Cultural DNA

The Wayfinders. Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis. House of Anansi Press. Toronto. 2009.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Harper Collins. 2001.

The Wayfinders, based on lectures by Davis, forms a counterpoint to Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. They reveal the “cultural DNA” that binds populations of humans together: language, myths, memories and mental maps of the world. This kind of inheritance is what enabled the ancient Polynesians to spread their DNA across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and allows their descendants to replicate their feats of navigation today. It also tells us that all across the world, those chains of inheritance have been and are being broken, as aggressive societies impose their own language and culture on the populations they conquer, enslave, displace or assimilate. This is much like the way conquerors have spread their genes into new territory. In the end only traces of both the biological and the cultural may remain, to be ferreted out by geneticists or anthropologists. Sometimes, though, survivors stubbornly retain their heritage, like the Basques in Spain and many native peoples around the world.

Great empires often produce great and stable cultures – the art, literature, philosophy and mathematics of China, India, Greece, Rome and the still growing body of European science, etc. These become even richer by mutual appropriation. Among the most enduring exchanges are the earliest: agriculture, animal domestication, wheeled transport, boatbuilding and metallurgy. Like the history of ancient DNA, the history of cultures shows patterns of repeated migration and assimilation or displacement over millennia. It seems though, that the asymmetry of power has at least in recent times, produced even more lopsided results for cultures than what Reich finds for genomes. Male conquerors, as I noted in the previous post, have spread a disproportionate share of their genes in the mixing of populations, but often the dominated population persisted through the maternal line. Only rarely did the invaders utterly eliminate the previous occupants of a territory.

More and more cultures are being completely wiped out by modern empires. Military might, coupled with schools to teach the language of the imperial power and religious conversion, forced or voluntary, can drive out languages and traditions. Within the borders of the parent nation states, local dialects and traditions have given way to a homogenized culture. That makes governance and commerce easier, but it destroys the particularity and richness of the land. The advent of compulsory schooling and of mass advertising pushes homogenization even further. Mass media and entertainment smooth out irregularities and quirks. While some people promote the preservation of local tradition, others decry the lack of common values and beliefs in the nation.

Davis tries to show how much is lost when the past is blotted out. Far from being primitive, he argues, these cultures drew on human capacities for learning and memory far beyond the accomplishments of those with modern education. We rely on the collective power of our culture and its embodiment in writing and technology that we don’t become as skilled and knowledgeable as those who lack such aids. We rarely know much about the natural world around us. Almost no “advanced” culture enables a person to survive on just what the land can provide. However productive our economies are, we leave untapped or simply obliterate most of nature’s variety. Witness the fact that a mere three or four species of domestic animals outweigh by an order of magnitude all the rest of the larger land animals on the planet.

Often the natural products do more for these cultures than nourish the body. They provide pathways into spiritual experiences that deepen connections to both the natural and human worlds. The power of the shaman has been a recurrent preoccupation of Davis, whose early popular works on ethnobotany and especially mind-altering plants, The Serpent and the Rainbowand One River, show how they shaped lives for thousands of years. The most important thing that people who still know the power of sacred plants, animals, rocks and places can remind those of us immersed in a globalizing, dominant culture is that we remain dependent on the earth and the functioning of the natural cycles of land, air, water and life. We disrespect and ignore this wisdom at our peril.

Unfortunately, to sustain itself materially, any meaningful culture needs land. We discovered this problem in the nineteenth century, when the reservations set aside for native Americans came under constant pressure from hunters, miners, loggers and farmers. The same is true today in South America, India, Africa.  The result is bloodshed and displacement. Only places that have no resources that the dominant culture wants are left unclaimed. Even here, proselytizing and poaching remain constant issues. Furthermore, given the often stringent demands of traditional ways, there is a continual drain on the population as its members drift away into the dominant milieu.

Mostly the old can exist only with the protection and support of the newer and more powerful, which is almost always accompanied by condescension or ambivalence. Davis tries hard to show why condescension is unjustified, but without the ability to maintain itself in its own territory, it seems to me that almost any culture will begin to seem simply quaint and curious. We may assimilate some music into our popular culture or convert some sacred plants into recreational drugs, even claim to try to follow the spiritual paths laid out by this or that shamanistic tradition. Only anthropologists are going to really study cultures on their own terms, as best they can.

Of course some cultures like Judaism have become integrated into the economic systems of dominant cultures, but with much the same dangers faced by tribal societies elsewhere. Isn’t that why the state of Israel has such fierce supporters? We see ethnic traditions preserved or revived by people long separated from their homelands. Costumes, folk songs, holidays, parades, fairs and so on remind us that there have been many distinct national and local ways of living. But much of this seems like once a year dress up, not a way of life now. Even religious distinctions are blurring as evangelical churches spread a homogenized, flavorless gospel. Their success is driven in part by politics and economics, aided by mass media. Ancient tradition loses out to a uniform set of wants and means of satisfying them.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods revolves around the slow dying out of the hundreds of local gods brought to the United States by immigrants from all over the world, from 14,000 years ago to the present. In his fantasy, these gods still linger on the fringes of society, fending for themselves as the flow of gifts and sacrifices from humans dries up. They know that if their names are forgotten, they will die. The novel concerns their efforts to recapture some of their old power and of a few humans who become entangled in the mythical struggle. Gaiman is a reader of Davis, I suspect, as well as a serious student of mythic traditions himself. The story, like most of Gaiman’s work, is fast moving, funny, violent and a pleasure to read. I also like the second book in this series, Anansi Boys.

Journeys Written in DNA

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich. Pantheon. 2018.

Image: and

When I spent a summer on the campus of Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1987, one of the groups meeting there was comprised of researchers working on planning the Human Genome Project. The project, which ran for about fifteen years, starting in 1990, cost several billion dollars and produced a single composite DNA sequence for Homo sapiens. Hard to believe that today, thousands of sequences are run routinely at a cost so low that you can get your own sequence in one to two days for $1000.

David Reich provides an account of the recent developments in studying ancient DNA, which is beginning to provide a picture of the evolution of our genus, Homo, over the last 50-150 thousand years, roughly the time that enough DNA remains in old bones or teeth to allow sequencing. The field is rapidly expanding, as more labs open across the world to explore the accumulated human remains in museums, as well as newly excavated material.

Among the findings he reviews are the discovery that early modern humans did indeed hybridize with the archaic populations of Homo that were already in Europe and Asia when the first Homo sapiens moved out of Africa. These earlier people included the Neanderthals and the newly recognized Denisovans. Another finding is that the spread of Indo-European language and culture was indeed accompanied by a spread of people with steppe genotypes into Europe as far west as the British Isles ( see my post on The Horse, the Wheel and Language) The modern human population of Europe turns out to have been the result of multiple waves of migration, bringing not only cultural innovations like farming, but also new human lineages that displaced or blended with the earlier people.

In fact, everywhere that geneticists examine ancient genomes, they find that multiple migrations have shaped human destiny. In North and South America, the most recent areas of human occupation, at least three different migrations can be seen in the genes, and there is still much more work to be done. Likewise, the Indian subcontinent holds a story of migration of Indo-European speakers from the steppes of Central Asia, displacing and blending with the earlier Dravidian language speakers. East Asia has similar patterns, spilling out into the Pacific. These are truly epic journeys of the human species.

Reich discusses the implications of these findings at length. The chapter on genetics and inequality was particularly interesting. The subject is the differences between and within sexes in numbers of offspring produced, as shown by the frequency of distinct gene sequences from a single ancestor among descendent populations. Because men can produce offspring with very little direct effort compared to women, it is possible for men to have many more children in a lifetime. I recall my world history teacher in high school saying that Augustus the Strong of Saxony, “only had about four hundred children.” Circumstantial evidence suggests that Genghis Kahn, thirteenth century Mongol conqueror is the male ancestor of millions, though this is disputed. Certainly, powerful rulers, if fertile and with access to a succession of willing or unwilling consorts, can father many, many sons and daughters.

Reich cites data that indicate that a number of individuals were the fathers of similarly large numbers of descendants during the period between five thousand and three thousand years ago as Neolithic farming peoples began to feel the effects of new technologies: pastoralism, the horse, the wheel and metalworking. In The Horse the Wheel and Language, David Anthony discusses the idea that the new technologies made it possible for tribal chiefs to accumulate power, wealth and prestige. Such men may have led aggressive expansions into new territory, like Genghis, fathering enough descendants for their distinctive Y-chromosomes to show up in genetic analyses. When peoples mix by this mode of male driven conquest, the result is that Y- chromosomes are from the conquering group, while mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, is from the original inhabitants.

I heard a similar idea many years ago in a seminar on the shift from mother goddess based religion to male sky god religions. Anthony suggests this too in his account of the steppe peoples whose culture and Indo-European language spread widely in this period. The long ago speaker attributed it to mining for metals de-sanctifying the earth, but I suspect it more likely related to the technologies listed above allowing a subset of males to accumulate power. There are now many other cases, from ancient China to medieval Ireland documented by genetic researchers.

Another point Reich makes is that genomics can become a very touchy issue for contemporary descendants of our diversified ancestors. Ethnocentrism is alive and well, from scientists from India who maintain that there were no migrants from the Asian steppes to Navajo elders who refuse to countenance genetic testing arguing that they already know how the Dine were created. Origins are disputed territory: how many Americans still believe in Adam and Eve? Reich points out the falsity of the politically motivated myths of Aryan origins promulgated by German nationalists and still alive today. These crumble in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the modern inhabitants of Northern Europe originated from an amalgam of previous populations with invaders from Central Asia. Migration and mixing of populations and cultures, as we know only too well, is often seen as a threat.

Reich is sensitive to the ethical issues raised by these powerful technologies. He finally consulted a rabbi on the question of whether it was morally right to disturb the dead to obtain genetic material from bones. The answer: only if the knowledge gained will contribute to human  understanding. On the even more fraught question of what population wide genetic studies may reveal about average differences between identifiable groups of people, Reich says two things: First, the question must be faced with accurate data, lest it become the province of pseudoscientific or politically motivated interpretations. Second, whatever the facts are, we know that all groups contain a wide range of potentialities, all of which deserve a chance to be fully realized. Even if a person is not in the upper percentiles of learning ability or athletic ability, the human capacity for hard work makes it possible to succeed. I think Reich means that while  admire the extreme standouts, the Einsteins and Usain Bolts, the bulk of the useful work in the world gets done by those of us closer to the average.

Finally, Reich discusses individual genetic testing. He is in favor of the study of DNA at the population level for medical reasons and also at the individual level, if this helps reduce the incidence of illness caused by recessive mutations. He doesn’t object to individual testing to discover ancestry, but he is not interested in learning about his own genetic background. He seems to feel that focusing on our own unique genomes distracts us from the heritage we share with everyone else, of which the most important part is non-genetic. The simple fact that we are alive tells us that we come from an unbroken genetic line of survivors. Being able to claim descent from particular populations really doesn’t prove much of anything about your own worthiness. Moreover, making such claims can lead to embarrassment, as Elizabeth Warren has discovered.

Humans have been evolving culturally for much longer than the period for which we can get DNA data. Given how much of our behavior is learned, it is likely that our cultural milieu has been a major part of our environment for a long time. Cultures evolve. In doing so, they change the selective environment for humans and the things that live with them. Cultural change drives natural selection. That is, culture shapes our genes indirectly through natural selection as much as genes shape our culture.

As a social species, cultural traditions matter as much or more than our particular DNA in shaping how we live. Many of us, however, know very little of that tradition, or only slivers of it, dependent on our nationality, ethnicity, religion or profession. Too many people grow up with almost no knowledge of any tradition. Even though he professes no religion now, Reich was raised in a deep cultural tradition, Ashkenazi Judaism. He recognizes that all human populations have come out of similarly rich traditions. Together, they represent the most important heritage of the human species; as much as DNA, they are who we are and how we got here.

The Journeys of Holling C. Holling

Paddle to the Sea. 1941. Tree in the Trail. 1942. Seabird. 1948. Minn of the Mississippi. 1951

Each of these books tells a story about travelers. Paddle to the Sea is a small wood carving of a Native American in a canoe, placed by its maker into the water north of Lake Superior. Paddle finds his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence after years of travel through each of the Great Lakes in turn. Seabird follows the career of a boy named Ezra on a New Bedford whaler and his son’s on yankee clippers, accompanied by a carving in walrus ivory of an ivory gull. Father and son grow to manhood in the age of sail, but the story ends with Ezra’s great-grandson still carrying the white bird as he pilots airplanes over the ocean.  Minn is a snapping turtle, who hatches in Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi, and who travels slowly south, ending up as a moss covered ancient in the deep backwaters of the Delta. Only the tree in the trail stays put; it begins as a young cottonwood sapling by a tributary of the Arkansas River near present day Great Bend, Kansas. It is witness to generations of Native American Buffalo hunters, the arrival of the Spanish and then the Americans – trappers, traders, settlers and all along the Santa Fe Trail. After hundreds of years, the dead tree is carved into an ox yoke and travels the Santa Fe trail at last. All the books are filled from beginning to end with the natural and human history of the places the travelers pass through. These books are about journeys, but even more about the passage of time.

As a child, I loved Holling’s illustrations, both the large color ones on nearly every other page and the monochrome drawings that filled the margins – maps and diagrams of everything from whales to ships to arrowheads and rivers. I’ve never had difficulty picturing the outlines of the Great Lakes, because Holling, in Paddle to the Sea, provided an object to fit each shape: A wolf’s head for Superior, a summer squash fruit with leaves for Michigan, a trapper carrying a pack of furs for Huron, a lump of coal for Erie and a carrot for Ontario. The forms connected to the regional economies: trapping in the north woods around Superior and Huron, farming in  the midwest around Lake Michigan and in the lake plain of central New York, heavy industry from  western Pennsylvania through northern Ohio to Michigan. Even Lake St. Clair, by Detroit, had a shape like a heart: that region was at the time Holling wrote and illustrated, the industrial heart of the continent.

His marginal illustrations include beautiful maps, both historical and contemporary of the regions his travelers pass. He shows how glaciation shaped the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Showing the history of Minn’s evolution, he goes back to the age of dinosaurs, and there are numerous geological diagrams. his painting of the 1811 New Madrid Earthquake in Minn of the Mississippi is unforgettable.

He illustrations and drawings take you back in time through the history of the regions he depicts.  He illustrates whaling ships and steamboats and covered wagons, often in great detail, showing the different types and how they were used. There are diagrams, beautifully lettered, showing the parts of tools and machines, plans for corrals, sawmills, river locks and how pearl buttons were cut from mussel shells.

In his scenes of life, whether aboard ships at sea or in the bayou country of Louisiana, Holling illustrates the people with sympathy and an absence of satire or irony (he studied anthropology as well as art).  He draws plants and animals in great detail (he was a taxidermist at the Field Museum in Chicago when he was young) and with the same sympathy as his people. Landscapes, wild, rural or industrial are usually shown from a human perspective, as if one were in the scene, with dramatic effect when he shows storms, floods or wildfires. Much of what he depicts he had seen firsthand; he and his wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling, were great travelers themselves.

The Hollings left a legacy of beautifully illustrated books for children. While in many respects, the world they show has changed tremendously since they were published in the 1930s to 1950s, they are still wonderful. There is a love of the natural and the human  coming through these pages that is impossible to miss.

[Here’s another fascinating bit from Wikipedia: “Holling wrote and illustrated a full-page Sunday comic strip titled The World Museum. Each strip included a diorama, which could be cut out and assembled into a 3-D scene of, for example, a buffalo hunt or an undersea panorama.”]

Note: I first found Holling’s books when I was in grade school in the Mary Bailey Pratt Children’s Library in Chapel Hill NC. The library was housed on the upper floor of the elementary school on Franklin Street. It was there, as well as at home, that my love for books developed, thanks to the librarians, especially Mrs Hardee. I worked for her at least one summer, learning how to care for the books. Books with pictures by great American illustrators from N. C. Wyeth to Doctor Seuss, made up a large part of the collection, and two large, framed watercolors, done years before by a student, hung on the wall opposite the desk. One was of Ichabod Crane, walking down the road, reading a book, the other was of Tom Sawyer, heading off to go fishing. After the old school was demolished in the late 1960s, I wondered what had become of those pictures. Years later, I was delighted to find them hanging in the new Chapel Hill Public Library children’s section.