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Science Doorstops Worth A Look


by John McWhorter
In the vein of using this blog to shine a light on authors who don't get the attention they deserve, two books on how genetic data is revising what we know about early human migrations by Stephen Oppenheimer have been major eye openers for me.

The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa, from 2003, shows how data from mutations in mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome are now allowing us pinpoint the pathways that humankind took from Africa in often bracing detail. Work of this kind is always interesting in tending to force reconsiderations of assumptions in archaeology and linguistics (Spencer Wells' The Journey of Man is another good read in this vein), and The Real Eve is no exception.

For example, take this seemingly innocent oft-cited factoid: that humankind experienced a "Big Bang" in cultural development thirty to fifty thousand years ago. Archaeologists base this on an apparent Great Leap Forward in toolmaking, burial rituals and art among European peoples at this time. Scholars of human evolution and linguists have taken a cue from this and supposed that the Big Bang was the result of some genetic mutation that led to humanity of a modern cognitive level.

However, if humans started their spread out of Africa 80,000 years ago, and by 30,000 or 50,000 years ago were already coating Asia and Oceania (all of which Oppenheimer confirms), then presumably this dramatic mutation did not happen to people beyond Europe. And yet, it is assumed that all human beings are equal in basic mental endowment--and among linguists, that no languages are "primitive."

The Big Bang idea has always seemed peculiar to me, then, in an implication surely none of the scientists intended but which stood there anyway: a Victorian idea that only Europeans became truly civilized while everyone else in the world remained "natives" chanting around cooking pots in forest clearings.

Oppenheimer clears this up with persuasive data showing that humans had had "banged" just fine long before Cro-Magnons did, although one suspects that pop science stories will continue with the 30000-50000 line for a good while longer.

Oppenheimer's latest, The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, shines the light on Merrie Old England. Among other points, we learn that the grand old idea that in the fifth century, marauding hordes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes "pushed the Celts back" into Wales and Cornwall and proceeded to take over the rest of the island like kudzu falls apart when we look at the genes of people in Britain.

Rather, there were only some hundreds of thousand of invaders from across the North Sea, and they occupied an island where Celts continued to thrive in massive numbers. Furthermore, a combination of genetic and linguistic evidence makes it almost certain that Germanic-speaking peoples had lived in England in great numbers for millennia before the Angles and Co. got there.

Oppenheimer slips only occasionally on the linguistics (for example, it is not true that there is no Celtic-language influence on English). However, the book is overall magisterial.

The truth is, however, that Oppenheimer's books do exhibit a certain amount of the underedited quality that Linda Hirshman has just called attention to. One must approach the books in full awareness that a few chapters will be deeply engrossing, only for the next few to trudge through endless amounts of detail on the genetics that only a specialist could cotton to.

I know from experience that it can be surprisingly hard to nail the line between thorough and soporific, and a strong editor would have forced Oppenheimer to trim both of these books by one hundred pages.

Both, however, are well worth the effort. When Oppenheimer steps outside of his Asperger's-style tunnelvision digressions, which is most of the time, he is one to whom attention must be paid.

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