This is a continuation of comments about “Who We Are and How We Got Here” by David Reich. I see it as part of the enterprise of who “humans” are in a religious sense. It’s clear that we are a product of an immensely long and varied sequence of interactions that we’ve only guessed at recently, because of discovering the chemical code that underlies life on this planet from the smallest virus to the most imposing dinosaur.
Not until nearly the end of this book does David Reich get specific and personal enough that we feel as though we may have been reading his diary for the past few years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it’s one of the book’s strengths and will be valuable even when the information described has become old-fashioned. Much of the book is about techniques of discovery and how each offers an experience much like learning to read. I remember what a revelation that was.
The bottom line is that David is an Orthodox Jew raised at least partly in Israel. He has had to fend off the idea that he is “smarter” than others because of a genetic advantage which is presumed to be attached to being “Jewish” — even though there are people who will assert that Judaism is a religious choice rather than a physical heritage. I could observe that those saved from the Nazis were the best and brightest, because they had the most salvific contacts who got them to Manhattan where they have concentrated into leaders who have become cultural anchors. (In both good and bad senses.)
The ultimate dilemma with which he must come to terms is that of DNA being sourced in skeletons which are often taboo to acquire and sometimes religiously protected. There is very little study of Native American DNA because they resent their bones being taken away and ground up. Too many times this has turned out to be a scam, a way of tricking them out of information commercially valuable, none of which profit came back to them in spite of promises. Their sense of desecration and worry over tempting retribution from beyond is still very strong. Witnesses told me that when the Blackfeet skeletons were returned from the Smithsonian, carefully wrapped in blankets and contained in boxes, the oldest people stayed as far away as they could for fear of retribution from beyond. It was the young “modern” people who sang and wept as they buried the boxes.
One of David’s strongest qualifications for this job is his appetite for surprise. Again and again what was expected turned out to be wrong. That could sometimes be corrected in a way people could hear, but often the assumptions based on the previous wrong assumptions just went right on being believed.
Not long ago everyone was beguiled by the idea of how many men (translated to “all”) in Europe had Y DNA from Genghis Khan. It was as though this massive figure had inseminated each of their ancestors. They did not know about code from “an ancestor who lived around fifteen hundred years ago. It is especially common in people with the last name O’Donnell, who descend from one of the most powerful royal families of medieval Ireland, the “Descendants of Niall”—-referring to Niall of the Nine Hostages, a legendary warlord from the earliest period of medieval Irish history. If Niall actually existed, he would have lived at about the right time to match the Y-chromosome ancestor.” (P. 236)
Both of these mythic figures are examples of “Star Clusters” which form around “single individuals whose actions leave a disproportionate impact on subsequent generations.” Studies show that “Star Clusters” formed in abundance at a time the scientists call the “Secondary Products Revolution,” when people began to travel and peddle their products. In short, Star Clusters can form around traveling salesmen, human “stud horses.” (At one time in American history, farmers kept mares because stallions were dangerous trouble, so men led high-grade stallions around the country to start up the next generation of colts. This practice is the source of several colorful novels.)
Star clusters began in the 15th century, about the same time as the beginning of the bronze age, when it became possible to hearth-smelt many small appealing and useful objects. (Bob Scriver and I experienced this personally by building Bighorn Foundry to cast figures of the Old West.) The travelers also sold things like wool and extra animal offspring. (In another Western American story a woman in the prairie all alone makes her living by selling kittens and geranium starts.)
There are two dark sides to this period. One is the Yamnaya, a culture featuring female oppression, economic inequality, hierarchies, and intolerance of farmers or hunter-gatherers. They were from the Steppes, relentless, and builders of huge mounds with battalions of dead armed skeletons at the heart. They are what the Nazis fancied the Aryans were like but they didn’t think about the evil aspects of their way, which they tended to repeat. In fact, their ways still make trouble and are hard to eliminate. Some claim it was they who stamped out the “Venus” cultures that had preceded writing.
Looking at binary sexual differences, it becomes clear that women never had “Star Clusters”. Men were far from monogamous because they could fuck many more women than women could have babies, particularly men with prestige or prowess that attracted women, because one way for a woman to have power was through partnership augmenting men. (The power behind the throne.) The consequences of all this persist today.
David is modest and generous about whether he and his are smarter than others, but he is weak in his definition of “smart.” The qualities are those of the academy and the IQ, meaning they are tied to writing, Western Enlightenment, and today’s social structures. The world may not continue to value these skills and rewards.
Both sets of my grandparents considered themselves “above” others, smarter, owning more books and a piano. They were mostly rural — the paternal side abandoning teaching in order to raise potatoes and the maternal side turning from woolen mills to orchards and poultry. They were not industrial. What had been rewarding in their youthful rural settings became signs of poverty in their old age. By the grandchild generation, they were totally out of date and irrelevant. Nor did they have anything to “hand down,” except a moral and governmental point of view that was a hindrance.
We don’t even reactivate their DNA in any consistent way, which is why the whole thing is mysterious enough to be fascinating.