Thursday, September 22, 2022

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, by David Reich (author), John Lescault (narrator)

Blackstone Publishing, ISBN 9781982541286, June 2018

This is the least satisfying of the books I've read/listened to about genetics and the history of human evolution.

In many ways it's excellent. Reich is voracious in absorbing and telling us about other people's research as well as his own. His ego isn't tied up in his own theories; he's enthusiastic in reporting on research results that overturn his own theories and prior work. In many ways, it's both informative and enjoyable.

And yet. Reich seems utterly unaware that he has any biases. He says he's arguing against racism, being very clear that our traditional ideas about race just have no basis in science. Then he goes on to say that the best way to study human genetics is by large population groups, and that some large modern population groups have been separated long enough for significant differences of cognition and temperament to exist.

He argues that a good way to test this is by intelligence testing and the rate of completing advanced education. There's no science to support this. On the contrary, there's substantial evidence that socioeconomic background, parental educational attainment, and the cultural biases of admission requirements and intelligence tests, have a large impact on testing outcomes and educational attainment.

Reich also offers in defense of his argument for possible significant cognition and temperament differences between large, modern population groups the "fact" that no one finds it's controversial to say that there are important biological differences between men and women that produce profound differences in temperament and behavior..... This is of course not correct, and science doesn't support the claim. But he makes this claim, and says the same should be true of discussing differences between large population groups, and that resistance to this comes from "political correctness."

Moreover, he actively resents the resistance of aboriginal peoples, especially in the Americas, to genomic research on their genetics, dismissing out of hand the idea that any substantial harm has ever come from it. Well, in the real world where the aboriginal populations get to have their say, this resistance to genomic research comes from having been lied to about what their genetic material would be used for. In at least one case, they found out how their genetic material had really been used by someone reading a published paper and recognizing the Native American group, and telling them about it. I read about that case in one of the other books in my recent pursuit of what genetics has taught us about our history. It's further worth noting that, while resistance to genomic research is strong among Native Americans, when approached respectfully by researchers who are open, make limited requests, and are very clear about what they'll do, they can sometimes get agreement. And when those scientists respect the commitments they've made, they increase the chances of getting agreement the next time. But it takes a long time to rebuild broken trust, and Reich asks if he should really respect the current laws and agreements on doing genetic research on Native American genetic material.

That's not healthy for science or social and political relations.

Overall, an interesting book, but with some serious concerns..

I bought this audiobook.

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