A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

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A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Post by ray245 » 2017-08-03 04:05am

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/arc ... ns/535701/
Okay so, it all started with a children’s cartoon.

In December, the BBC released on YouTube an old animated video about life in Roman Britain, which featured a family with a dark-skinned father. This depiction recently caught the ire of an Infowars editor, who tweeted, “Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse. I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?”

To which Mary Beard—best known as a classicist at Cambridge, and more recently known for taking on internet trolls—replied, “this is indeed pretty accurate, there's plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.” To which Nassim Nicholas Taleb—best-known for railing about epistemic arrogance in The Black Swan, and recently known for arguing on Twitter—replied:

Taleb went on to tweet several charts of DNA variation among modern Europeans that he presented as “data” as opposed to Beard’s “anecdotal reasoning.” And so Taleb and Beard went back and forth, back and forth.

Oh how quickly the conversation jumped from children’s cartoon to Infowars rant to genetics. Having completed a close reading of the entire thread—you’re welcome—I think the most charitable interpretation is a classic Twitter case of arguing past one another. Beard is saying there were indeed dark-skinned people in Roman Britain. Taleb cries BS: A mixed family was not typical of the time. Those positions are not inconsistent. We each have hills to die on, I suppose.

That genetics even came up at all in a debate about ancient Roman history is indicative of science’s stature in these fractious times. Genetics gets invoked as neutral, as having none of the squishiness of historical interpretation.

But that is simply not true—as applied to Roman Britain or any other time or place in the ancient world. Geneticists, anthropologists, and historians who rely on DNA to study human migrations are well aware of the limitations of DNA analysis. At the same time, ancestry DNA tests are becoming ever cheaper and more popular, and misconceptions abound.

“We have written sources. We have archaeological sources. Now we have genetic sources, but no source speaks for itself.” says Patrick Geary, a historian at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, who is using DNA to track barbarian invasions during the fall of the Roman empire. “Every kind of source must be interpreted. We are only at the beginning of how to properly interpret the genetic data.”

To start, much of the research into genetic variation (including much of what powers commercial DNA tests) is based on where people live now. One might consider a certain genetic signature typical of Italians based on who lives in Italy today. But how common a gene is in modern Italians may not reflect how common that gene was among Romans who invaded Britain 2,000 years ago. Over millennia, populations frequently moved and sometimes completely replaced the existing population in a given area.

Past migrations and invasions aren’t always evident in the DNA of modern people. In fact, the modern British population shows little genetic evidence of Roman, Viking, and Norman invasions—but this one data point is hardly enough to overturn the preponderance of historical evidence that shows these invasions did happen.

In recent years, researchers have turned to ancient DNA from burial sites to better understand ancient populations. Last year, a study of nine ancient Roman skeletons in Britain found a lot of similarity with British Celtic populations. One skeleton, though, showed much more affinity with modern Middle East populations.

This is a more direct picture of the past but it’s still an incomplete one. First, the number of bodies available to sample is often small. Second, the number of samples that yield DNA after hundreds or thousands of years are even smaller. And lastly, the amount of DNA you can get is usually a tiny portion of the genome. “You have to be very careful about what assumptions you bring into your study,” says Jennifer Raff, an anthropologist who studies ancient DNA at the University of Kansas. For example, a recent intriguing study of 90 Egyptian mummies showed they were more genetically similar to modern Middle Easterners than central Africans. But of course only the wealthy were mummified, so it’s not a complete picture of ancient Egypt.

Geary, the historian at the Institute for Advanced Study, is studying ancient DNA from cemeteries around present-day Lombardy in Italy. He is very careful about how he presents his work and avoids speculation in his talks. While his research has turned up two distinct groups of people, he told me he resists giving them names that identify one or the other as the “real Lombards”:

I was talking to one of our board of trustees at the Institute—a billionaire who has an interest in what we’re doing—and I said, “Well, we have this central northern population and this southern.” He said, “No, no, you can’t call them that. You’ve got to give them names. That’s how you’re going to get attention and funding.” But of course that’s exactly what we mustn’t do because then one falls into this ethnic discourse that we are trying to avoid.

Applying these labels—and maybe even the act of resisting labels—is a matter of historical interpretation. Genetic data is subject to interpretation like any kind of data. When something as trivial as a five-minute children’s video can inflame the culture wars, so will any genetics study that even touches on notions of race and ethnicity.
It is quite funny to see Mary Beard finding debating on twitter to be exhausting. One can only imagine what she would feel if she were to debate on internet forums like SD.net.

On the other hand, it's really quite sad to see academics using twitter to have an academic debate. It's no better than arguing on facebook or youtube comments.
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Re: A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Post by Broomstick » 2017-08-03 05:40am

Scientists can be just as petty as any other group of people.

That said - this whole debate over a children's video strikes me as a tempest in a teapot. Except, of course, that people have killed each other in the past over racial bigotry and used "science" to justify oppression. That, and quaint notions of "purity", a purity which never existed. We are all mongrels.
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Re: A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Post by mr friendly guy » 2017-08-03 07:47am

Beard is saying there were indeed dark-skinned people in Roman Britain. Taleb cries BS: A mixed family was not typical of the time. Those positions are not inconsistent. We each have hills to die on, I suppose.
Taleb seems to be making two arguments here, maybe without realising it.

The first that Beard's argument that there were dark skinned people in Roman Britain is bullshit. This is pretty much inconsistent as you can get with Beard's argument. The second one that mixed family was not typical of the time is not.
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Re: A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Post by ray245 » 2017-08-03 07:51am

mr friendly guy wrote:
2017-08-03 07:47am
Beard is saying there were indeed dark-skinned people in Roman Britain. Taleb cries BS: A mixed family was not typical of the time. Those positions are not inconsistent. We each have hills to die on, I suppose.
Taleb seems to be making two arguments here, maybe without realising it.

The first that Beard's argument that there were dark skinned people in Roman Britain is bullshit. This is pretty much inconsistent as you can get with Beard's argument. The second one that mixed family was not typical of the time is not.
It really depends on the whole issue of what do you mean by "dark skinned". It can go anywhere from southern Europe to Sub-Saharan Africa.
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Re: A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Post by Zixinus » 2017-08-04 02:57pm

The thing that has to be kept in mind, especially by the Infowars editor, is that Romans did not have the same ideas about racial purity and racial hierarchy as we do today. They did not have 20/21st idea that there is some sort of ideal racial template that the Romans held themselves to and to diverge from is some sort of guaranteed downfall of your civilization. They came up with those ideas much more recently to interpose them on Roman history to justify their own ideas.
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Re: A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Post by ray245 » 2017-08-04 04:47pm

Zixinus wrote:
2017-08-04 02:57pm
The thing that has to be kept in mind, especially by the Infowars editor, is that Romans did not have the same ideas about racial purity and racial hierarchy as we do today. They did not have 20/21st idea that there is some sort of ideal racial template that the Romans held themselves to and to diverge from is some sort of guaranteed downfall of your civilization. They came up with those ideas much more recently to interpose them on Roman history to justify their own ideas.
Hence my reasons for being uncomfortable with people using Roman history to discuss 21st-century political issues. This is especially true for the debate about diversity because the Roman empire existed before notions of "race" or "nationalism" even exist in their modern forms. It's applying a fairly modernistic model of society onto a rather different ancient society.

There is also the problem of what sort of metric are you using to measure "diversity"? If you can't properly define diversity in a debate about ancient history, you'll end up spending all your time arguing over semantics like Beard and Taleb were doing on Twitter.

Surely they know there are far better avenues to debate about this than a social media platform that restricts your arguments to a few hundred characters or less?
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Re: A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Post by Zixinus » 2017-08-05 09:35am

Surely they know there are far better avenues to debate about this than a social media platform that restricts your arguments to a few hundred characters or less?
They obviously do and would have agreed on another medium if they really cared about making a worthwhile, fair discussion or debate. They obviously do not.
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Re: A Kerfuffle About Diversity in the Roman Empire

Post by Thanas » 2017-08-18 05:24pm

Zixinus wrote:
2017-08-05 09:35am
Surely they know there are far better avenues to debate about this than a social media platform that restricts your arguments to a few hundred characters or less?
They obviously do and would have agreed on another medium if they really cared about making a worthwhile, fair discussion or debate. They obviously do not.

I am going to defend Mary Beard here because she is somebody I respect very much for her works. She is absolutely correct in her argument, there were enough moors, arabs and nubians in Britain to justify the inclusion of dark people and even mixed families. Heck, recently there were finds in London that proved without a doubt that Londinium was ethnically diverse and "international" for lack of a better word. Her opponent is pretty mistaken in my opinion.
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