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September 28, 2016


My training is in evolutionary biology & ecology, where "migration" means regular, there-and-back-again travels. Creatures appearing in new places is a completely different phenomenon: "dispersal", "range expansion" or "invasion".

It seems that in archaeology & anthropology "migration" covers almost any movement of peoples...

One weakness of the social sciences (and I speak as someone with a couple of degrees in anthropology) is that their desire to be seen as "real sciences" has all too often led them to borrow terms from the biological and physical sciences. Without always grasping the concepts behind the terms. This seems likely to be, at least in part, an example of that phenomena.

implies that humans, real people, are not found in Africa today, they "left" or "migrated" away

Nope, it doesn't. It simply says something quite different in a way that perhaps you disagree with, and which may in fact be improper. But which doesn't connote the meaning you imply that it does.

Remember how humans migrated across the Bering Strait into the Americas? Was the implication there that real humans did the traveling, and left a bunch of non-humans behind?

I tend to think not. In fact there are many, many references to human migration, some of them supplied by major universities, that refer to the spread of the human species out of Africa to the rest of the world as "migration". Inaccurate? Maybe. Racist?

I tend to strongly doubt that every single reference to human "migration", or even most of them, are racist.

I guess some evidence might have been in order.

Interesting post on the connotations of common words, which I have certainly used and heard used without considering the implications. Slarti is right that it's a bit much to suggest that all such usages are "racist," but he admits (and I agree) that they may be "improper." Without making overmuch fuss about it - and posting on Obsidian Wings is the electronic equivalent of a polite clearing of one's throat, I suspect - this is thought-provoking. What are alternative ways of expressing what we know or posit about early human movement? "Range expansion" makes sense, at first reading, but I'll need to ponder further about it.

Thank you for a post that actually encourages me to think, not just to react (as so many posts do).

"Migrated" is certainly wrong, and it seems entirely possible that Doc S is right about it's racist origins, but I too would like a bit more evidence.

Is it free from such overtones today ? I'm not sure.
Chinese researchers, for example, seem deeply invested in proving the continuous existence of an ancient Asian lineage, questioning the extinction of the first human dispersal/range expansion from Africa, which seems to be the more accepted narrative.

More broadly, genetic research seems to show that there isn't all that much human genetic diversity; we are all curiously similar - and what diversity there is appears overrepresented in Africa.

Interestingly, Wikipedia uses both 'migration' and 'dispersal', but not 'range expansion'. Is 'dispersal' more accurate than 'range expansion' ?

I wonder, whether there hasn't been both. Range expansion would be kids founding a home a few miles off their birthplace in a direction where no one yet lives and this going on over many generations. Migration would be groups (or subgroups) of a population actually going on a trek to find new homes far away from home. I believe that at least parts of the Pacific were colonized this way, i.e. whole clans deciding to give up their old home and putting to sea for a new home beyond the horizon. At least the first part of the colonization of the Americas could have gone the same way.
But of course there are racists too, likely to believe that our (white) ancestors wanted to get away from those African n-words and thus started a migration out of Africa (btw, what is the opinion among white supremacists about Neanderthals? Do they count as white or are they even below the n-words?).
The majority of the population of the Americas today is derived from central Europeans that went there after 1492. Are these not migrants, although they left people of their kind at home in Europe.
And into what category do the slaves belong that got imported from Africa? In this case the term 'migration' is indeed used by (usually racist) revisionists that try to whitewash slavery by relabeling the victims as 'migrant workers' (e.g. in some hotly debated school textbooks in some Southern states).

"migrated" is absolutely correct, for the individuals who migrated. some people got up and left Africa; it was an exodus, for them. some people stayed. that process happened pretty much everywhere people went - some migrated, some stayed.

But of course there are racists too, likely to believe that our (white) ancestors wanted to get away from those African n-words and thus started a migration out of Africa

I'd think that sunburn would be a bigger motivator. It's tough for a scandanavian in sub-saharan Africa.

Been thinking about this today, and it seems to me that migration means moving to a location that offers a better environment/resources. This could be taken as having racist overtones, but many anthropologists try to mitigate that by emphasizing the primacy of Africa (Cradle of Humankind, Out of Africa).

Range expansion doesn't really work, because you generally don't have a species turn on itself. So while range expansion solves one set of problems, it tends to obscure another set. Dispersal doesn't sound right because it makes it sound random, and one presumes that early humankind moved in order to find environments that were 'better', if only because the hunter-gatherer groups probably had an ideal size and when a group got too big, it was pretty much necessary for a group to split off.

Interesting stuff, thanks for this.

I don't think any science writer, geneticist or anthropologist or normal person reading Zimmer's comment would think it meant that all humans left Africa. What goes on in their subconscious is unknown, but requires evidence.

If I were going to make a case against the word migration as racist, one that I don't actually believe, I'd pick on the population geneticists. Pick up a book on the subject and you are likely to find equations on gene frequency with a term for "migration", a mathematical term which resembles the mathematical term describing the effects of "mutation". Now everyone knows that mutants in popular culture are scary--they have superpowers that can be used for good or evil and we normals have no control over them. So is there an unconscious link being made between mutants and the scary outsider migrants who bring their novel genes into a population that way? Furthermore, one of the founding fathers of population genetics was Ronald Fisher, a believer in eugenics. His classic book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (I think) is considered a gem, something that the great pop gen guy of a more recent era, James Crow, once wrote he rereads sometimes and finds new insights. The second part of it is about eugenics. The first edition came out in 1930, when eugenics was popular and not just with Nazis.

I have also stumbled across racists who point out that population genetics theory says that evolution can occur quickly. New genes can be fixed in a few hundred generations. Guess what the racists use this to argue?

Therefore population genetics is riddled with conscious and unconscious racism.

Do I believe the argument I just made? Not really. The subject has a founder, widely considered brilliant, who had some ugly views. And any time there is discussion of genes there will be racists hanging around. But I think it's a stronger case than the case against Zimmer's use of the phrase.

"it meant all humans left Africa" should be reworded to "would think it was intended to mean". Clearly Dr. S thought that it literally means that but agrees that Zimmer didn't mean it that way. I don't think it literally means that, and it's clear nobody would think it was intended that way, unless the reader thought Zimmer was a racist or was a racist himself.

A certain very basic principle of charity should operate here. You really have to be looking for it to think "migration" in this sense meant something racist. Maybe it is being used incorrectly, but that's a different issue. I think it takes less work to make all of population genetics look like a racist plot. Still wrong. But you can do it.

there is a definite and explicit racist angle to some of the 'migration' stuff.

i'll let Cecil Adams explain:



I tend to strongly doubt that every single reference to human "migration", or even most of them, are racist.

Me too.

I think the "racist" claim is far-fetched.

I was taught that there was an archway with a banner hung over the Bering Strait land bridge that read "Land of Opportunity -- Losers Need Not Apply", and only those with the gumption to open a Buick dealership in Decatur got up and went.

What Lewis and Clark thought THEY were doing covering old ground from the other direction is beyond me.

Here's what I know. If mankind had originated on the land mass now known as Texas, instead of elsewhere, we Americans would advertise ourselves as the inventors of the Human Race.

Those suffering from some kind of misguided wanderlust or dysfunction that led them to migrate or disperse themselves to say, Nairobi, would be referred to as ingrates and losers and told not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

The inscription on the Statue of Liberty, instead of referring to "huddled masses" would read "Oh, so NOW you admit you were wrong and you want back in? Not so fast!"

When I see a lone heron rowing his way overhead, his wings creaking like in a Walker Percy novel, I think to myself there goes a guy who wants to be master of his destiny.

It makes me want to pack my bags and go fishing.

This is a thought-provoking post, though I'm not entirely convinced of the racism charge.

Still, it pays to watch our language p's and q's.

Look, everyone knows America attracted the true human element among the species and then had to go back to Africa and drag the other more questionable ones over here in chains so we could get some work done.

If a Republican explained, as they do, that Strom Thurmond and the old racist Dixiecrats "migrated" FROM the Democratic Party, leaving the "real" racists therein to free the women and the gays, TO the Republican Party, thus making IT the party of freedom and light, would you believe em?

If I lived on the same continent I'd buy you a drink on the strength of this, because the "migration" narrative drives me batsshit too, and in the context of the initial human expansion out of Africa tends to make me think of Cecil B. DeMille movies. In respect of human beings, migration must have an element of deliberation about it, whereas as far as we know the people in NE Africa c. 60ka were just wandering about looking for resources. It would be interesting to speculate whether later expansions, such as the apparently comparatively rapid paddle down the west coast of the Americas was any more deliberate, but I've no idea how you would test that.

But... as though "our" ancestors are all from non-African populations... They are. What you mean is, "as though 'our' ancestors are all from populations which have not lived in Africa recently."

Count, if humanity originated in Texas, OF COURSE anyone with any sense would move away. Some things never change.

I suppose then that all those Californians moving to Texas have got not sense.

The ones *I* know who are moving to Texas are doing so only because their employer is relocating and their choices are move or quit. Their desire to move to Texas is, to be generous, very limited.

I'd say cleek's 7:22 hits all points needing hit. However, as I'm constitutionally incapable of leaving it at that, I'll add that I think Doc S here is falling into the same trap that "All Lives Matter*" does: "humans migrated out of Africa" (presumably) isn't intended to mean "all humans left Africa", but rather "some of the humans in Africa left it".

Having said that, the bit from Adam Levy seems like pretty straightforward tone-deaf Eurocentrism.

*I.e., parsing "Black Lives Matter" as "Only Black Lives Matter" rather than as "Black Lives Also Matter".

More proof that the good ones stayed in Africa, while the dumb, subhuman ones hightailed it to America.


I disagree with "Grass Roots North Carolina" that Hillary Clinton intends to take their weapons. Rather, my suggestion would be for her to borrow their weapons ("May I take a look at that thing ya got there?") shoot the lobbying groups' members and Ted Nugent in their heads with them, and then return the weapons to the their families for possum hunting.

When I see a lone heron rowing his way overhead, his wings creaking like in a Walker Percy novel, I think to myself there goes a guy who wants to be master of his destiny.

I know that this isn't strictly on-thread, being about nomads, i.e. people who keep moving, rather than people who move on and stop, but I must recommend one of my favourite books of recent times, one of the few books I have had to re-buy after lending it and not getting it back. It is this: Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads

There is so much that is wonderful in it, but Count's paragraph that I quote at the top reminds me very much about what some of the modern-day nomads say to explain their life-style. The author, as well as having serious nomad-style longings himself, has read widely and deeply on the history of American nomadism (from captive conquistadors to various native american tribes to mountain men) and spent time with and interviewed modern nomads like the Rainbow Family, the rail riders, retirees in their RVs etc, and and there is a decent bibliography at the back. If any of you have read it, or for anyone who decides to read it, I would be very interested to hear your opinion.

Using the word "migration" in English to refer to "the movement of a person or people from one country, locality, place of residence, etc., to settle in another" (OED) has a longer usage history than they have been the more specialized sense in which biology has adapted the word to describe the behavior you address above. The Latin word from which the English takes its meaning refers to a change of dwelling place or a movement.

Different discourse communities. Different senses of the word.

There are many racist and/or romantic progress myths bound up in our discussions of the spread and diversification of humans, but those notions are not a consequence of using the word "migration" in a perfectly ordinary and more general sense of the word than that which biologists use when speaking of species behaviors any more than biologists are using the word incorrectly if they are not referring to the movement of an atom towards an electrode during electrolysis.

None of which is to say that biologists and anthropologists might not want to work together to regularize their usage of the word if their current usage causes confusion. I just don't see any actual confusion going on here. And I think there are more productive ways to address the racist tones of some of our narratives than to sensitize readers to the use of one word.

Also, if we want to get stuck on strict readings of the words in the headline according to scientific usage, the headline would imply that Africa is not a part of the world.

But I don't think anyone actually reads that way in practice.

I suppose then that all those Californians moving to Texas have got not sense.

Nearly as many Texans move to California each year as people moving the other way. The net is on the order of 10K people, insignificant relative to the population sizes of those two states. (Everything else kept equal, Texas would catch up to California in population in about 1200 years.) If you consider the other 10 contiguous states of the Mountain West and Pacific Coast -- total population roughly the same as Texas -- there's a lot more movement to and from California and that group than there is between California and Texas. From the IRS data, the Texans moving to California have higher incomes than the Californians that go to Texas.

..., the Texans moving to California have higher incomes than the Californians that go to Texas.

True. Lower income Californians are getting priced out of California.


Neanderthals were almost surely white. They shared with us the same parallel, and I strongly suspect that they needed to be white in order to get enough vitamin D.

The selection pressure for white or dark skin is very strong. If you don't get enough vitamin D, rickets will follow, and in girls, rickets will easily cause malformations of the pelvis, leading to increased birth mortality. On the other hand, too light skin will cause you problems in the tropics. I have heard it claimed that the pressure is heavy enough for a population to get a light skin in the Arctic in a few thousand years or less. Neanderthals had tens of millenia. They were surely white.

I don't recall that there is a significant difference in how dark the skin is between East Asians in the tropics and those in the far north. I see differences between natives of Vietnam and those in northern Japan, but skin tone isn't one of them. Likewise Native Americans (although in that case, perhaps there have not been enough thousands of years...?).

Which makes me wonder just how solid your case really is.

...and just like that, DocSci has instigated a mannered, thoughtful discussion in which no fingers have been thus far pointed or waggled.


Mannered, thoughtful, and interesting. Don't forget that part.

This is really interesting and thought provoking. May I link to it?

Terms of art don't have to mean the same thing as the same words in ordinary usage. "Work" means something different in physics than in conversation; "migration" can mean something different in biology than in politics.

Still, I have to say that when specialists appropriate common words as terms of their art they might do well to be mindful of the connotations they evoke in general discourse. Let us be grateful, at least, that nobody has ever spoken of humans "commuting" out of Africa.

A propos of nothing: one of my favorite bits from The West Wing.


Lurker, my question was not about reality (the real skin colour of the Neanderthals) but about the perception by white supremacist racists of them. It seems pretty clear that 'our' ancestors were latecomers to Europe, the ancestors of the Neanderthals having arrived there (also from Africa) quite some time before. I's be interested to know, whether racists consider the Neanderthals to be like the natives of countries the white Europeans concquered (i.e. by definition non-white independent of actual pigmentation) or as the 'real' whites that got marginalized by the African hordes. I know that some Nazi subgroups do not believe the out-of-Africa theory and instead claim that the ancestors of the true Aryans (=Germans) came from the mythical Thule (not identical to the historical region of that name). I do not know, whether these guys identify them with the Neanderthals or how widespread that belief is among other racists.
Let's not go into the debate, whether the Khoisan (Hottentots, pygmies) and the 'true' negroes (like the Bantu) are a different species. There are some who would at least tolerate the thought of coming from the latter but abhor the thought of being related to the former.


There are cleaf differences, but mostly, you need to be pretty north for lighter skin to appear. For example, the Inuit, the latest-arriving Native Americans, who are rather closely related to East Asians, are light-skinned, just as the Native Americans of Tierra del Fuego are also much more loght-skinned than Native Americans in the Andes.

This variation is, of course, to large extent hidden by the fact that people get tanned in the sun, and by the fact that different food sources allow better or worse vitamin D synthesis.

I think the chapter on the topic in Wikipedia is helpful, and much more accurate than my earlier writing, which was simply based on memory of a book read long ago.



I would posit that most racists are so deeply embedded in the pseudo-scientific mindsets of the early 20th century that they are unable to comprehend the question.

Essentially, it depends on the viewpoint. If you think Neanderthals as a species we supplanted and made extinct, it is "obvious" they were a dead end of the evolution, unfit primitives not suited to a modern world of bows and arrows. Thus, nonwhite.

If, on the other hand, you account for the Neanderthal genetic heritage that all non-Africans carry, and that seems to be more present in Europeans than e.g. Asians, the it turns upside down. The Neanderthals become an admirably sturdy humans who could survive in Ice Age Europe. Their admixture with modern humans from Africa was fated to create the true, white H. Sapiens Sapiens. (Extending this to Asians with their possible mixture of H. pekingiensis, to create a modern scientific racism hallowing East Asians is left as an exercise to the reader.) This way, the Neanderthals would become the Ur-White, the definition of whiteness.

It ia actually quite surprising that I haven't seen the latter point made anywhere. Then again, I don't visit white supremacist fora, so my knowledge might not be up-to-date.

Quick googling came up with some claims that the Neanderthals were the ancestors of the Jewish people (I assume the claimers do not see that as a compliment ;-) ). Otherwise the racist community seems indeed to be split on the question, whether Neanderthals were the proto-Aryans or wiped out by the same or reached the level of 'human' through genetic improvment by interbreeding with them. Even 'Answers in Genesis' seems to have an opinion on the matter but I will not go to that website either.
I will stick with my old hypothesis that the Neanderthals put all their efforts into perfecting the machine gun and were overrun by our club wielding ancestors before the final models could be fielded. ;-)

I know that some Nazi subgroups do not believe the out-of-Africa theory and instead claim that the ancestors of the true Aryans (=Germans) came from the mythical Thule (not identical to the historical region of that name).

Well, the "neo-Nazis" evolved from Trolls. Except for the 'evolved' part.

TP, this isn't even a vernacular-vs-jargon issue; it's two technical communities appropriating the same common-language term and assigning it different meanings.

My temptation is to start muttering about mutually unintelligible dialects...

I really hate it when labor activists complain about how worker collective action has been replaced by atomized interactions, and how it really should be UNIONIZED.

Hey, if they want to be ionized, why should we care?

valence inequality is killing this country

Down with enthalpy!

(I don't even know what that's supposed to mean. I never really understood enthalpy, even if I could calculate it, and it's not a word anyone would use in a non-technical way. But it's Friday, so what the hell.)

It's all that static from ionization that is the problem.

Just the other day around here, we were told lionization is the problem.

Did we lose an "l"?

The evolution meme in popular use that really needs to be attacked is the "ladder of progress", as depicted over and over in the linear "ascent of man" graphic that shows a succession of species "leading to" Homo

Evolution has no direction other than that imposed by the zero lower bound. Lineages are bushes subject to heavy pruning, not single-file processions.

End of rant, and a tip of the hat to the memory of Stephen J. Gould.

Except for stellar evolution. THAT has a direction.

"Lower income Californians are getting priced out of California."

Natch. Market economics. Goods that are desirable to people who have the money to pay for them tend to rise in price.

Those with money do as they will, those without do as they must. Is there something wrong with this? Opinions vary, mostly along predictable political lines.

The Migration Period was a time of widespread migrations within or into Europe in the middle of the first millennium AD.

Pretty much all of them being white.

Obviously when social (or evolutionary) scientists talk about "migration", they do *not* mean events like the Exodus of the Hebrew Bible, where most or all of a community moves from point A to point B in a single generation. If they meant "exodus" they would use that word. There is no particular racist implication in "migration" - the dispute is semantic, not scientific or sociological.

There is in fact a "ladder" or branch that connects unicellular organism through simple chordates, fish, reptile-like animals, some kind of early primates, more ape-like primates to humans. This is how we evolved. Pictures showing this are not wrong. But this is not the only ladder or branch - every other organism living has its own different branch. In this case terms like "ladder" or "scale" are misleading or wrong - in evolutionary terms humans are no "higher" than any other organism. Darwin's own analogy was a tree or bush.

skeptonomist, you're only saying that because your mitochondria are making your fingers move on the keyboard.

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