UCL Division of Biosciences


Problematical theories

Some authors manage to attract attention to their favoured theories while avoiding the scrutiny of academic peer review.  They may bypass the peer review process by publishing their ideas in a book, or in what appear to be legitimate scientific journals, but which may only have a facade of academic respectability. The growth of open access publishing (which generates income by charging fees to authors for publishing their papers) has led to many new journals, some with low standards, and it can be difficult for the casual reader to distinguish between the legitimate and the quasi-scientific journals. For background see the Nature article "Investigating journals: the dark side of publishing" and the Science article "Who's afraid of peer review?" Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado, maintains listings of questionable open access publishers and journals on his Scholarly Open Access blog. Treat "research" published in journals on this list with skepticism. One indicator of quality is whether the journal is indexed in PubMed.

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

Nicholas Wade, a former journalist on the New York Times, has published a controversial new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (Penguin Press HC, May 2014). A troublesome start to his argument is his claim that genome studies have revealed a biological basis for human races: they haven't.  There are genetic differences around the world, but we have known for some time that genetic differences usually vary smoothly with distance and do not fall into a number of discrete "races". He goes on to argue that recent gene-culture evolution has led to genetic differences between human groups that can explain at least some aspects of, for example, the industrial revolution and consequently the world's current economic and political situation. Following a critical review of the book in the New York Times Book Review by their feature writer David Dobbs, over 130 leading geneticists, including UCL's DJB and MGT, wrote to the Review to confirm that they did not support Wade's "misappropriation of their research" and that they were "in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade's conjectures". The story was also reported in Science and NatureFor a detailed overview of the coverage see Jennifer Raff's blog post Genetics professors unite in criticism of Nicholas Wade's book.

There have been many excellent reviews describing Wade's problematic interpretation of the science, the best of which include the following:

- A three part guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance by Chris Smith: Part I: The genetics of human populations; Part II: Has natural selection favored violent behavior in some human populations?; Part III: Has natural selection produced significant differences between races?

Nicholas Wade and race: building a scientific façade and Yet more responses to scientific racism by Jennifer Raff

On Nicholas Wade and the blurring of boundaries between science and fantasy by Michael Eisen

- A detailed review for the US magazine Genewatch by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History

In addition five critical reviews of the book by Agustin Fuentes, Jonathan Marks, Jennifer Raff, Charles C Roseman and Laura R Stein were published in the scientific journal Human Biology (2014; 86; 3). The reviews were made available on open access to facilitate discussion.

Alternative theories of human origins 

The story of human origins is complicated. Many of the genetic studies cited in support of the Out of Africa hypothesis have been based on analysis of Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA.  Yet Y-DNA and mtDNA represent only a tiny fraction of the human genome, and we have until recently been reliant on the analysis of DNA extracted from contemporary people. The surviving Y-DNA and mtDNA lines represent only a subset of those present in the ancestral population. Advances in ancient DNA testing in the last few years are now beginning to transform our understanding and knowledge. Analysis of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA have provided evidence that archaic humans contributed to our ancestry. For some good articles summarising the current thinking see the links below:

- Rethinking the dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa by Huw Groucott et al, Evolutionary Anthropology, 2015. Available from Academia.edu.

- Human dispersal out of Africa: a lasting debate by Lopez, van Dorp and Hellenthal, Evolutionary Bioinformatics Online, 2016.

Human hybrids by Michael Hammer, Scientific American, 2013 

Toward a new history and geography of human genes informed by ancient DNA (£) by Joseph Pickrell and David Reich, Trends in Genetics 2014. Available as a preprint on BioRxiv

The impact of whole-genome sequencing on the reconstruction of human population history (£) by Krishna R. Veeramah and Michael F. Hammer, Nature Reviews Genetics, 2014.

Why we are not all multi-regionalists now by Chris Stringer, 2014.

Because of the uncertainties involved in making inferences about human origins it is easy for maverick researchers to come up with seemingly plausible alternative hypotheses, which often attract attention because most of us are curious about human origins, and editors are reluctant to turn down stories that may attract attention, often irrespective of merit. While these hypotheses can sometimes highlight the shortcomings in the current theories, the evidence provided for the competing hypotheses is often thin, with authors citing their own self-published research in support of their theories, rather than the work of a range of other scholars. We highlight below some of the more problematical theories that have been brought to our attention. 

The Into Africa hypothesis

The Into Africa hypothesis has been proposed by Anatole Klyosov, a chemist from Russia who is now living in America. He writes prolifically on the subject of what he calls "DNA genealogy". His research is almost all self-published. Klyosov is the editor of Advances in Anthropology published by the questionable open access publisher Scientific Research Publishing. None of the members of the journal's editorial board has a background in population genetics. Klyosov has published two articles in this journal (2012 and 2014) supposedly refuting the Out of Africa hypothesis and proposing his alternative Into Africa theory. But these papers focus on a questionable analysis of Y-DNA and mtDNA which are of limited value for inferences about human origins. (Y-DNA and mtDNA tests can, however, be used legitimately for genealogical purposes.)

In January 2015, a group of leading Russian academics published a letter in the popular science magazine Troitskii Variant denouncing Anatole Klyosov's "DNA demagoguery".

The Out of Australia hypothesis

Steven Strong, a former teacher with an interest in archaeology, has become a prolific writer on the subject of Aboriginal Australians, and has put forward a theory that humans arose not in Africa but Australia. He cites a mixture of scientific and pseudo-scientific papers (including some from Advances in Anthropology) in support of his argument but the scientific papers he cites often state the opposite of what he proposes. His articles seem to be designed to promote sales of his pseudoscientific books. It appears that his "groundbreaking" new theory of human civilisation is that not only did humans originate in Australia but that we are all "children of beings from the stars"

Biblical associations

We have covered elsewhere on this website the misleading stories generated by BritainsDNA which have included outrageous claims about Eve's grandson, the Queen of Sheba and "bringing the Bible to life". However, BritainsDNA are not alone in their attempts to try to find associations between haplogroups and biblical figures.

The Creation Science Wiki claims to have found an "amazing" perfect correlation between haplogroups and biblical "nations".

Dr Georgia Purdum claims to have confirmed the existence of Adam and Eve through "an extensive DNA research". She cites the mitochondrial DNA research of the "creation geneticist" Dr Nathaniel Jeanson who has supposedly shown that "the common human female ancestor of us all (biblical Eve) lived within the biblical timeframe of several thousand years ago". However, evidence from mtDNA sequence data places the date of the most recent common matrilineal ancestor of all living humans between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.

Purdum further claims "genetics clearly shows that human and chimps do not share a common ancestor". Her "research" is presented in a documentary on "The Genetics of Adam and Eve". Purdum's claims are in contradiction to the DNA evidence from sequence data pointing to a common ancestor for chimps and humans. See, for example, the Nature 2005 special on the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome. The article The Chimpanzee and Us in that issue provides a good overview. A subsequent article in Nature by Prüfer et al (2011) compared the genomes of humans, chimps and bonobos. See also the blog post by Steven Novella on Debunking Creationist study criticizing similarity between human and chimpanzee DNA.

A contributor to the Before it's News website has made the remarkable inference that haplogroup I1 is associated with the Nephilim, the "fallen angels" who were spoken of in the Book of Genesis. The apparent finding of alien DNA extracted from some elongated skulls in the desert peninsula of Paracas on the south coast of Peru is offered as evidence in support of the theory.

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