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The essence of the alien

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanOctober 13, 2010 11:25 PM


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If you found out a new fact about yourself could that reshape how you view yourself? An extreme case involves the Polish Neo-Nazis who found out that they are actually of Jewish origin. But it can be more subtle. A friend recently told me that her proud Irish American father found out that he carried a Native American Y chromosomal lineage. There is the peculiarity that

how we view ourselves is contingent not only the reality of who we are, but the background facts we assume about ourselves.

When it came to light last spring that most modern humans may carry a non-trivial load of Neandertal ancestry I predicted that that would re-humanize Neandertals in our minds, and also the representations we make of them. The recent story about a cryptic language in northeast India made me consider another possibility. Currently our population coverage in surveys of genetic variation, from which we make inferences as to the evolutionary history of our species, is constrained by the representativeness of the samples. We have Basque, Han Chinese, Bushmen, and Papuans. That's plenty. But what if in the course of expanding our coverage

we discover an ethno-linguistic group which is predominantly not of the Neo-African lineage in terms of genetics?

Since all populations that we know of have culture that would be informative in and of itself. But how would we view this group? One moment they were essentially human, but now genetics tells us that they are different in a fundamental fashion from the rest of us. I do not believe that this will occur. At least not in such a stark fashion. But what if Sub-Saharan Africans were the dominant shapers of the contemporary cultural Zeitgeist internationally instead of Europeans and those of European-descent? How would they view the fact that non-Africans have non-trivial admixture from Neandertal populations? Especially if non-Africans were not as economically advanced or socioculturally prominent as Africans.

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