Planet Earth

Is the University of California putting politics before science?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 25, 2011 4:54 AM

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
 

Kennewick Man produced a cottage industry of journalism ~10 years ago, thanks to the political controversy around the science. Today the stakes are different. Consider this from John Hawks, "Agriculture, population expansion and mtDNA variation":

I am less sanguine about their results for Europe. They show a gradual period of growth associated in time with the Younger Dryas (around 12,000 years ago), which could make sense in the archaeology. But I am not convinced that the "European" haplogroups here are really European to that time depth. We know that the Neolithic and post-Neolithic saw some large-scale shifts in the frequencies of mtDNA haplogroups in Central and Western Europe. Some Upper Paleolithic Europeans probably contributed mtDNA to this later population, but I have no confidence that the proportion was great enough to accurately infer the demography of that pre-Neolithic population. (This is also a problem with the current paper in Current Anthropology by Peter Rowley-Conwy. I'll discuss this sometime soon.) The next frontier in reconstructing the population history of Europe will be ancient DNA. A good sample of Neolithic and pre-Neolithic whole mtDNA genomes would settle this question and allow inferences about the kind of demographic recovery Europe underwent after the Last Glacial Maximum....

An open letter to Science highlights the same issue with Native Americans, Unexamined Bodies of Evidence:

In his News & Analysis story “Do island sites suggest a coastal route to the Americas?”...M. Balter discusses the implications of evidence that more than 10,000 years ago, people used marine resources and specialized technology on California's Channel Islands. He mentions that some archaeologists, citing Spanish ethnohistorical observations, argue against interpreting the evidence as support for a coastal route from Alaska, suggesting instead that mainlanders used the islands seasonally. Later in the story, Daniel Sandweiss notes the need for DNA studies and states, “we need to find where the bodies are.” Two such bodies, a rare double burial, were recovered during archaeological excavations at the University of California, San Diego, chancellor's residence in 1976.... ... Unfortunately, the University of California administration has failed to honor research requests for the study of these unique skeletons.

Instead, the University of California favors the ideology...of a local American Indian group over the legitimacy of science.

In contrast, the 2004 Kennewick case verdict stated that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the skeleton was Native American or related to any living American Indian group (6). The potential loss of the La Jolla skeletons would have a profoundly negative impact on our knowledge of the peopling of the Americas and the antiquity of coastal adaptations

There are few points here. First, I'm a little confused as to why the letter was sent to Science. This is preaching to the choir. Perhaps for mobilization? You can find an ungrated screenshot here. But sending this letter to a more widely readable (to the public) journal might have been best. You need to get the masses on your side by raising broader consciousness. Despite all the talk of "hegemonic" science, I'm not sure I'd bet on the paleoanthropologists in a battle between them and Native American tribes purely on the plain of politics. Speaking of politics, I think the scientists themselves have an ideological ax to grind: that of objective truth. I happen to share this value, this ideology. And I think broadly this value is shared by the broader public, with qualifications (alas). Science does not always hit upon objective truth, but when it comes to reality it's the best bet we have. In a very concrete manner "folk positivism" is the ascendant ideology of our day. We shouldn't pussyfoot around this point, if we push the issue on the normative grounds of truth, we'll win. They have their ideology. We have ours. The truth will win out. Third, John Hawks touches upon a major broader possibility when it comes to the migration of peoples: that the past was characterized by more population genetic turnover than we had previously thought. The mythologies of many peoples, such as the ancient Athenians, assert a rooted indigenous origin, which just isn't true upon further reflection. So the claims of a local resident native population upon the bones of "ancestors" is a highly time sensitive assertion. 50 years makes sense. 5,000 years is open to contention. Rex Dalton has more in Wired. The science is actually more interesting than the politics, in terms of what the skeletons might tell us. But it might never happen because of politics.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month
Already a subscriber? Log In or Register
1 free articleSubscribe
Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Log In or Register
More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Join
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

 
Subscribe
To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2021 Kalmbach Media Co.