where truth can’t even stay ahead of falsehood in the aggregate. Now obviously this is a strong claim, but also one that’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility either. Still, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought I’d gone too far. Thus let’s set that aside for now and return to the two schools of thought concerning the Indo-Europeans I began the post with.

As a reminder there’s expansion through conquest and genetic replacement, and there’s expansion through culture. As you might have guessed, the conquest school of thought came first. Meaning that we had it right, and then as people spent more time thinking about it they managed to dismiss the correct answer and talk themselves into the wrong answer. This is not how science is supposed to work, at least according to some of it’s more vociferous defenders. According to them humanity has been saddled with this large body of superstitions and myths, and science comes along and gradually wipes them all out, until pure reason has triumphed everywhere. Science is not supposed to go backwards. I could probably spend an entire post talking about this and maybe I will someday, especially since I don’t think that what we’re currently discussing is the only example of it happening. There appears to be a broader trend.

Returning to the reflection/abstraction cycle of Greer, in that model the replication crisis came about because we tried to over apply a useful abstraction. It may be that humanity is like a new college student who, being shown the power of a concept they’ve never heard of,  immediately goes forward, flush with this new knowledge, and tries to apply it to everything. I understand the situation is complicated, but this also sounds like what happened in anthropology. New concepts like the power of culture, the Blank Slate ideology and a desire to distance themselves from the evil that had been done in connection with the older theory, lead scientist to reject the previous, correct theory, in favor of one that matched their current favorite abstraction. You can almost hear a college student talking about how now that they understand intersectionality, “Everything makes so much sense!” In my opinion something very similar happened to science, and specifically anthropology once they understood the power of culture and the evils of racism the non-violent spread of the PIEs became obvious!

Where does all this leave us? If you’re anything like me you may have some concerns that pleasant and comforting abstractions have overwhelmed actual science and that even when scientists say, no, we had it right the first time, the reason we all speak an Indo-European language is because they murdered all the people who spoke other languages. Those scientists will be ignored because something…something… Nazis! But even if this precise error is rectified, it does not mean that in the larger scheme of things that truth will automatically triumph over error. And it’s becoming increasingly evident that the battle between the two is closer than I would like.

Am I on the side of truth? I hope so. If you agree consider donating. If you don’t agree consider commenting, you’ll have plenty of company.