Saturday, February 16, 2019

David Reich - Who We Are and How We Got Here

Where did we come from? When I was young I had a book that showed how humans had evolved in Africa and spread outwards, moving left and right into Europe and Asia and then colonising the whole world. At a certain point a few brave souls must have crossed the land bridge into North America and spread through the Americas. Much later in history these groups of people started to encounter each other - and the rest is history. A slightly less crude version of this history sat in my head until I picked up David Reich's book which uses the science of Ancient DNA to uncover the much more complex history of population evolution and movement to clarify much better who we are.

It is a complex book. I'll say at the outset that lacking a background in the biological sciences I struggled to really understand some of what Reich writes about DNA. Precisely how scientists can examine the strands of DNA (modern and ancient) to determine an individual's history is a complex bit of science and understanding it fully will require more than Reich's book. That said you don't need the complete science to get his argument and readers who stumble at that first block should persevere.

Reich covers a lot of ground, and I can only acknowledge some of the discussions - for instance the detailed debate about the interaction between modern-humans and Neanderthals is covered extensively. This is always a favoured point of discussion for people interested in ancient human origins so I'd encourage them to pick it up. More importantly what Reich demonstrates is that humans today are the consequence of wave after wave of migration, encounters and mixing. As he says:

Ancient DNA has established major migration and mixture between highly divergent populations as a key force shaping human prehistory, and ideologies that seek a return to a mythical purity are flying in the face of hard science.

The complexities of these migrations are written into the genes if you know where to look. So regarding the entry of humans into the Americas, it turns out that there were at least four, and possibly five migrations onto the continent that each followed different routes once on the landmass and different genetic legacies. These are written in ancient bones and modern people, and Reich gives a fascinating (though he is very frustrated) discussion of how indigenous communities in the Americas have demanded back ancient remains and refused to give DNA samples because of how they have been treated. Given the treatment of Native Americans today and in the past it should not be a surprise that they have suspicions of researchers aims - not least because sample taken has on one occasion been tied to the promise of social care. But one solution to the frustrations that Reich and other researchers feel might be if some of the communities' grievances and injustices were solved.

Those interested in the development of inequality might be surprised to learn that DNA carries traces of this historical process. Reich writes:
The genome revolution has shown that we are not living in particularly special times when viewed form the perspective of the great sweep of the human past. Mixtures of highly divergent groups have happened time and again, homogenising populations just as divergent from one another as Europeans, Africans and Native Americas. And in many of these great admixtures a central theme has been the coupling men with social power in one population and women from the other.
Later he writes about the Bronze Age when:
Powerful men in this period left an extraordinary impact on the populations that followed them - more than in any previous period - with some bequeathing DNA to more descendants today than Genghis Khan.
In other words the development of a class society which located power in the hands of a small, male, elite has left evidence in the DNA unto modern times, not least because the new class society (though Reich doesn't use this phrase) allowed these individuals to pass on their "social prestige to subsequent generations". This is also true when Reich studies communities in the Americas today - white male slave-owners were able to rape black women and they bore their children and there is a DNA legacy today. Unfortunately I think that Reich is wrong to frame this through the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings - which almost implies that these relationships were mutual rather than ones of about the power of owners over slaves.

Finally I understand that Reich has been the subject of criticism about his comments on race. In this book Reich makes his opposition to racism, discrimination and bigotry abundantly clear. He does however argue that studies of ancient and contemporary DNA with the new technology does make it clear there are differences genetically between groups of people. Reich is very clear that he does not say this means that the concept of "race" in its historic, and racist use, is correct. He argues that precisely because some groups of people separated from each other many thousands of years ago, that it is inevitable that differences arise. Indeed he gives several examples - for instance some people of African descent are more likely to have Sickle Cell Anaemia as this arose out of an evolutionary building of resistance to malaria. He also argues that these differences, while they can lead to social effects, are negligible in the context of the influence of wider social conditions. I do, however, think that sometimes Reich minimises the social context. For instance, he argues rightly that:
Suppose you are the coach of a track-and-field team, and a young person walks on and asks to try out for the 100 meter race, in which people of West African ancestry are statistically highly over-represented, suggesting the possibility that genetics may play a role. For a good coach, race is irrelevant. Testing the young person's sprinting speed is simple... Most situations are like this.

Unfortunately what this neglects is the possibility that the coach might be racist, or influenced about racist stereotypes of different people's ability to run. Or that different students have varied access to training, facilities and support because of their skin colour or background. We should treat everyone like this, but society doesn't and that is because racism in society is underpinned by longstanding ideologies. David Reich's book is a good way of demonstrating how racism is scientifically inaccurate and how far-right fantasies about race and history are completely untrue. But this is not enough - confronting racism and racist ideas will not be done just through the use of facts and figures from scientists, but also through confronting and challenging the system that breeds and uses racism to divide and rule.

Related Reviews

Stringer - The Origin of Our Species
Finlayson - The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived
Flannery - The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples
Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism

Monday, February 11, 2019

Derek Robinson - Hornet's Sting

Hornet's Sting is the third novel that I've read recently about the Royal Flying Corps in France in World War One. It is a prequel to the excellent Goshawk Squadron, which I reviewed here. This has many similar themes - though set a year earlier its pilots fly the Bristol F2 flyer and some of the characters from the later book only appear in this one latter on.

The introduction of the Bristol F2 was a disaster - depicted here in a horrific scene where five planes are lost as the pilots and gunners strive to use tactics that are brilliant on paper, but terrible in the air. Flying straight and level the gunners are supposed to knock attacking aircraft from the air, but the technical difficulties of this sort of shooting condemn the crewmen to certain death. Captain Woolley, who is the key figure in Goshawk Squadron turns this on its head and orders his pilots to fly the F2 like the fighter it is intended to be.

Here, Robinson is using themes that are evident from many of his books - the leadership of the RFC and later RAF are unable to allow themselves to learn from those fighting the actual battles and stick hard to outdated tactics. For Robinson the men flying the planes knew best and should have had more freedom to learn them. In particularly his novel argues that the Deep Operating Patrols over enemy territory were dangerous and unproductive.

Either way, the turnover of pilots is shocking. New faces come and go, and few last more than a couple of pages. From their vantage point the pilots know that's its worse on the ground and there's a clever scene when they get to view the water-logged ground ahead of the final Battle of Ypres.

As with all of Derek Robinson's novels in this vein there is brilliant dark humour as the men drink and joke their way through the stress and losses of friends. Hornet's Sting doesn't work as well as te earlier books, and I felt that some of the subplots were a little unbelievable, particularly the one that takes place on the other side of the lines. The depiction of air-combat is believable and the senseless waste of war is a constant theme, that underlines a solid novel that isn't quite up to the excellence of other books by this author.

Related Review

Yeates - Winged Victory
Robinson - Goshawk Squadron
Macdonald - Passchendaele

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Michael Manson - Riot! The Bristol Bridge Massacre of 1793

During a recent trip to Bristol for a meeting I took some time out to walk around the city and quickly got some insights into its radical history. By chance I came across a copy of Michael Manson's book in the markets and bought it to learn a little more.

In the introduction to the book the author jokes that he often had to answer "No not THAT Bristol riot" when asked about what he was writing. In 1831 there was a major riot in the city when the Reform Bill was rejected. Instead Manson is writing about an earlier event in 1793 that today is little remembered, but lived long enough in popular memory to coin the defiant shout "Give them Bristol Bridge". The story is rooted in two events. The first is the decision to extend the period of time that tolls would be charged for the crossing of Bristol Bridge. This was expected to have been cancelled once the building costs had been paid off, but the lucrative income was too much for the town's leaders to abandon, and they decided to extend things. The second is the French Revolution.

The authorities were terrified. Manson quotes a little in a local newspaper which expressed fear at the "machinations and plots of evil and designing men". It seems that no such plots really existed, but there were certainly tensions and anger from the ordinary people of Bristol. The economic situation was difficult and a decision to continue charging tolls hit a section of the population hard. Indeed given that foot travellers didn't have to pay, but only those in carts or on horseback, Manson points out that it might have worried the authorities that the "labouring poor" were protesting.

The actual protests took place over the course of a couple of days and involved the destruction of the toll booths and pricing boards - something that echoes the Rebecca Riots - and then a much bigger protest when the bridge was reopened on Monday 30 September, 1793. A huge crowd gathered to watch proceedings, and as Manson points out, it is likely that only a small group were involved in the actual destruction of property. The situation rapidly became a confrontation as magistrates were belligerent, eventually calling in a troop of soldiers who were quickly driven off:

While the unfortunate soldiers remained on the bridge they were an easy and defenceless target... Oyster shells from the fish stalls on Welsh Back, stones, brickbats and clods of mud rained down on them. Captain Maxwell was hit on the head and his hat was knocked off.

A hasty retreat followed, but later another group of soldiers marched up with fixed bayonets. "Children in the crowd were hoisted onto shoulders to get a better view... The crowd's mood of exhilaration changed to apprehension" and suddenly the troops opened fire into the crowd of thousands. The troops then turned and fired again. In moments eleven people were killed and up to forty-five injured - though we might not know all the injured as people were wary of going to the hospital.

The reaction was anger and bewilderment. How could this have happened? A local doctor and other liberal luminaries set up an independent inquiry but despite dozens of interviews and long investigations it failed to be able to point the finger at who had given the order to fire. Officialdom, needless to say, remained quite. And Manson concludes "following one the worst civilian massacres of eighteenth century Britain no one had been brought to trial, nor had any named person been officially implicated".

Manson argues that the authorities got away with it, and it wasn't until the wider riots in 1831 and the 1832 Reform Act that their monopoly of greed and power was broken. Reading this at the same time as Jacqueline Riding's Peterloo I was struck by how frequently the British authorities resorted to violence in the 18th and 19th centuries. The police at Orgreave in 1984 might not have used rifles, but they certainly were certainly prepared to injure to prevent people protesting.

This short book is a fascinating insight to one such moment in history, when the state intervened to stop the masses having their say against a perceived economic injustice, though the bridge toll was quickly stopped. It locates the episode in the context of Bristol's economic and political development and as such is well worth a read for the contemporary Bristolian or visitor.

Related Reads

Riding - Peterloo
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

Jones - Before Rebecca: Popular Protests in Wales 1793-1835
Williams - The Rebecca Riots

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

V. M. Yeates - Winged Victory

Having recently finished Derek Robinson's classic novel of war in the air Goshawk Squadron, I was directed towards V.M. Yeats' book Winged Victory. This, I was told, is the definitive novel about the subject written in the aftermath of World War One by someone who had reached Ace status flying Sopwith Camels on the Western Front.

Winged Victory deserves its accolades. It is a powerful denunciation of that particular war and what it did to the men who fought it. The key figure in the book, Tom Cundall, who we can suppose is a proxy for Yeates himself, begins the novel relatively cynical, but by the end has been destroyed emotionally and psychologically by the deaths of his friends and the strain of combat.

Ironically this is a novel where little happens. The main characters in the story exist against the backdrop of wider conflict, but their space in the war is reduced down to small areas, intense, short lived conflict with enemy planes or horrible periods of dangerous ground strafing. Despite their height above the battlefield the pilots, like the men in the trenches, lack the over-view of the war. Inevitably their is a disconnect - from far behind the lines the squadron is ordered into the air, despite the weather meaning its dangerous to fly and the enemy can't be scene. Pilots die on the whims of commanders, through accident or through enemy action they don't even see. Names come and go, and few pilots last long enough to develop the skills and instincts to survive. Even fewer pilots last the six months that Tom endures; and increasingly he copes through heavy drinking.

Tom and his closest friends try to understand the war. Tom's and some of his friends blame a nebulous group of financiers and capitalists who are making massive profits out of the war - given the book was written in the early 1930s I was struck by occasional references to Jewish people. Tom's closest friend Seddon argues:
Do you think we're fighting for England? In private life I'm a ruddy bank clerk, and it's some of those big bank balances we're fighting for. They're not England: they're what gangs of financiers, Jew and Gentile, get out of England. It's too damn funny the way people think England belongs to them because they've nearly all got the vote, whereas its parceled out among a lot of blasted tradesmen who run it as a business for their own profit.
These ideas are confused. Later Seddon sees the war as originating in "Germanic revolt against the International Jew". It's impossible to know whether Yeates intended Seddon's anti-Semitism here as commentary on the growth of fascism in Europe while he was writing, or whether they reflected real arguments in the mess halls of his squadron in 1918. But they have the ring of truth of the type of debates that take place when people are struggling to understand what is going on around them; and the only source of information is propaganda.

Tom is pulled in different directions. On his leave he sees the green pastures of England from his train window, but also visits the East London slums to try and understand what they are fighting for. But by the end of the novel he no longer sees England as his own. The decline in belief in the war - the rapid erosion of patriotism, or indeed humanity, is a great theme in this microcosm of wider arguments around the conflict.

Furious arguments like these, the occasional fantasy of life after the war, heavy drinking, food and a preoccupation with women are the only things that keep the men going between combat. But even these aren't enough and boredom is the day to day reality.

Some will read Winged Victory for its accounts of combat. But there's much more to this than a tale of flying. This is a detailed account of the way the war ruined lives; it demolishes the myth of Biggles and "knights of the air", replacing it with alienated, scared, confused and drunk young men, desperate to survive but with little hope. It deserves to be read alongside great anti-war novels like All Quiet on the Western Front or Catch-22.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Goshawk Squadron
Macdonald - Passchendaele
Romains - Verdun
Bücher - In the Line 1914-1918