Science sheds light on population history and living standards

by Omar Ali

In a sense, all modern historiography includes the attempt to find objective facts rather than relying on folklore and opinion. To varying extents, a scientific mindset is part of the intellectual tookit of all modern people and while no person can be entirely rational and no judgment is as perfectly evidence-based as the idealized models would imply, there is a trend towards greater objectivity and a willingness (at least in principle) to change one’s mind if new facts come to light. There is an assumption among liberals (I self-identify as liberal and spend most of my time with others who do the same) that modern liberals are more “science-minded” than conservatives (the so-called “fact-based community”). Whether this is really true has been challenged but I will assume that liberals DO prefer a scientific approach to history and will touch on two examples where science brings objective information to bear upon history. One is genetics, which has transformed our knowledge of the origins and relationships of different human populations. The other is height and what average height can tell us about different populations.

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 25 22.21 First, to genetics; a few days ago, blogger Razib Khan wrote a blog post about the population genetics of India and what those genetics can tell us about the origins and composition of the people of India. If you have not read that post, you should definitely do so; it is a superb and user friendly (and not overly detailed) example of how recent advances in genetics are radically transforming our view of human populations and their recent and distant history. In some cases, the facts being uncovered are not entirely new or surprising, but in all cases, they provide a level of scientific certainty to debates that previously lacked such certitude. Read another one of his posts (and other related articles) for examples of more detailed and finer scale analysis of the genetic data. These posts focus on India, but similar information (and in some cases, much more detailed information) is available about other populations and all of it is worth reading.

I am not going to spend more time on genetics, since I think Razib and his friends cover this area better than I ever could and I will be happy if you go to those links and start exploring on your own. But genetics is not the only way in which scientific knowledge can impact our view of history.

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