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I’ve been invited by the awesome people in the North Texas Skeptics organization to come speak to them, so tomorrow (July 18th), I’ll be giving a talk on “Molecules and myths: What anthropological genetics tells us about the prehistory of the Americas”. Here’s the synopsis:

For hundreds of years, Europeans have been trying to insert themselves into Native American prehistory, developing elaborate explanations for how their monumental architecture, art, technology, and even genetic ancestry ought to be attributed to non-Indigenous peoples (whether human, alien, or Sasquatch).  I will discuss some of the old and new pseudoscientific hypotheses pertaining to Native Americans, and how the field of anthropological genetics is rapidly demolishing these ideas. I’ll give a brief overview of how ancient DNA research is done, and discuss what is currently known about the genetic prehistory of Native Americans—and why this subject matters in our current political and social climate.


Here are the details of the event:


If you’re in the area, come out and say hi!

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Excavating a cemetery in Barrow, AK. One of the best crews I've ever been on.

Excavating a cemetery in Barrow, AK. One of the best crews I’ve ever been on.


My friend and colleague, Julienne Rutherford, and her co-authors Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, and Katie Hinde have just published a groundbreaking study on fieldwork experiences among women in science. Disturbingly (though unsurprisingly for those of us who have done fieldwork), a majority (72.4%) of respondents to their survey “reported that they had directly observed or been told about the occurrence of other field site researchers and/or colleagues making inappropriate or sexual remarks at their most recent or most notable field site.” Further, a majority (64%) reported that they had personally experienced sexual harassment. (It’s important to note that men also responded to this survey to report experiencing and/or witnessing harassment, although at a lower frequency than women.)

This is one of those rare cases where I don’t need to recap the findings of the article, because the authors have published it in an open-access journal (PLOS ONE), and so I encourage you to go read the study itself here, and the Science news report about it by Ann Gibbons here.

Fieldwork is an occasional, but very important part of my job, and from my experiences I can attest that junior people in the field, particularly students, are extremely vulnerable. I applaud these researchers for calling attention to this problem, and I hope that it will be the beginning of a very important conversation about how to make fieldwork safer for everyone.

*** UPDATE: This piece, by Andrew David Thaler, is a must-read. I’d been debating about whether to write about the Richard Feynman controversy going on in the last few days, but instead I’ll just recommend that you check out the links in the first paragraph, particularly to Matthew Francis’ post on the subject.


In recent weeks, Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance has been soundly criticized on the basis of his misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the statistical methods used to study human genetic variation (see Jeremy Yoder’s critique here, Chris Smith’s here, Joseph Graves’ here, and mine here ), his misunderstanding of evolution (see Michael Eisen’s critique here, and Eric Michael Johnson’s here ), and his misunderstanding of human biological variation (see Greg Laden’s critique here,  Agustin Fuentes’ critique here, and Jon Marks’ here ). These criticisms–all from biologists and biological anthropologists– can be boiled down into a single statement: Mr. Wade’s book is scientifically unsound.

His responses thus far (to those of us who published in the Huffington Post) have failed to engage any of the substantive issues that have been raised. Instead, he dismissed our standing for discussing this issue, calling me a “postdoctoral student” (A science journalist should be aware that postdocs aren’t students), and dismissing Dr. Fuentes’ and Dr. Marks’ research background and credentials (as if biological anthropologists were not scientists). I have not seen any response yet to the numerous other critiques from biologists that have appeared elsewhere (many listed in the previous paragraph), which raise many of the same concerns.

Mr. Wade may feel that he can ignore the substantive critiques of his book by scientists. But can he do the same for fellow science journalists? David Dobbs’ review of Mr. Wade’s book appeared in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday (the online version can be read here). It is not favorable.  Mr. Dobbs calls the book “deeply flawed, deceptive, and dangerous.”

In discussing the study (critiqued by most of us above) that Mr. Wade claims supports the genetic basis for three (or is it five?) “continental races”, Mr. Dobbs notes that the paper itself

“directly contradicts Wade’s argument. Yet he baldly claims the study as support.  And he does this sort of thing repeatedly: He constantly gathers up long shots, speculations and spurious claims, then declares they add up to substantiate his case. The result is a deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book.”

Mr. Dobbs elaborates on this in the companion piece on his blog:

“Wade demonstrates how a lucid, well-written, selective presentation of evidence — eloquent, elegant cherry-picking — can convince smart people of pernicious ideas that seem scientific, but which science does not support. Much of the sleight of hand in this book will not be evident to people who don’t know the field. In some cases one has to read a specific paper cited by Wade to recognize that he thoroughly misrepresents its findings.”

I encourage you to go read both of Mr. Dobbs’ critiques. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Wade responds.

Update: Here are a few other critiques worth mentioning:

A Troublesome Ghost by Dr. John Edward Terrell

In addition to the post I cited above, Dr. Chris Smith also takes on Wade’s mischaracterization of
the genetic basis for violent behavior in different populations.

He also discusses in detail Wade’s repeated assertion that human evolution has been “recent, copious and regional”.

And if you’d like to listen to an interesting discussion on race, genetics, ancestry testing, and human biology, here’s an appearance by Agustin Fuentes on the Center for Environmental Health podcast.

I was shopping for food for my two cats and ran across a brand of kibble being marketed in an interesting way:




What’s wrong with this picture?


Things have been pretty quiet around here while I finish up a couple of manuscripts for publication. However, I did want to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude to the people who have translated my article (“Dear parents, you are being lied to”) into many different languages (including German, Spanish, Italian, Slovakian, Portuguese, and Croatian) over the last few months. I’m overwhelmed by the response it has gotten, and grateful to have heard from so many of you that you found it useful.

I have no idea at this point how many people have read it, but I am trying to keep a running list of the different places it’s been published.  If anyone finds more examples, I’d appreciate it if you’d post them in the comments so I can add them to the list below!

Nicholas Wade has a problem. Although his new book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”, appears to be selling well, he’s not encountering the praise that he expected from biologists for “courageously” freeing them from the “intimidating social scientists” on the subject of race).

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose



What is he arguing? I go over this briefly in my recent piece on the Huffington Post, and in much greater detail here on this blog, but essentially Wade is using patterns of human variation in populations as a justification for claiming that race is a valid, biological taxonomic category. He goes on to speculate (and that’s really the only word for it, since his claims are unsupported by the preponderance of scientific evidence) that these racial differences determine behavioral differences and thereby explain why some civilizations have historically been more successful economically and politically than others. (You can guess which races he’s talking about; his speculation happens to coincide neatly with traditional stereotypes.)

Wade claims that all critics of this viewpoint are motivated by political concerns and ignore data showing that races are genetically distinct enough to be meaningful taxonomic categories of humans. His book relies particularly upon one genomics study to support this point. In his words (emphasis mine):


Raff and Marks take issue with one of these surveys, Rosenberg et al. 2002, which used a computer program to analyze the clusters of genetic variation. The program doesn’t know how many clusters there should be; it just groups its data into whatever target number of clusters it is given. When the assigned number of clusters is either greater or less than five, the results made no genetic or geographical sense. But when asked for five clusters, the program showed that everyone was assigned to their continent of origin. Raff and Marks seem to think that the preference for this result was wholly arbitrary and that any other number of clusters could have been favored just as logically. But the grouping of human genetic variation into five continent-based clusters is the most reasonable and is consistent with previous findings. As the senior author told me at the time, the Rosenberg study essentially confirmed the popular notion of race.


It’s not a question of logic, but rather what the data show. Rosenberg et al. (2002)’s paper did not analyze or identify just 5 clusters, but rather it considered 1-20 clusters. What Wade is omitting from his paragraph above (and also from his book) is that Rosenberg and colleagues never presented any statistical justification for the choice of 5 clusters over any other number.

Here are the specifics of my criticism, which I posted in response to a commenter on my blog. (If you’re not interested in the statistical refutation of Wade’s argument, feel free to skip this paragraph. I hope Wade takes the time to read it, though). Continue Reading…

“…for he has no right to give names to objects which he cannot define.” –Charles Darwin

Do “races” exist as meaningful biological categories? Physical anthropologists and human biologists have been studying race (i.e., blacks vs. whites, or Europeans vs. Asians) for centuries. For most of that time, they subscribed to the perspective that race was a taxonomic category, and they sought to identify the biological characteristics (such as cranial shape or skin color) that characterized and defined these different groups. This perspective assumed that each individual was a member of a single racial category, that the differences between racial categories were biological, and that these categories were predictive of other traits (such as ancestry, temperament, intelligence, or health).

But it gradually became clear that this understanding was not scientifically sound. Groupings of people by skin color did not produce the same result as groupings of people by skull shape, nor of blood type. Furthermore, as scientists began to study human variation with the tools of genetics (in the process creating my fields, anthropological genetics and human population genetics), it became apparent that human genetic variation does not divide humans into a few discrete groups. There are virtually no sharp boundaries, either with physical features or with patterns of genetic diversity, that show where one population “ends” and the next “begins”. Continue Reading…



More than 12,000 years ago, a young teenage girl walking through a deep cave (known today as Hoyo Negro) fell down a massive pit. The fall fractured her pelvis, and she died among the remains of giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats who had met a similar fate. Over the next few millennia, the pit filled with water and their bones were covered with cave formations. They were left undisturbed until discovered in 2007 by cave divers, who named the girl “Naia” in a reference to Greek mythology.

Today, a team of archaeologists and geneticists announced the results from sequencing her mitochondrial genome. She possessed a haplogroup (D1) that evolved in Beringia and is seen in modern Native Americans.

So why is this result so important? The Hoyo Negro girl, like other Paleoindians (the oldest inhabitants of the Americas), had a skull shape that was distinctive from later (younger than 9,000 years before present) ancient Americans, who more closely resembled modern Native Americans. Continue Reading…

Hard at work

Hard at work


I am currently working on both a fellowship and a manuscript, so instead of writing a longer piece here, I’m issuing everyone a challenge. I have seen it repeated multiple times throughout the comments here that there seems to be evidence “on both sides” of the vaccines issue, and therefore people should just “go with their gut.” I reject that approach as lazy (at best). Whether or not vaccines are safe and effective is an empirical question, and therefore it should be answerable with data.

If there is any theme to this blog, it would be:  Not all evidence is equivalent, and it takes training and a willingness to admit to ignorance in order to be able to identify good evidence from bad evidence. So how can the average person begin to sort out which information is good, and which is bad? There are many approaches to this question, which I will be exploring further in the coming weeks. But the first one is to honestly take inventory of one’s own knowledge: do you actually understand this issue? Do you, for example understand how the immune system works? No? Then you’d better read more and learn more on the subject before wading into the debate.

A second important step is assessing other people’s knowledge on the subject. This can can be difficult as it’s awfully easy to sound “smart” on the internet. I want to simplify this step here by asking everyone (anti-vaccine, pro-vaccine, or “undecided”) a single question: What kind of evidence would change your mind on this issue? This question has come up several times in our discussions (most recently, I believe, in the comments of gewisn), and I think the answers are so revealing that I want to devote an entire post to it.

Please be as specific and honest as possible. Please define any jargon. If you are talking about specific studies, please cite them so everyone can read them. This comments section will be more heavily moderated than usual in order to keep the discussion on track. Comments that do not answer the question, or go off on tangents will be deleted (although I won’t ban you from discussions unless you violate my general commenting policy).

As we approach the end of what’s basically been “Vaccines Month” here on Violent Metaphors, I want to take a moment to sincerely thank all parents who have responsibly vaccinated their children. In particular, I want to acknowledge those parents who had concerns about vaccines, but took the time to educate themselves and trusted their brains instead of their fears. Not only are your children safer because of your decision, but you have also helped protect countless children (and adults) who you will never meet.


I see your efforts and appreciate them!

I see your efforts and appreciate them!


I also want to express my gratitude to everyone who has participated in the comments, and taken a moment to share these posts with others. You may have gotten into uncomfortable discussions because of it, but know that your collective efforts are far more meaningful than any single post we can write here. By taking a public stand against pseudoscience, you have given voice to the thoughts shared by the majority of people, who are far too often intimidated by the clamoring of the fearful minority.

This site has had quite a bit of traffic in the last month, and the ad revenue that such traffic has generated is therefore considerably greater. When that happens, I typically donate a chunk of the proceeds (above what is needed to run the site) to a charitable organization. Usually I give it to an animal rescue organization (a cause dear to my heart), but I thought that since the amount this time was likely to be more substantial, I’d ask you to vote on which charity you would like to support.

Here are the options that I’ve thought of (in no particular order). Please let me know your preference (as well as any concerns you might have about these particular charities) in the comments.


The Autism Science Foundation :

Doctors Without Borders:

Red Cross:

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital: