Egypt’s Vice Minister of Culture Zahi Hawass seems to think so. As the critics, both pro and con, chime in with their own analysis of the recent JAMA article, Dr. Hawass seems to cross the line between making a response and taking offense.
“I call on Set, the [ancient Egyptian] god of evil to remain silent this time!”
Criticism of the results of the two-year study of royal Egyptian mummies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was immediate, one of the benefits of living in the cyber age. EEF News, an Egyptology forum mailing list moderated by A. K. Eyma, lit up with professional and lay responses to the JAMA article within hours of its publication. The excitement was viral, but not without its share of “Yeah, ok, but what about…?”
More formal responses are undoubtedly being hammered out on the keyboards of Egyptology writers in the cluttered offices of media experts and the pristine halls of academia. This is not a personal insult to Zahi Hawass or the many excellent minds who contributed to the work, it is simply how science is done.
In “As if Tutankhamun is Alive!” (Source: Asharq Alawsat), Dr. Hawass points to the fact that the JAMA article was “the peak of our work and efforts over at least the past two years, and the scientific research we provided was accepted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, after it was revised by a number of world-renowned scientists.” The study has indeed received wide acclaim for its thoroughness and sound methodology.
But publishing a scientific paper, even one as thoroughly vetted as the JAMA article, is not the final word in the field. Science is not like a court of law, where the evidence is presented, the jury renders a verdict, and the judge proclaims the case closed. Scientific theories, no matter how apparently “true,” are always and forever open cases.
Picking Words, Picking Fights, or just Picking?
Part of the problem with the Asharq Alawsat article is that Dr. Hawass is not very specific about who and what he is responding to. Take the following quotation:
Apart from the gains of this significant publicity, some sad and other laughable things occurred. Dr. Abdel Halim Nureddin told me that someone keeps saying that he was the first to carry out DNA tests on mummies. All I could do was laugh because the project that I’m honoured to be presiding over is the first ever to use DNA testing on these mummies so we have exclusively set up the first two DNA laboratories to study mummies in Egypt. (Source)
Dr. Hawass does not name the person making this claim, so it is difficult to analyze. But it is worth mentioning that there seems to be a separation between what is claimed and what is responded to. Someone claims to have been “the first to carry out DNA tests on mummies,” to which Dr. Hawass counterclaims that he is “presiding over the first [study] ever to use DNA testing on these mummies” (emphasis mine).
One of the co-authors of the royal mummy study, Dr. Albert Zink, is also head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, a foundation established to study the famous Ötzi iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. According to the website for the Ötzi Museum, the first genetic analysis of Ötzi was published in 2006 (American Journal of Physical Anthropology: “The Iceman belongs to the European genetic haplogroup K and was probably infertile.” Rollo, F.U., L. Ermini, S. Luciani, I. Marota, C. Olivieri, D. Luiselli. Vol. 130, pp. 557-564:2006).
It could therefore be argued that one of Dr. Hawass’ own team members conducted DNA tests on mummies prior to the royal mummy project, just not those same mummies. The murkiness of the claim and counterclaim, both as presented by Dr. Hawass, do not serve his complaint of harassment very well.
Dr. Hawass goes on to characterize as “false claims” the criticism that the DNA is only 40% confirmed, as opposed to 100% as Dr. Hawass claims. The truth is, any expert working in a modern DNA lab with contemporary samples taken from living subjects can tell you that the best we can do is narrow a sample down to a likely population. It is not at all unusual to hear a statement in a courtroom to the effect of “Only one person in 100 billion will exhibit these genetic markers.”
Given the fact that there are not enough people on Earth for there to be a second person exhibiting those same characteristics, this sort of match is a fairly reliable conclusion! But this is still not 100% certain, and I am guessing it is fair to say that ancient DNA can be trickier to work with than that taken from a living person. It may seem like splitting hairs but Zahi’s statement that the tests are 100% accurate is as false a claim as 40%. A more reliable assessment is likely somewhere in the middle.
This is the problem with taking peer criticism personally and responding with words such as “laughable,” “false claim,” and “I expected those enemies of success and people who are obsessed with fame to come forward to try and stick their noses in the results of our research.”
Kate Phizackerley and the DNA Problems
There are many intelligent and thoughtful people who are taking a fair but critical look at the conclusions published in the JAMA article. Kate Phizackerley, proprietor of News from the Valley of the Kings, has had a bead drawn on this story from the beginning.
Starting with “The Consanguinity Problem” and “An example of my consanguinity concerns”, Kate began to question the reliability of drawing specific conclusions from a population where interbreeding was so rampant. She followed this up with a first rate scholarly article, “DNA Shows that KV55 Mummy Probably Not Akhenaten,” and made clarifications in “Genetic Sudoko.” These articles are a good starting point for anyone who is curious about alternative views on the JAMA study and why any scientific work, no matter how well presented, is always an open case.
Kate’s most recent offering, “Questions Roundup and a Combative Zahi,” specifically responds to the Asharq Alawsat article. “I don’t know what the academic community feels,” she states, “but I personally resent the accusation that I am “obsessed with fame” because I have critiqued the DNA data.”
We are all Layers in the Strata. Take a Minute and Chill
Zahi Hawass is not alone in bemoaning those ever-present ignorant scoundrels who disagree with our hard work. Nobody likes going through the process of developing, presenting, and successfully defending a thesis, only to have their parade rained on by the relentless drive of science. But as any scientist will tell you, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and its giants all the way down. Eventually, someone will climb onto your shoulders as well. That’s how the game is played.
I am far too insignificant to offer Dr. Hawass advice, but far too indiscrete to pass up the opportunity. The next time you want to bash your critics, invite some of your most trusted colleagues to the famous Old Cataract Hotel veranda, and while knocking back a cold Stella and watching the Nile lazily passing by, let it all out. Just don’t invite the press.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2010. All rights reserved.