Racial migrations and human genetics: The “game changer” in the South Pacific that wasn’t – part 1

John Edward Terrell and Kevin M. Kelly


Here’s a hint about why scholars can be so captivated by what is basically an old-fashioned racial migration argument. They are apparently forgetting what they have been taught about the difference between a rhetorical argument and a scientific one.

The is part 1 of a 3 part commentary


THE IDEA THAT ONCE UPON A TIME the many islands of the South Pacific were colonized by different racial migrations out of Asia or the Americas (the latter a minority view) is as old as the hills. Or at any rate, at least as old as the earliest known encounters after 1492 between Europeans and the people living there.

1852 Bocage Map of Australia and Polynesia. The colored boundary lines show how this part of the world has long been subdivided into four cartographic regions labeled here as Malaisie (Malaysia), Micronesie (Micronesia), Polynesie (Polynesia), and Melanesie (Melanesia). Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/1852_Bocage_Map_of_Australia_and_Polynesia_-_Geographicus_-_Oceanie-bocage-1852.jpg

The apparent remoteness and isolation of these islands and their inhabitants have long fueled the notion that here, if not necessarily elsewhere on earth, “race, language, and culture” all formerly tracked one another so closely that today, for instance, language differences can still be used successfully—and scientifically—not only to circumscribe and label separate “populations” in the Pacific (e.g., as different “ethnolinguistic groups,” ‘races,” and the like), but can also tell us how to reconstruct the prehistory and ancient migrations of separate and distinct “peoples” out into Oceania (Terrell et al. 1997).

It is generally considered impolite to say so, but the conventional word for this type of thinking is the word racism.

What seems astonishing is that racial thinking like this still frames how archaeologists, linguists, historians, social anthropologists, and human geneticists think about Pacific Islanders and write about their past. The most recent instance of this almost universal practice is possibly also the most revealing example of why otherwise informed scholars find themselves still under the spell of such an antiquated and unscientific idea.

Melanesians and Polynesians

As early as 1813 James Cowles Prichard was formally proposing—as others had earlier done more anecdotally—that the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands starting with New Guinea and neighboring places and moving on out eastward could be divided into “two principal classes.” In his own words (quoted in: Terrell et al. 2001):

The tribes which belong to the first of these are, strictly speaking, savages. They are universally in that rude unimproved state, which precedes all division of professions and employments. Consequently their political condition is that of perfect equality without any difference of ranks. Their physical character is of the rudest kind. Their form and complexion
approximate to those of the Negro.

Pritchard called these rude savages “the race of the Papuas.” Others would come to favor instead the term “Melanesians” (i.e., “black islanders”). He did not offer a name to use for the other—and supposedly superior—class of people except to say that such tribes were to be found in “the more distant regions of the Pacific Ocean.”

By 1843, his uncertainty about how to label the latter class of tribes had been resolved in favor of calling them “Malayo-Polynesians” since by then “a real kindred, or community of origin” had been established “by affinity of language” between islanders in Southeast Asia (i.e., “Malays”) and those in the more remote parts of Oceania, who were by then often labeled as Polynesians (i.e., “people of the many islands”).

Today the favorite label for the “affinity of language” noted by Pritchard and others in the 19th century between people in Polynesia and some of the inhabitants of Island Southeast Asia is the linguist’s label Austronesian.  Nowadays, too, those said to be in Pritchard’s so-called class of savages are generally called “Papuans,” although the label “Melanesians” is also still used by some.

Racial redux

Under the headline “‘Game-changing’ study suggests first Polynesians voyaged all the way from East Asia,” Ann Gibbons, a writer at Science magazine who had written previously about the origins of the Polynesians (Gibbons 1994, 2001), announced in surprisingly unqualified terms on 3 October 2016 that the identity of the first settlers of Polynesia was at last known, thanks to a paper then just published in Nature reporting on the first genome‑wide study of ancient DNA from  prehistoric Polynesians (Skoglund et al. 2016). Lo and behold, their ancestors were ancient East Asian mariners “who swept out into the Pacific. It wasn’t until much later that Melanesians, probably men, ventured out into Oceania and mixed with the Polynesians.”

To clinch the story, she then quotes experts who apparently ought to know what they are talking about.

“The paper is a game‑changer,” says Cristian Capelli, a population geneticist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, noting that that it settles a decades‑long dispute. By showing that the East Asians hopscotched past islands already populated by Melanesians without picking up their genes, it is also a case study in how culture can initially bar mixing between groups. “Farmers move in and don’t mix much with the hunter‑ gatherers,” says evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas of University College London. “We see this again and again and again” elsewhere in the world.

Not so fast

The late population geneticist and mathematical ecologist Richard Levins is famous in scientific circles for once having declared in no uncertain terms that “truth is the intersection of independent lies.’’  Given that what Gibbons, Capelli, and Thomas are saying is intellectually—if not necessarily politically—racist, why are they so confident? Particularly since the claim being endorsed is based on DNA extracted from only four skulls dating to around 3,000 or so years ago (three from Vanuatu, and one from the Tongan Islands) compared with the DNA of less than 800 present-day individuals from 83 places in Asia and Oceania.

To a cautious statistical mind, such figures ought to raise the worry that not enough is known about human genetic variation in this part of the world to warrant going far out on a limb by declaring resolutely that science has now told us not only where the ancestors of the Polynesians came from, but also how.

Add to this concern the additional information that all four of the women in the archaeological sample from the Pacific display their strongest apparent genetic ties with Taiwan—currently the most popular place to start the purported ancient migration to Polynesia—and with the Philippines.* Does a modern comparative DNA sampling of 778 individuals from 83 places in Asia and Oceania tell us enough about genetic similarities and differences throughout this immense region to overrule the reasonable doubt that linking the four prehistoric women with present-day people in Taiwan and the Philippines wasn’t exactly an unpredictable finding? Isn’t it reasonable to suspect this study might be biased, i.e., is an example of looking specifically for something—a genetic connection with Taiwan, in particular—where you most hope to find it?

Two alternative stories

The research report in Nature that Ann Gibbons wrote about in Science last October has 31 credited authors, a global mix of geneticists and archaeologists. Their report starts off with the assertion: “Pacific islanders today derive from a mixture of two highly divergent ancestral populations.” These authors then go on to tell us that there are two alternative stories—they call them hypotheses—about these two primal races (a word they do not use), and they say they now know which of the two to believe.

Both stories accept as true the unstated premise that biology, language, and culture co-vary closely with one another. The first story is an old tale still favored by some archaeologists (Bellwood 2011). If (a) race, language, and culture co-vary, and (b) Polynesians today speak languages of Southeast Asian origin (i.e., Austronesian, formerly called “Malayo-Polynesian”), then (c) it follows that the ancestors of the Polynesians came from Southeast Asia.  The second story is a more recent alternative reconstruction of Polynesian origins (Green 2003). If (a) race, language, and culture co-vary, and (b) the so-called “Lapita cultural complex” archaeologically associated with the first settlers of Polynesia is a cultural mix of Southeast Asian and Melanesian traits, then (c) the Polynesians racially must also be of similarly mixed biological origin.

Needless to say, these collaborators would not have written their report if they had found they couldn’t adjudicate the right choice between these two alternative stories. And they do not disappoint us: “Our study has shown that many of the first humans in Remote Oceania had little, if any, Papuan ancestry, in stark contrast [an odd choice of words?] to the situation today.” And if so, the second story evidently can’t be correct, right?

But this is not all they have to conclude. In their estimation: “Systematic study of ancient DNA from throughout Remote Oceania should make it possible to provide a detailed chronicle of the population movements and sex-biased population mixtures that shaped the ancestry of present-day Oceanians.”

Should we accept as true what they tell us? Is there a better way to think about what they report? In other words, what’s the chance they have been barking up the wrong stories altogether?

Part 2: Necessary, plausible, and sufficient


*  Only 14 of the 83 places in their comparative sample are located in Island Southeast Asia; 2 of these are on Taiwan and 6 in the Philippines. None of the other 69 localities is in the region between the Philippines and northern New Guinea except for a single sample of 10 individuals from Sulawesi. We return to these figures in Part 2 of this commentary.


References

Bellwood, Peter. 2011. Holocene population history in the Pacific region as a model for worldwide food producer dispersals. Current Anthropology 52: S363–S378.

Gibbons, Ann. 1994. Genes point to a new identity for Pacific pioneers. Science 263: 32–33, p. 32.

Gibbons, Ann. 2001. The peopling of the Pacific. Science 291: 1735–1737.

Golitko, Mark, Ethan E. Cochrane, Esther M. Schechter, and Jason Kariwiga. 2016. Archaeological and Palaeoenviromental Investigations Near Aitape, Northern Papua New Guinea, 2014. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 7: 139–150.

Green, Roger C. 2003. The Lapita horizon and traditions – signature for one set of oceanic migrations. In C. Sand (ed.), Pacific Archaeology: Assessments and Prospects. Le Cahiers de l’Archéologie en Nouvelle-Calédonie 15. Nouméa: Service de Musées et du Patrimoine de Nouvelle-Calédonie, pp. 95-120.

Hanebuth, Till JJ, Harold K. Voris, Yusuke Yokoyama, Yoshiki Saito, and Jun’ichi Okuno. 2011. Formation and fate of sedimentary depocentres on Southeast Asia’s Sunda Shelf over the past sea-level cycle and biogeographic implications. Earth-Science Reviews 104: 92-110.

Lavery, Tyrone H., Andrew D. Olds, Jennifer M. Seddon, and Luke K‐P. Leung. 2016. The mammals of northern Melanesia: speciation, ecology, and biogeography.” Mammal Review 46: 60–76.

Matisoo-Smith, Elizabeth A. 2016. Human biology and population histories in the Pacific–Is there such thing as a Lapita people?. In: The Routledge Handbook of Bioarchaeology in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, edited by M. Oxenham and H. Buckley, pp. 389–408. Routledge, London.

Sathiamurthy, E. V. H. K., and Harold K. Voris. 2006. Maps of Holocene sea level transgression and submerged lakes on the Sunda Shelf. The Natural History Journal of Chulalongkorn University, Supplement 2: 1-43.

Skoglund, Pontus, Cosimo Posth, Kendra Sirak, Matthew Spriggs, Frederique Valentin, Stuart Bedford, Geoffrey R. Clark, et al. 2016. Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific. Nature 538: 510–513.

Specht, Jim, Tim Denham, James Goff, and John Edward Terrell. 2014. Deconstructing the Lapita cultural complex in the Bismarck Archipelago. Journal of Archaeological Research 22: 89-140.

Specht, Jim, Chris Gosden, Carol Lentfer, Geraldine Jacobsen, Peter J. Matthews, and Sue Lindsay. 2016. A pre-Lapita structure at Apalo, Arawe Islands, Papua New Guinea. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology: 1-22.

Terrell, John. 1986. Causal pathways and causal processes: Studying the evolutionary prehistory of human diversity in language, customs, and biology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 5: 187-198.

Terrell, John Edward. 2006. Human biogeography: Evidence of our place in nature. Journal of Biogeography 33: 2088-2098.

Terrell, John Edward. 2015. A Talent for Friendship. Oxford University Press.

Terrell, John Edward. In press. Understanding Lapita as history. In

Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Oceania, edited by Ethan Cochrane and Terry Hunt. Oxford University Press.

Terrell, John Edward, John Edward, Terry L. Hunt, and Chris Gosden. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 38: 155–195.

Terrell, John Edward, Kevin M. Kelly, and Paul Rainbird. 2001. Foregone conclusions: In search of “Austronesians” and “Papuans.” Current Anthropology 42: 97–124.

Torrence, Robin, and Pamela Swadling. 2008. Social networks and the spread of Lapita. Antiquity 82: 600–616.

Walker, Robert S., and Kim R. Hill. 2014. Causes, consequences, and kin bias of human group fissions. Human Nature 25: 465-475.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell and Kevin M. Kelly. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Is archaeology a science? 3. Problem solving

John Edward Terrell


This is part 3 of a 3 part commentary


Storytelling

There is nothing inherently bad or wrong about telling stories. In truth, our brains are always telling ourselves stories about all sorts of things. For example, figuring out what you need to buy at the supermarket. Or when it would be OK to cross the street. Or why your boss should give you a promotion at work. In short, stories are not always fictional accounts. They can also be factual.

While the thought may sound strange at first, even scientists tell stories to themselves and others (Terrell 1990). In truth, storytelling can be a creative way for them to develop new ideas and plausible explanations, say, about  badly broken bones dug up at an archaeological site in Kenya—although instead of calling them stories, scientists would probably label them as hypotheses (see: fig. 2).

Figure 2. Science differs from other kinds of storytelling is a critical way. Changing (a) the evidence available, (b) the assumptions made about the world and how things work when interpreting that evidence, or (c) the interpretations made (i.e., the working hypotheses) can also change the other two dimensions of the scientific endeavor.
Darwin’s famous letter

In a famous letter to a colleague in 1861, Charles Darwin reflects on what it means to do science:

About 30 years ago there was much talk that Geologists ought only to observe & not theorise; & I well remember some one saying, that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit & count the pebbles & describe their colours. How odd it is that every one should not see that all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service.

People writing about how science is done love to quote these words because, as Michael Shermer, a columnist at Scientific American, remarked a number of years ago: “If scientific observations are to be of any use, they must be tested against a theory, hypothesis or model. The facts never just speak for themselves. They must be interpreted through the colored lenses of ideas: percepts need concepts.”

Boiled down to a few words, therefore, what both scientists and lawyers call evidence isn’t evidence until it can be pinned to convincing stories about it. Hence, viewed from Darwin’s perspective, Lahr and her colleagues had been tasked with a research assignment that was a lot like counting pebbles and describing their colors. This kind of Plug & Play task has long been commonplace in archaeology because accidental discoveries and nowadays cultural resource salvage work are routine in this scholarly arena. Being routine, however, does not make a research assignment science. As Darwin said, all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.

The major reason Plug & Play archaeology isn’t science is that stories (hypotheses) about things (evidence) must be for or against stories that are bigger—scientists call them concepts, theories, models, and the like— than the kinds of particular stories that get called hypotheses.[*] Or if you are a trial lawyer, criminal indictments.

Stories, big and small

If hypotheses are stories about particular situations and things, then what makes concepts, models, theories, and so forth bigger stories? Philosophers love to argue about the answer, but I am not a philosopher. I will give you the answer that makes sense to me. Instead of calling them concepts, theories, models, and so forth, just call them assumptions.

The 25 grand challenges to archaeology  noted earlier are grounded on so many assumptions about how the world works and what needs to be better known to do archaeology right in the future that one is left almost speechless. In a more constrained fashion, the stories Lahr and her colleagues tell us about bones from Kenya similarly make allusions to grand assumptions about what life was like during the early Holocene, about the inherent violence or pacifism of human nature, and so forth. In both cases, it seems clear that the persuasive goal in part is to justify doing archaeology by relating particular issues to broad, general assumptions (sometimes called themes) that are compelling and sometimes seemingly quite magnificent in their scope and assumed relevance to the human condition.

“What’s the problem?”

Evidence, hypotheses, assumptions . . .  how do these components of the scientific endeavor fit together (Fig. 2)? Again, philosophers of science love to debate such a question, but here is a hands-on way to resolve it. Ask the “So what?” question that kicked off this commentary in a different way, one that is not just being more polite. It is also a more meaningful way to get to the heart of the issue. Ask instead “What’s the problem here?”

Critics of archaeology, anthropology, and the social sciences generally are likely to fault these fields of scholarly expertise in one or both of two ways. One is methodological, and might be expressed using the old cliché “you can’t get there from here.” In a word, there is doubt about whether the social sciences are rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to merit being called real science. The other is more elusive and judgmental. Is the problem being tackled by the research work in question really worth doing?

One way of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of this second kind of criticism is to make the purpose of what you are doing elusive. A common way of trying to accomplish this dubious end is to make grand allusions in the opening paragraphs of a research report to work previously published on the same or a comparable theme (concept, hypothesis, model, theory, etc.) and then move swiftly on to discuss methods & materials, analysis, and the like.

This popular avoidance tactic is unlikely to work, however, when the critic is someone like Lamar Smith.

The intersection of independent lies

In 1966 the late biologist Richard Levins published a short paper on the role of model building in population biology that is now a classic in the philosophy and practice of science. One of his observations back then has become famous: “truth is the intersection of independent lies.’’ As he explains, the human mind can only cope with a few variables at one time, and almost any plausible proposed relation among aspects of nature is likely to be true in the sense that it occurs (although rarely and slightly). “Yet all models leave out a lot and are in that sense false, incomplete, inadequate. The validation of a model is not that it is ‘true’ but that it generates good testable hypotheses relevant to important problems” (Levins 1966).

Forty years after this article was published, Levins felt called upon to explain himself anew. Here, in part, is what he wrote:

In the dispute about climate change, a rising temperature in several cities is suggestive. Adding more cities to the list gives a diminishing return. But independent lines of evidence—ocean temperatures, cores from glaciers, decline of coral reefs, spread of species into places that had been too cold for them, accumulation of greenhouse gasses—each may have some separate idiosyncratic explanation or source of error but jointly converge on an unavoidable conclusion. We have to seek lines of evidence as independent as we can in order to support a large scale conclusion. (Levins 2006)

In other words, to do great science, you have to do different things based on different ways of looking at the problem being studied.

As I have said before, there is no disputing taste, and what one person judges to be a problem in need of solving may be seen as less worthy, even trivial, by someone else. The least I can do is offer two examples with the understanding you may not see them as grand, and therefore, may not be impressed that archaeologists are attempting to tackle the problem being addressed.

Two archaeological challenges to conventional wisdom

While perhaps not a universal truth, many people will tell you in one way or another that human beings come in different and enduring kinds that can be labeled variously as communities, races, ethnic groups, populations, societies, or cultures (Terrell 2012). As I have noted elsewhere at SCIENCE DIALOGUES,  such thinking is the bedrock of racism and social conflicts around the world.

My archaeological colleague John P. Hart at the New York State Museum and I have separately looked at this undeniable problem using different archaeological and ethnographic material culture datasets from entirely different regions of the globe—in Hart’s studies, northeastern North America (e.g., Hart et al. 2016), and in my work, the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea (e.g., Terrell 2010). Our goals, however, have been similar. We want to see if material culture studies support the notion—the popular conviction—that people come in discrete social and biological “kinds,” and if they do, how long-lived such fundamental building blocks of humanity may be.

As Hart and his colleagues recently reported, archaeological sequences based on pottery designs have often been used by scholars to identify ethnic ties among prehistoric settlements in eastern North America, and to hypothesize population movements over the landscape through time. Recent work by his research team using ceramic motifs and social network analysis challenges these conventional interpretations of the archaeological record and the principles underlying them. Network analysis of local and regional pottery design sequences, for example, suggests that rather than being ethnic markers, ceramic designs were used to signal inclusion in social and political networks crosscutting supposed ethnic and political boundaries in this part of North America. Moreover:

With a very robust archaeological record that has produced evidence for major shifts in settlement patterns, regional coalescences of village populations, changes in regional strife, and ultimately the development of confederacies, southern Ontario is an excellent area to investigate how signaling networks adapt as a result of socio-political and settlement system changes.

Similarly, work by myself and others on New Guinea’s northern Sepik coast since 1990 suggests that isolation by distance had led to some geographic patterning in cultural variation among communities on this coast prior to World War I. However, the patterning of similarities and differences in their material culture inventories offers little empirical support for the conventional assumption accepted by anthropologists, government officials, missionaries, and others that there is “a strong relation between language and material culture”  (Moore and Romney 1994) among villages communities in this part of the world. When seen in the broader perspectives of geography, human ecology, and time, as the old saying goes, appearances can be deceiving.

Conclusions

Science can be viewed as a continuous conversation among  evidence, hypotheses, and assumptions.  Some scientific conversations however ponderously expressed are trivial, merely chit-chat, so to speak. Other conversations are far more meaningful. If archaeologists want to be seen as substantial scholars and productive scientists, they have the same obligations all other scientists have. They must be clear and forthright about the problems they are addressing, and why those problems deserve the respect—and yes, the financial support—of others.

Grand challenges are inspirational, but they must be brought down to earth if what archaeologists dig up or study in museums is to add up to something worthwhile.


* As Richard Levins (2009: 744) has written, something is basically nonsense if it does not help us answer any questions other than about itself.


This is part 3 of a 3 part commentary

Acknowledgments

I thank John Hart for his help with this commentary.

References

Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American Antiquity 28: 217-225.

Hart, John P., Termeh Shafie, Jennifer Birch, Susan Dermarkar, and Ronald F. Williamson. 2016. Nation building and social signaling in southern Ontario: AD 1350–1650. PloS One 11, no. 5: e0156178.

Jones, Sharyn. 2016. Anthropological archaeology in 2015: Entanglements, reflection, reevaluation, and archaeology beyond disciplinary boundaries. American Anthropologist 118: 301-316.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp et al. 2014a. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder. 2014b. Grand challenges for archaeology. American Antiquity 79: 5-24.

Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung et al. 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529: 394-398.

Levins, Richard. 1966. The strategy of model building in population biology. American Scientist 54:421–431.

Levins, Richard. 1993. A response to Orzack and Sober: formal analysis and the fluidity of science. Quarterly Review of Biology 68:547–555.

Mizoguchi, Koji. 2015. A future of archaeology. Antiquity 89: 12-22.

Moore, Carmella C., and A. Kimball Romney. 1994. Material culture, geographic propinquity, and linguistic affiliation on the North coast of New Guinea: A reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96: 370-396.

Terrell, John. 1990. Storytelling and prehistory. Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-29.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2012. Polynesians and the seductive power of common sense. Cultural Geographies 20: 135–152.

Terrell, John, Hunt, Terry L., and Gosden, Chris. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 37: 155-195.

Yu, Pei-Lin, Matthew Schmader, and James G. Enloe. 2015. “I’m the oldest new archaeologist in town”: The intellectual evolution of Lewis R. Binford. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 38: 2-7.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Is archaeology a science? 2. “Plug & Play” archaeology

John Edward Terrell


This is part 2 of a 3 part commentary


New and improved archaeology?

In 1962 the archaeologist Lewis R. Binford had an article published in the journal American Antiquity titled “Archaeology as anthropology”  that electrified the field of academic research into things ancient and not so ancient (Binford 1962). Many saw this paper as a call to turn away from just counting potsherds and pretending to write history toward doing real science in the realm of historical studies (Yu et al. 2015).

Nancy Stone and Lew Binford on an Acheulean site at Yediyapur in the Hunsgi Valley, South India, June 1986. Source: http://antiquity.ac.uk/tributes/binford.html

Since those halcyon days of the 1960s and what came to be called “processual archaeology,” professionals and amateurs alike have voiced strong doubts about whether archaeology is a science. Some have more or less utterly rejected Binford’s claim that archaeologists could be or should be scientists—an unwillingness to play along with Binford and those who would follow in his footsteps that, needless to say, plays right into the hands of someone like Congressman Lamar Smith (Jones 2016; Mizoguchi 2015).

Lewis Binford died in 2011. Despite his many naysayers, the archaeologist Mark Leone observed in a memorial appreciation of the man and his work published in the British journal Antiquity that Binford had unquestionably shown the rest of us “his astonishing capacity to connect archaeological things to the questions that mattered.”

Which raises an obvious concern. What kinds of questions might these be?

Ask no small questions

In 2012, a number of archaeologists, mostly Americans, decided they needed to come up with a list of questions for archaeologists to tackle in the years ahead. The resulting compendium, billed as “Grand challenges for archaeology,” was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (Kintigh et al. 2014a).

“The challenges had to be, in principle,” they agreed, “susceptible to a solution supported by data.” In all they came up with 25 worthy concerns. Reading through the listing makes it clear they concluded no challenge too big was beyond the scope of archaeology. Borrowing words from their published report:

These challenges focus on understanding the dynamics of cultural processes and the operation of coupled human and natural systems, recognizing that humans—mediated by culture—both affect and are affected by their natural environments. The challenges addressed questions of emergence, complexity, demography, mobility, identity, resilience, and human–environment interactions. There is a notable lack of concern with the earliest, the largest, and the otherwise unique.

What sorts of challenges are among the 25 listed? They are grouped into five separate categories labeled A–D. Here is a selection of five, one drawn from each category. Keep in mind as you read through them that these five are alike said to be within the reasonable pursue of archaeologists working as archaeologists.

A.7:  What is the role of conflict—both internal factional violence and external warfare—in the evolution of complex cultural formations?

B. 4:  How does ideology structure economic, political, and ritual systems?

C.1:  What processes led to, and resulted from, the global dispersal of modern humans?

D.2:  How do people form identities, and what are the aggregate long-term and large-scale effects of these processes?

E.7:  How do humans perceive and react to changes in climate and the natural environment over short- and long-terms?

What seems most astonishing about these five and the remaining 20 others is that none of these identified challenges said to be of global significance is accompanied by clear statements—specific research hypotheses—that might be taken to be unambiguously testable using archaeologically recovered empirical data. Not one. Yet the claim is made, nonetheless, that

the facts of the past provide the evidence that is essential to confront all of these questions. We harbor no illusions about the difficulties of addressing these classes of problems. Rather, we share a conviction that these are the domains in which the most important problems reside.

These scholars note at the end of their PNAS commentary that they have made a longer version of their collective statement available in American Antiquity (Kintigh et al. 2014b). However, whether what they outline there in more detail would satisfy Congressman Smith is questionable. With regard to challenge A.7, for example, they say:

Exploring the dialectical relationship between conflict and complex cultural formations will undoubtedly foster new approaches to the archaeological record. Conflict is notoriously difficult to identify and quantify through archaeological remains. Though some methods have been developed, more systematic and large-scale analyses are certainly necessary before this question can be thoroughly explored. These methods will involve innovations in osteology and molecular anthropology, as well as advances in comparative studies of material culture and technology.

Plug & Play archaeology

You don’t need to be as skeptical nor as dismissive as Lamar Smith to wonder what these experts have in mind to do in the years ahead to give substance to their 25 grand challenges. Being neither clairvoyant nor a mind-reader, the best anyone else can do is suggest what might or might not fit the bill—if not for Lamar Smith, at least for others.

First, therefore, what wouldn’t meet these challenges? There are many possible ways to answer such a provocative  question. Here is one. Archaeologists should avoid doing Plug & Play archaeology (fig. 1). What does my pairing of these two words refer to? Here is an example.

Figure 1. Source: the author

In January 2016 Marta Lahr at Cambridge University and her colleagues made the cover of the prestigious science journal Nature with a detailed report on human remains dating back about 10,000 years to the early Holocene that had been excavated at Nataruk in northern Kenya (Lahr et al. 2016). Some of the skeletons recovered have traumatic lesions suggesting the probable cause of death (see: fig. 1, left). Not surprisingly perhaps, given this seemingly gruesome physical testimony, Lahr and her co-authors inferred that they had in hand evidence of inter-group violence against people who, given the antiquity of the remains, were probably wandering hunter-gatherers rather than settled agriculturalists.

Now if you were Lamar Smith you might be asking yourself right now “So what?” At the close of their Nature report, Lahr and her colleagues acknowledge directly that the apparent violence attested at Nataruk might be an “ephemeral, but perhaps not unusual, event in the life of prehistoric foraging societies.” Before then in their report, however, and certainly in the press coverage around the world that this report quickly received, what is featured are possible stories about interpersonal violence that could be told given such ancient cold-case injuries.

Both in their report in Nature and in subsequent popular accounts, the central claim made is that these scholars have caught humanity red-handed doing something fundamental—and nasty—long ago strongly hinting that violence is, as many still popularly assume, one of the defining characteristics of our species.

Here is where plug & play come into operation. All that it takes to reach this kind of conclusion about ourselves as human beings is evidence such as these fossil bones (fig. 1, left), a few seemingly reasonable assumptions about human nature (fig. 1, center), and before you know it, you have a story to tell (fig. 1, right).

In fairness, it must be said that at the end their report, Lahr and her co-authors do comment that Nataruk may be showing us little more than “a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups.” But then why write about these bones, and why feature them on the cover of Nature?

There is no disputing taste, and these authors have clearly done a good job of coming up with what might be said about these prehistoric finds. But “plugging” them into an interpretation—into a story—however appealing is not what STEM education is all about, and surely not what someone like Lamar Smith would take to be real science. It may be true, as these authors conclude at the very end of their report in Nature, that “the deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war.” So what?

But if not Plug & Play archaeology, then what?

Part 3: Problem solving 

References

Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American Antiquity 28: 217-225.

Hart, John P., Termeh Shafie, Jennifer Birch, Susan Dermarkar, and Ronald F. Williamson. 2016. Nation building and social signaling in southern Ontario: AD 1350–1650. PloS One 11, no. 5: e0156178.

Jones, Sharyn. 2016. Anthropological archaeology in 2015: Entanglements, reflection, reevaluation, and archaeology beyond disciplinary boundaries. American Anthropologist 118: 301-316.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp et al. 2014a. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder. 2014b. Grand challenges for archaeology. American Antiquity 79: 5-24.

Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung et al. 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529: 394-398.

Levins, Richard. 1966. The strategy of model building in population biology. American Scientist 54:421–431.

Levins, Richard. 1993. A response to Orzack and Sober: formal analysis and the fluidity of science. Quarterly Review of Biology 68:547–555.

Mizoguchi, Koji. 2015. A future of archaeology. Antiquity 89: 12-22.

Moore, Carmella C., and A. Kimball Romney. 1994. Material culture, geographic propinquity, and linguistic affiliation on the North coast of New Guinea: A reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96: 370-396.

Terrell, John. 1990. Storytelling and prehistory. Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-29.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2012. Polynesians and the seductive
power of common sense. Cultural Geographies 20: 135–152.

Terrell, John, Hunt, Terry L., and Gosden, Chris. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 37: 155-195.

Yu, Pei-Lin, Matthew Schmader, and James G. Enloe. 2015. “I’m the oldest new archaeologist in town”: The intellectual evolution of Lewis R. Binford. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 38: 2-7.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Is archaeology a science? 1: The “So what?” question

John Edward Terrell


           Is archaeology more than storytelling with the help of            visual aids and esoteric props?

This is part 1 of a 3 part commentary


The brahmin sport?

Back in the early 1960s when I was an undergraduate, I was asked by a graduate student in my department what I wanted to be when I grew up. That may not have been the phrasing of the question, but that was the spirit of his inquiry. This individual was the self-identified son of an academically famous father. When I told him I wanted to be an archaeologist, his response didn’t surprise me, although I will leave it to you to decide why I wasn’t taken aback by his retort. With an air of seeming good humor, he quipped: “Ah, the brahmin sport.”

I have no idea who were the particular brahmins he had in mind. Perhaps he was thinking of Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan, or maybe Lord Carnarvon of King Tutankhamun fame. In any case, by the 1960s such a quip was off target.

Agatha Christie (2nd from the left), Max Mallowan (center, with cigarette), and others at the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur in southern Iraq. Source: https://www.penn.museum/blog/collection/archival-practice/mystery-in-the-stacks-a-discovery-is-made-in-the-museum-archives/.
A waste of the taxpayer’s money?

The National Science Foundation was established by an Act of Congress in 1950 to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” All well and good perhaps, but whether social sciences such as anthropology and archaeology should be viewed as rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to be included under the umbrella of the NSF was a matter of great and continuing contention even before the establishment of this government agency. Nevertheless, by 1958 an office for the social sciences had been established at the NSF despite the fact, as one board member commented in 1958, “we have to face up to the fact that the social sciences—except for a few extremely limited areas—are a source of trouble beyond anything released by Pandora.”

Given the availability of federal funding for research in the social sciences, anthropology and archaeology by the 1960s were no longer beholden to the whims or the fanatical ideas of the rich and socially privileged. Provided, of course, the research proposals getting funded could convince not only peer reviewers in these disciplines, but Congress, too, that the work lucky enough to be funded was worthy of being labeled as “scientific” not just in name but also in deed.

As the saying goes, that was then, this is now. Over the course of the last half century or so has archaeology lived up to the prospect that it is a science? Or have archaeologists been pulling the wool over the eyes of congressmen and everyday civilians alike as often as some critics of archaeology—and anthropology—then and now contend?

Science—The Endless Frontier

Here’s a bit more history to ponder. World War II had brought the federal government into the arena of basic science research as never before in the history of the United States. Interest in Washington in supporting whatever could be done to win the war was clear and pressing.  Ignorance about what the world was like beyond our borders was no longer excusable and could be deadly. Even anthropologists and other scholars of the esoteric who had lived and worked in the Near East, Asia, and the Pacific found themselves being sought out for their advice and guidance in advancing the war effort (Terrell et al. 1997).

In 1945 Vannevar Bush, the engineer who had led the government’s wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote a report for President Roosevelt outlining the future for science in the nation cleverly titled Science—The Endless Frontier. He argued persuasively that government support for scientific research and education would prove beneficial to both the peacetime economy and national security. Arguing in graphic terms that scientific progress is essential, his report makes the stakes involved as down to earth as anyone can get: “Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”

The newly found sense of relevance to solving the world’s problems carried over after the war in many of the academic disciplines that had hitherto defined themselves as being more about history and diversity than about pattern and process.  Notably geography, ecology, and natural history all experienced what soon came to be called the “quantitative revolution” marked by deliberate and carefully mastered efforts to make such previously descriptive studies more mathematical, more generalizing, and hence more “scientific.” And as I have already noted, eventually even the social sciences were able to convince federal decision makers that these so-called soft sciences were worthy of financial support.

But to repeat: that was then, this is now. And despite claims to the contrary, history can repeat itself.

The “So what?” question and STEM education

Lamar Smith, a Republican, has represented the 21st congressional district in Texas since 1987. He currently serves as the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology which has jurisdiction over programs at NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He supports Donald Drumpf on border security, not using federal tax dollars to fund abortions under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), and reigning in the “costly, overly burdensome regulations” of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is also strongly opposed to wasting taxpayer’s dollars funding frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. In 2016, for example, Democrats in Congress viewed his actions as Committee Chair as “a political litmus test that would allow Smith and other Republicans to trim research by social scientists and those studying climate change.”

Lamar Smith evidently likes to take the social sciences head on. Currently, however, there are also less direct ways of challenging whether they are wasteful and frivolous. Take STEM, the acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics educational programs and curricula. In the words of one prominent advocacy group:

The STEM Education Coalition works aggressively to raise awareness in Congress, the Administration, and other organizations about the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century. Members of the STEM Coalition believe that our nation must improve the way our students learn science, mathematics, technology and engineering and that the business, education, and STEM communities must work together to achieve this goal.

In November 2016 the Coalition sent a memorandum to President-elect Donald Trump titled “STEM Education, Good Jobs and American Prosperity.” Nowhere in this statement do the words “social science” or “humanities” occur. Furthermore, the memorandum notes, for instance, that the “top 10 bachelor-degree majors with the highest median earnings are all in STEM fields.”

Is archaeology science?
Koster Site, Kampsville, Illinois in the 1970s. Source: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/koster.html

Few would question that archaeology can be fun, fascinating, entertaining, and an entirely worthwhile summer camping experience. How would cable channels such as Discovery and National Geographic keep the viewing audiences they have without the mysteries and thrilling excitement of archaeological discoveries in places near and far?

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonehenge_(sun).jpg

Granting archaeology’s genuine entertainment value and emotional appeal may not, however, be good enough to position such work as worthwhile enough to merit taxpayer’s dollars. At least not in the eyes of someone like Lamar Smith.

Therefore, the question cannot be artfully avoided. Is archaeology more than storytelling? Is it also a science? An honest answer would have to be maybe yes, maybe sometimes.


Part 2: Plug & Play archaeology


References

Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American  Antiquity 28: 217-225.

Hart, John P., Termeh Shafie, Jennifer Birch, Susan Dermarkar, and Ronald F. Williamson. 2016. Nation building and social signaling in southern Ontario: AD 1350–1650. PloS One 11, no. 5: e0156178.

Jones, Sharyn. 2016. Anthropological archaeology in 2015: Entanglements, reflection, reevaluation, and archaeology beyond disciplinary boundaries. American Anthropologist 118: 301-316.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp et al. 2014a. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder. 2014b. Grand challenges for archaeology. American Antiquity 79: 5-24.

Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung et al. 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529: 394-398.

Levins, Richard. 1966. The strategy of model building in population biology. American Scientist 54:421–431.

Levins, Richard. 1993. A response to Orzack and Sober: formal analysis and the fluidity of science. Quarterly Review of Biology 68:547–555.

Mizoguchi, Koji. 2015. A future of archaeology. Antiquity 89: 12-22.

Moore, Carmella C., and A. Kimball Romney. 1994. Material culture, geographic propinquity, and linguistic affiliation on the North coast of New Guinea: A reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96: 370-396.

Terrell, John. 1990. Storytelling and prehistory. Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-29.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2012. Polynesians and the seductive
power of common sense. Cultural Geographies 20: 135–152.

Terrell, John, Hunt, Terry L., and Gosden, Chris. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 37: 155-195.

Yu, Pei-Lin, Matthew Schmader, and James G. Enloe. 2015. “I’m the oldest new archaeologist in town”: The intellectual evolution of Lewis R. Binford. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 38: 2-7.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-accessarticle distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Reconfiguring biological diversity 2. Coming to grips with diversity

John Edward Terrell


This is part 2 of a two part article

Coming to grips with diversity

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to deciphering how biological diversity is patterned, or structured, in space and time within any given species is that most existing ways of modeling such diversity presuppose that genes are nested in some fashion within demonstrable and persistent primary units that can be labeled as populations, subpopulations, demes, communities, stocks, races, and like. Yet is this how biological reproduction works? Aren’t genes perfectly capable of “escaping,” so to speak, from such allegedly defining and confining “boxes” through the very acts of reproduction, reassortment, growth, and development?

It could be argued that there is irony in the fact that molecular genetics now has made it possible for scientists to map diversity at the genetic level. Yet many are still given to thinking about diversity as if they were compelled by the old limitations of their laboratory techniques to lump this new fine-grained evidence into inclusive nested sets (e.g., Pritchard et al. 2000; Greenbaum et al. 2016; Skoglund et al. 2016).

Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that some have concluded that “the observed pattern of global gene identity variation was produced by a combination of serial population fissions, bottlenecks and long-range migrations associated with the peopling of major geographic regions, and subsequent gene flow between local populations” (Hunley et al. 2009).

All three of these identified processes are plausible reasons for biological diversity in time and space. But aren’t all three of these population-level explanations ignoring individual agency and decision-making? Not to mention love, lust, and human compassion?

Moving beyond population modeling

Current population-level modeling based on molecular genetics is arguably an advance over older metapopulation models framing diversity as an ever-changing flux within species among discrete subpopulations inhabiting separate habitat patches linked by migration and extinction (Fig. 2). Certainly few today would accept that diversity within any species can be adequately explained solely or even largely as the product of fluctuating colonization and extinction events.

Figure 2. A simple metapopulation model at two time periods (A and B) attributing spatial diversity to a shifting dynamic of colonization and extinction events.

Similarly, the concept of the fitness landscape (also known as as an adaptive landscape; see Fig. 3) introduced by the geneticist Sewell Wright in 1932 is another long-debated way of modeling the dynamic interplay—or balance—of a number of plausible determinants of genetic variation in space and time. As Wright explained in 1932:

The most general conclusion is that evolution depends on a certain balance among its factors. There must be gene mutation, but an excessive rate gives an array of freaks, not evolution; there must be selection, but too severe a process destroys the field of variability, and thus the basis for further advance; prevalence of local inbreeding within a species has extremely important evolutionary consequences, but too close inbreeding leads merely to extinction. A certain amount of crossbreeding is favorable but not too much. In this dependence on balance the species is like a living organism. At all levels of organization life depends on the maintenance of a certain balance among its factors. (Wright 1932)

Figure 3. “Field of gene combinations occupied by a population within the general field
of possible combinations. Type of history under specified conditions indicated by relation
to initial field (heavy broken contour) and arrow.” Source: Wright 1932, fig. 4.

A “balance of factors” sounds right and reasonable, but are the ones he mentions the only major factors that must be taken into account? Surely adaptation is not the only driving force of evolution?

Agency and social networks

Consider the observation that human beings are notably variable in stature, weight, and other characteristics of their appearance. Clearly the gene mutations supporting such phenotypic variation have not resulted in what Wright would describe as “an array of freaks.” Evidently such diversity is not selected against—to use Wright’s way of framing the discussion. Why? Because much of the burden of human adaptation does not need to be genetically endowed. Instead, as most social scientists would insist, much of what we do supporting our survival and reproduction is accomplished using socially learned skills rather than by genetically inherited biological means.

Recently Greenbaum and his colleagues observed that the research strategies and tools of modern network analysis are increasingly being used to explore genetics questions in genomics, landscape genetics, migration-selection dynamics, and the study of the genetic structure of species more generally speaking (Greenbaum et al. 2016).

Adopting a networks approach to genetics makes it possible to come to grips not only with the ways in which racism—to return to Roseman’s point raised earlier—has shaped human variation in the past few hundred years, but also how our species’ mobility, adaptive skills, technologies, and social behaviors have been configuring human variation throughout the history of our species.

Figures 4 and 5 illustrate the potential value of using of network analysis in the study of genetic diversity. The first figure is a network mapping of localities reported in a genome scan published in 2008. While the patterning is complex, there is an obvious geographic signal in the genetic linkages shown. Figure 5 resolves the relationships among a smaller subset of the localities that had been sampled, specifically those in the Bismarck Archipelago-North Solomons region of the southwest Pacific.

Figure 4. Spring-embedding network mapping of the localities sampled in a genome scan of autosomal markers (687 microsatellites and 203 insertions/deletions) on 952 individuals from 41 Pacific populations). Mapping derived from the mean STRUCTURE assignment probabilities when K = 10 reported by Friedlaender at al. (2008) color-coded by geographic location. Blue-white = Asia; blue = Taiwan; black = Europe; red = Polynesia; pink = Micronesia; yellow = New Britain; purple = New Guinea; dark green = North Solomons; green = New Ireland; light green = New Hanover; pale green = Mussau. Source: adapted from Terrell 2010b, fig. 3.

 

Figure 5. Nearest-neighbor structuring of interaction among the localities sampled in the Bismarck Archipelago and North Solomons color-coded to show genetic clustering (blue nodes represent locations not represented in the genetic scan). Source: Terrell 2010b, fig. 11.Both network mappings suggest that geography has influenced the structuring of genetic similarities among people living in the sampled localities shown. Yet it also is apparent that the linkages shown may often be closer than geographic distance alone would lead us to expect. Judging by figure 5, the effect of isolation by distance is evidently constrained by social networks (as projected in this figure using nearest-neighbor linkages). Hence while geographic distance may be contributing to the patterning of genetic diversity among people in this part of the world, geography is by no means the whole story.
Conclusions

The network analysis briefly introduced in figures 4 and 5 had two principal aims, one phylogenetic, the other tokogenetic (Terrell 2010b). Do people living today in the Pacific segregate genetically along lines concordant with the reputedly separate (i.e., cladistic) histories of languages spoken there, principally the divide drawn by linguists and others between speakers of Austronesian and non-Austronesian (Papuan) languages (Terrell 2006)? To what extent does the genetic similarity among people living in different residential communities correlate with the nearest-neighbor propinquity of these sampled places?

Neither of these aims presuppose that the research goal is to define genetically discrete human populations (or subpopulations, demes, groups, communities, races, and the like) either a priori or by using, say, individual-based clustering (IBC) methods (e.g., Ball et al. 2010).

These two aims have more in common with those of the emerging field of landscape genetics (Dyer and Nason 2004; Garroway et al. 2008) than with most previous research in population genetics. However, both of these aims focus more directly on the genetic consequences of the behavior of organisms in space and time—in this case, humans—than on the geography, ecology, and environmental history of the locales where the people in question reside.

Both can also be seen as stepping back from Roseman’s observations about the impact of racial politics and social practices on the human genome in the past few centuries to underscore a more general issue in evolutionary biology: How much do the mobility and social behavior of individuals within any given animal species structure the genetic variation of that species?

As Dyer and Nason (2004) have remarked: “The evolution of population genetic structure is a dynamic process influenced by both historical and recurrent evolutionary processes.” Using network theory and visualization techniques to map the genetic structure of a species in space and time is still in its infancy. Reconfiguring how science grapples with the inherent complexity of evolution as an ever unfolding process using network approaches has the promise of making it easier to explore how comparable or dissimilar species are in their strategies for survival and reproduction (Fortuna et al. 2009).

Looking long and hard at what other species do to survive and reproduce may make it easier for us to see just how toxic our own social strategies—and the assumptions supporting them—can be.

Acknowledgements

I thank Neal Matherne and Tom Clark for their comments on a draft of this commentary.

References

Ball, Mark C., Laura Finnegan, Micheline Manseau, and Paul Wilson. 2010. Integrating multiple analytical approaches to spatially delineate and characterize genetic population structure: An application to boreal caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in central Canada. Conservation Genetics 11, 6: 2131-2143.

Dyer, Rodney J., and John D. Nason. 2004. Population graphs: The graph theoretic shape of genetic structure. Molecular ecology 13, 7: 1713-1727.

Fortuna, Miguel A., Rafael G. Albaladejo, Laura Fernández, Abelardo Aparicio, and Jordi Bascompte. 2009. Networks of spatial genetic variation across species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 45: 19044-19049.

Friedlaender, Jonathan S., Françoise R. Friedlaender, Jason A. Hodgson, Matthew Stoltz, George Koki, Gisele Horvat, Sergey Zhadanov, Theodore G. Schurr, and D. Andrew Merriwether. 2007. Melanesian mtDNA complexityPLoS One 2, 2: e248.

Friedlaender, Jonathan S., Françoise R. Friedlaender, Floyd A. Reed, Kenneth K. Kidd, Judith R. Kidd, Geoffrey K. Chambers, Rodney A. Lea et al. 2008. The genetic structure of Pacific IslandersPLoS Genet 4, 1: e19.

Garroway, Colin J., Jeff Bowman, Denis Carr, and Paul J. Wilson. 2008. Applications of graph theory to landscape genetics. Evolutionary Applications 1, 4: 620-630.

Greenbaum, Gili, Alan R. Templeton, and Shirli Bar-David. 2016. Inference and analysis of population structure using genetic data and network theory. Genetics 202.4: 1299-1312.

Hellenthal, Garrett, George BJ Busby, Gavin Band, James F. Wilson, Cristian Capelli, Daniel Falush, and Simon Myers. 2014. A genetic atlas of human admixture history.” Science 343, 6172: 747-751.

Hunley, Keith, Michael Dunn, Eva Lindström, Ger Reesink, Angela Terrill, Meghan E. Healy, George Koki, Françoise R. Friedlaender, and Jonathan S. Friedlaender. 2008. Genetic and linguistic coevolution in Northern Island MelanesiaPLoS Genet 4, no. 10 (2008): e1000239.

Hunley, Keith L., Meghan E. Healy, and Jeffrey C. Long. 2009. The global pattern of gene identity variation reveals a history of long‐range migrations, bottlenecks, and local mate exchange: Implications for biological race. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139, 1: 35-46.

Kelly, Kevin M.,  2002. Population. In Hart, J. P. & Terrell, J. E. (eds.) Darwin and Archaeology: A handbook of key concepts, pp 243–256. Westport, Ct: Bergin & Garvey.

Moore, John H. 1994. Putting anthropology back together again: The ethnogenetic critique of cladistic theory. American Anthropologist (1994): 925-948.

Posada, David, and Keith A. Crandall. 2001. Intraspecific gene genealogies: Trees grafting into networks. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 16, 1: 37-45.

Pritchard, Jonathan K., Matthew Stephens, and Peter Donnelly. 2000. Inference of population structure using multilocus genotype data. Genetics 155, 2: 945-959.

Rieppel, Olivier. 2009. Hennig’s enkaptic system. Cladistics 25, 3: 311-317.

Roseman, Chartes C. 2014. Troublesome Reflection: Racism as the Blind Spot in the Scientific Critique of Race” Human biology 86, 3: 233-240.

Roseman, Charles C. 2014. “Random genetic drift, natural selection, and noise in human cranial evolution. Human Biology 86, 3: 233-240.

Skoglund, Pontus, Cosimo Posth, Kendra Sirak, Matthew Spriggs, Frederique Valentin, Stuart Bedford, Geoffrey R. Clark et al. 2016. Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific. Nature 538: 510-513.

Terrell, John Edward. 2006. Human biogeography: Evidence of our place in nature. Journal of Biogeography 33, 12: 2088-2098.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010a. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5, 1: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010b. Social network analysis of the genetic structure of Pacific islanders. Annals of human genetics 74, 3: 211-232.

Terrell, John Edward. 2015. A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait. Oxford University Press.

Terrell, John Edward, and Pamela J. Stewart. 1996. The paradox of human population genetics at the end of the twentieth century. Reviews in Anthropology 25, 1: 13-33.

Wade, Nicholas. 2014. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Penguin.

Wilson, David Sloan, and Edward O. Wilson. 2008. Evolution for the Good of the Group”: The process known as group selection was once accepted unthinkingly, then was widely discredited; it’s time for a more discriminating assessment. American Scientist 96, 5: 380-389.

Wright, Sewall. 1932. The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding, and selection in evolution. Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Genetics , Vol. 1: 356-366.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

In the works: Mating, variation, and speciation: An interdisciplinary conversation

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Limenitis_archippus_mating_2.jpg

While using network theory and visualization techniques to map the genetic structure of species in space and time is in its infancy, reconfiguring how science grapples with the inherent complexity of evolution as an ever unfolding process using network approaches has the promise of making it easier to explore how comparable or dissimilar species are in their strategies for survival and reproduction. Looking long and hard at what other species do to survive and reproduce may also make it easier for all of us to see just how toxic our own social strategies—and the assumptions supporting them—can be.

Reconfiguring biological diversity 1. Toxic and obsolete assumptions

John Edward Terrell


This is part 1 of a two part article

IN AN INSIGHTFUL REVIEW of Nicholas Wade’s recent book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (Wade 2014), the anthropological geneticist Charles C. Roseman concluded that current scientific arguments against biological racism are weak and scattered. These failings—my word, not Roseman’s—are far more than just scientifically troubling. “To recuperate a useful scientific critique of race,” he argues, “we need to come to grips with ways in which the political processes of racism have shaped human organisms over the last few hundred years” (Roseman 2014).

As Roseman notes, nobody seriously contests that human variation “is structured in geographic space, through time, and across many social divisions.” What is still up for grabs is how to explain this observable diversity. And as Roseman emphasizes, how we explain human variation cannot ignore the divisive and often destructive power of racism as a potent driver of human evolution. “Without incorporating the effects of racism into models of human variation today, we will not be able to have a cohesive theory of genes and race, and the scientific critique of race will continue to have no teeth.”

While Roseman’s observations focus on human biological diversity, the weaknesses and uncertainties he has highlighted about our explanations for variation within our species apply also to modern science’s grasp of biological diversity more broadly speaking. From this more inclusive point of view, racism is just a particularly invidious human form of social behavior capable of patterning our genetic diversity in time and space. If so, what about other species? How does the patterning of their mobility and social behavior shape their genetic diversity?

“Populations,” “admixture,” and conventional wisdom

Although the human brain can be coaxed into paying close attention to detail and nuance,  as a thinking machine it generally favors expediency and the utility of knowledge over precision and accuracy.  It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that even scientists often still take it for granted that biological species are naturally subdivided into separate “populations” or “subspecies” that  may occasionally—say under changing demographic or environmental conditions—meet and mix, and thereby produce more or less isolated “admixed” new hybrids (e.g., Moore 1994; Hellenthal et al. 2014). The question being overlooked or at any rate downplayed is how real and persistent are these assumed “populations” (Terrell and Stewart 1996; Kelly 2002).

This question may sound academic, but it is not trivial, as Charles Roseman has underscored. When it comes to human beings, the favored word in scholarly circles may be the word population or perhaps deme, group, or community, but for the chap on the street, the more likely choice wouldn’t be one of these formal terms, but rather the more down-to-earth word race. (I still vividly remember being scolded by a famous biological anthropologist decades ago when I was an undergraduate for using this particular “r” word. “We don’t use that word anymore,” he told me. “We use the term stock  instead.”)

What’s at stake here

It has been a foregone assumption in most genetics research for years that different species are by definition and by their biology isolated reproductively from one another, i.e., individuals in different species cannot mate and give birth to viable offspring capable of sustaining life for longer than a single generation. However, even the most committed cladist accepts that biological relationships below the level of the species are tokogenetic, not phylogenetic (Posada and Crandall 2001; Rieppel 2009).

Figure 1. “Tokogeny versus phylogeny. (a) Processes occurring among sexual species (phylogenetic processes) are hierarchical. That is, an ancestral species gives rise to two descendant species. (b) Processes occurring within sexual species (tokogenetic processes) are nonhierarchical. That is, two parentals combine their genes to give rise to the offspring. (c) The split of two species defines a phylogenetic relationship among species (thick lines) but, at the same time, relationships among individuals within the ancestral species (species 1) and within the descendant species (species 2 and 3) are tokogenetic (arrows).” Source: Posada and Crandall 2001, fig. 1.

Here, therefore, is the conundrum. Call them what you want, populations within any given species are not inherently isolated reproductively either by definition and by their biology. Hence to treat populations as natural units, they must first be defined and demonstrated to be isolated and discernible as such in some other way, or ways. Can this be done?

Here is one favored way when the species in question is ourselves. Many people believe that the language you speak is a reliable sign or marker of your true ethnicity and even your race. Is this right?

Hardly. As both fable and risqué jokes alike would have it, any sailor arriving in a strange port of call is likely to discover soon enough that you don’t really need to speak the local language to enjoy a good time while ashore as long as you have a few coins in your pocket. Yet scholars have long written about people living in what some see as the “underdeveloped” regions of the world as being subdivided into recognizable ethnolinguistic groups, language communities, and the like despite the fact that such euphemisms for the old-fashioned word race pigeonhole rather than map the realities of their lives (Terrell 2010a).

But if neither biology nor language inherently—i.e., “naturally”—isolates and thereby subdivides human beings as a species into different populations, subpopulations, demes, communities, stocks, or races, is there anything that does? And what about other species on earth?

Competition and tribalism, or isolation-by-distance?

As Roseman has remarked: “All analyses of human variation make strong assumptions about the mode, tempo, and pattern whenever they interpret statistical results to make evolutionary conclusions” (Roseman 2016). Favored explanations for or against the assumption that our species can be subdivided into enduring natural populations largely fall into one or the other of two basic sorts.

On the one hand, there has long been anecdotal and scholarly evidence, too, that geography and topography can limit how well and how often people are able to stay in touch with one another socially and intellectually as well as sexually. As the authors of one recent study commented, research has shown that there is a strong positive correlation between global genetic diversity within our species and geographic distance. The correlations observed have often been interpreted “as being consistent with a model of isolation by distance in which there are no major geographic discontinuities in the pattern of neutral genetic variation” (Hunley et al. 2009).

As these same authors note, however, discordant gene frequency patterns are also common within our species. It is obvious, too, that physical and social impediments to gene flow have regularly produced both larger discontinuities as well as concordant allele frequency patterns than would be expected based solely on isolation-by-distance (clinal) models of variation (Ibid.).

Adding social impediments to the mix of possible explanations brings into play the second way many have tried to explain why people around the globe appear to be so diverse. While there are many variants of this alternative argument, the essential ingredients are the baseline assumptions that (a) competition between individuals and groups is the main driving force of evolution, (b) human beings are by nature selfish and aggressive creatures, and (c) until recently humans lived in small tribal groups that were not just suspicious of strangers and other communities near and far, but were frequently at war them them, too. All of these claims are not only questionable, but are arguably contrary to the fundamental evolved characteristics of our species (Terrell 2015).


Part 2: Coming to grips with diversity 


References

Ball, Mark C., Laura Finnegan, Micheline Manseau, and Paul Wilson. 2010. Integrating multiple analytical approaches to spatially delineate and characterize genetic population structure: An application to boreal caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in central Canada. Conservation Genetics 11, 6: 2131-2143.

Dyer, Rodney J., and John D. Nason. 2004. Population graphs: The graph theoretic shape of genetic structure. Molecular ecology 13, 7: 1713-1727.

Fortuna, Miguel A., Rafael G. Albaladejo, Laura Fernández, Abelardo Aparicio, and Jordi Bascompte. 2009. Networks of spatial genetic variation across species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 45: 19044-19049.

Friedlaender, Jonathan S., Françoise R. Friedlaender, Jason A. Hodgson, Matthew Stoltz, George Koki, Gisele Horvat, Sergey Zhadanov, Theodore G. Schurr, and D. Andrew Merriwether. 2007. Melanesian mtDNA complexityPLoS One 2, 2: e248.

Friedlaender, Jonathan S., Françoise R. Friedlaender, Floyd A. Reed, Kenneth K. Kidd, Judith R. Kidd, Geoffrey K. Chambers, Rodney A. Lea et al. 2008. The genetic structure of Pacific IslandersPLoS Genet 4, 1: e19.

Garroway, Colin J., Jeff Bowman, Denis Carr, and Paul J. Wilson. 2008. Applications of graph theory to landscape genetics. Evolutionary Applications 1, 4: 620-630.

Greenbaum, Gili, Alan R. Templeton, and Shirli Bar-David. 2016. Inference and analysis of population structure using genetic data and network theory. Genetics 202.4: 1299-1312.

Hellenthal, Garrett, George BJ Busby, Gavin Band, James F. Wilson, Cristian Capelli, Daniel Falush, and Simon Myers. 2014. A genetic atlas of human admixture history.” Science 343, 6172: 747-751.

Hunley, Keith, Michael Dunn, Eva Lindström, Ger Reesink, Angela Terrill, Meghan E. Healy, George Koki, Françoise R. Friedlaender, and Jonathan S. Friedlaender. 2008. Genetic and linguistic coevolution in Northern Island MelanesiaPLoS Genet 4, no. 10 (2008): e1000239.

Hunley, Keith L., Meghan E. Healy, and Jeffrey C. Long. 2009. The global pattern of gene identity variation reveals a history of long‐range migrations, bottlenecks, and local mate exchange: Implications for biological race. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139, 1: 35-46.

Kelly, Kevin M.,  2002. Population. In Hart, J. P. & Terrell, J. E. (eds.) Darwin and Archaeology: A handbook of key concepts, pp 243–256. Westport, Ct: Bergin & Garvey.

Moore, John H. 1994. Putting anthropology back together again: The ethnogenetic critique of cladistic theory. American Anthropologist (1994): 925-948.

Posada, David, and Keith A. Crandall. 2001. Intraspecific gene genealogies: Trees grafting into networks. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 16, 1: 37-45.

Pritchard, Jonathan K., Matthew Stephens, and Peter Donnelly. 2000. Inference of population structure using multilocus genotype data. Genetics 155, 2: 945-959.

Rieppel, Olivier. 2009. Hennig’s enkaptic system. Cladistics 25, 3: 311-317.

Roseman, Chartes C. 2014. Troublesome Reflection: Racism as the Blind Spot in the Scientific Critique of Race” Human biology 86, 3: 233-240.

Roseman, Charles C. 2014. “Random genetic drift, natural selection, and noise in human cranial evolution. Human Biology 86, 3: 233-240.

Skoglund, Pontus, Cosimo Posth, Kendra Sirak, Matthew Spriggs, Frederique Valentin, Stuart Bedford, Geoffrey R. Clark et al. 2016. Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific. Nature 538: 510-513.

Terrell, John Edward. 2006. Human biogeography: Evidence of our place in nature. Journal of Biogeography 33, 12: 2088-2098.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010a. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5, 1: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010b. Social network analysis of the genetic structure of Pacific islanders. Annals of human genetics 74, 3: 211-232.

Terrell, John Edward. 2015. A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait. Oxford University Press.

Terrell, John Edward, and Pamela J. Stewart. 1996. The paradox of human population genetics at the end of the twentieth century. Reviews in Anthropology 25, 1: 13-33.

Wade, Nicholas. 2014. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Penguin.

Wilson, David Sloan, and Edward O. Wilson. 2008. Evolution for the Good of the Group”: The process known as group selection was once accepted unthinkingly, then was widely discredited; it’s time for a more discriminating assessment. American Scientist 96, 5: 380-389.

Wright, Sewall. 1932. The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding, and selection in evolution. Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Genetics , Vol. 1: 356-366.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Network science: The language of integrative research


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 16-May-2015.


Mathematics, they say, is the language of science. When it comes to what is happening—or has happened—down here on earth, it is beginning to look like the right dialect of mathematics to learn is what is now being called (somewhat confusingly) network science.

When the goal is integrating research discoveries across disciplines as diverse as archaeology, primatology, neurobiology, and geochemistry, the mathematics of networks is the Esperanto of choice.

Field Museum in Chicago is one of the world’s largest natural history and anthropology museums. Scientists working there study the world and its human inhabitants from scores of different research directions, both pure and applied. Integrating these often seemingly disparate specialities so that the results of so much scholarship can be communicated to the public through exhibits and publications has always been a problem.

Under the leadership of Thorsten Lumbsch, Ph.D., the Director of Integrative Research at the Museum, “The Field” as it is affectionately known in Chicago is pushing back against research specialization using network science. Here is one example.

A social network is a set of actors defined by their ties, links, or relationships with one another (e.g., friendship networks, ecological networks, global trade networks, and protein interaction networks) rather than by their individual characteristics (attributes) as actors. Since the research focus is on relationships rather than on characteristics, statistical methods  in network science are being developed that do not need to assume—unlike in traditional statistical analyses—that the observations being studied are independent of one another.

Dr. Termeh Shafie, who is currently a Visiting Bass Scholar at the Field,  arrived in mid April from the Algorithimics Department at the University of Konstanz in Germany to help the Field’s scientists apply the statistical methods and models of network science to their research datasets which are as seemingly dissimilar as gorilla social interactions, sharks swimming in the ocean, the genetics of lichens, and the decorations on prehistoric American potshards.

When asked about her work at the Field Museum in Chicago, Termeh Shafie explains:

"The first step will be to learn more about the empirical data at hand, the hypotheses about these data being considered, and how to embed a network approach to them. The second step will be to develop network models based on these hypotheses. This requires the mathematical formulation of models, programming these models using statistical software, and then running simulations. Goodness-of-fit tests can be used to test the fit of the models to the data. Once suitable models are identified, statistics can be used to measure different properties of the networks under study and unlock information in them using the models as predictive tools. Within a level of certainty, we can then predict trends and behavior patterns even for parts of the networks we don’t yet have data for."

On Wednesday, May 13th, Dr. John P. Hart (Director, Research & Collections Division, New York State Museum), Dr. Mark Golitko (Regenstein Research Scientist), and James Zimmer-Dauphinee (2015 Regenstein Intern) participated with Shafie in a small-group Network Science Workshop at the Museum exploring ways to apply network analysis to a large database of information about pottery designs on ancient vessels from 102 archaeological sites to help unravel how communities across southern Ontario coalesced between ca. A.D. 1350 and 1650 into the larger regional populations that ultimately became the historically documented Huron confederacy.

Left to right: John Hart, Termeh Shafie, James Zimmer-Dauphine, Mark Golitko
Left to right: John Hart, Termeh Shafie, James Zimmer-Dauphinee, Mark Golitko

Shafie will be at the Field until August 15th, but even after she returns to Germany, she will continue to be the “networks link” between scientists at the Museum and the Algorithmics Unit under the direction of Professor Ulrik Brandes in the Department of Computer & Information Science at the University of Konstanz.

 

Human biogeography 3. Defining the agenda

John Edward Terrell


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 15-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 12-Feb-2015.


Abstract – Human biogeography is not a thriving scientific enterprise. Why? In part because our species is remarkably talented at niche construction and highly inventive at adapting our socially learned ways of making a living and staying alive to meet the challenges and opportunities around us wherever we find ourselves on the planet. Nonetheless there is political as well as scientific need in the 21st century for an inclusive biogeographical perspective on human diversity recognizing that we are a globally distributed species whose diversity is framed by isolation-by-distance constrained by our social, economic, and political networks, and whose impact on the environment and our own sustainability is substantial and critically in need of informed restructuring.

This is part 3 of a 3 part series at SCIENCE DIALOGUES


POSSIBLY THE FIRST ATTEMPT IN RECENT YEARS to put humans on the agenda of biogeography was in 1974 at a small invitational conference in Washington, D.C. with this goal supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and organized by William Fitzhugh at the Smithsonian Institution and John Terrell at Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (Kolata 1974). Human biogeography was provisionally defined by the organizers as “the study of the size, distribution, and population structure of, and the interactions among, human populations found in similar or divergent habitats, and of the conditions and events leading to the development and maintenance of similarities and differences among human populations living at various points on the earth’s surface” (Terrell 1977c: 5).

In 2012 the University of California Press published the first modern textbook in English on how and why we are distributed as we are globally, Alexander Harcourt’s Human biogeography (2012). As one reviewer noted about this book: “to study such patterns effectively one must not only work with an immense body of data, but also effectively employ theories and methods from both anthropology and biogeography” (Banks 2013: 39). Further, much of human diversity, as Harcourt emphasizes, is not about genes determining human behavior or even influencing what we do, but rather about our socially mediated interactions with the world (Hart 2012: 330).

Units of analysis

The biologist Richard Levins, one of the attendees at the Washington conference in 1974, pointed out that comparing the geographical distribution, variation, and demographic characteristics of human beings with these dimensions in other species is problematic. Biogeographers commonly then and now use taxonomic species as their units of analysis since (by definition, at least) species cannot interbreed. But what characteristics should be used to delimit appropriate human units for comparison given that all of us can at least potentially interbreed even if circumstance, preference, or spatial remove may keep Homo sapiens from being a panmictic species (Caspari 2003)?

When the science writer Gina Kolata reported in Science in 1974 on this conference, she noted that selecting the appropriate human units might be contingent on the research question being asked. If so, then defining the units might be done, for instance, by parsing linguistic, genetic, or cultural traits as the salient diagnostic characters (Kolata 1974). However, the crux of the issue raised by Levins and others at the conference remains. When it comes to variation within our species are the units however defined biologically meaningful? For example, are human groups defined linguistically (i.e., as ethnolinguistic populations) also biologically discernible, informative, and more than ephemeral (Kelly 2002)?

The answer is probably negative. The partitioning of people by language, for instance, is perhaps more extreme in the New Guinea region of the southwestern Pacific than anywhere else on earth. Although it has long been conventional to say that linguistic differences can be used to map biologically persistent populations, research on both cultural and genetic similarities and differences among communities in this part of the world has shown that their diversity when mapped geographically is structured most clearly not by language but rather by isolation-by-distance constrained by social networks and local environmental conditions such as ground slope and topographic ruggedness (Terrell 2010a, 2010b).

Systematic human biogeography

Although, as Barth remarked, it has long been conventional to talk about diversity within our species by presupposing there are discrete aggregations of people on earth that can be labeled as human populations, ethnic groups, and the like, it is probable that many of those attending the 1974 conference were fully aware of the challenges of defining units of analysis in the human sciences. They were not merely trying to map these sciences into the research agenda of species biogeography as then understood and practiced in the biological sciences. Yet it is also true, as John Terrell noted in the introduction to the resulting conference volume, that our human environment is not just a social construct: “People are [also] elements in a far more complex system, at best only partly of man’s design . . . within which a change in anyone element or relationship is likely to effect changes, of a greater or lesser degree, in all the others” (Terrell 1977a: 245).

Although the phrase has won few converts, Terrell suggested at the conference that such networks of interactions might be called geographic systems:

a geographic system is the interactive configuration among the size, distribution and interaction structure of a set of local populations and the elements and interaction structure of the area of their occurrence, analysed as a complex of intercommunicating variables within which a change in any one variable or relationship is likely to effect changes, of a greater or lesser degree, in all the others. (Terrell 1977b: 65)

Key here is the qualification “a greater or lesser degree.” As Herbert Simon once remarked: “To a Platonic mind, everything in the world is connected with everything else—and perhaps it is. Everything is connected, but some things are more connected than others” (Simon 1973: 23). What Simon had in mind were complex hierarchical systems: a broad class (physical, chemical, biological, social, or artificial) exhibiting what he termed “loose horizontal coupling” permitting “each subassembly to operate dynamically in independence of the detail of the others; only the inputs it requires and the outputs it produces are relevant for the larger aspects of system behavior” (1973: 16).

Networks human biogeography

Folk human biogeography presupposes that groups of some kind exist (perhaps simply because people say they exist), and similarities among such corporate players on the world stage of history can be attributed to common ancestry, adaptive convergence, or diffusion (which in the biological sciences is often called admixture) across the boundaries that supposedly exist between such corporate entities (Bashkow 2004). Systematic human biogeography interpreted the way Simon has described complex systems similarly also would appear to take for granted the presence of subsystems needing to communicate with one another but only in so far as inputs and outputs are relevant to the behavior and survival of the system as a whole. Yet harkening back to Levins’ concern in 1974: how should we define boundaries and systems in human biogeography?

Proximal-point analysis of the Solomon Islands and neighboring islands to the northwest (John Terrell, Smithsonian Conference, 1974).

Although not given much attention at the conference in 1974, an alternative strategy using graph theory was showcased during one of the presentations then (Terrell 1977c), and it is now widely recognized that Simon’s way of thinking about systemic relationships is not the only way to think about the dynamics of loosely-coupled systems. In 1973, for example, Mark Granovetter (1973) used graph theory—now more generally known as network analysis—to examine how the strength of our ties with others can determine our social mobility, the diffusion of ideas, the political and economic organization of society, and on a more general level, the cohesion of society writ large.

Network analysis enables us see the world around us as one of connections that shape observed phenomena, rather than as one where the intrinsic properties of predefined entities—groups, populations, tribes, systems, and the like—determine the behavior and outcomes of human interactions. Today network analysis in biogeography holds promise, but is still far from conventional (e.g., Kivelä et al. 2015; Radil et al. 2010; Terrell 2010b).

Conclusion

As Shakespeare asked, what’s in a name? It could be argued that anthropology, ethnology, or Erdkunde in the 19th century was simply another name for what would now be called biogeography focused narrowly on one species, namely us (Terrell 2006). This synonymy would be harder to assert for anthropology, human geography, and biogeography in the 20th century in part because the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas and his many prominent students in North America were generally successful at least within the academy at promoting the view that culture (i.e., social learning) is the cardinal trait uniquely defining us as a species (Lewis 2008)—although this historical claim can be contested (Koelsch 2003; Verdon 2006, 2007). What about the 21st century? Is there gain or advantage to be had today by still seeking to unite at least some of the elements of these realms of study under the neglected heading human biogeography?

Martinus Beijerinck in his laboratory, 12 May 1921. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mwb_in_lab.JPG. US.PD. “Beijerinck was a socially eccentric figure. He was verbally abusive to students, never married, and had few professional collaborations. He was also known for his ascetic lifestyle and his view of science and marriage being incompatible. His low popularity with his students periodically depressed him, as he very much loved spreading his enthusiasm for biology in the classroom.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martinus_Beijerinck.

There is at least one practical reason to do so. While it might seem contentious, it could be said that science as a human activity is more tribal than our species itself. From a social scientist’s point of view—given that we do not naturally come in kinds—it seems astonishing that some geneticists today, for instance, would accept the old folk belief that human groups—geneticists call them populations—are so biologically isolated, and interactions, biological or otherwise, among people living in different places on earth are so rare, that it is proper to assume our biological similarities from place to place must be due to “sudden or gradual transfers of genetic material, creating admixed populations” (Hellenthal et al. 2014: 747; also Elhaik et al. 2014). Perhaps if there were a discipline called human biogeography, it would be more difficult for biologists to overlook what social scientists can tell them about our species, and vice versa.

Acknowledgments

I thank Eric Clark, Mark Golitko, John Hart, and Kevin Kelly for comments on the working draft.

References      § = suggested further reading

Banks, W. E. (2013). Review of Harcourt, Human biogeography. Quarterly Review of Biology 88, 39–40.

Barth, F. (1969). Introduction. In Barth, F. (ed.) Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference, pp 9–38. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Bashkow, I. (2004). A neo-Boasian conception of cultural boundaries. American Anthropologist 106, 443–458.

Caspari, R. (2003). From types to populations: A century of race, physical anthropology, and the American Anthropological Association. American Anthropologist 105, 65–76.

Castree, N. (2009). Charles Darwin and the geographers. Environment and Planning A 41, 2293–2298. §

Cox, C. B. and Moore, P. D. (2010). Biogeography: An ecological and evolutionary approach. 8th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Elhaik, E., Tatarinova, T., Chebotarev, D. et al. (2014). Geographic population structure analysis of worldwide human populations infers their biogeographical origins. Nature Communications DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4513.

Fuentes, A., Marks, J., Ingold, T. et al. (2010). On nature and the human. American Anthropologist 112, 512–521.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78, 1360–1380. §

Harcourt, A. H. (2012). Human biogeography. Berkeley: University of California Press. §

Hart, J. P. (2012). Why we are what and where we are. Science 338, 330.

Hellenthal, G., Busby, G. B. J., Band, G. et al. (2014). A genetic atlas of human admixture history. Science 343, 747–751.

Kelly, K. M.  (2002). Population. In Hart, J. P. & Terrell, J. E. (eds.) Darwin and archaeology: A handbook of key concepts, pp 243–256. Westport, Ct: Bergin & Garvey. §

Kivelä, M., Arnaud-Haond, S. and Saramäki, J. (2015).  EDENetworks: A user-friendly software to build and analyse networks in biogeography, ecology and population genetics. Molecular Ecology Resources 15, 117–122.

Koelsch, W. A. (2004). Franz Boas, geographer, and the problem of disciplinary identity. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 40, 1–22.

Kolata, G. B. (1974). Human biogeography: Similarities between man and beast. Science 185, 134–135.

Laland, K. N. and O’Brien, M. J. (2011). Cultural niche construction: An introduction. Biological Theory 6, 191–202.

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Lewis, H. S. (2008). Franz Boas: Boon or bane? Reviews in Anthropology 37, 169–200.

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Terrell, J. E. (1977c). Human biogeography in the Solomon Islands. Fieldiana: Anthropology 68, 1–47.

Terrell J. E. (2006). Human biogeography: Evidence of our place in nature. Journal of Biogeography 33, 2088–2098. §

Terrell, J. E. (2010a). Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 5, 3–32.

Terrell, J. E. (2010b). Social network analysis of the genetic structure of Pacific Islanders. Annals of Human Genetics 74, 211–232. §

Terrell, J. E. (2014). A talent for friendship: Rediscovery of a remarkable trait. Oxford: Oxford University Press. §

Verdon, M. (2006). The world upside down: Boas, history, evolutionism, and science. History and Anthropology 17, 171–187.

Verdon, M. (2007). Franz Boas: Cultural history for the present, or obsolete natural history? Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 13, 433–451.

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Wade, N. (2014). A troublesome inheritance: Genes, race and human history. New York: Penguin Press.

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© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Human biogeography 2. Human diversity

John Edward Terrell


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 15-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 5-Feb-2015.


Abstract – Human biogeography is not a thriving scientific enterprise. Why? In part because our species is remarkably talented at niche construction and highly inventive at adapting our socially learned ways of making a living and staying alive to meet the challenges and opportunities around us wherever we find ourselves on the planet. Nonetheless there is political as well as scientific need in the 21st century for an inclusive biogeographical perspective on human diversity recognizing that we are a globally distributed species whose diversity is framed by isolation-by-distance constrained by our social, economic, and political networks, and whose impact on the environment and our own sustainability is substantial and critically in need of informed restructuring.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series at SCIENCE DIALOGUES.


GENETIC EVIDENCE BOTH MOLECULAR AND METRIC now supports instead two robust observations about the biogeography of our species. First, our global physical diversity is structured not by geographic isolation, but instead by isolation-by-distance constrained by social, economic, and political networks (e.g., Lao et al. 2008; see also below) and the specifics of local geography. Said less awkwardly, people as a rule are similar to those nearby and differ from those living farther away. Second, we are proficient at crossing the lines we draw between ourselves and others. Social, cultural, economic, and political barriers are only as real as we want to make them, and social realities are in constant flux and renegotiation (Bashkow 2004).

To infer, as Nicholas Wade and others have done, that we have normally lived in isolated tribal groups until quite recently—say, before globalization—resurrects what the anthropologist Alexander Lesser once dubbed the myth of the primitive isolate—the belief that there were savage tribes before and after 1492 that were circumscribed, timeless societies having few and mostly hostile dealings with one another (Lesser 1961; Lewis 2008; Vincent 2009).

Ethnic stereotypes

Fredrik Barth has remarked that practically all social science reasoning rests on the notion that there are discrete groups of people on earth that can be variously labeled as populations, ethnic groups, societies, cultures, or races (Barth 1969). This way of charting our diversity—commonly called typological or categorical thinking—takes it as self-evident that things naturally come in different kinds, or types, that may legitimately be labeled as such. From this perspective, the words we use to describe things are like empty containers into which we can put things once we have grasped the essential meaning of these verbal containers.

Bild aus Seite 541 in “Die Gartenlaube.” Image from page 541 of journal Die Gartenlaube, 1887. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Die_Gartenlaube_(1887)_b_541_2.jpg

From this perspective, it would seem self-evident that different kinds of people live in different parts of the world. After all, who could possibly mistake an African for an Asian or someone of Irish descent? Nor is this just a Euro-American way of parsing real or assumed geographic variation within our species. The anthropologist James Watson reported half a century ago, for example, that people he knew well in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea had no difficulty pointing out to him how they saw themselves as different from other people in neighboring places despite the fact that these many small communities were intermittently marked by relocations, realignments, and the patriation of immigrants who had been expelled by hostile neighbors from their own lands—so much so, Watson related, that “to the literal-minded genealogist, the long-term kinship and continuity of each such group seem confused, even compromised” (Watson 1990: 17). Yet despite the demographic instability of these communities, he found that people there were generally quite confident they could draw lines between themselves and others for “no matter how permeable their boundaries or how checkered the history of their membership, they will consider themselves and will be thought to be distinct ethnic units” (Watson 1990: 18).

Group selectionism

The belief that people come in recognizable different types, kinds, or races is often paired with the notion that we are inherently selfish, intolerant, and aggressive—in a word, that we are all bullies at birth needing years of nurturance to become kind and socially adept humans. In this vein, the biogeographer Edward O. Wilson has written that when asked if humans are innately aggressive, he replies: “This is a favorite question of college seminars and cocktail party conversations,” he writes, “and one that raises emotion in political ideologues of all stripes. The answer to it is yes.” (Wilson 1978: 99).

The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition under attack from an African natives. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Emin_Pasha_Relief_Expedition_under_attack_Wellcome_L0034831.jpg

Recently Wilson underscored one of the major assertions behind this way of thinking about ourselves: that competition among groups rather than cooperation has been a powerful driving force behind the evolution of our species and our behavior as individuals. As Wilson has recently phrased the thought: “Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principal driving force that made us what we are. . . . Each tribe knew with justification that if it was not armed and ready, its very existence was imperiled” (Wilson 2012: 62).

This is not the place to argue against such understandings of what it means to be human (Terrell 2014). Briefly put, as Robert Sussman has written: “To say that humans have a propensity for violence says nothing. We also have a propensity for nonviolence. In fact, the norm, or statistically more common behavior, within human groups is cooperation and among human groups is peace. Violence, both within and among societies, is statistically abnormal” (Sussman in: Fuentes et al. 2010).

Acknowledgments

I thank Eric Clark, Mark Golitko, John Hart, and Kevin Kelly for comments on the working draft.

References      § = suggested further reading

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© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.