Genetics and the Human Revolution

Bennett McIntosh in Harvard Magazine:

Before ancient humans put pen to paper, stylus to tablet, or even brush to cave wall, their comings and goings were noted in another record, within their very cells. The human genome consists of chunks of DNA passed forward from countless ancestors, so by comparing modern humans’ genetic material with that gleaned from ancient remains, it’s possible to reach into prehistory and learn about where people came from, and who they were. David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, has spent the last decade extracting these stories from ancient DNA, using genetic evidence to overturn established theories and conventional wisdom about humanity’s past. But, so far, at least, the DNA has provided little clarity on the more fundamental question of our origin—what makes us human in the first place? In yesterday’s Distinguished Harvard Lecture in Mind Brain Behavior, Reich highlighted the transformative power—and tantalizing limitations—of ancient DNA in reshaping understanding of how Homo sapiens came to be and to act like modern humans.

The Mind Brain Behavior (MBB) interfaculty initiative, which celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday earlier this year, is one of several initiatives at Harvard that provide funding and programming for collaboration across the University’s different schools, with the aim of bringing researchers together to better understand an interdisciplinary research topic—in this case, the biology driving human behavior. The biannual Distinguished Harvard Lectures give students and researchers involved in the initiative a venue to hear about research in other fields that directly impacts their own. The room was packed with faculty members from different schools and departments, a reflection of the profound influence Reich’s research has had on many fields studying human behavior.

More here.