It is remarkably ironic that the last word — positively the very last word — on paleoanthropology was produced by Tony Joseph in The Hindu newspaper “How genetics is settling the Aryan Invasion debate” at the exact time that the entire discipline is in a state of churn after a sensational discovery in Morocco on June 9th. See the Financial Times report, “The cradle of humanity covered all of Africa”.
Conventional wisdom has been that homo sapiens evolved out of a single population in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. But the apparently hominid species from Morocco pushes back the earliest known time-frame of the appearance of identifiably homo sapiens populations back by 100,000 years. This puts in some jeopardy the theory that we are all descended from a single individual female nicknamed mitochondrial Eve or mt-Eve (a nod to the Bible’s Eve) who lived about 200,000 years ago in Africa, and it gives new life to an earlier theory of multiple origins for humans.
Thus, mt-Eve [sic] would have to be 100,000 years older (assuming the single-population hypothesis still holds), and that means a lot of recent work will have to be re-evaluated and re-calibrated.
Furthermore, this is not the only substantial discovery in recent years in population genetics. In 2010, a related species homo denisova, was found in a cave in Siberia. Also in 2010, it was discovered that 1-4% of the DNA of populations in Europe and the Middle East is Neanderthal. In addition, it turned out that up to 6% of Australian Aboriginal populations and Melanesians have Denisovan DNA(1) . See Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. It was not even clear that homo sapiens overlapped in time with Neanderthals (and other hominids), but here is evidence of cross-breeding and further possibility that we did not originate from a single population.
Thus, we have an entire field in flux. All of this means that the triumphalist claim articulated by Joseph that the whole idea of ‘Aryan’ Invasion (2) was in the bag, signed, sealed and delivered, is, to put mildly, premature. It reminds me of other ‘famous last words’ such as Thomas Watson, head of IBM, proclaiming in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”.
Then again, perhaps Joseph deserves the benefit of the doubt, because so far as is known, he doesn’t have any background in genetics, and is a business journalist. Maybe he genuinely misunderstood the science, because it is arcane and obscure. Maybe the very fact that Joseph makes an extreme claim about the certainty that the Aryan Invasion hypothesis suggests his naivete about the process of scientific discovery, as well as the Karl Popper theorem about falsifiability. Then again, maybe not.
I have to make a disclaimer here: I also have no background in genetics, and therefore I shall refrain from delving deep into that area. I shall content myself with referring to responses by others with apparent expertise in the field: such as Shiv Sastry in “Migrations, Yes. But ‘Aryan’ Migrations? Not really”, Aravindan Neelakandan in “Here we go again. Why they are wrong about the Aryan Migration debate this time as well”, A L Chavda in “Propagandizing the Aryan Invasion debate: A rebuttal to Tony Joseph”, Koenraad Elst in “Genetics and the Aryan Invasion debate” and Michel Danino, with a rebuttal by Joseph “The problematics of genetics and the Aryan issue”.
The Narrative and the Meta-Narrative
But I do know something about marketing (and so would Joseph, as a journalist). There is also Bertrand Russell’s epigram that “the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts”. Anybody who is sure of themselves (hubris) is setting themselves up for a fall (nemesis). And I believe Joseph is not a fool or a fanatic. So why is he so certain of himself in the tone of finality that pervades his piece? That, in fact, is the meta-narrative: it suggests that he is doing a selling job, and we all know that a lot of snake oil gets sold, and that it is profitable for purveyors of the said snake oil.
So who might that be, who has an interest in the narrative that Joseph has put forth so forcefully? And why is that narrative being peddled now, of all times? To paraphrase the fictional Sherlock Holmes, “Who has the motive, and the means?” Or to put it more bluntly, follow the money and see who benefits.
Writing in dailyo, David Frawley recently pointed out that perpetrators and supporters of the Aryan Invasion ‘Theory’(3) in India these days are Communists who view everything through a single lens: class struggle. For them, there has to be a victim and a victimizer, and in India, the alleged victims are the so-called ‘Dravidians’ and the alleged victimizers are the so-called ‘Aryans’, although both these are misused, as they are not racial or genetic terms.
The fact that Joseph’s piece appeared in The Hindu is not incidental, because that newspaper with a truly Orwellian name is the mouthpiece of the extreme Left in India, and toes the Chinese propaganda line closely. Therefore, it can be inferred that China and the extreme Left in India have something to gain from the propagation of the Aryan Invasion ‘Theory’.
There is another group that also benefits from the Aryan Invasion ‘Theory’: those seeking to convert Indians to Christianity. It is once again not incidental that it was Church-affiliated people who came up with the entire idea of ‘Dravidian’ as separate from ‘Aryan’. It was a Bishop Caldwell in Tamil Nadu who proposed the idea of a separate ‘Dravidian’ race, and the idea was enthusiastically taken up by political parties as a polemic, regardless of scientific merit.
How does this theory benefit the Church? It helps divide Hindus, and sets them against each other by propagating the idea that some groups (i.e. ‘Aryans’) oppressed others (i.e. ‘Dravidians’). To conveniently offer itself as a sanctuary for the ‘oppressed’, the Church manufactured a narrative, eased along by blandishments. They also hoodwinked the State into offering benefits to those who convert. The earliest example of this is from Kerala, where in 1819, the queen of Travancore was bullied by the British Resident into donating 10,000 rupees (current value over 140 crore rupees assuming a modest 6% inflation over 198 years) to the Church.
No genetic studies so far as I know — even the one Joseph quotes regarding Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian differences — has found huge differences between the different jatis in any particular region of India. But that has not stopped the ‘Dravidian’ political parties from claiming that Brahmins are ‘Aryan’ oppressors who enslaved ‘lower-caste’ people.
The logical end point of this line of thinking — as N S Rajaram has said — would be genocide, as happened between the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda. In that country, Europeans declared that the two ethnic groups (which show no major genetic differences) were victim and victimizer: the tall Tutsi had enslaved the short Hutu, they declared. There was actually no historical enmity between the two groups, but there was a horrific genocide of Tutsi by Hutu a few years ago. Presumably Caldwell’s objective would have been a similar genocide of the alleged ‘Aryans’ by alleged ‘Dravidians’, but fortunately, it didn’t happen.
The narrative of the ‘Aryan’ Invasion ‘Theory’ is not benign, and is based on creating fault lines, or as in Rajiv Malhotra’s view, Breaking India. It is the basis of the belief propagated by every Indian Christian I know that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are not Hindus, and therefore Christians have as much right to proselytize them, or more, than Hindus do to consider them part of the flock. Most lefties also accept the fiction that there are Hindus, Muslims, and ‘Dalits’ (4). The term ‘Dalit’ is intended to project them outside the Hindu fold, whereas ‘Scheduled Caste’ puts them squarely in the Hindu fold, as caste is deemed a uniquely Hindu phenomenon (although in practice it is not).
The Church (and hand-in-glove with it, the Communists) are very good at manufacturing authentic-sounding narratives. One example is the story that ‘St’ Thomas arrived in Muziris (Kodungalloor, Kerala) in 52 CE, converted lots of Brahmins, went to Chennai, and was ‘martyred’ there. This story is universally believed in India, and I was amused when I heard Shashi Tharoor add a nice little detail to it: apparently a Jewish girl with a flute welcomed the saint on the beach!
The fact is that there is absolutely no evidence that this saint arrived in India at all. I am aware that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, thanks to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but there really is no evidence whatsoever that the saint did arrive, other than a pious myth. Instead, there is documented evidence that one Thomas of Canaan, heading a group of Nestorian Christian refugees from Syria, arrived around 345 CE (note the date: before the Council of Nicea, and thus, before the establishment of canonical Christianity and the Vatican).
Using Occam’s razor, the most likely course of events is that the Inquisition-era Portuguese, invited to India by ‘St’ Francis Xavier, who went on a conversion spree of fisher folk on the Malabar Coast at gunpoint, ended up (deliberately?) conflating Thomas of Canaan with the saint. Ishwar Sharan, an expert on the Thomas myth, has more on this, including detailed information from Koenraad Elst (See https://ishwarsharan.wordpress.com/). Far from being buried in Chennai, Ishwar Sharan points out, the sainted Thomas is actually entombed in Ortona, Italy. A few years ago, the then-Pope said this, but had to backpedal because of an uproar from Indian Christians.
But by a process of ‘truth by repeated assertion’, the arrival and the martyrdom of the saint have now become an accepted ‘fact’ in India that countless schoolchildren parrot. It is a demonstration that a simple lie repeated often becomes truth, as was posited by Joseph Goebbels, possibly the first person to articulate the modus operandi of propaganda in clear and simple terms. A manufactured narrative has real-world effects.
Interestingly enough, there is an ongoing government-funded effort, a collaboration in effect between Christians and Communists, to ‘prove’ that it was not Kodungalloor that was the legendary Roman-era port of Muziris, but a nearby settlement named Pattanam, where they are claiming mysterious artifacts, and no doubt will soon unearth the ‘St’ Thomas ship, the wood miraculously preserved for two millennia. The presumed goal? To argue that Christianity has been an ‘Indian’ religion for 2000 years, and therefore is entitled to convert at will.
Why this spectacle now?
There are two reasons for the timing of this new narrative by Joseph. One, of course, is the ongoing attacks on PM Narendra Modi by any and all means available. We have seen a plethora of these, so many that one loses count: ‘church attacks’, award wapsi, demonetization sob stories, ‘suit-boot sarkar’, maut ka saudagar, Akhlaq, Patidar, Kanhaiya Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal, Pehlu Khan, farmers’ issues, the Indian Army Chief, and now cows and beef and lynching.
The opposition is trying a time-tested technique described by management guru Jim Collins as ‘bullets, then cannonballs’. That is, attempt a plethora of mud-throwing at low cost to yourself, and then when one item seems to be sticking, put all your weight behind it. They think they have a winner with the cow, hence every issue in the country is now given a cow slant.
This ‘Aryan’ Invasion ‘Theory’ hosanna is one more bullet. It also gets a lot of traction in the West, as the various mainstream media outlets there like the idea of a white, Abrahamic invasion and defeat of non-white Pagans almost as much as the 19th century racist imperialists did. Joseph’s opus will be quoted and repeated in Western MSM and that will, in turn, be quoted with the imprimatur of the West in the Indian MSM, and so on: a positive feedback loop.
There is also the China angle. The Chinese are good at creating incidents that impose ‘loss-of-face’ on the adversary, as a part of its psy-ops tactics. For instance, they invaded Vietnam in 1979 just when then-foreign minister AB Vajpayee was visiting Beijing (5), and geo-strategist Brahma Chellaney points out that when Xi arrived in 2014, there was a major incursion by his forces in Ladakh’s Chumar. Similarly, when Chinese Premier Li arrived in 2013, Chinese troops infiltrated 19 km into Ladakh’s Depsang.
Well, it would not be hard to imagine that, just like the recent Chinese incursion on the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim tri-junction was timed to coincide with the Modi-Trump meeting, the ‘Aryan’ Invasion hugfest in the Hindu is intended to punish India for not capitulating to the Chinese colonization of Pakistan (otherwise known as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) and the entire One Belt One Road project intended to create vassals out of various countries, all kowtowing to the mighty Chinese Emperor (‘Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’, to recycle a WWII Japanese meme).
China recognizes that despite its having rapidly increased its economic and military strength, its hegemonic intent in Asia may well be thwarted by an equally rapid growth by India. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that under the nationalist Narendra Modi, India may be able to concentrate on growth and reach a position of #3 in global GDP (in real terms, not PPP) by 2030. China will take any and all steps to prevent India from rising.
The credibility of the journals quoted, and of Western epistemology in general
Because the entire argument raised by Joseph depends on the main paper quoted, “A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent” by Silva et al, published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, it is only fair to ask how credible that source is. In fact, it is fair to ask a broader question, as to how credible the entire epistemology of Western science is these days, because it is becoming clear that a lot of things that we took for granted as gospel truth (so to speak) are turning out wrong.
Western epistemology depends on a well-worn path of hypothesis-building, data-generation, hypothesis-testing, peer-review and publishing (and apparently more often than not, cooking the data by dropping inconvenient data points and inventing new ones). However, the virtual tsunami of research papers as well as the proliferation of journals, including open-access ones, has disrupted this system; and, alarmingly, a number of researchers game the system.
There have been amusing hoaxes, such as the Sokal hoax that fooled the editors and reviewers of a peer-reviewed journal into publishing utter garbage. On the other hand, as journals have started charging heavily ($2000 for publishing a paper), some researchers have turned the tables by manipulating the review process through fake reviewers. In some cases, journals have also had on their editorial boards, people who have been dead for years!
I personally have received request to peer-review papers in areas that I have limited competence in, strictly based on a publication or two. This points to the difficulty journals have in finding appropriate reviewers; and thus it appears the quality of the reviews also suffers.
Be that as it may, a journal named Tumor Biology from the publisher Springer suffered the ignominy of having to retract a record 107 published papers at once because of fake reviews. Furthermore, BioMed Central had to retract 45 papers. Let us note that Springer is the publisher and distributor for BioMed Central. The Silva et al. paper has been published in BioMed Central’s journal Evolutionary Biology distributed by Springer.
It is unfair to accuse this journal by association, but the fact that the parent entity and the publisher have been so cavalier does make one pause. There is only one instance of a retraction of a paper from Evolutionary Biology, and that is for an unrelated reason, but the fact of the involvement of BioMed Central and Springer, both of whom have had problems, means that it is wise not to take anything said in Silva et al at face value. Add to this the fact that Portugal is not known as a hotspot for genetics research (Estonia, however, is). All this does not give one a feeling of comfort about the reliability of the contents of the paper.
The tyranny of ‘data’ and the need for context
In addition, there is a cult of ‘data’, and of course, a tidal wave of data flooding in from all sorts of devices and research projects. How much of this is junk data, and how much can be turned into information is unknown. The problem is that the West seems to believe that data is itself information. No, it isn’t. Hypotheses have to be created by people without prejudice. The data can then either validate or invalidate the hypothesis.
Thus, there needs to be contextualization of knowledge. You have to be a bit of a generalist with a broad understanding of the domain to be able to come up with proper hypothesis, and later insights based on what has been found. I hasten to add that the tools (6) used must be context-free, only the hypotheses must be context-sensitive; to do that, you must have more than a passing understanding of India, which the authors do not a priori appear to have.
What appears to be the case in many of the population genetics papers cited (as in many other papers as well) is a tendency to come up with a hypothesis based on certain assumptions, and then to go ahead and ‘prove’ those assumptions. This circular reasoning is probably a result of deeply ingrained Judaeo-Christian ideas about the so-called ‘Aryans’ populating new regions and subduing the primitive locals, much as Europeans did in the 19th century mostly through the force of superior armaments and military strategy.
There are subtle cultural biases at play, too. It is surprising to note that Rene Descartes, who has been so influential in creating the logic of modern Western thought, was also a believer in Biblical axioms. In his Discourse on Method he accepts the Biblical dogma that animals are ipso facto inferior to humans, and views humans as their obvious masters and owners. In 2016, renowned scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins showed in a few unfortunate tweets that, though he is a militant atheist, he is steeped in Judeo-Christian culture, with its attendant derision for Pagans.
There is also a general concern about the trustworthiness of ‘experts’. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has coined the phrase “Intellectual Yet Idiot” (IYI) to describe elites who are now facing a significant backlash. They have been ivory-tower dwellers whose edicts to lesser mortals have been followed slavishly by the latter; but now the natives are restless and are, so to speak, gathering with pitchforks because the experts are patently wrong. A good example is the flip-flop on cholesterol: after 30 years of terrorizing the public about its ill-effects, the medical establishment quietly reversed its moratorium on high-fat foods in 2015.
The rather inevitable conclusion is that Tony Joseph has written not an informed or a neutral science piece (although it is dolled up in what appears to be science, good enough to fool the casual reader). Instead, it appears to be a propaganda or a polemic to serve certain vested interests. Therefore, it deserves to be analyzed and rebutted along those lines, in addition to the archaeo-genetics perspective. This note also considers the bona fides of the lead paper, and finds cause for concern.
The narrative supplied by Joseph is useful to certain interests from a political perspective. The meta-narrative behind it fits into a consistent gestalt of withering attacks on Indian civilization. Taking these into account, as well as many flaws in the papers quoted, the logical fallacy of appeals to authority, and triumphalist hubris, it is not hard to conclude that the original article by Joseph is at best premature declaration of victory based on a single paper, or at worst a red herring or a diversionary tactic with no substance to it.
1. There are conjectures about a migration of people from Southern India to Australia about 4,000 years ago and the presence of Indian-origin DNA among Australian Aborigines. See Nature, 2013 http://www.nature.com/news/genomes-link-aboriginal-australians-to-indians-1.12219
2.The word ‘Aryan’ is in quotes because its meaning is confused. Originally a neutral ethno-linguistic classification, it later became a quasi-scientific term implying racism. In India and Iran, the term simply implied ‘noble, respectable’. It is used here only because of wide, if imprecise, currency.
3. ‘Theory’ in quotes because it really is only a hypothesis at best, and an article of (irrational) faith at worst. This hypothesis was not the result of anything that went through the scientific method, but was Max Mueller’s conjecture of human history using Bishop Ussher’s timeframe of 4004 BCE as the beginning of creation, which is obviously at odds with the millennia-old history of evolution. Mueller thought that since the world was created in 4004 BCE, it would take humans (of course Europeans) a while to get to India after the Biblical flood, which he arbitrarily posited at about 2500 years, which then gave him the ‘Aryan’ ‘invasion’ around 1500 BCE. Mueller later rejected his own conjecture, but it has stuck because of its utility to British imperialists and their successors, Indian Communists.
4. Dalit’ is another loaded word. The National Commission on Scheduled Castes has deemed the term unconstitutional and requested that it not be used. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Dalit-word-is-unconstitutional-Scheduled-Caste-Commission/articleshow/2710993.cms
5. Interestingly, when Chinese strongman Xi Jinping was visiting India in 2014, India’s foreign minister was in Vietnam discussing the sale of Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles. Clearly two can play at this game.
6. Here it is useful to remember the idea of context-free grammars, originated by Panini 2,500 years ago. The grammar, a tool, must be context-free, although the hypothesis expressed in the grammar should ideally be context-sensitive
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Rajeev Srinivasan is a writer and well-known columnist from India.