Review, Top Stories

‘She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity—A Review

A review of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer. Dutton (May 2018) 656 pages. 

In this book, Carl Zimmer tries to lay out how our ideas and knowledge of genetics have developed over time, and where we are today. He mixes in discussion of the social impact of these ideas. Some of those discussions are reasonable, some are not.

He covers a very wide range of topics, from contagious cancers in clams to recent developments in genetic engineering.

Before I go any further – Zimmer is wordy. He has things to say, but he never uses one word when ten will do. The facts are always part of some long-winded human-interest story. If you like that sort of thing, you may like this book. I cannot say that I did.

The real problem with this book is that, to Zimmer and many other people, genetics itself is the enemy. The facts, not the discipline, particularly in how they apply to humans. We now know that everything is heritable, to varying degrees  — and the more that life is determined or influenced by genetics, the less blank the slate, the less that can be accomplished by egalitarian social policies (or by aristocratic social policies, for that matter). The facts of genetics are caltrops on the road to a ‘just’ society. Zimmer is moderately fair-minded, usually mentioning both criticism of genetic claims and the response to that criticism — but he still gives the impression of wishing these claims had never been made and dislikes scientists who discovered unpleasant truths.

For example, he dislikes Francis Galton, and mocks him for his poor results in mathematics at Cambridge, a subject Galton really wanted to excel in. Galton hired brilliant tutors, but he just couldn’t hack math — interesting, since he later helped develop key concepts in statistics such as correlation and regression to the mean. It’s as if all the special prep in the world won’t compensate for a lack of innate talent (a commonplace observation, unless you’re Malcolm Gladwell) — but that, of course, supports Galton’s central thesis, namely, that intelligence is largely determined by hereditary factors. At this point, things have become sufficiently meta that I can’t tell whether Zimmer even knows whether he’s dissing Galton or agreeing with him.

Maybe math blindness ran in the family. Darwin, Galton’s half-cousin, said:

I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics; for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense. But I do not believe that I should ever have succeeded beyond a very low grade.

Another example: Zimmer talks about Cyril Burt, a British psychologist and hereditarian who did twin studies of intelligence. In particular, studies of identical twins separated early in life, a good way of testing the strength of genetic influences on intelligence and other traits. Burt claimed that heredity had a very strong influence on intelligence. He also believed that there were class differences in intelligence — that the children of barristers and boffins outscore, on average, those of navvies and knackers, partly for genetic reasons. Which is the case, of course.

Leon Kamin, then a psychologist at Princeton, detected errors in Burt’s publications and concluded that Burt’s work was fraudulent. Kamin argued that genes had zero influence on intelligence — which would suggest that dogs really can play poker. But other people (Thomas Bouchard) have done their own studies of separated identical twins and gotten the same results as Burt. It appears that Burt got old and careless, republishing earlier work. Genome-based estimates give similar results. And nobody now believes Kamin’s claim of zero heritability.

Still, in Zimmer’s view, Kamin is somehow the good guy, even though, or perhaps because, every factual claim he made was wrong. And Zimmer must know that they’re wrong.

Again: Zimmer talks about race. He might have been better off avoiding the topic entirely, because he makes not one jot or tittle of sense. His position, like the public position of many professional geneticists, is that race ‘does not exist’, whatever that means. He leans on Richard Lewontin’s ideas here, which is a mistake. As Bob Trivers says:

Lewontin would lie openly and admit to doing so. Lewontin would sometimes admit, in private at least, that some of his assertions were indeed fabrications, but he said the fight was ideological and political — they lied and so would he.

Zimmer writes: “If races were indeed biologically significant, Lewontin argued, each race should have a starkly distinctive combination of genetic variants. Most of the genetic diversity should exist between the races rather than between individuals of the same race.” That’s a correct summary of Lewontin’s argument but the argument itself is nonsense. The question is whether two groups are significantly, innately different in body or behavior, not how many genetic differences exist between them. We’re not really concerned with the number of genetic differences, but with the consequences of those differences.

If population A all experienced a change in one important nucleotide — if they all had the mutation that causes classic dwarfism — with no other change, there would be a huge difference in their bodies: they’d all be dwarves. But there would only be a tiny genetic difference (a single point mutation). Lewontin was pulling a ‘No True Scotsman’ — generating a genetic definition of race designed to win an argument, rather than one that describes reality. Zimmer falls for it, but then, he is an English major.

Look, there’s a standard quantity, the fixation index, Fst, that measures the genetic difference between two populations. Fst = 0.0 means the two populations are identical, Fst = 1.0 means they have nothing in common. For example, the genetic distance between the HapMap sample of Europeans and their African sample is 0.153.

But the genetic distance between North American wolves and coyotes is also 0.153. Am I supposed to believe that wolves and coyotes are really just the same or that the species known as canis lupis is a social construct? It’s possible for two populations with that degree of genetic differences to be profoundly different — because wolves and coyotes are profoundly different. Two populations can be very different even if they generally share the same genetic variants, as long as those variants have different frequencies. This is especially so if there is a systematic shift — for example, if most of the variants that increase height (plus variants) are more common in one group, while the minus variants have higher frequencies in the other.

In dogs, there is more within-breed genetic variation than between-breed variation: about 70% is within-breed. For humans, about 85% is within-population.

According to Lewontin’s argument, which has been pulled apart by A.W.F. Edwards and numerous others, dog breeds must not really be very different. Great Danes can’t really be very different from teacup Chihuahuas. Pit bulls can’t really have different personalities than Labrador retrievers. What do you think?

According to Lewontin, groups we call races only differ in superficial characteristics like “nose, lip and eye shapes, skin color, hair form and quantity” — and height, and disease susceptibility, the immune system, skeleton, fast-twitch muscles, cranial capacity, bone density, alcohol metabolism, fat metabolism, and so on and so on and so on.

Genetic analysis can sort people into more closely related clusters, and when this is done the highest-order clusters look pretty much like old-fashioned racial classifications — Africans, western Eurasians, East Asians, Pacific islanders, and Amerindians. Zimmer says: “But any resemblance between genetic clusters of people and racial categories concocted before genetics existed can have no deep meaning.” The hell it can’t: 19th Century scientists were observing the same reality. Nobody was sequencing avian genomes in Shakespeare’s day, yet he could still tell a hawk from a handsaw.

David Reich (who is NOT an English major) knows that the clusters that emerge from genetic analysis correspond fairly closely to old-fashioned racial classifications. He mentions Lewontin’s argument in Who We Are and How We Got Here — but as an example of obfuscation. “This carefully worded formulation is deliberately masking the possibility of substantial average differences in biological traits across populations,” he writes. On the other hand, having once been a physics major does not make you infallible: Reich and Zimmer both say a real race has to be very old. It doesn’t count if it was created by admixture of earlier populations several thousand years ago. So since they are the result of a mix of Anatolian-origin farmers and Indo-European pastoralists about five thousand years, Europeans cannot be a real ‘race’. So Mexicans, ‘la raza’, are imaginary, like elves and Eskimos. While German Shepherds, created in 1899, are just a bad dream — albeit a dream with teeth.

Some other reviews have neglected to mention Zimmer’s embrace of complete nonsense on a number of questions about human genetic variation — it’s common nonsense, politically correct and (really) politically required nonsense. The New York Times is the Alamut of political correctness: if you don’t smoke the dope, out you go.

This book is up-to-date and covers a very wide range of topics in a low-intensity way. Most readers will learn a lot. Carl Zimmer deserves some thanks for a decent account of scientific progress in a field that he evidently finds deeply disquieting.

 

Gregory Cochran is the co-author of The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

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106 Comments

  1. AC Harper says

    “Lewontin would lie openly and admit to doing so. Lewontin would sometimes admit, in private at least, that some of his assertions were indeed fabrications, but he said the fight was ideological and political — they lied and so would he.”

    Another example of the Noble Lie (see Wikipedia). I rather suspect it is more common than we expect but has arguably begun to lose its lustre now that fact checking is more widely available.

  2. “who is NOT an English major”

    You there isn’t all that much wrong in being and English major.

  3. Pingback: Review of “She has Her Mother’s Laugh” | West Hunter

  4. “the genetic distance between the HapMap sample of Europeans and their African sample is 0.153.

    But the genetic distance between North American wolves and coyotes is also 0.153. Am I supposed to believe that wolves and coyotes are really just the same or that the species known as canis lupis is a social construct?”

    Wolves and coyotes cannot breed with each other, that is why, by definition, they are different species. Africans and Europeans can; therefore, by definition, they are the same species.

    • Rainforest Giant says

      You are aware coyotes, dogs, and wolves can and do interbreed? If not you should under no circumstances comment on genetics.

    • Cloveoil says

      They can and do hybridize in nature: the results formed red ‘wolves’ (which are really closer to coyotes) and eastern grey wolves. Conversely populations of mosquito on the London subway are unable to hybridise with others of their own species. Species doesn’t really have a consistent definition.

    • “Wolves and coyotes cannot breed with each other”

      Er, yes they can. And sometimes they do too. Eastern coyote is a hybrid. There are coy-wolves. But there is no such thing as coy wolves as a distinct species.

    • Markus says

      You are wrong Rosa. Coyotes and wolves do interbreed. The larger “coyotes” here in eastern Canada contain DNA of both wolves and coyotes. Likewise, dogs can interbreed with either wolves or coyotes.

    • MCA says

      It’s not just “coydogs” and “coywolves” – the idea that hybridization *cannot* happen between species is wrong on FAR bigger scales, including fertile hybrids between animals of different GENERA, separated by vast durations of time. My examples are biased by my favored study organisms, but illustrate the point:

      1) cross-*genus* hybrids have been found in the wild between several genera of North American colubrine snakes, most of which have been separate since diverging about 10 million years ago when grasslands expanded across North America

      2) Fertile hybrids can be made in captivity between various python clades which separated between 30 to 50 million years ago.

      3) There are several watersheds in the southern USA where the two major genera of garfish naturally hybridize across multiple generations. These taxa are estimated to have diverged 180 million years ago.

      The opposite is that just because hyrbids occur doesn’t mean they contribute significantly to the gene pool. In birds, natural hybrids happen, but often have incorrect courtship or songs, preventing them from finding a mate. Other hybrids may be biologically functional, but lack adaptations present in either parent species due to intermediate morphology, putting them at a disadvantage.

      Finally, there’s ring species, in which a species has a range that forms a partial “ring” around a feature (a mountain, a lake, etc), with gene flow along the ring leading to a continuous grade of animals which are no longer able to interbreed once the ring “connects”.

      As the old saying goes, if you want to see truly brutal violence, lock a dozen biologists in a room and tell them to define “species”.

    • demigord says

      Are you unaware that wolves and coyotes do breed with each other? Quite successfully

      • demigord says

        Wow, what is going on with this comment system?

  5. If I practice really really hard I can be as good at basketball as Stephen Curry and if I study really hard I can be as smart as Albert Einstein.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Lysenko certainly thought so. Or if for some reason you couldn’t be, your descendants certainly wood.

  6. “So Mexicans, ‘la raza’, are imaginary, like elves and Eskimos.”

    “La raza”, coined by José Vasconcelos, a Mexican writer and educator, refers to Mexican society and culture as an amalgam of indigenous peoples, Spanish conquistadores, and African slaves – something like a new Mexican identity. He was not referring to a phenotype, much less a new genetic combo. Neither is there anything imaginary about a new culture emerging from different peoples coexisting during generations and forging a new nation, at least not in the Americas. Vasconcelos was actually arguing against 19th century quack race theory where each race is distinct, pure, and has its place in society.

    • LFJ says

      As long as the amalgam is sufficiently homogenous, it is the same thing as a race.

  7. SweetPeavey says

    I enjoyed the book and thought Zimmer did a good job of being honest about representing the degree to which our genes contribute to intelligence and personality while pointing out how the belief in genetic determinism resulted in some grotesque historical injustices.

    Like many people here, I get annoyed at the degree of denial regarding the influence of heritability on factors such as IQ and personality, and I’m interested in how that might influence race and gender differences, but I also know that there are scores of bigots out there who are poised to jump on any perceived scientific validation of their prejudices and I don’t blame Zimmer for treading carefully there, especially given that his book was targeted at a popular audience.

    • “… but I also know that there are scores of bigots out there who are poised to jump on any perceived scientific validation of their prejudices…” that would be the bulk of people who have taken social science courses in the last fifty years. You are so fearful of falling off the port side that you actually do fall off the starboard.

  8. “His position, like the public position of many professional geneticists, is that race ‘does not exist’, whatever that means.”

    One does not need to be an English major to understand that it means that human races do not exist. According to the US Census Bureau, that quantifies race, it is not a scientific or anthropological category. Despite that, the Census Bureau asks Americans to self-identify by race because they are required by law to do so.

    Quantifying people by race is mostly and anglospheric phenomenon. The UK and Canada also do it.

    • AC Harper says

      I’ve often thought that with care we could understand the points being argued about. ‘Race does not exist’ may well be true enough if you are talking about ‘social race’ – categories created in peoples’ minds with no separate existence.

      On the other hand biological demes do exist with sufficient genetic differences to make them identifiable – I guess that’s ‘biological race’. There’s an overlap between ‘racers’ of the two types but it is not a 1 to 1 mapping.

      • Jim says

        Words used in ordinary language are generally somewhat vague and imprecise compared with the same words used in scientific contexts. But to say that that means that the ordinary usage of the word “race” is meaningless is like saying that the ordinary usage of the word “temperature” is meaningless because it does not correspond exactly to the usage of the word “temperature” in treatises on thermodynamics.

    • Cortez says

      @Rosa
      If not “race,” what word do you think is appropriate to describe the concept of different population groups? For instance, all of the same arguments against “races” apply equally well to “extended (biological) families”; if we are to keep the concept of “extended families,” is this a guide to your new nomenclature?
      As an example, you could note how it might be described on a form at the doctor’s office, where the doctor wishes to gain a suite of information useful in diagnosis and treatment.
      Thanks for your time.

      • The word race is fine when used in folk taxonomies, for example, Americans may describe a person as black or white in full knowledge that in other parts of the world that taxonomy does not apply and even the question, “What is your race?” will get a blank stare or even seem offensive. The reason race is not a scientific or an anthropological category is because it cannot be applied outside the society where the folk taxonomy emerged from.

        As for doctors, in the US a doctor may ask a patient to self-identify by race because Americans are socialized into categorizing themselves into one of four races (black, white, Indian, and Asian). In most of the rest of the world (excluding the anglosphere), people would not tick any of the boxes or if you left the question open, you would end up with thousands of races.

        If a scientist were to tell us how many races humans are divided into and the characteristics of each so that any human could be categorized by any biologist in the world, then you would have a scientific category.

        • Must the Olympics cancel the 500m and other speeded contests since human races can’t exist? Or can we recognize polysemy?

          Question 1: Race, in the biological sense, was frequently understood to mean observably distinct “descent groups”. Today, population geneticists like to use terms like “ancestral population” or “ancestry group” etc. Is it unreasonable to refer these “ancestry populations” as races a la Darwin and most people just a couple of generations ago?

          Question 2: Are the population geneticists’ “ancestral populations” etc, scientific classifications? If not what are they?

          • Jack B. Nimble says

            @Chuck

            Mostly a reply to question 2 — ancestral populations are hypothetical constructs from fossil and/or molecular data, like the human-chimp most recent common ancestor that lived maybe 5 million years ago. Or the modern human-Neandertal hypothetical most recent common ancestor that lived [to an order of magnitude] 100,000 years ago. Since these hypothetical reconstructed common ancestors share some traits with their multiple descendant lineages, they cannot be classified in any traditional or accepted sense. For example, and contrary to common usage, the human-chimp common ancestor BY definition was neither human nor ape.

          • @Jack B. Nimble

            The concept is of ‘communities of descent’ to use Darwin’s phrase — often contemporaneous group delineated by ancestral affinity. This concept was often refer to as ‘race’ but is now often called ‘ancestral population’ ‘ancestry population’ ‘descent group’ ‘genetic population’ ‘ancestry group’, etc.

            I most certainly agree that the term ‘ancestral population’ is misleading, since it seems to imply historic groups from which modern ones descended. One might say that the ‘ancestral populations’ of Latin Americans are Amerindians, European, and Africans. But what term is used for the contemporaneous groups, defined in terms of ancestral affinity, we would like to called European and Africans?

            Whatever the case, the concept is what it is. And one can delineate such groups. What are these, biologically speaking? Do they not exist? If not, what then does — and why?

        • Cortez says

          @Rosa

          Thanks for your reply! 🙂 But you didn’t actually reply 🙁 I asked a question and you spent a lot of time not answering it, so why the reply?

          Maybe give it another go? If you want to tear something down (in this case the useful term “race”), it’s important to have something in mind to replace it. That’s all I was asking.

          Still, I’ll try to parse your (mostly supportive?) comments:

          RE: “black or white in full knowledge that in other parts of the world that taxonomy does not apply…”

          I have lived all over the world and, I will report back, they see each other as races; and, with a little variation on the margins, they can all tell you who is black and who is white if they’re looking at a person of African descent and one of European. Yes, you can always get more granular (see the mixed comedienne that differentiates between “fancy” and “jungle” Asians), but that doesn’t disprove the point, or the usefulness of the term “race.” Yes, you can have persons who are “mixed,” but, again, that just proves the point again. So here it seems you agree, while somehow framing it as disagreement…

          RE: “a doctor may ask a patient to self-identify by race because Americans are socialized…”

          But the point is, why does he ask for race? Because it conveys useful information–because it is a real thing. Different propensities for certain diseases, for example, based on genetics, which are heritable, are a real thing. Sure, doctors might ask the same question with different words at a different office somewhere in the world [insert colloquial names for a few locally dominant races here:_____], but they’re all doing the same thing. So again, your example just proves the usefulness of the word “race” (until you’ve provided a new term that has at least the same usefulness–so that it will be adopted).

          Frankly, I’ve yet to discover the logic of your argument beyond:

          “When does a hill become a mountain? Thus, there are no hills or mountains, only piles of rock and dirt! … Also, people don’t all speak English, so they might call a mountain something like ‘flargelspine’; if everyone who said “mountain” died, leaving only ‘flargelspine’ sayers, ‘mountains’ would cease to exist, and thus are only a ‘social construct.’ Furtherly also, some place might have more of the bigger kind of pile of dirt and rocks, so they might have more sophisticated taxonomies of them (but which, unless and until universally recognized, cannot be used by even local scientists), thus invalidating the concept beyond folk usage (and folk don’t count so it still wouldn’t exist); but even more also meaning that they might call something a ‘hill’ that you call a ‘mountain’ (or ‘flargelspine’), and so no useful communication can be had, and thus the concept of mountains and hills is not only not useful, it is not real, and also kind of evil to notice.”

          I’m trying to Steelman your argument; have I got it down?

          To conclude: In answer to my question “If not “race,” what word do you think is appropriate to describe the concept of different population groups?” you do say that “race” works for taxonomies and doctors; you don’t discuss biology; and you don’t make any effort to offer an alternative. And you do agree that rational people and professionals use it to make real world distinctions.

          Got it. “Race” it is.

          • Jim says

            Yes, you are quite correct. The references of virtually all referential words of ordinary language are vague. This includes words such as “race” and “mountain”. Indeed the word “vague” has itself a quite vague reference. But this doesn’t imply that ordinary language is meaningless and that we should all cease to speak. All scientific concepts grew originally from the vague concepts of ordinary language.

            The vagueness of the term “mountain” in ordinary language doesn’t imply that Mt. Everest is a social construction which would disappear if we cease to speak of it.

          • Curmudgeon says

            ““When does a hill become a mountain? Thus, there are no hills or mountains, only piles of rock and dirt! … Also, people don’t all speak English, so they might call a mountain something like ‘flargelspine’; if everyone who said “mountain” died, leaving only ‘flargelspine’ sayers, ‘mountains’ would cease to exist, and thus are only a ‘social construct.’ ”

            “I refute it thus!” [kicks rock]

        • AA says

          You’ve been lied to by a cultural studies professor if you actually believe racial distinctions are only meaningful in ‘anglosphere’ societies. This is one of the most oft repeated lies in these grievance studies departments, of which it sounds you have become irremediably immersed.

          One day you will realize it is intellectually lazy, not to mention logically incoherent, to go around claiming that all distinctions are social constructions.

          • I am referring to the practice of the state quantifying its population by race, as in the census asking, “What is your race?”. This practice, fortunately, is pretty much limited to the anglosphere.

          • Chester Draws says

            Rosa, you really need to check your facts first, so that your special pleading and lies are not so obvious.

            There is a Wikipedia page that lists countries that collect racial information in their censuses. Not just Anglo ones, as it turns out.

            Moreover there are countries where race makes legal differences — Malaysia, for example, limits places in jobs by it.

            Try telling a Saudi Arabian that he’s identical to a Jew and that race is only a construct!

          • Curmudgeon says

            “You’ve been lied to by a cultural studies professor if you actually believe racial distinctions are only meaningful in ‘anglosphere’ societies.”

            Correct. Refer to the Japanese royal family being of Korean descent – which they are – in Japan, and see how you get on. Just let me know first so I can make myself scarce, OK?

        • Yudi says

          “If a scientist were to tell us how many races humans are divided into and the characteristics of each so that any human could be categorized by any biologist in the world”

          Except that this can’t be done for species either, as was discussed above. Also, American “folk biological taxonomies” have utility outside this country. I saw people with substantial African admixture when I lived in Saudi Arabia, who would not have been out of place among African Americans. Somehow, I wasn’t dumbfounded and was able to understand why these people had the appearance they did.

      • TarsTarkas says

        Pretty important if you have sickle-cell anemia or lactose intolerance in your ancestry, for example.

    • pyrrhus says

      The politically driven opinions of government workers have nothing to do with science. But you can give “races” the term “distinct breeding groups” if it makes you feel better.

    • Steve Sailer says

      At least up through the 2000 Census, the Census Bureau explained on your Census forms that its Ethnicity category (Hispanic vs. non-Hispanic) was _not_ a racial or biological category, implying that it’s Race category was relatively biological compared to Ethnicity.

      Following that, ethnic traits are those, such as language, cuisine, religion, etc., that typically are passed down within biological families but don’t have to be. I would suggest that the difference between race and ethnicity can be most easily seen in adoptive children: their genetic parents determine their racial background while their adoptive parents influence their ethnic background.

    • KD says

      Social inequalities breaking down on skin tone is not confined to the Anglosphere:

      http://www.americasquarterly.org/the-effects-of-skin-color-in-the-americas

      Granted, Latin America doesn’t have distinct “races” so much as distinct “castes” based on the degree of European ancestry, so they are not “racist”.

      You also have the caste system in India, where the caste hierarchy corresponds with the degree of Indo-European ancestry:

      https://www.quora.com/Why-do-upper-castes-in-India-and-Europeans-have-R1a-haplogroup-How-are-they-both-connected

      This has significant social implications as it is clear that social acceptance of racial “mixing” will not make color-based inequalities disappear (although it may reduce social tensions where you lack clear delineated groupings).

  9. Hmmm. In one paragraph you point out that a change in a single nucleotide can effectively result in two races, dwarves with the change and non-dwarves without the change, as a counter Lewontin’s arguments about race. In the next paragraph you introduce the concept of fixation index. (Fst).

    But wouldn’t the Fst for the race of dwarves and non-dwarves be effectively zero, invalidating the use of the Fst in arguments for different species? The .153 value for coyote/wolves could be the result of important nucleotide differences, while the .153 value for your human example could be the result of unimportant differences, so the fact that the two Fsts are identical is irrelevant.

    I’m not even sure why you digress to talk about Fst. Your dwarf/non-dwarf example is sufficient to talk about species, independent of a measure of nucleotide differences.

    Looking forward to being corrected 🙂

    • There is no Fst criterion for species, subspecies, or races — for good reason. Supposed criterion were made up by Alan Templeton and Joseph Graves in the 90s. For species, you can have chromosomal speciation, which can results in intrinsic reproductive isolation but initially little average divergence (i.e., cryptic speciation).

    • There are many different species concepts and the “species” of some are the “populations” of others, so you really have to specify a concept. In Greg’s example, the dwarves might be a separate species under the popular diagnostic phylogenic concept (which requires only unique trait differences), but presumably wouldn’t be so under Mayr’s well popularized biological species concept (which requires intrinsic reproductive isolation).

      But, yes, it is easy to illustrate why average genetic divergence would make for a bad species delineating criterion, at least for a number of popular species concepts.

      • pyrrhus says

        Problem is, Mayr was wrong…For example, polar bears and grizzly bears are interbreeding, with very functional offspring. Does that mean they’re not species? Of course not…

        • You are being silly. There is no “right” definition of species. There are different ones. See: Mayden, R. L. (1997). A hierarchy of species concepts: the denouement in the saga of the species problem; Wheeler, Q., & Meier, R. (Eds.). (2000). Species concepts and phylogenetic theory: a debate. Columbia University Press

          As for Mayr’s concept: “I define biological species as groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups… The Biological Species Concept is based on local situations where populations in reproductive condition are in contact with each other. The decision of which of these populations are to be considered species is not made on the basis of their degree of difference. They are assigned species status on a purely empirical basis, that is, on the observed criterion of presence or absence of interbreeding. It is the empirically deter mined interbreeding that is decisive, not the degree of difference. Observations in the local situation have clearly demonstrated the superior reliability of the interbreeding criterion over that of degree of difference.”

          Some people will say polar bears and grizzly bears are different species, some different semi-species, some different subspecies. It depends on which of the many concepts one adopts and how rigorously one applies the criteria.

          Point is by the well-known BSC concept, degree of difference is not the diagnosing characteristic, rather it is evidence of reproductive isolation, which is the criterion.

          • Jim says

            Well of course the very fact of evolution implies that no precise definition of species is possible. In the evolutionary history of humanity there was never any occasion where a non-human creature had a human child.

          • Steve Sailer says

            The federal government is in charge of enforcing the Endangered Species Act. It typically takes a fairly loose definition of what is a species, looser than Mayr’s famous definition of groups that can’t or won’t interbreed. For example, not only does the EPA consider the gray wolf an endangered species, but it even considers the red wolf, a coyote-wolf hybrid, to be an endangered species and tries to prevent pure coyotes from miscegenating with coywolves!

          • augstine says

            Mayr: “Observations in the local situation have clearly demonstrated the superior reliability of the interbreeding criterion over that of degree of difference.”

            This may be a more sensible approach for certain investigations in phylogeny. The challenge is that for any taxonomic scheme to have real value for a wide range of users, and to be amenable to changes based on new knowledge, its modification must be practicable. There is nothing practical about making empirical observations on which populations are interbreeding or not, and what is a population in the first place .

            Mayr’s concept may be superior scientifically but it does not obviate the utility of traditional taxonomy in parsing the natural world into species or “species”. I think it will be a long time before we have new classifications and name arrangements for animals and plants based mainly on barriers to breeding.

            Phylogenetic considerations are theoretical; taxonomies are applied. Try as we might, the two cannot (and should not) convey the same understandings or meaning.

    • Unladen Swallow says

      He is pointing out the measure in and of itself doesn’t tell you anything meaningful about the phenotypic differences. A small nucleotide change would barely register on the fixation index, but would make obvious differences in morphology as in his example. It was Lewontin who used the 15 percent difference as being definitive of a lack of physical differences, Cochran merely pointed out that even if you accepted the 15 percent number, it is by no means insignificant by showing two very different species could have the same fixation index as two populations or races of humans. Sewall Wright, who by the way invented the index, never claimed the fixation scores for different human populations or races were insignificant either.

      • demigord says

        @Sailer: Not only that, they killed the majority of remaining red wolves 40 years ago before taking the ones they considered “pure” enough into the SSP

  10. Fran says

    The WIKI page on coyote-wolf-dog hybreds suggests that they could be considered races of cainids.

  11. George says

    I wish Cochran talked more about the book. I got some opinions on the subject but very little substance about the book itself. What a waste.

    • RCB says

      Cochran has an axe to grind. It’s an important axe, though – worth grinding as long as the intellectual establish continues to look the other way. Yes, he could have spent more time digging into the substance of the book. But, to be honest, anyone still resting on Lewontin’s arguments doesn’t deserve that. They deserve ridicule.

    • Yudi says

      Incidentally, I agree with this. Many book reviewers feel that review space is an opportunity to discuss their own opinions about the book’s subject matter and forget about the book itself in the process. On his blog, where he has more space, Cochran is giving more thoughts about the book though.

  12. KD says

    The main difference between the biological concept of species and the concept of race as derived from (old-school physical anthropology) is that one is more politically loaded than the other. All the sophomoric arguments against race can be made against species.

    Any taxonomy is on one level made up–the issue comes down to usefulness. Are racial distinctions useful? Let’s see, do they have implications for medicine and human health–say the diagnosis of prostate cancer and risk assessment? Of course they are useful to medicine and genetics and anthropology, so they will continue to be used, just like gravity.

    Does gravity exist? I’m sure if gravity contradicted a political ideology like cultural marxism, then physicists would use the concept of gravity and journalists and woke scholars would write childish arguments on why gravity doesn’t really exist or make up a new word (mass ancestry) to serve the same purpose.

    The point is that the genetic evidence allows for classifications of human diversity along the lines of the five major continental races of the 19th Century/early-20th Century, based on degrees of genetic similarity. Of course these classifications can be broken down further and more refined, especially given significant differences in population structure in places like India and Africa versus Eurasia.

    Further, it probably means that group averages between different population groups with different ancestry may express differently in ways that aren’t politically correct. But if that is so, then people just have to get over it, because it will be like getting upset that you can’t make a perpetual motion machine or move faster than the speed of light like in Star Trek. Life goes on. . .

  13. “If population A all experienced a change in one important nucleotide — if they all had the mutation that causes classic dwarfism — with no other change, there would be a huge difference in their bodies: they’d all be dwarves.”

    Yes, but that wouldn’t necessarily make them different populations genetically. If the single nucleotide was an easy switch in either direction, then further mutations in population A back to the original, or the same mutation in the oriiginal population in the A direction, might be reinforced by selection pressures, which could reunite the two populations around the favoured genotype.

    If however the original mutation was then followed by other mutations which enhanced the fitness of the dwarf population then you’d get a collection of mutually reinforcing mutations that would generate a persistent population with a different genetic make up. Which would be more like a race.

    I don’t think you can really have a “race” if it’s just one mutation to get back to the original.

    I also have a vague recollection that there are some fish which have dwarf males that try to sneak in to fertilise the female eggs while the big guys are fighting it out. Presumably they have a gene or two that creates dwarf size, but their sperm must be capable of making big males as well as dwarf ones.

    • The dwarf example was in the context of Lewontin’s fallacy. Not the general idea that at some point enough such common, correlated differences imply something called “adfaerathewa”. or “races”

    • Yes, but that wouldn’t necessarily make them different populations genetically. If the single nucleotide was an easy switch in either direction, then further mutations in population A back to the original, or the same mutation in the oriiginal population in the A direction, might be reinforced by selection pressures, which could reunite the two populations around the favoured genotype.

      Honestly, I think “easy” needs roughly a billion air quotes.

      The mutation rate in humans is 0.5×10−9 per base pair, per year. I don’t know how to quantify the chance of a particular mutation happening at a particular locus in the germline (which is what we want), but it can’t be high.

      I don’t think you can really have a “race” if it’s just one mutation to get back to the original.

      Usually someone needs a lot of different alleles to look racially distinct, but there’s no reason why this needs to be the case. And I know of at least one example where a single mutation confers an “ethnic” look.

      The variant EDAR V370A has almost reached fixation in Northeast Asia, and confers small breasts, thicker hair, shovel-shaped incisors, more eccrine sweat glands, and more. Possessing the variant gives a distinctly East Asian appearance, particularly in women.

  14. andrewnwest says

    “Zimmer falls for it, but then, he is an English major”

    Attacking the person rather than the idea does not add anything to the article.

    • KD says

      I don’t think that pointing out the likelihood that an individual lacks any advanced training in mathematics and spent college in essentially the endeavor of rhetoric is invalid. People without good quantitative reasoning skills generally fall for BS more easily that people with good quantitative reasoning skills, its a fact of life.

      Part of the problem today is America is run by lawyers, journalists, and politicians most of whom completely lack quantitative reasoning skills and the understanding of physical science conveyed through those skills, yet they are attempting to influence public policy and public opinion on matters which they know nothing.

    • dearieme says

      It adds an enlivening degree of spice: mocking a verbose fool by giving us corroborative evidence is usually worthwhile.

  15. KD says

    In many ways, race killed anthropology, in that race was so deeply tied to the discipline that the discipline had to adopt a form of extreme relativism in order to run away from acknowledging any objective dimension in the concept of race. . . and much of anthropology is not actually anthropology, it is ideological police work to keep everyone locked in the epistemological house of mirrors.

    There really is this tragedy–like Oedipus–in the discipline, where having realized their complicity in murder (driven by racialism), there was nothing left to do but poke their own eyes out.

  16. martti_s says

    There are three men in a room. Their names are Wang, Pettersson and Mugabe.
    How long would it take you to guess which one is which?

  17. Nick says

    Maybe I’m squeamish, but is anyone else uncomfortable with the comparison between coyotes and wolves when talking about human races? I agree that no science should be off limits, but is there a more important argument that we could be making in this space than how different races are? Maybe a conclusion about why this ain’t a bad thing and what we can do to untilize the differences for the betterment of everyone? Just a thought…

    • Yudi says

      “Maybe I’m squeamish, but is anyone else uncomfortable with the comparison between coyotes and wolves when talking about human races?”

      Perhaps you should ask yourself why facts make you so uncomfortable. Then, what should be done with these uncomfortable facts? Should they be ignored? Lied about? Neither will make them go away, especially since people talk about racial differences and race relations all the time. An Fst of .153 is an Fst of .153; humans are not different from any other animal when it comes to evolution. Believing otherwise is creationism.

      “is there a more important argument that we could be making in this space than how different races are?”

      The author of this book wanted to reproduce falsehoods in order to mislead the public; stating the truth is public duty.

      “what we can do to untilize the differences for the betterment of everyone?”

      Have you considered that. in order to improve the world for everyone, we need to understand how people’s differences contribute to the outcomes we see? Rejecting untruths about race is an essential step to actually improving matters: knowledge is power; ignorance is not strength.

      I too want to improve the world for everyone, and many racial differences are tragic, and lead to sad results. But denying that ultimately does NOTHING for the disadvantaged, aside from making the powerful feel better about their place in society.

      • ian lawton says

        “An Fst of .153 is an Fst of .153”

        Actually this part is BS. We can make this number as small as you wish by adding more genes that have similar frequencies in both populations. Or we can can make this number much larger by adding genes responsible for phenotypes like skin color that are different in European and African populations. The same goes for dogs. So Cochran is manipulative by pulling out of a hat identical numbers for dogs and humans. W/o dishonest manipulations like this his review would be better but he can’t help himself because he is in a permeant state of anger trying to prove to the world that he and only he is right. He should check his genes.

        • Yudi says

          In the absence of qualifiers, one would assume the number refers to the comparison of whole genomes, so no, genes cannot be added or taken away to change this number.

        • KD says

          Here is the Wikipedia entry for the Fixation Index:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixation_index

          Cochoran seems to be relying on the data from a 2012 study:

          http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0049837

          I’m not sure I understand your comment–the fixation index is a commonly used measure in population genetics to determine the degree of intermixing between populations, and is thus expresses a relative measure, not an absolute measure.

          Certainly a female who weights 120 lbs and is 15% body fat is different from a male who weighs 198 lbs and is at 15% body fat–the second has almost twice the body fat (and the female will look much leaner given sex differences). At the same time, to say that percent body fat tells you nothing at all would be actively dishonest.

          All the .153 means is that Eurasians and Sub-Saharan Africans are as related to each other as wolves and coyotes, just as two people who are 15% body fat have the same ratio of fat to total mass.

          This has little bearing on the race/species issue as biologists don’t classify species on the basis of the fixation index (although in general we would expect different species to have a higher fixation index than populations classified under the same species).

          • Jack B. Nimble says

            @KD — from the Wikipedia article that was cited:

            “……The interpretation of FST can be difficult when the data analyzed are highly polymorphic. In this case, the probability of identity by descent is very low and FST can have an arbitrarily low upper bound, which might lead to misinterpretation of the data. Also, strictly speaking FST is not a distance in the mathematical sense, as it does not satisfy the triangle inequality……..”

            This is a hugely important point. FST values are NOT distances and do NOT scale with divergence time between populations. Also, FST values, although they theoretically range between 0 and 1, can under some circumstances be negative and can [for highly polymorphic genes] have an upper bound <<< 1.

            So all the comments in this thread about species, coyotes, wolves, FST, etc. are basically meaningless without an understanding of the within-population variation. No one here has addressed that issue.

            Also, no taxonomic specialist on an animal group, canids or otherwise, would use FST or any other numeric quantity to delimit species, sub-species, etc.

            Side note – dogs and wolves do rarely interbreed, which has allowed alleles for black coat color [melanism] to introgress into wolf populations [see Wikipedia article Black_wolf]. Interestingly, the dark-pigmented wolves are fully accepted into packs that are otherwise composed of light-pigmented wolves. Maybe THAT is the real lesson that we should be learning from wolf genetics.

          • Yudi says

            Thanks, Greg. It ought to be obvious that that’s what quoted Fst values refer to. Not least since you had already mentioned the importance of single gene changes with the dwarfism example.

            “Interestingly, the dark-pigmented wolves are fully accepted into packs that are otherwise composed of light-pigmented wolves. Maybe THAT is the real lesson that we should be learning from wolf genetics.”

            I read your virtue signal loud and clear.

          • ian lawton says

            Thanks. I looked it up. You did not make up the numbers but that was not the point. That the numbers are identical for wolves and humans is a happenstance. It is really irrelevant what the numbers are. This was the jest of your (correct) argument when you stated that one different gene might be enough. But then you abandoned this arguments in favor of rhetorical tricks and began to talk about wolfs and dogs.

    • demigord says

      In the context of someone lying about how there are no differences, what is one supposed to say about the differences that actually exist, in your opinion? What is the “more important argument” that both encompasses the facts and demolishes the lies?

      • Jack B. Nimble says

        @demigord, @chuck

        Look, asking “how many human races are there?” or “how genetically different are the Asian and Caucasian races?” is begging the question. One would first need an objective criterion to identify “races,” and that doesn’t exist in the scientific literature. Using FST or any other mathematical quantity is numerology, not science. Biologists call this the ‘magic number’ approach.

        As a molecular evolutionary geneticist, I can tell you that biologists don’t use the term ‘race,’ except in some very specialized areas of research. For example, a topic search in the journal ‘Evolution’ [the major journal of the Society for the Study of Evolution] for ‘race’ produced 28 article hits in the past 25 years, ALL dealing with ecological [‘host’] races in insects or birds, or chromosomal races in rodents.

        Why don’t biologists use ‘race’ when writing about genetically differentiated groups? Apart from the unsavory connotations of the word, thanks to the KKK, the Nazis, etc., ‘race’ is an ultimately meaningless word that has no objective referent.

        What term DO biologists use when referring to genetically differentiated groups? At the phylogenetic level, species or [rarely] subspecies or semispecies or superspecies are the usual terms:

        ‘….Darwin showed convincingly that there was no essential difference between species and ‘‘varieties’’; species were simply varieties which had diverged more, and which could coexist without intermediates being common. However, with his term ‘‘varieties’’ Darwin did not clearly distinguish between polymorphic variants within populations and the identifiable geographic populations normally today considered as geographic ‘‘races’’ or ‘‘subspecies.’’ To Darwin the distinction was unimportant, because polymorphic variants, clinal variation, geographic races or subspecies, and ‘‘good’’ species formed a continuum…..
        Source: Mallet, James. (2007). Subspecies, Semispecies, Superspecies. Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. 5. [note the use of scare quotes]

        In the research literature, biologists use terms like clade, biological lineage, evolutionary lineage or genetic lineage to refer to population groups below the species level. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lineage_(evolution)

        • ian lawton says

          Jack B. Nimble

          You can define races using clusters by looking at disjoint sets in n-dimensional space spanned on the first n largest principle components obtained form SNPs. Fst is not a metric in this space because Fst can’t distinguish between correlated and uncorrelated frequencies of different SNPs. You can have two races or two populations that have identical frequencies of selected SNPs and thus in terms of Fst have zero genetic distance yet they might be completely separate, not overlapping in the n-dimencionla PC space.

          • Jack B. Nimble says

            @ian lawton

            Sure, but humans don’t have the ability to visualize more than three dimensions in space, which means you have to use a dimension-reducing computer program like ‘Structure’ to make sense of the data. Source http://web.stanford.edu/group/pritchardlab/structure.html

            I see three main problems with the principal components approach:

            First, this still begs the question of whether disjoint sets even exist and how much overlap might be tolerated between adjacent sets.

            Second, the method can draw false conclusions if the target population [human species] is under-sampled in space or time. Genetically intermediate or admixed populations might be absent from the analyzed data, which would invalidate the analysis.

            Third, clustering algorithms as applied to human genetic data need user input as to how many sets or clusters to search for, because the signal-to-noise ratio is low. Strongly differentiated groups [like human-chimp-gorilla] can be separated in n-space without any preconceived ideas as to how many clusters or sets exist.

            See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_genetic_clustering for more caveats, assumptions and limitations. The editors of Quillette would be doing their readers a service if they would publish the above Wikipedia article, in its entirety, on their website as a rebuttal to Cochran’s review.

        • KD says

          Jack, you have any explanation as to why all these medical journal articles keep talking about race? Isn’t it socially constructed, why would it matter for medicine?

          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29790667

          This one is also noteworthy, the Arya Vysya caste in India, with a genetic deficiency in a liver enzyme that renders normal anesthesia toxic:

          https://www.jppcm.org/sites/default/files/10.5530jppcm.2017.1.6.pdf

          Should we just let them die on surgical tables because research into group differences is racist (ergo, it is impossible that a group of people related by common ancestry are susceptible to toxic side effects from anesthesia so use normal protocols and kill them), or is realism the more humane practice?

          Not to mention David Reich’s work on genetic screening for prostate cancer . . .

          • Jack B. Nimble says

            @KD

            Look, I get asked about my ‘race’ just about every time I fill out a consumer satisfaction survey or health questionnaire, along with questions about my sex, age, annual income, highest education level achieved, number of persons in my household, etc. All of these categories are useful for purposes of statistical cross-tabulation, but NONE of them defines me biologically, except sex and [maybe] age.

            If you replace ‘race’ with ‘ethno-religious-linguistic group’ then yes, persons of African descent or persons of Ashkenazi Jewish descent or members of the Pennsylvania Amish have higher frequencies of certain Mendelian diseases such as Tay-Sachs disease. But to call the Ashkenazim or the Amish ‘races’ is just nuts.

        • Jack B. Nimble

          Jack: “One would first need an objective criterion to identify “races,” and that doesn’t exist in the scientific literature”

          I agree, of course, that there is a semiotic question. What is ‘race’? I provide one historiographically informed answer in a book called “The Nature of Race: the Genealogy of the Concept and the Biological Construct’s Contemporaneous Utility”. I clarify the concept further in a paper called: “Lineage population: A concept needed by an observer of nature?”

          You may prefer to refer to some other concept as “race” — or none at all. And you may argue that it is somehow illegitimate for me and others to refer to this or related concepts as “race” — though good luck making that case — but you can’t deny that I have a clear referent in mind.

          Jack: “Apart from the unsavory connotations of the word, thanks to the KKK, the Nazis,etc., ‘race’ is an ultimately meaningless word that has no objective referent”

          The referent I am primarily concerned with is ‘descent groups’ as defined in the works above. Though, a more general concept is population-lineages or “biological entities whose members propagate themselves to form lineages”; see: de Queiroz’s (1999; 2007) Darwinian based ‘general species concept’ and my commentary to the effect that this should properly be called a ‘general race concept’.

          Regardless, as you can not deny that such groups were typically referred to as “race” before the mid 20th, what them is the argument? That this term is too unsavory? Get out of here. Note that many mid 20th century obfuscators including Livingston and Lewontin clearly understood what was meant. Lewontin did not, for example, argue that “race” had no referent, but that races were not interestingly different “enough”..How possibly did he know which types of groups to use in his analysis if there was no common understanding? It sounds rather like you and your colleagues are suffering from PC induced amnesia!

          The quote says:

          “However, with his term ‘‘varieties’’ Darwin did not clearly distinguish between polymorphic variants within populations and the identifiable geographic populations normally today considered as geographic ‘‘races’’ or ‘‘subspecies.’’”

          Darwin frequently used the term “race” to refer to “communities of descent” (whether specific or infraspecific) to distinguish these groups from individual variations.

          As for other terms

          clade — implies a lack of tokogenetic relations (Hennig)

          biological lineage, evolutionary lineage or genetic lineage — we are often trying to describe divisions understood horizontally, not vertically, in evolutionary space (a la Darwin). (Just as with species, horizontal and vertical conceptions of race differ somewhat.)

          But yes, as noted above, there are plenty of euphemisms which can be used like “biogeographic ancestry groups” which were originally defined as the “heritable component of race”; and then said to be totally different from race after the PC police came knocking.

          Now, I am perfectly fine with you not using “race” to refer to what “race” frequently referred to out of politically correct inclinations, etc. And I certainly grant that race is polysemic, thus imprecise, though other systematic terms are obviously likewise. However, I am not fine with you implying that I am talking vacuously.

      • Jack B. Nimble says

        @Yudi — “I read your virtue signal loud and clear.”

        If you liked my virtue signal, you’ll LOVE this:

        “Race” is a problematic concept as applied to humans mostly due to ‘race-essentialism’: the belief that ‘racial identity’ is a master key or Rosetta stone that reveals lots of inner characteristics of a person. (Source: C. T. Tadmor, M. M. Chao, Y.-y. Hong & J. T. Polzer. [2012] Not Just for Stereotyping Anymore: Racial Essentialism Reduces Domain-General Creativity. Psychological Science)

        This idea is distinguished from the more familiar racism because race-essentialism, or race-ism for short, can also include positive characteristics that are in reality just more stereotypes. Here are some examples of race-ism:

        Blacks have more natural athletic and musical talent than whites
        Jews have an inherent propensity to manage and acquire money
        Asians are super-intelligent
        …. and so on ………………

        Just as Bill Buckley once booted the Birchers and Jew-haters from his group, so also libertarians will have more credibility once they banish the race-ists and IQdolators from their midst. Then we can finally begin to have a real, scientifically-based, discussion of human evolutionary and population genetics.

        • Cortez says

          @Jack
          Do you understand the difference between group averages and individual within the group?

          Or, do you just assume that no one else does, and so we must be using those averages to inform our personal interactions, and are thus -ists of some form?

          I’m very happy to inform you that, just because I discriminate and have prejudices and stereotype, I do know the difference. Several people I’ve met know the difference as well. I think your worry is unwarranted, and thus your “noble lie” is just a lie.

        • ian lawton says

          Yes, we can’t visualize more than three dimensions in geometry but we can do Boolean algebra on more than 3 variables. We do it all the time. We look at nose, ears, face shape, hairs and some personality traits (n≥4) and we can tell Ashkenazi Jews from Europeans with pretty good accuracy.

          Your objections about overlap and so on are trivial and fallacious. We can define coastlines despite of the fact that they are fractal and that they keep changing with tides. We distinguish between mountains, hills, planes and valleys.

          By postulating that races do not exist you will not get rid of racism. Many stereotypes so-called racist stereotypes may have genetic component.

          Cochran does not need to be rebutted because he is basically correct. He is crude, cocky and annoying but as far as what he wrote about the fixation index and using analogy of dog breeds he is correct. However his attitude and tone is way off.

  18. Another opportunity to post my all-time favorite Stephen Jay Gould quote:

    “I am hopeless at deductive sequencing…I never scored particularly well
    on so-called objective tests of intelligence because they stress logical
    reasoning … ”

    In the March 29, 1984 issue of The New York Review of Books.

    I blame his parents.

  19. AMac78 says

    rosa, your six comments (so far) align beautifully with the thrust of this book review. Forceful in defending Current Year wisdom from Cochran’s heresies, and serenely indifferent to commenters who retroactively perform the five minutes of Googling that prudence would have advised before hitting “Post Comment”.

    Coydogs. “Race,” unknown beyond the Anglosphere.

    I assume that you aren’t consciously serving as a foil for the reviewer. My apologies (or congratulations) if this is not the case.

  20. AMac78 says

    Cochran quoted an ungenerous remark made by biologist Robert Trivers:

    Lewontin would lie openly and admit to doing so. Lewontin would sometimes admit, in private at least, that some of his assertions were indeed fabrications, but he said the fight was ideological and political — they lied and so would he.

    Lewontin’s Fallacy has had an outsized influence on the nature-nurture debate, and is thus an important backdrop to Zimmer’s book and Cochran’s review. It seemed worth five minutes of Googling to see if that quote is genuine and in context.

    According to this 2015 post of Jerry Coyne’s, it is both. (Though Coyne doesn’t back up Trivers’ assessment.) That post is a good read in its own right, and commenter HelianUnbound (#13) offers some further albeit pseudonymous color on Lewontin.

  21. ADM64 says

    What I always find interesting about this subject is the fear that some have that heredity and the fact that we are born with a unique identity (and thus potential) undermines the notion of a just society, freedom and free will by somehow disproving the “blank slate.” The latter refers only to the fact that all of us are born without specific intellectual or moral knowledge, which each of us then has to learn consciously or, in the case of new knowledge, discover. Our genes may mean that some of us are better able to learn/discover certain things than others, but no one – not even a genius – is able to learn or discover everything. Moreover, the spread between average and above average (or below average) intelligence is not so huge as to invalidate the ability of the vast majority of people to engage in moral (and other) reasoning. As such, the basic principles of a free society remain in effect and the term “blank slate” should be considered in its appropriate context.

  22. It’s great to see this author writing for Quillette. He is one of my favorites.

  23. Pingback: Turkheimer's Projects: Genetics and Human Agency | Cochran on Zimmer, and Correcting an old Misimpression

  24. Walter says

    “It’s as if all the special prep in the world won’t compensate for a lack of innate talent (a commonplace observation, unless you’re Malcolm Gladwell)”

    Why is Gladwell singled out here? Have I missed something he said or wrote?

    • Yudi says

      It’s a reference to Gladwell’s ideas about 10,000 hours of practice enabling people to reach high achievement, regardless of innate ability.

      • Walter says

        Ah, thank you very much.

        I remain surprised the author would chose Gladwell for his example. I’ve read pretty much everything Gladwell has published (at least in book form), and I don’t associate “blank slate” views to him whatsoever. I re-checked the 10,000 hours piece and he pretty clearly points out innate ability is a huge factor.

        “Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.”

        => Enough ability to get into a top music school.

        “The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

        => The gifted.

        “The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes.”

        Gladwell’s point is that A GIFTED PERSON must hone his skills, perfect his craft, if he or she wishes to be world-class.

        As I re-read what the author wrote, a retraction and apology to Gladwell seems in order. If the 10,000-hours essay is the root of the author’s putdown, he’s completely out to sea.

        (Pinker and Gladwell are two of my favorite authors, so the author’s Gladwell/Blank Slate remark immediately struck me as suspect.)

        • The idea that ability above a certain threshold does not matter is completely false As for Gladwell: ” Igon values”. .

  25. Pingback: Linki, linki wszędzie… – Radomir Darmiła

  26. As a philosopher I envision Consciousness and perception as occuring in the brain, the Self is centered in the body (homeostasis, the enteric neurosystem) and most importantly – Identity is fixed by our singular phenotype. I focus on Identity but geneticists will not discuss this for one major reason: you can preserve your DNA and its viability easily (cool and dry) for thousands of years.

    Geneticists fear the implications of that fact (esp cloning) so they slam shut. They say your phenotype isn’t you, but the germ line is indeed continuous, and epigenetics is not neither influential nor heritable. Your phenotype is your entire franchise in this Universe and its most precious structure, a personally sacred entity that is yours to embrace.

    I believe that engineering fresh life cycles on a sustainable planet, harmonizing with our sister species for the next 1000 years is our imminent destiny, and the quid pro quo that will bind us into an unequivocally cooperative species. DNA stewardship and Humanism will define our future in the centuries to come. While most of us will be the last generation to lose our Identity, see Life as a cul-de-sac, others will be the first to understand Continuance. patreon.com/continuance

  27. Inigo Montoya says

    Re: wolves and coyotes, yeah, you are. Well, kind of. They can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, so it’s not so clear cut as you think whether they really should be considered separate species…

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