February 23, 2009

History & Biology Come Full Circle

Just a few notes as a follow up to my piece How the Jews Got Their Smarts (and Other Adventures in Biohistory).  The study of biology began to a large extent as a historical science, natural history.  The deep time scales of much of evolutionary biological models mean that historical inferences and reconstructions play an essential role in the discipline.  In the age of molecular biologythe historical perspective has taken a back seat.  But with the rise of genomics deep time and DNA have converged and synthesized.  Additionally, the relevance of molecular evolutionary methods to paleoanthropological questions have also brought biology and history back together, though this time with biology as a means to tease our historical ends.  The most illustrative example of biology’s utility to history is that it seems that genetics has solved the mystery of the Etruscans; in short, Herodotus was right, and modern archeologists were wrong, the Etruscans were Anatolian transplants in Italy.

It seems that relatively cheap whole genome sequencing will be here within 10 years.  Additionally, cheap but powerful computing and free data analysis packages such as R means that extracting insight from the sea of genes will be a distributed process. Ancient DNA extraction and analysis also introduces the possibility that many models of human migration and evolutionary change on the historical time scale will be answered within the next generation.  The 10,000 Year Explosion is at the end of the day an appetizer.

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