All posts filed under: Genetics

On the Reality of Race & the Abhorrence of Racism Part II: Human Biodiversity & Its Implications

If you observe the residents of Japan and compare them to residents of the rural southern United States, you’ll note some differences. Some differences will be stark, others less so, yet they will not be isolated to religious and cultural practices. The differences that emerge will bleed into psychological and temperamental traits that also vary in noticeable ways across populations. The reason for the existence of these differences, though, admits of no simple answer. Prevailing wisdom holds that the cultural and psychological differences that exist across human population groups were shaped largely by a confluence of history, sociological forces, and pure chance. This is likely true to some degree, but the prevailing wisdom — from my point of view — is incomplete. In Part I, we argued that human races exist, meaning that humans can be meaningfully classified into coherent groups based on genetic ancestry. If we’re going to take seriously the existence of meaningful racial variation we also have to at least consider that the genetic differences that exist across racial and ethnic groups …

The Future of Genetic Enhancement is Not in the West

Would you want to alter your future children’s genes to make them smarter, stronger or better-looking? As the state of the science brings prospects like these closer to reality, an international debate has been raging over the ethics of enhancing human capacities with biotechnologies such as so-called smart pills, brain implants and gene editing. This discussion has only intensified in the past year with the advent of the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool, which raises the specter of tinkering with our DNA to improve traits like intelligence, athleticism and even moral reasoning. So are we on the brink of a brave new world of genetically enhanced humanity? Perhaps. And there’s an interesting wrinkle: It’s reasonable to believe that any seismic shift toward genetic enhancement will not be centered in Western countries like the U.S. or the U.K., where many modern technologies are pioneered. Instead, genetic enhancement is more likely to emerge out of China. Attitudes toward enhancement Numerous surveys among Western populations have found significant opposition to many forms of human enhancement. For example, a recent …

On the Reality of Race and the Abhorrence of Racism

Most people believe that race exists. They believe that Denzel Washington is an African American, that George Clooney is a Caucasian, and that George Takei is an Asian.* Many intellectuals, however, contend that this belief results from an illusion as dangerous as it is compelling. “Just as the sun appears to orbit the earth”, so too do humans appear to belong to distinct and easily identifiable groups. But, underneath this appearance, the reality of human genetic variation is complicated and inconsistent with standard, socially constructed racial categories. This is often touted as cause for celebration. All humans are really African under the skin; and human diversity, however salient it may appear, is actually remarkably superficial. Therefore racism is based on a misperception of reality and is as untrue as it is deplorable. With appropriate qualifications, however, we will argue that most people are correct: race exists. And although genetic analyses have shown that human variation is complicated, standard racial categories are not arbitrary social constructions. Rather, they correspond to real genetic differences among human populations. …

Giving Genes Their Due, But Not More

A review of Behaving: What’s Genetic, What’s Not, and Why Should We Care? by Kenneth B. Schaffner. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2016), 304 pages. No one gets anxious about using genetics to help explain a medical disease like cancer or heart disease. But using genetics to help explain a normal behavior like aggression, or a psychiatric disorder like depression, can be an entirely different story. At first blush, this difference in response to using genetics to explain different features of the same animal seems odd. After all, it’s not as if medical geneticists, on the one hand, and behavioral and psychiatric geneticists, on the other, employ different research methods. The difference, of course, is that the behavioral and psychiatric geneticists investigate features of ourselves that we take to be central to our humanity: our ways of acting and being in the world. To use genetics to try to explain those features elicits the anxious question, is human behavior genetically determined? Few people have been thinking about that question for as long, or with as much devotion …

The Bermuda Triangle Part II: Dangerous Research & The Risks Worth Taking

Another clever word Sets off an unsuspecting herd And as you step back into line A mob jumps to their feet – “You’re Gonna Go Far Kid,” The Offspring   The late J.P. Rushton represents one of the most brilliant, yet oddly obscure, psychologists in the last several decades. Few would deny that Phil Rushton possessed a stunning intellect; his work on human altruism, in fact, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988. Yet, when he is spoken of in circles both within and outside of academia now, brilliance is not the first adjective that gets tossed around. Rushton’s interest in differences among human population groups would lead him to begin asking “dangerous” questions about how those differences arose.  His book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (published in 1995) represented the culmination of much of his work on the topic to that point in his career. For Rushton, the book was his opus, but for many, it represented the detonation of an academic land mine. Make no mistake — Rushton was controversial before …

Evolutionary Conflict and the Family

Let me be as blunt as possible, most of the beliefs you have about parents, and the socializing effects they have on children, are more wrong than you can possibly fathom. If you read my first installment on this topic, then the kickoff to this discussion sounds familiar. In fact, we’ve journeyed through the wilderness of parenting effects in three separate essays, now. Is there really a need for a fourth? I think there is, and the reason why is so that I can show you the absurdity lurking behind the idea that parental influences on children are large, prominent, and long lasting. The absurdity of it, in fact, is utterly staggering, stupefying, and as we will see, blazingly obvious once we pause and remember that humans, too, are a product of evolution. When I read first read Matt Ridley’s book The Red Queen, I remember being shocked at the ideas he was proposing. In the book, Ridley promised to take the reader down a rabbit hole regarding how human nature evolved (and the role …

Criminology’s Wonderland: Why (Almost) Everything You Know About Crime is Wrong

When you say ‘hill’ the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley.” ‘No I shouldn’t’ said Alice, surprised at contradicting her at last: ‘a hill can’t be a valley, you know. That would be nonsense—. – Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll Consider what it would be like to meet the Red Queen.  Not only is she boisterous and overbearing, but she’s also convinced that your perceptions of the world are wrong. Science often behaves like the Red Queen, leaning over to whisper a little bit of craziness in our collective ears.  At first, we gawk at the nonsense spewed in our direction, yet with time, we realize that the world really does work like her majesty said.  A new approach to studying crime is doing violence to our intuitions about where illegal behavior comes from.  In a prior discussion, we introduced you to why this new approach was necessary. Here, we take you further into Wonderland and acquaint you with some of what we …

Why Some Humans Developed a Taste for Milk and Some Didn’t

Imagine a dinner party somewhere in Italy to which, as it turns out, my dad has been invited. On the menu tonight is a sliced tomato, basil and mozzarella salad, pasta with a creamy mushroom sauce topped with parmesan cheese, and Italian gelato ice cream to finish. However, except for the sliced tomatoes and basil, my dad cannot eat anything on offer and is destined to leave the party hungry. My dad is, as I am, ethnically Chinese – and, like the majority of Chinese folk, lactose intolerant. Although the inability to drink and eat dairy products (or more specifically the inability to digest lactose, the type of sugar found in milk) is commonly called “lactose intolerance”, this is actually a misnomer. All humans are lactose tolerant in early life because we are mammals. Most humans only switch to being lactose intolerant in the transition to adulthood. But if so many adults struggle to digest dairy, why did we start drinking the milk of other animals in the first place? Well, with the domestication of …

The Bermuda Triangle of Science

This is an essay about how to avoid carpet-bombing your career as a scientist. The academy, in general, is a wonderful place to work, but not everyone plays nice. Veer too far from carefully charted courses and someone may slip quietly up behind you and slide a cold piece of steel in between the ribs of your budding research career. They’ll do this believing that they are serving public interest by snuffing out dangerous research agendas, but that won’t make any difference to you. It’ll be your reputation that will suffer grievous injury. What in the world might elicit such harsh rebuke from a community of otherwise broadminded, free speech spouting scholars? What is so verboten that it constitutes academia’s Bermuda Triangle, a place where careers disappear more often than ships in the actual Bermuda Triangle? In one word, it’s race. Now, had I written this a decade or more ago, general intelligence would have topped the list of forbidden academic fruit. This is not to say that intelligence research has magically become mainstream. It …

Heritability and why Parents (but not Parenting) Matter

“…Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” — Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Like Alice, we’ve all pondered the question: “who am I?”  Moreover, we often couple it with the reasonable companion query: “how did I get to be this way.”  Not all of us are rich and famous, we can’t all bend guitar strings like Hendrix, and most of us will never have supermodel looks or the physical prowess of a professional athlete.  There is fascinating unity in all of us, though, concerning how we answer the question of “why am I this way” as opposed to some other possible version of myself.  Whether we credit them for our successes, or point at them as a hurdle that we had to clear, most of us implicate our parents when constructing a narrative about why we are the way that we are.  It’s not an unreasonable intuition.  But how we intuit about the world can mislead us; sometimes that “light at the end of your tunnel” is, …