Nicholas Wade: The Twists and Turns of History, and of DNA





EAST ASIAN and European cultures have long been very different, Richard E. Nisbett argued in his recent book "The Geography of Thought." East Asians tend to be more interdependent than the individualists of the West, which he attributed to the social constraints and central control handed down as part of the rice-farming techniques Asians have practiced for thousands of years.

A separate explanation for such long-lasting character traits may be emerging from the human genome. Humans have continued to evolve throughout prehistory and perhaps to the present day, according to a new analysis of the genome reported last week by Jonathan Pritchard, a population geneticist at the University of Chicago. So human nature may have evolved as well.

If so, scientists and historians say, a fresh look at history may be in order. Evolutionary changes in the genome could help explain cultural traits that last over many generations as societies adapted to different local pressures.

Trying to explain cultural traits is, of course, a sensitive issue. The descriptions of national character common in the works of 19th-century historians were based on little more than prejudice. Together with unfounded notions of racial superiority they lent support to disastrous policies.

But like phrenology, a wrong idea that held a basic truth (the brain's functions are indeed localized), the concept of national character could turn out to be not entirely baseless, at least when applied to societies shaped by specific evolutionary pressures.

In a study of East Asians, Europeans and Africans, Dr. Pritchard and his colleagues found 700 regions of the genome where genes appear to have been reshaped by natural selection in recent times. In East Asians, the average date of these selection events is 6,600 years ago....


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