Is the University of California putting politics before science?

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2011 12:54 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
MORE ABOUT: paleontology
  • melqart

    Anthropologists pushed the idea of their objective quest for truth in the service of a bs ideology for decades, at the particular expense of native Americans, with a heavy price paid by native Americans living in California. The natural outcome of screwing up big time is that you don’t get as much trust the next time.

    I’d be very interested in the results of such tests. However, I’m not so deaf as to be confused tribal resistance, nor do I fail to recognize that large parts of the public are sympathetic to the native point of view even though we tend to disagree. (That’s their “ideology”, as you so insistently call it, even as you plug the great value of meat manufacturing on your blog that is simply about science – you know, the pursuit of “objective truth”.)

    If you don’t like it, you should go try to mollify some native Americans rather than ridiculously urging a political “battle” between native Americans (some 4 million of them) and paleoanthropologists (gee, must be at least 1,000 of them in the US). There are multiple reasons that the actual people in the field do not support your call for a battle.

  • Miley Cyrax

    Sickening. Just another instance of science and progress (real progress, not the nominal/liberal kind) being stonewalled because god forbid a minority group’s feelings get hurt. You know what, why don’t we stop digging dinosaur fossils as to not offend Creationists? Oh right, because no one cares about Christians because they’re generally white proles. We can laugh at their superstitions, but we have to respect the equally ludicrous ones of Native Americans.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “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.”

    What Native Americans push back on is the immigrationist and futuristic ideology brought to the U.S. by immigrant Europeans. Without this ideology, they would be much more lenient about pre-historic migrations. “We are a nation of immigrants” is a typical multicultural slogan thrown around without a heed to the fact that there was a highly multicultural in-situ population mosaic in the New World prior to 1492, the mosaic that, albeit truncated, continues to exist into the present. The immigrationist ideology is translated back into the past in the form of the “peopling of the America” scientific discourse whereby all Native Americans are depicted as recent (by world-historic, evolutionary, geologic standards) immigrants to the continent and thus are just like everybody else. The fact that the peopling of the Americas event is technically dated at some 12,000 years (when this discourse was initiated, at the times of Father de Acosta and then Hrdlicka, it was less than 5,000 years) makes little difference in the way Native American recency is perceived by policy makers and the general public. The immigrationist and futuristic approach to nation-building is perceived 1) as a threat because it can potentially deprive individual Native American communities of cultural uniqueness, land rights and finally tax exemptions; and 2) as an insult because in Europe and elsewhere nations are built of the presumption of a significant depth of indigeneity of the dominant majority but in the U.S. Native Americans are powerless and marginalized despite being indigenous. It’s the political “jamming” of the scientific “signal” as well as the suspicion that scientists are in cahoots with politicians or are the ignorant pawns of the system that makes Native Americans so recalcitrant when it comes to donating genes and bones for “neutral” scientific purposes.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Anthropologists pushed the idea of their objective quest for truth in the service of a bs ideology for decades, at the particular expense of native Americans, with a heavy price paid by native Americans living in California. The natural outcome of screwing up big time is that you don’t get as much trust the next time.

    i’m talking about scientists, not anthropologists (with honorable exceptions) :-) you witch-doctors can go about your business, it’s a free country, and i’ll oppose your voodoo as i always do!

  • vnv

    That’s their “ideology”, as you so insistently call it, even as you plug the great value of meat manufacturing on your blog that is simply about science – you know, the pursuit of “objective truth”.

    I didn’t think Razib has ever even pretended his blog is a zone free of his editorial stance. I always had the impression his attitude was the reasonable “it’s my blog, so you get my opinions and prescriptive statements”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #5, #1 is a witch-doctor. they don’t operate by the same rules as you or i. subjectivity for me, but not for thee! beware the priests with their scare quotes :-)

  • http://phknrocket1k.wordpress.com Hassan

    This was a contentious issue while I was at UCSD. My coblogger was heavily involved in the Native American Student Association, I will see what he thinks.

  • Spike Gomes

    I’m not going to say too much (because it would get my ass canned very quick, if anyone who could see where I’m posting from were to find out), but native activist types can be *extremely* flexible when it comes to archeology that profits them, to the point that it would boggle. The stories I could tell!

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “i’m talking about scientists, not anthropologists (with honorable exceptions) :-) you witch-doctors can go about your business, it’s a free country, and i’ll oppose your voodoo as i always do!”

    You are a romantic, Razib. Scientists are a bunch of uber-specialized, bespectacled, grey-haired graduate students. Anthropology evolved as a way to bridge gaps created by those graduate students. It may have failed but it’s no fault thereof. Scientists, with some honorable exceptions, just think they are above the customary law. E.g., if scientists drop the peopling of the Americas talk they’ll see an inflow of precious stones, genes and bones from indigenous people. And everything will end amicably. But they insist on a version of Biblical chronology for the New World and then they get inflamed that some stakeholders choose not to cooperate in “proving” the prejudice with hard data.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    But they insist on a version of Biblical chronology for the New World and then they get inflamed that some stakeholders choose not to cooperate in “proving” the prejudice with hard data.

    dude, stop acting as if your heterodox views are normative.* it’s starting to get irritating.

    and i’m not a romantic. what fucking romantic would say that most science wrong?

    * that not a polite request.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “dude, stop acting as if your heterodox views are normative.* it’s starting to get irritating.”

    I spoke with many Native Americans on these issues. It’s not my idiosyncratic perspective. Just read “Red Earth, White Lies” by Vine Deloria. That’s how many of them perceive the world: there must be a fair exchange between science and native communities.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Also, last time I spoke with Tad Schurr he said that developing a “truly anthropological perspective” on human origins and the peopling of the Americas is something scientists should strive for. And by an “anthropological perspective” he meant a holistic, four-field approach, not a singular perspective that came out of archaeology or genetics. So, for some scientists anthropology is not a curse word.

  • toto

    Just read “Red Earth, White Lies” by Vine Deloria.

    I didn’t know the book, but wiki says:

    “He argues for a Young Earth with only one Ice Age, for a worldwide flood, and for the survival of dinosaurs into the 19th century.”

    I think I’ll pass.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i’ve read vine deloria. he said in one book we should take seriously the idea that the sumerians were aliens.

    I spoke with many Native Americans on these issues. It’s not my idiosyncratic perspective.

    i don’t care. this my blog. i’m not opening this up to a debate. i have my perspective, and if you aren’t willing to respect that that’s the starting point here, then don’t comment. if you had a blog i wouldn’t leave comments assuming that my perspective was the one people should use as the starting point on your weblog. that’s rude.

    (this is the last comment where i am going to waste my time on this)

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    @toto

    “I didn’t know the book, but wiki says:

    “He argues for a Young Earth with only one Ice Age, for a worldwide flood, and for the survival of dinosaurs into the 19th century.”

    I think I’ll pass.”

    It doesn’t matter what Deloria is arguing for. And I don’t clearly remember – it’s been a while since I look through the book. And obviously I don’t believe in what Wikipedia says he believed in. What matters is his critique of the Bering Strait idea – from an educated Native American perspective – which explains why Native American communities are often antagonistic to scientists and refuse to donate blood and bones.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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