Science at war with itself
23 April 2021
Many decades ago very early in my medical education, I became consciously aware that I was deeply attracted to the realm of ideas. So I took a year off to acquire a BSc Med before finishing, somewhat grudgingly, my medical school course certain that science was to be my professional future. And so it came to pass.
I was utterly captivated by the brilliant scientific research which was transforming the practice of medicine literally week by week and desperately wanted to be part of this magnificent journey into the unknown. I threw myself into this entrancing world with all the energy and enthusiasm so sorely lacking during my undergraduate career.
As life turned out the journey, while rewarding enough in the scheme of things, did not entirely meet up with my initial hopes. But whatever disappointments I encountered along the way did not come from the science itself, which I continue to believe has been the single most profound and far-reaching cultural innovation in the history of life on earth. They came from the experience of my own limitations and the fact that no matter how magnificent the scientific edifice, it is inhabited by mere mortals.
William James expressed my feelings in distinctly purple prose:
"When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared, what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness, - then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from his private dream!” I smile now when I read this century-old homage but do not mock.
In more mundane terms science is a collection of norms, practices and techniques for leveraging the work of individuals into an ever-expanding edifice of knowledge and tools. It grows exponentially and, apparently, unstoppably - though the latter is not as secure as it may have once seemed. It is practiced by individuals exhibiting the full range of human flaws and limitations and is not immune to the shocks that other institutions are heir to.
But whether saints or charlatans, all are bound by the cultural edifice we call science which has up to the present day enabled this vast cooperative enterprise to persist. I want to address here the question whether this will survive the current ideological-political struggles destabilising once apparently secure political and social institutions?
Space, time and energy will not allow the question to answered properly but I want to illustrate it with an example close to my heart and follow the trail of thought to some kind of conclusion.
In 1967 one of the most important North American archaeological discoveries of the 20th century was made by a bulldozer crew excavating a site intended for a movie theatre in the small fishing village of Port au Choix (PAC) in Newfoundland close to Labrador. It yielded human skeletons covered in a red ochre accompanied by human artefacts. It came at the right time. An archaeologist, Jim Tuck, had been newly appointed to the Memorial University in St John who was interested in the paleoanthropology of the indigenous peoples resident in North America about 4000 - 5000 years ago.
He went on to excavate a remarkable set of over 150 elaborate graves at 3 different loci representing a culture distinctly more developed and sophisticated than the other peoples of the region and, importantly, different to those coming before and after them. The ochre-covered skeletons were beautifully preserved and accompanied by finely wrought bone and stone artefacts which were given the name Maritime Archaic.
Similar cemeteries were discovered nearby in both Labrador and Newfoundland and, these in turn, resembled other sites previously discovered in Maine and within the USA. These earlier quite widely dispersed sites within the USA had earned the name, Red Paint People (RPP), because of the red ochre also associated with their skeletons.
A friendly controversy erupted concerning the relationship between the RPP in Maine and neighbouring regions to the Maritime Archaic sites around PAC and nearby. Jim Tuck believed these belonged to the same people while a fellow archaeologist, Paul Bourgue, from whose article published in Quillette this account is drawn, believed these apparently similar cultures represented two distinct peoples. This was not just some arcane debate between competing specialists but went to the heart of important issues in the study of our near pre-history.
In essence, there is a need to unify and understand the relationship between cultures and peoples. The former is mainly defined by the tangible physical evidence of cultural customs in the form of artefacts, structures and tools . The latter is derived from genetic relationships previously revealed by phenotypic features, especially skeletal, and more recently by paleogenetics or the genetics of ancient DNA. The question being addressed is: are cultures tied to particular peoples or do they cross genetic boundaries or do both routes occur depending on particular circumstances?
The two big research galaxies working in this field are those of Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and David Reich's group in the Broad Institute at Harvard University in Massachusetts. The advances in the technology of ancient and modern DNA analysis and the mathematical tools used to infer historic and current relationships have made massive strides over the past 2 decades, which has underpinned an explosive growth of knowledge in these fields.
Nor has the knowledge been confined to issues of human history. In particular, we now have much more information on the genetics of human physical and mental functioning in both health and disease. But, especially pertinent to the political domain, is the unravelling of genetic ancestry of various ethno-racial groups and what it tells us about their origins and relationships to neighbouring peoples.
With this explanatory diversion we can return to Paul Bourque's fascinating narrative. His account is informed by a deep familiarity with the convoluted story of the indigenous peoples arriving in North America from Siberia circa 16 000 years ago. I will rather focus on the issues he raises with respect to the impact of emerging identity-based "woke" ideologies on his work and on the practice of science. more generally.
In 2017 a multi-national team led by Ana Duggan of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, published work based on mitochondrial DNA (which reflects only the maternal lineage) which they summarised as follows :
"By examining the mitochondrial genome diversity and isotopic ratios of 74 ancient remains in conjunction with the archaeological record, we have provided definitive evidence for the genetic discontinuity between the maternal lineages of these populations. This northeastern margin of North America appears to have been populated multiple times by distinct groups that did not share a recent common ancestry, but rather one much deeper in time at the entry point into the continent." (Emphasis mine)
Reich's group in the meantime, using autosomal DNA which reflects paternal as well as maternal lineage, demonstrated similar discontinuities for the RPP around Maine as had been shown for the PAC people from Labrador-Newfoundland. But by then Duggan's group had also acquired the capacity to sequence autosomal as well as mitochondrial DNA, and announced their intention to apply this technique to the PAC people they had previously investigated using mitochondrial DNA.
However news about this highly anticipated project suddenly went quiet during the summer of the 2020 during the Covid pandemic and BLM (Black Lives Matter) riots. Bourque wondered whether the apparent loss of interest may have been related to increased sensitivities regarding research on the ancestry of indigenous populations and put the question to Duggan directly, who confirmed his suspicions in no uncertain terms. She informed Bourque that his concerns were "meaningless when compared to the distress caused to Indigenous communities by the historical treatment of their ancestral remains.”
Be that as it may the rights and sensitivities of indigenous communities, not always easy to define as we know from South African experience, had been recognised in North America at least by the "Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, a US law requiring federally funded entities to return “cultural items” (as broadly defined) to the ancestors or cultural affiliates of the communities from which those items originated."
The escape clause is 'cultural affiliates' since paleogenomic research has revealed that there have been a number of crossings into North America and, like Eurasia, multiple conquests and mass migrations had ensured that in many cases there was no direct lines of descent between present day First Peoples and previous peoples resident in the same area thousands or even hundreds of years earlier. In some cases the new science cut across previously held myths of ancestry and creation and doubtless such objective truths were disturbing or even offensive to some.
We know this from European history; for example the resistance pioneering cosmologists and Darwinian evolutionists encountered from the Church hierarchy to the new data and troubling interpretations yielded by the scientific process.. But by now Europeans who were 'upset' by unwelcome scientific revelations concerning their past would be expected to 'suck it up' and deal with it.
In the present climate, however, of quasi-religious, self-flagellation by whites in atonement for their sins of the past, such resistance to the unwelcome realities of history by designated victim groups is accorded sacred status. This is not some arcane tiff confined to nerds in white lab coats but will determine what research is carried out and what facts become received truth or are consigned to the dustbin of history.
All researchers in the field of anthropology, archaeology, genetics, sociology and history are by now acutely aware of the swords of censorship, ostracism and stigmatisation hovering .over their work and careers. While this is resisted by some scientists, others have found the role of social activist psychologically rewarding and career-enhancing. For practical purposes most of the prestigious scientific platforms like Nature and Science (to mention just 2 of many examples), academic institutions and scientific societies have been at least partially captured by the tenets of critical race theory and intersectionality in their multiple manifestations.
The consequences will not be confined to what work is done and published and what is excluded, but will potentially also affect the quality and originality of the science being produced. This is a simple logical and inevitable consequence of the introduction of criteria other than merit (itself not a simple concept) into the whole cultural apparatus of scientific endeavour. The danger is real and I could take up many more pages in recounting some of the horror stories arising from the misplaced zeal of the social justice evangelists and their allies.
But at the same time our response needs to be nuanced and considered. Abuses do exist within the scientific enterprise which need to be ended without making the cure worse than the disease. Increasing the base from which scientists are drawn can only improve the quality of research in multiple ways. That means at a minimum breaking down barriers to entry and providing paths for those lacking the advantages of wealth, education and social standing as much as possible. These reforms need to be done without undermining standards and without driving others, like white males for instance, out of science.
And needless provocation from the extremes of the spectrum need to be identified as utterly contrary to the spirit of science which is, at base, a robust cooperative enterprise transcending the political ideologies and personal idiosyncrasies of its practitioners.
So when the geneticist Adam Rutherford writes a polemical book "How to Argue with a Racist" (which is favourably reviewed in Nature Briefings without caveat) or modern scientific historians scour the archives looking for any whiff of scandal relating to feminism, race or eugenics perpetrated by dead white male icons, the entire scientific enterprise is weakened. As expressed by Paul Bourque:
"... it proved but a short jump from the denunciation of Western science to the insistence that traditional folklore and origin stories be protected from scientific scrutiny. In some academic quarters, it is now seen as insulting to bring up the fact that humans arrived in the Americas from Asia via Beringia during the Last Glacial Maximum about 16,000 years ago, as this fact conflicts with spiritual notions that, in many cases, roughly correspond to Christian creationist myths".
And if we allow this trend to continue you may never have heard that the major genetic risk for severe Covid-19 infections comes from Neanderthal DNA. So put that in your pipe and ponder it.