Friday, March 2, 2012

A rant on race and genetics

I have really had it with anti-intellectualism masquerading as biological science.  What really set me off is a blog post by the distinguished evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/). 

               Unlike the great fruitfly geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who was a member of various anthropological associations and had personal and professional relationships with anthropologists who worked on human diversity (notably Sherry Washburn, Ashley Montagu, and Margaret Mead) – and even let his daughter marry one, archaeologist Michael Coe  – Coyne writes in abject ignorance of anthropology.  Freed from the constrains of actual knowledge, then, Coyne is able to present his own commonsensical views as if they were based on science. 

               He quotes historian of biology Jan Sapp, reviewing two new books on the subject which both come to the same conclusion – that human races are biocultural constructs, not natural facts – and dismisses the conclusion of the books and the reviewer: “Well, if that’s the consensus, I am an outlier.”   

               The irony is that Coyne is not self-aware enough to appreciate that that is precisely parallel to the position of the creationists.   His idea of race is the existence of between-group variation in the human species, and the discovery that groups of people are different from one another.  Anthropologists have been studying the nature of that difference for around a century and a half, but Coyne isn’t interested in what they’ve learned.  Since there exist “morphologically different groups of people who live in different areas” then there are, ipso facto, human races, regardless of what anthropologists think they have learned about the subject.

               Of course the discovery that people in different places are different is a trivial one.  At issue is the pattern of those differences and its relation to the classification of the human species.  To equate the existence of between-group variation to the existence of human races  is to miss the point of race entirely.  Race is not difference; race is meaningful difference.  It’s the “meaningful” that takes the question of human races out of the geneticist’s domain and places it into the anthropologist’s domain (which is where it has always been – although occasionally opposed by reactionary geneticists like Charles Davenport and Ruggles Gates, whom Coyne would do well to read).  At issue is the (cultural) decision about how much difference and what kinds of difference “count” in deciding that this kind of a person is categorically different from that kind of a person.  The merest familiarity with the modern literature on race would have made that clear to Coyne.  Coyne echoes right-wing ignoramuses with the sentiment that “the subject of human races, or even the idea that they exist, has become taboo.”  Jon Entine made the same claim in his stupid 2000 book on the imaginary genetic superiority of black athletes; and the segregationists made the same argument in the early 1960s. 

               But of course, race is only taboo in the same sense that creationism has become taboo, as being a false theory about  the world, from which scholars have moved on.  In fact, Coyne’s anti-intellectualism here is the equivalent of the creationist’s claim that “We obviously did not evolve from apes, since apes still exist”.  It reveals such an abject ignorance of the topic that all you can do is suggest a return to kindergarten.

               Coyne’s post, as it turns out, was inspired by a review (in American Scientist by Jan Sapp) of two books on race.  He explains, “I haven’t talked much about Sapp’s review, as I find it tendentious; nor have I read the books he’s reviewing.”  The books he’s reviewing are: 
Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan.

               I haven’t read that one, but I can vouch that many of the contributors – including Troy Duster, Duana Fullwiley, Jonathan Kahn, Joe Graves, and Pilar Ossorio - have written insightfully and at considerable length on the subject, and know a heck of a lot more about it than Jerry Coyne does.  

               The other book is called Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth and is actually by a biological anthropologist and an evolutionary geneticist – Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle.  If Coyne ever gets around to handling a copy of the book that inspired the review that inspired his ignorant blog post, he’ll discover that the jacket blurb says,

a prominent anthropologist and a prominent evolutionary geneticist have teamed up to give us a powerful scientific critique of the commonsensical idea of race.  Distinguished scholars and skilled communicators, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle show clearly how “race” simply cannot be used as a synonym for “human biological diversity”.  In the age of genomics, this partnership of intellectual specialties is particularly valuable, and the result is a splendid testament to the merits of trans-disciplinary collaborations.

The good news is that there are evolutionary geneticists like Rob DeSalle out there.  But the scholarly boat seems to have sailed away without Jerry Coyne on board.   Ironically, the last time I gave a talk at the University of Chicago, about three years ago, it was on this very subject.  My title was, “Some More Things I’m Pissed Off About”.  Coyne wasn’t in attendance. 

               And yes, I wrote that blurb.

30 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. It's a perfect example of what you talked about a couple weeks ago--of people who have no grounding in the research spouting off, with complete and abject ignorance (often flaunted!) of anthropological studies of human variation.

    As I've been blogging about these issues, I was introduced (at the suggestion of Henry Harpending) to the work of Guido Barbujani. His 2010 paper (co-authored with Vincenza Colonna) is a very careful overview of the scientific literature from someone who has also been studying human genetic diversity for a long time. It's readable and current and answers many of the issues: Human genome diversity: frequently asked questions.

    I discuss related issues in a blog-post titled Race redux: What are people "tilting against"? and have added a link to your piece here.

    Thank you again for writing this.

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    2. Blacks are superior in athletics you moron.

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  2. Hopefully my post indicated that not all evolutionary biologists/geneticists think like Coyne, at least:

    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2012/02/continuous-geog.html

    ...I'd be interested in your thoughts on it, here or there.

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    1. I absolutely agree. Two opposable thumbs up for Alan Templeton (and Guido Barbujani!).

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  3. Bravo for this great post on Coyne's silly paper.

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  4. **regardless of what anthropologists think they have learned about the subject.***

    I was under the impression that some anthropologists seem to have been corrupted by political correctness (along with various other human/social sciences). Steven Pinker wrote an excellent book discussing some manifestations of this called "The Blank Slate".

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    1. Pinker indeed said that, and it was an anti-intellectual slander. In fact it was just as false when the supposed political-intellectual corruption of anthropology was invoked to discredit the field by the segregationist Carleton Putnam in "Race and Reason" (1961).

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    2. And of course the creationists also reject anthropology out of hand, for its imagined deep intellectual corruption. (Tennessee's Butler Act, under which John T. Scopes was prosecuted, didn't actually prohibit evolution from being taught, but only specifically human evolution.)

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  5. ***My title was, “Some More Things I’m Pissed Off About”. Coyne wasn’t in attendance. ***

    Hehe, this kind of angry post makes me realize how you could get a situation where people were sent off to labor camps for criticizing Lysenkoism :)

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    1. You only get to call me Trofim Lysenko if you are willing to be Ernst Rudin.

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  6. SNPs don't lie. We know race is real, and so do you.

    You people are so wrapped up in some ideological project of Boasian Cultural Marxism that you cannot even see the nose on your face. It's you people who are the creationists. Like creationists, you people use the same methods of vulgar skepticism to deny the obvious. You could use the same sophistry to deny electricity or color.

    One day a modern Juvenile will write a parody about people like you.

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    1. It looks like a modern juvenile already has.

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    2. a ha ha ha ha ha ha forever.

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  7. The current score for race-deniers:


    1) Boas: Race doesn't exist.

    His scholarship proven to be fraudulent -- forsaking truth for political correctness:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/99/23/14636.full.pdf+html


    2. Gould: Race doesn't exist

    His scholarship proven to be fraudulent -- forsaking truth for political correctness

    http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001071#


    3. Lewontin: "There's more diversity within races than between races"

    His "scholarship" (or rather, PC propaganda) proven to be mathematical nonsense:

    http://www.humanbiologicaldiversity.com/articles/Edwards%2c%20A.W.F.%20%22Human%20genetic%20diversity-%20Lewontin%27s%20fallacy.%22%20BioEssays%2025%20%282003%29.pdf






    If there is one thing you people are good at, it's spreading disinformation and lying.



    Jim, seriously, get out of the dead-end ideology of Boasian Cultural Marxism. It's a lie and it'll make you crazy in the end.


    http://www.ln.edu.hk/philoso/staff/sesardic/getfile.php?file=Race.pdf

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    1. Sometimes when scholars write something thoughtless, and then wake up and see who they are in bed with, they quickly appreciate their mistake and attempt to correct the record. Perhaps Coyne will be one of them.

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    2. "3. Lewontin: "There's more diversity within races than between races"

      His "scholarship" (or rather, PC propaganda) proven to be mathematical nonsense:"

      Lewontin is still correct that there is more genetic diversity within races than between them. Edwards (2003) agrees. The split is basically 85% of the variation is between-individual, within-population variation. About 15% is between population variation, and something like 75% of that variation is explained by variation in geographic distance between populations. A few more percent is perhaps explained by discrete categories (basically continents), but recent analyses differ on this point.

      Edwards & co., when they talk about "Lewontin's Fallacy", just mean that they can use that 15% of the variation to approximately trace geographic origin, if they have enough genetic data (it takes something like 100 different genetic markers to do it reliably.)

      This doesn't mean that the between-group differences are "bigger", or discrete jumps in difference, or anything. All of this was explained in my post.

      So, if there is anyone who is lying and/or ignorant, it's not Lewontin, it's you.

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  8. I'm not denying that there are some bad elements out there. But your peoples' war against reality is doing no one a favor.

    Two centuries from now, you people will be known as the flat-earthers of genetics and anthropology.

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    1. The point is, that’s what the social Darwinists said, that’s what the eugenicists said, that’s what the segregationists said, and now that’s what you say. You’re wrong again, and for exactly the same reason – we have studied human variation and we have learned something about it. Your commonsensical views about the subject are wrong. It’s like the geocentric solar system: Even though it looks like the sun goes around the earth, that is an optical illusion. At some point, you have to replace your mere feelings about the subject with actual thoughts.

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    2. "that’s what the social Darwinists said, that’s what the eugenicists said, that’s what the segregationists said,"

      Yea, and they also said that the Earth was round, humans are bipedal, and birds fly. Your fallacious argumentum ad Hitlerum becomes tiresome. *yawn* You people haven't thought of any new lines in the past 40 years? You're almost becoming a self-parody.

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  9. OK, Jon. I see that you want to keep playing your little Boasian Cultural Marxist games. Listen, I think you're basically a good guy and have good intentions. But, seriously, you people are going to be known as the flat-earthers of anthropology and genetics. Is this what you want? In the long-term, your politically correct war to suppress the truth will inevitably fail. The truth will eventually win out despite all your efforts and propaganda. Think about it.

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  10. Dave, I do not think that the "Social Darwinists", "eugenicists" and "segregationists" said anything about the shape of the planet. Or human - or avian- locomotion, for that matter. If they did say anything about these things, they only repeated what scientists had discovered.

    Anthropologists do not deny human variation. They actively study it. And because they have spend a long time studying it.

    And Boas was trained as a physicist, by the way. He knew how to do science and his research on cranial morphology was the very opposite of politically correct in his day.

    Just because some anthropologists are off in lalaland communing with post modernists or confusing scientific analysis with a prescription for political action, does not mean that all of them are. Dismissing the work of a whole discipline with a blanket "you people are going to be known as the flat earthers…" is not only unkind, it is nonscientific (not empirical).

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  11. oops I did not finish that middle sentence. Sorry, I am a bit addled by flu today. Second paragraph. Second sentence. Should read: And because they have spent a long time studying it, they might have some valid data on the subject.

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  12. Hey Dave and whomever else is asserting things about race without addressing the data.

    Here is Lewontin writing in 2006. Please identify his errors, or shut up:

    http://raceandgenomics.ssrc.org/Lewontin/

    =================
    There are four facts about human variation upon which there is universal agreement. First, the human species as a whole has immense genetic variation from individual to individual. Any two unrelated human beings differ by about 3 million distinct DNA variants.

    Second, by far the largest amount of that variation, about 85%, is among individuals within local national or linguistic populations, within the French, within the Kikuyu, within the Japanese. [...]

    Of the remaining 15% of human variation, between a quarter and a half is between local populations within classically defined human “races,” between the French and the Ukrainians, between the Kikuyu and the Ewe, between the Japanese and the Koreans. The remaining variation, about 6% to 10% of the total human variation is between the classically defined geographical races that we think of in an everyday sense as identified by skin color, hair form, and nose shape. This imprecision in assigning the proportion of variation assigned to differences among population within ”races” as compared to variation among “races,” arises precisely because there is no objective way to assign the various human populations to clear-cut races. Into which “race” do the Hindi and Urdu speakers of the Indian sub-continent fall? Should they be grouped with Europeans or with Asians or should a separate race be assigned to them? Are the Lapps of Finland and the Hazari of Afghanistan really Europeans or Asians? What about Indonesians and Melanesians? Different biologists have made different assignments and the number of “races” assigned by anthropologists and geneticists has varied from 3 to 30.

    Third, a small number of genetic traits, such as skin color, hair form, nose shape (traits for which the genes have not actually been identified) and a relatively few proteins like the Rh blood type, vary together so that many populations with very dark skin color will also have dark tightly curled hair, broad noses and a high frequency of the Rh blood type R0. Those who, like Leroi, argue for the objective reality of racial divisions claim that when such covariation is taken into account, clear-cut racial divisions will appear and that these divisions will correspond largely to the classical division of the world into Whites, Blacks, Yellows, Reds and Browns. It is indeed possible to combine the information from covarying traits into weighted averages that take account of the traits' covariation (technically known as "principal components" of variation). When this has been done, however, the results have not borne out the claims for racial divisions. The geographical maps of principal component values constructed by Cavalli, Menozzi and Piazza in their famous The History and Geography of Human Genes show continuous variation over the whole world with no sharp boundaries and with no greater similarity occurring between Western and Eastern Europeans than between Europeans and Africans! Thus, the classically defined races do not appear from an unprejudiced description of human variation. Only the Australian Aborigines appear as a unique group.

    [...]

    The fourth and last fact about genetic differences between groups is that these differences are in the process of breaking down because of the very large amount of migration and intergroup mating that was always true episodically in the history of the human species but is now more widespread than ever. The result is that individuals identified by themselves or others as belonging to one “race,” based on the small number of visible characters used in classical race definitions, are likely to have ancestry that is a mixture of these groups, a fact that has considerable significance for the medical uses of race identification.

    [...]
    =================

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    1. The first two points are both true but largely irrelevant since most of that variation is neutral.

      For the functional variation addressed in the third point, Lewontin is factually wrong. "Mapping human genetic diversity in Asia" (2009) and "The role of geography in human adaptation" (2009) both show very clear discontinuities between Mongoloids, Caucasians and Negroids.

      The fourth point, about the future, is irrelevant. And most individuals are still unmixed.

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    2. "Into which “race” do the Hindi and Urdu speakers of the Indian sub-continent fall? Should they be grouped with Europeans or with Asians or should a separate race be assigned to them?"

      With Europeans. Lewontin should clarify whether he means *East*-Asian.

      "Are the Lapps of Finland and the Hazari of Afghanistan really Europeans or Asians?"

      The Lapps are Caucasian. Hazari like Uyghur are one of a small number of admixed populations.

      "What about Indonesians and Melanesians?"

      East Asians.

      "Different biologists have made different assignments and the number of “races” assigned by anthropologists and geneticists has varied from 3 to 30."

      Of course. It's reasonable to split Europeans from Caucasians, they are distinct. Or you can split the Melanesians from East Asians. Africa also can be split up, a major division is between bushmen and others. The existence of lower level clusters doesn't negate the existence of higher level clusters.

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  13. Lewontin -- like Gould and Boas -- has been shown to be a fraud and a liar:

    http://www.humanbiologicaldiversity.com/articles/Edwards%2c%20A.W.F.%20%22Human%20genetic%20diversity-%20Lewontin%27s%20fallacy.%22%20BioEssays%2025%20%282003%29.pdf


    How many more lies are we expected to listen to? How much more propaganda are we expected to ingest?

    Why are you people even in academia, since the truth is of no concern to you? Why not just join some political activist group and be done with it.

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    1. Already dealt with this exact argument and citation from Dave, see above.

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  14. Gaia,

    I didn't mean to disparage all anthropologists. There are anthropologists who do good work. I only meant to disparage the Boasian Cultural Marxists, who have declared some PC war upon reality. These people are so wrapped up on some ideology that they actively try to subvert the truth. Their methods are ones of subterfuge, censorship, and obfuscation. They may still control the debate, as they are in the majority and control most institutions, but they will ultimately fail, as they sit on a throne of lies. And as the Boasian Cultural Marxists fail, they are coming to look like the dishonest PC enforcers that they truly are.

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  15. I don't know why your so upset at war on reality. Its fairly obvious that you and "the Boasian Culture MArxists" inhabit quite different realities.

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