Post script to our wandering cousins (and their genetic streams)

Shortly after I posted about our wandering cousins, intrepid NYT science reporter Carl Zimmer posted story about a newly identified population called Ancient Paleo-Siberians:  The story is a lengthy one and I do not have the time to render it clearly here, but the gist is that geneticists looking at different populations in Siberia and in North America have found a complex story of migration, populations mixing, populations disappearing, etc.  By and large the current Siberians have little genetics in common with Siberians of the long past or with native Americans today.  Geneticists have found a group from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago that seem to have played some role in peopling the Americas called the Ancient Paleo-Siberians.  Current native Americans derive about 75% of their DNA from this group who have largely disappeared.

The geneticists and anthropologists and paleontologists are working on different explanations and wondering how to gather more data to resolve their differences. Very difficult to find fossils in that area, especially since after the last ice age the land bridge between Asia and North American is underwater and the rest is frozen.  But given the recent news stories I began to ponder the facts of populations arising and subsiding through multiple migrations back and forth.

In prehistoric times we are talking about changes over thousands of years; in modern times we are talking about days, months and a year or two.  The prejudices against breeding between groups may have lessened in some places but continues on in others, and I suspect that much of the reaction against migrants and refugees is more about sexual mixing than economic realities.   Immigrants contribute to social and economic vitality in short order, even making important contributions on many levels, so the complaints about them using resources etc. must be a smokescreen for other concerns, e.g., group racial identity.

Only problem there is that group racial identity is more a political instrument for gaining and consolidating power than a valid concern over any genetic differences which are at most miniscule.  So I wonder if Ancient Paleo-Siberians, Neandertals, Denisovans, Ancient North Siberians, Inuits and Mayans back in the day before their cultures established political structures and functions showed concerns over the influx of a new group.  Siberia to us seems rather forbidding but back in prehistoric times was a resource rich environment.  Plus there were just not that many people back then; the overcrowding we experience as normal was not known.  So long as hunting grounds were separate or even shared like the Native Americans did in our own valley here in SW Virginia, I doubt that many problems erupted.

Another pondering:  The story of Romeo and Juliet is iconic for the triumph and tragedy of love between groups. As our species evolved, when did emotional bonds and attachment surmount sexual attraction to become a dominant force in which the love between two people erased their concerns about group differences?  I think that was a great day in our history, even if different problems then arose.

One of the tropes characterizing modern times is the speed with which cultural change takes place, and I think that also applies to group mixing, whether ethnic or racial or cultural.  Groups adhere together only so long, whether it is a decade or a millennium, and then boundaries begin to blur and break down as they mix with another group. That seems to me a basic fact of life on Gaia.  Only physical isolation stops this process and even then not for long.

So when the nationalist cretins march to promote their own group’s solidarity (as they did in Charlottesville) and, by implication at least, superiority, I know that they are doomed to in-breeding catastrophes.  Indeed, they are already in-breeding catastrophes of the cultural sort.  Our hope is that humans continue as they have done since the dawn of our kind, wandering and meeting new people, learning and developing new ideas, and sharing the planet as best we can (which is better than we are doing now).  As always, travel on.


I have not seen much science news about our humanity lately and my regular reading has gone a bit off the path, so I will write about some tidbits gleaned therefrom.

I mentioned Nietzsche a few days back for his early understanding of the complex depth in any adequate notion of the will. I was reading Beyond Good and Evil at that time and have done the unusual thing of putting the book down without finishing it. I may go back but I found I could not understand why he was writing the later sections that were so sarcastic and belittling to other ideas, mostly the progressive ones for his age. If that is all he had to say I had no reason to read it. Then I remembered that this was probably his last book before (I think I have the timing right here) he went insane and spent the last decade of his life in an asylum. I have not read an account of that except some speculation of mania or syphilis, but his sister edited and published his writings posthumously, reportedly changing them according to her extreme Germanic Aryan views. Somethings today sound similar to that.

On a more positive note I am reading Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture on the nature of time, physics, the cosmos and ontology. The early stuff on philosophy I found tedious but reading on as I like to do, I found some of the good stuff to highlight when he came to his specialty in physics. One of my recurrent themes here is the human genius for matters of scale; we want to understand from small to large in our perceptual world and now in modern scientific times beyond. Carroll writes this: “Claim: The laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known”. He understands quite well that this statement is a mite strong, and he further articulates that saying the laws are known does not entail that we know all the details about all the levels of scale, especially about how matter and energy organizes to become life and then conscious life. Still he makes a good case that for phenomena within the scales of our ‘everyday life’ we kow the physics and that our understanding of these laws might be modified in the time to come but not undone. Pretty amazing progress made essentially over the last 4-5 centuries.

What about beyond the scales evident to our senses? Another theme I periodically highlight here is that over the course of hominid evolution we have assiduously pursued and explored the extreme limits of our environment. Early humans in the Andes set up camps in the rarefied heights. Early humans in the Himalayas adapted to extreme elevations with a genetic mutation first evident in the Denisovans of central Russia for more efficient hemoglobin enabling breathing that thin air. Some adapt to the extremes of the Sahara or Mongolian steppe. My own ancestors retreated reluctantly, or so I fantasize, before the glacial ice age and happily chased the ice north when Gaia warmed. Now we pursue outer space and the ocean depths. Carroll reports that our known laws of physics operate quite reliably between the two extremes of scales, the upper end defined by the energies we are able to measure and the lower boundary defined by distances also within our empirical ken. As I understand this, we have a handle on energies up to the strength of the strong force holding particles together but there may be stronger forces we are currently unable to probe and we have a handle on everything larger than the distance among sub-atomic particles. And here is the point, humans are not content to live within these boundaries; we continue to push our experimental prowess to go beyond. That does seem to be a consequence of our evolutionary abilities.

Carroll also introduced me to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, the daughter of the exiled king of Bohemia who was highly educated for anyone back in her day, much less for a woman, and entered the Herford Abbey in 1667 to live most of her adult life. She was a friend of William Penn and the Quakers, though she was a Calvinist, and she had a long correspondence with Renee Descartes, you know, the guy who said ‘I think, therefore I am’ and  set up the duality between mind and body that haunts us to this day. Well, Princess Elisabeth challenged him on that and other matters, saying that the two things had to be one nature, or else he needed to explain how the mind controlled the body and vice versa, i.e., by what means or energies they interacted. Thank you, Princess Elisabeth.

I hope you have heard the story from the early 20th century about Henrietta Leavitt and her fellow women astronomers who were not allowed to be professional astronomers because, well, you know, they would be out unsupervised at night and all that, but who still by studying photographic plates diligently with great patience and care discovered the means by which we measure the distances to stars. That was in the early 1900s and they worked for James Pickering who ran the Harvard observatory. If they weren’t astronomers, what were they? Their title was ‘computer’ because they measured and computed. Sure, it makes sense, doesn’t it?

If you have seen that most marvelous film, Hidden Figures, you know where I am going with this. The 3 women whose story that film tells were also called computers and this in 1961. Despite the racism and sexism rampant then and now, these three were so bright and bent on doing smartly, on contributing to our exploration of space, that they with their genius were irrepressible. Here I will leave you for the day with the understanding that humans, empowered or repressed, will seek to push beyond the boundaries on matters of scale and on matters of justice. Travel on (and if you have not seen Hidden Figures, turn off the machine and go right now).


Let us wander around in here and . . .    


and out here and . . .


not forget anyone like the brilliant mathematician, Katherine Johnson, and the astute 17th Century philosopher, Princess Elisabeth.