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Colin Renfrew as a vector for misinformation

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApril 19, 2009 2:26 AM


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John Hawks has pointed out that the great archaeologist Colin Renfrew has been making the case that our species has been in genomic stasis for 50,000 years. He contends:

The genetic composition of living humans at birth (the human genotype) is closely similar from individual to individual today. That was an underlying assumption of the Human Genome Project and it is being further researched in studies of human genetic diversity. We are all truly born much the same. Moreover a child born today, in the twenty-first century of the Common Era, would be very little different in its DNA -- i.e., in the genotype, and hence in innate capacities -- from one born 60,000 years ago.

I bring attention to this because I notice that Steve Waldman over at Beliefnet has a post up about Neandertals where he is transmitting Renfrew's assertions second-hand. Waldman is frank about his ignorance of human evolution:

Until the recent discovery of Neanderthal DNA, I hadn't realized that this species actually existed side by side with homo sapiens. (I had naively assumed homo sapiens descended from primitive Neanderthals).

He also ends, as an aside in regards to evolution's relationship to our species:

Cathy Grossman at USA Today focused on a more meaninful part of his lecture, the idea that since our genetic structure hasn't changed much in 100,000 years, Darwinian principles can't explain much about human evolution.

The link is to a blog entry titled, Don't look to Darwin for clues on cultural evolution. She repeats some of Renfrew's contentions about cultural evolution:

Renfrew took us through tens of thousands of years, looking at signs of emerging consciousness in items as simple as the shell beards or red ochre that ancient mankind used for adornment. He calls these things signs of the rise of personhood and self. And he's talking, to a degree, about us. After all, he says, the human genome of today was established 100,000 years ago and we're not much changed. Darwin, at this point, is no help at all.

I think Renfrew is generally wrong. Nevertheless, he's an eminent scholar, and his position is one that has supporters in the academy. Let's grant that. The more interesting point is to see how Renfrew's own model has mutated through the chain of transmission to be the theoretical backdrop which we use to frame our models of human evolution.Related:Recent human evolution.

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