Who We Are and How We Got Here; Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Past by David Reich – A Book Review

This review is a companion piece to my earlier review of Gregory Cochran’s “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution.”  These two books lay out step by step how the new tool of ancient DNA isolation has allowed geneticists to turn museum fossils into an amazingly detailed history of the inter-relations between and movements of, the various branches of the human species as it emerged out of Africa 50,000 to 150,000 years ago and went on to settle the planet.

It is truly remarkable how comparing DNA sequences between modern and ancient humans has allowed these researchers to answer historical mysteries such as who were the first Indo-European speakers (the Yamnaya) and where did they live (the Russian Steppe).  We can determine if the Native Americans are essentially the direct descendants of the ancestors of the East Asians or was there some other component involved.  We can find out where the blond hair and blue eyes of the Northern Europeans came from.  We can even find out how many concubines Genghis Kahn must have had.

So, this book is full of facts to satisfy our curiosity about where we all came from.  But there is another dimension to this book that is also interesting.  David Reich is an academic scientist.  He interacts constantly with the very politically correct denizens of the social sciences.  He describes his run-ins with anthropologists and bio-ethicists who accuse him of racism for identifying various biological traits with specific human races.  Even though these traits such as sickle-cell anemia are widely known to reside almost exclusively in one racial group or another, these academics were so conditioned to reject the concept of physical race differences that even mentioning them in the context of biomedical research was the equivalent of heresy.

To his credit, Reich recognizes the intellectual weakness inherent in this response but it is obvious by the compromises he will commit to assuage the discomfort of his colleagues that he feels more comfortable himself being on the “side of the angels.”  For instance, after his research clearly showed that the present population of India is the result of the Yamnaya invading from the north and mixing in with the earlier inhabitants he allowed the feelings of his Indian colleagues to force him to rename these groups Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians.

And Reich is much harsher toward those on the right who speculate about natural selection at work in the differences measured between present day groups.  He is obviously unwilling to assume a neutral position along the spectrum of opinion on human biodiversity and feels more comfortable aligning himself at least in spirit with those whose opinions about human racial differences fly in the face of his own research.

So, Reich’s book is both fascinating and aggravating at one and the same time.  I imagine virtue signaling is the price he thinks he has to pay to get this book accepted by the academic community and then New York Times Book Review.

My recommendation is to read this book.  But be sure to read Cochran’s book along with it to see an opinion that isn’t captured in an orbit around the black hole that is Modern Academia.