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Health

Bad historical population genetics?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMarch 6, 2007 9:41 PM

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Nick Wade has a new article which draws upon the two new books about the genetics of the British Isles, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, by Bryan Sykes, and The Origin of the British, by Stephen Oppenheimer. The gist is that the British peoples are genetically very similar, and predominantly the descendents of post-Ice Age settlers who swept up along the Atlantic seaboard from the "Iberian refugia".^1 To a first approximation this story is about right, the various studies seem to be converging upon the finding that most Britons and Irish are closer to each other than they are to continental populations (i.e., the English are closer to the Irish than their "fellow" Germanic peoples), and, they are closer to the peoples of southwestern Europe than they are to those of southeast or northeast Europe. But beyond the broad brushes there are fine grained details, and that is what Sykes and Oppenheimer seem to be attempting to fill in. I've read Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, and have a review forthcoming, but suffice it to say that Sykes' work is servicable if a bit overly ambitious. I've haven't read Oppenheimer's book, but I have read his The Real Eve. He's not one to be modest, and he's trying to make another splash. I've stated earlier that I thought the Etruscan studies were historical population genetics done right, and I think here Oppenheimer in particular is all about the discipline done wrong. From a Popperian perspective I suppose one could say that Oppenheimer is making bold claims which demand to be tested, but, his idea that Germanic speech predates the Anglo-Saxons, and that the Celts brought agriculture to England, rest upon revisionst and extreme minority positions within history, archaeology and linguistics. It would be one thing if the genetics was rock solid, but it isn't. The whole model seems an intellectual mess, more ego than experiment. The populations of northwestern Europe may simply be genetically too close to use uniparental phylogenies to definitively decide between historical hypotheses, other fields need to offer concurrent evidence, and that just isn't happening here. Update: Check out Language Log's critique. 1 - During the Last Glacial Maximum humans retreated in Europe to the more sheltered peripheries of the continent, whether it be in the Iberian peninsula, isolated valleys in the Balkans or the broad expanses of southern Ukraine. After the ice retreated a demographic radiation ensued from these points of origin which have left their genetic imprint.

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