Ancient DNA: Triumphs, Triumphalism, & Caution
You can learn only so much from studying DNA patterns of past humans. For the rest, you need experts who study and analyze not DNA, but society & culture.
The discipline of paleogenomics — extracting, cleaning, and analyzing remnant DNA from people who lived thousands of years ago — is phenomenal science. The 2022 Medicine Nobel to Svante Pääbo basically honors this new discipline.
For at least a decade now, this science, paleogenomics, has made waves in popular media and the mainstream public discourse, though arguably not as much for its absolutely fascinating methods & scientific hard work, as for its interpretations, conclusions, and claims regarding history. As these claims address truly age-old human curiosities — to quote the Nobel Press Release, "Where do we come from? How are we related to those who came before us? What makes us, Homo sapiens, different from other hominins?" — there's surely much material in this for the general public & media.
This interesting relationship of the public with the field (of paleogenomics) also explains why media outlets only tangentially discussed a crucial point in their articles on the 2022 Nobel Prize: In what ways is this Nobel Prize in “Physiology or Medicine” relevant to physiology and/or medicine??
To be sure, the question indeed has answers, & also finds mention here & there. But it is worth noting that most mainstream media reports & articles on Pääbo’s win discussed the medical/health relevance of paleogenomics only passingly. Nature magazine did a good job, with a sub-section on "Health Implications": "[Archaic DNA in our genome] seems to punch above its weight, making an important contribution to the risks of diseases ranging from schizophrenia to severe COVID-19".
The Nobel Prize Press Release had a bit on the medical relevance too, even though more on the vague side: "The ancient flow of genes to present-day humans has physiological relevance today, for example affecting how our immune system reacts to infections." A more direct answer was provided by Nils-Göran Larsson, Chair of the Committee which chose the winner. In this video, at minute 1.00 after the reporter’s question, they say that the Prize recognizes Pääbo’s work as a "basic scientific discovery" that "will help us to understand our physiology”.
This is thus an interesting example of a Nobel being given less for direct insights in the field — Physiology or Medicine in this case — and more for the PROMISE of insights. (Paleogenomics indeed has offered massive insights, but few as such in Phy/Med yet.)
As a teenager in the early 2000s, I remember reading a lot of promises on how the Human Genome Project, & in general genetics, will "revolutionize" medicine & healthcare. Later when I entered medicine, I saw — like many others — that the "revolution" in healthcare needed other stuff. We have known for many decades that clean water, clean air, adequate food, and affordable healthcare services are all very effective & strong preventive and curative measures, & contribute to an excellent quality of life. But these seem to always lose in the race with the promises of pharma, biotech, and the like.
There is a kind of triumphalism & glamor associated with such big-budget and "fancy" science. While no doubt there’s much good in that kind of science, what people must also know is that the disproportionate amounts of funding & attention it receives leads to much harm. So even as we celebrate the 2022 Nobel in Phy/Med & the truly awesome science which folks in paleogenomics are doing, let's also take a moment to reflect on the asymmetry & inequalities which exist in funding and resource-distribution in healthcare.
Now while the impact of paleogenomics on human health remains to be seen, it has certainly made a strong impact on our knowledge of human history. Much of this has been positive — but the triumphalism associated with ancient DNA has created new challenges.
For instance, there seem to be many folks now who believe that ancient DNA geneticists are geneticists less & historians more.
It is easily forgotten that the work on history coming out of ancient DNA has been interdisciplinary, with archeologists, historians, et al being equal contributors. It must also be noted that much of the stuff being attributed as "proven" by ancient DNA research, was actually already a part of historians' and archeologists' arguments & conjectures for many decades. While so many folks seem to love saying that paleogenomics is "rewriting" history (whether human history or South Asian history) — it has generally been less of a rewriting and more of a fine-tuning or revising.
I came across tweets in which people were saying that today, the "best historians" are geneticists. There is this widespread belief that extracting DNA from fossil bones & analyzing it with new machines & algorithms will provide “real” answers to questions about human culture etc.
Sadly, that's not how humans & human societies work. You can learn much from studying their DNA patterns, but only so much. For the rest, you need experts who study and analyze not DNA, but society & culture. You need social scientists. It's time to temper the triumphalism a bit.