Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas by Jennifer Raff

Origin: A Genetic History of the AmericasOrigin: A Genetic History of the Americas by Jennifer Raff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Raff sets forth alternative theories about the origins of Native American populations and the evidence supporting or weakening them. She is a geneticist, not an archaeologist, and focuses on the genetics but there is a lot of archaeology, too. I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of her lab work. Recovering, replicating, and analyzing ancient DNA is a much more daunting and labor-intensive task than I had imagined. Dealing with modern DNA samples is less so, but still an impressive endeavor. The book is aimed at the scientifically-inclined and educated lay reader. Be prepared for a great deal of technical and geographic terms including ethnic ones that look odd and unpronounceable to most Americans. I also learned a lot about the various discoveries in the field and I’m encouraged that many of the disputes between scientific factions will be mostly resolved in the near future.

The same cannot be said about the various indigenous peoples’ stories. The author bends over way too far, and spends way too much time, telling us all to respect these various traditions and myths (which she calls origin stories). She undercuts her scientific credibility in doing so. For example, in Chapter 5 she describes the elaborate procedures used to garb up and sanitize the workbench which she calls a “specific mindfulness” that “acknowledges responsibility for past transgressions and unscrupulous methodologies.” No. Sorry. The gowns and bleach and controlled airflow are to prevent contamination of the DNA, not to admit to being a racist. The sins of the father are not visited on the son and all that. The duty of a scientist is doing science, not baby-sitting the fictions of less educated people. Perhaps that sort of “woke” mindset, or pretense of one, is a mandatory prerequisite to working in the field, since cooperation from various tribes and academia in general is necessary, so it’s forgivable, but I notice that other reviewers had the same reaction I did.

One last peccadillo is worth mentioning: it has not been carefully proofread. I noted several errors like “adler” trees and doubled words. Even so, it is generally well-written and educational. I found it interesting.

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