Other Weblogs Covering Human Origins Research

There are several weblogs out there that consistently cover topics related to human origins, human dispersals and human prehistory. They fall into different genres, profess different policies and have different, albeit overlapping audiences. Over the past few years, I have engaged with all of them as an observer, guest blogger and/or commenter. My unorthodox views spurred bitter controversy on a number of occasions and exposed the lack of culture of scientific objectivity and civil open-mindedness on most weblogs. Below are my quick reviews of these weblogs borne out of two years of ethnographic participant observation on them. Despite my critique, all of the following weblogs are worth following.

John Hawks Weblog: Paleoanthropology, Genetics and Evolution. An academic weblog by an associate professor at University of Wisconsin – Madison. A good solid read on population genetics and paleobiology. Some fresh news related to complete genome sequencing from his own lab. Webcasts of Hawks’s lectures are also very informative. Little to nothing on language, culture or critical thinking. Lacks a big picture vision. Perhaps Hawks is more of a human or even primate biologist that has some experience with human diversity, mainly through working with blood samples, body parts (e.g., ears) and bones. He considers himself “paleoanthropologist,” but it’s a questionable label. The only evolutionary angle on anthropology that makes sense is the study of the origin of modern human biological, social, cultural, linguistic complexity. But Hawks apparently carves out the study of human remains (hence “paleo-“) as a branch of anthropology, which it is not. Hawks started as a maverick: a student of Milford Wolpoff’s, he maintained loyalty to Multiregionalism through the “Complete Replacement Out of Africa” era and since the discovery of “archaic admixture” in modern humans feels himself vindicated. Consistent with this identity transformation, Hawks’s weblog used to sport his image made in Neandertal liking (Hawks always believed that Neandertals did not go extinct, hence Hawks as a Neandertal was more than a metaphor) but now features John in an Indiana Jones hat. His self-imposed celebrity status is reinforced through a gallery of John Hawkses in various intellectually credible environments. The blog is also a travelogue of Hawks’ trips to some holy archaeological sites such as the Denisova Cave and a twitterlog of his engagement with social media. While antiquated and one-sided in his interpretation of anthropology, John Hawks is an early adopter of Internet technologies, open-source mentality and 140-word style of communication with the world. You can’t leave a comment on his weblog, but you can write him an e-mail. I sent him one, he never replied.

Dienekes Pontikos’s Anthropology Blog. This blog is the best place to gather news and links to mainstream academic human origins research. An anonymous Greek author based in Kavala, Greece, the home to the Pontian Club, has evolved from a curious reader of academic articles to an independent and opinionated genome blogger dabbling in software analysis of autosomal genetic sequences. His other blog, Dodecad, is dedicated to more in-depth ADMIXTURE, ChromoPainter and other runs, with a focus on narrower regional comparisons. Dienekes’s thinking is in a state of flux: modern humans originated in Arabia or India and migrated back to Africa and also that there was a population structure in Africa and strong admixture with archaic hominids in Africa. These ideas make the blog an interesting read, as it does not simply recycle academic consensus. He has some secret agendas related to gender and racial inequalities (this subsided somewhat in the past couple of years, as Dienekes became busy with applying computer software to human samples) and believes in the “purity” of quantitative science. He is an armchair science hobbyist (“anthropology” in the title of his weblog is a product of his imagination) and a naive statistician who maintains an idealized notion of what science is, and has no theoretical understanding of how make inferences about prehistory, thus creating confusion around the notions of common descent, admixture and convergent evolution. Berating linguistics as a poor predictor of ancient population history is commonplace on Dienekes’s Anthropology Blog; for some reason, Dienekes assumes that good science leaves no room for ambiguities and enigmas. He censors critical comments that he does not know how to respond to and likes to unleash scathing critique of opinions of his least savvy readers.

Gene Expression. An anti-liberal, anti-creationist and anti-socialscience blogger, Razib Khan, blogs about everything from European history to Google Trends. Religion, politics, medical and population genetics, race are Razib’s favorite topics. His “pinboard feed” is a good news source. He is a quick and well-read thinker who provides an interesting mix of journalism and data analysis but lacks focus on what the blog is all about and why is it that he blogs. It’s unclear why Discover chose to host Gene Expression. Verbose, superficial and self-infatuated on the main pages, Razib tends to be condescending and rude in the comments section. He retaliates aggressively against those who poke at his ego as an expert on skin color or as a noble defender of science against infidels such as Native American tribes who wouldn’t surrender their blood samples. But apparently Razib’s boss at Discover loves him. Razib’s audience is mostly composed of curious bystanders to science whom he educates about Darwinism, race and population genetics and for whom he summarizes books and pay-per-view articles. Razib thinks the world of science buffs owes his because he briefs them on science for free, and therefore he’s entitled to bludgeon them verbally at will. Openly political in his judgments, he sports “degrees in biochemistry and biology” (he used to bill himself as having a “background” in these fields but apparently at some point he started feeling threatened by something and decided to beef up his credentials), admits ignorance of linguistics and is allergic to the majority of anthropologists. He enjoys mentorship and support from such marginal academic anthropologists as Henry Harpending and John Hawks as well as from a cantankerous maverick Greg Cochran. The latter usually uses Razib’s comments section to make a caustic remark about something or someone he hates. There are a few serious biologists and geneticists who every now and then leave intelligent and spirited comments on Razib’s blog, but it’s impossible to say who those people are.

For What They Were…We Are: Prehistory, Anthropology and Genetics. This weblog stands out as an epitome of Internet’s democratic and grassroots mission. It’s authored by a Basque anarchist, Luis Aldamiz, who goes by coy alias Maju. He vents his frustrations against the modern world at his other weblog and uses human origins research as a way to find a peaceful home for his troubled personality. He dabbles in everything from linguistics to the origin of life. Apart from the unfortunate color scheme, a meandering title and an odd claim to “anthropology” in the subtitle, this weblog is 95% repetitive of Dienekes’s Anthropology Blog and Gene Expression when it comes to population genetics. At the same time, he spends more time than other weblogs on archaeological news and news related to the prehistory of the Basques. His approach to science writing falls into two categories: it’s either a loud protest against “bad” theories (an example would be a well-supported theory of replacement of foragers by agriculturalists in Europe) or a loud advocacy for “good” theories (such as the Complete Replacement Out-of-Africa, which, to his surprise, got recently falsified), with no real theories of his own to be intrigued by or shades of color in the presentations of the theories of others to enjoy. On the other hand, his comments section is a must-read, as it’s a perfect dungeon of cage fighting where Maju wields his eye-gouging and hair-pulling verbal tactics in grueling, no-holds-barred 12-rounders on the topic of mtDNA sublineages against an angelic reader from New Zealand, Terry Toohill. After having tested Terry’s stamina for verbal abuse for a couple of years, Maju’s anarchist self revolted against Terry’s steadfast mind-controlling purposefulness. As a result, Terry got banned from the blog, to the chagrin of many spectators like myself. Maju also travels all around the Web engaging on various forums: often with the teeth-clenching power of a cartoonish Neanderthal he rips other people’s arguments into pieces to gnaw on each bit in search of flawed logic or bad data support; however, to some academic bloggers such as archaeologist Julien Riel-Salvatore at Very Remote Period Indeed, he suddenly shows the other side of his personality, the one that is courteous, partial and self-effacing. A work-in-progress is Maju’s Human Prehistory and Genetics Wiki, a “private” wiki composed by Maju and a couple of his regular commenters (such as Terry Toohill). It currently looks like pullouts from Wikipedia on the distribution of mtDNA and Y-DNA lineages. For a while, Luis Aldamiz was trolling various science forums and his own website assuming the posture of a “science defender,” obsessively informing readers about the pernicious aspects of my out-of-America hypothesis and defaming my name (e.g., here, here, here, here and here). I took it to his own comments section and he stopped his anti-Dziebel campaign. A couple of years later he suddenly posted on his website a list of trolls, with my name among them. But I don’t comment on his site and have never had any interest in doing it, so it was a sheer lie. Most recently, Aldamiz stopped blogging altogether because he got overwhelmed by unknown trolls. One can only cheer when a troll gets consumed by other trolls.

Sounding Depths, Music 000001. These 1+1=2 weblogs by ethnomusicologist Victor Grauer are the two most underrated web-based contributions to modern human origins research. One of the reasons why they are underrated is because they are online books, rather than weblogs. They are updated irregularly and represent Grauer’s thoughts and knowledge accumulated over decades, rather than his on-the-fly reactions to incoming research studies or news items. The other reason is that Grauer’s expertise in an arcane field of music, which nobody engaged in the search for the origins of modern humans understands. The comments traffic on Grauer’s weblogs has been low, and there’s no engagement with his ethnomusicology on any other weblogs or in academic publications dealing with human origins. The third reason is Grauer’s antiquated and naive vision of anthropology and historical reconstructions (his M.A. in Ethnomusicology is from 1961): he freely engages in tropical fantasies (for him, just like for early diffusionists, Pygmies are pristine remnants of earliest humans); his command of population genetics is superficial and confused (which Grauer willingly admits) but he uses it as as a “north star” guiding his analysis of global musical traditions; he’s strangely condescending to linguistics and other non-biological disciplines and implies that music somehow maps onto neutral genes directly, bypassing other biological, social and symbolic systems; as a naive evolutionist he uses everything from modern dwellings to modern human height to modern body paint as representing either passive retentions from primordial Mid-Pleistocene African adaptations or forced innovations caused by the founding migration out of Africa and the Toba eruption. He readily sees continuities between Pygmy and Bushmen vocalizing, on the one hand, and the sounds of bonobos and baboons, on the other, but when it comes to comparing Bushmen and Pygmy singing with the vocal traditions of non-African peoples, all he sees are discontinuities caused by population bottlenecks and, again, Toba eruptions. His ideas rise to an almost Biblical pitch when he portrays ancient Africans as non-violent multi-part singers living in the tropical forest and carrying undiversified human mtDNA lineages – an Edenic idyll superseded by violence and the breakdown of traditions among the out-of-Africa migrants. These weaknesses and oddities aside, there’s nobody out there beside Grauer who has the command of global musical traditions, has a systematic method of comparing them (he inherited cantometrics from his mentor Alan Lomax) and can show how they can be plausibly interpreted as reflections of ancient population movements. In this sense, Grauer’s contribution is invaluable and, unlike many other weblogs, Sounding Depths and Music 000001 actually add value to human origins research. But sometimes I wish they sounded more like a contemporary scientific study than a Wagnerian opera.

Anthropology.net. This weblog is run by a medical student from California, Kambiz Kamrani. The blog used to be more dynamic and rich when Kambiz had time to attend to it. Back in 2008 I wrote a couple of guest posts on Anthropology.net. Currently, the blog is largely dormant.

4 Responses

  1. Victor Grauer
    Victor Grauer at · Reply

    Hi German. I just found this page today (8-12-12) and am pleased to see my blog included in your list. I’m also pleased to read what looks like a balanced review. Naturally I don’t share your negative views of my work, but I do appreciate the positive ones, especially since our web interaction ended on a rather negative note a few years ago, which I regretted.

    I certainly don’t agree that I engage in tropical fantasies. In fact I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to ground my work in evidence rather than assumptions, so if I see certain aspects (certainly not all) of African Pgymy and Bushmen life as more or less “pristine” survivals (NOT remnants), that view is based on serious study of both the ethnographic and ethnomusicological literature (as well as the music itself), supplemented as you say by my understanding of the genetic research. While it’s true that I am not a geneticist and have only a limited understanding of this field, all my references to genetics are based on what the geneticists themselves have concluded, NOT on any efforts of my own in this field.

    Anyhow, thanks for including me in your blog, which looks really interesting and useful. I’ll be returning. Hope your own work is going well.

  2. Victor Grauer
    Victor Grauer at · Reply

    Thanks for the welcome German. Though we disagree I think this sort of interchange is healthy — as is your Out of America theory, which is forcing anthropologists to adjust their thinking — and who knows you could be right after all.

    It looks like you’ve misread my phylogenetic tree, which was never intended to correlate directly with any genetic tree. It was inspired by the sort of trees produced by geneticists but operates in a very different manner, since music operates in a very different manner from that of genes. The tree cannot be understood without reference to the set of maps I’ve provided. These maps DO correlate with at least one population genetics based theory, that of the southern Out of Africa migration as interpreted by Oppenheimer, and I’m very clear on that in the book.

    I took a look at your article on music and language and find it very interesting. I’ll be commenting on that one soon.

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