Genetics, Science / Tech

Is Sociogenomics Racist?

The publication of Blueprint (2018) by the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin has revived the old debate about whether there’s something inherently racist or right-wing about looking for biological causes of human behavior. The subtitle of Plomin’s book—How DNA Makes Us Who We Are—makes it sound as if he’s a full-blooded hereditarian and that has led to a predictable outcry from long-standing opponents of this “dangerous” intersection where the natural sciences and the behavioral sciences meet. (To read an extract from Blueprint, click here.)

To its opponents, sociogenomics—or social genomics—of which Plomin is a leading practitioner, sounds suspiciously like sociobiology. When the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson published a book of that name in 1975, it was greeted with passionate opposition by a group of left-wing scientists who had assembled under the banner of ‘Science for the People,’ originally an anti-Vietnam War protest group. The biologists in that organization, several of whom Wilson had counted as friends up until this point, formed the ‘Sociobology Study Group’ and started firing off venomous letters to newspapers. For instance, a letter in the New York Review of Books signed by Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, among others, accused Wilson of peddling the same junk science that had led to the murder of six million Jews:

The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community…These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

Wilson was dubbed the ‘Right-Wing Prophet of Patriarchy’ and subjected to vicious barracking whenever he crossed Harvard Yard or attempted to speak in public. The most famous protest occurred in 1978 at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. that had been convened to bring Wilson and his critics together. Ulicia Segerstrale takes up the story in Defenders of the Truth (2000), the definitive account of the sociobiology controversy:

The session has already featured Gould, among others, and Wilson is one of the later speakers. Just as Wilson is about to begin, about ten people rush up on the speaker podium shouting various epithets and chanting: ‘Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!’ While some take over the microphone and denounce sociobiology, a couple of them rush up behind Wilson (who is sitting in place) and pour a pitcher of ice-water over his head, shouting ‘Wilson, you are all wet!’

No one has yet emptied a bucket of water over Plomin’s head, but several critical articles have appeared, including one entitled ‘Blueprint—The Stealthy Return of Scientific Racism?’ To date, the most uncharitable review has been by Nathaniel Comfort, professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins, which appeared in the scientific journal Nature. Entitled ‘Genetic determinism rides again,’ it begins as follows:

It’s never a good time for another bout of genetic determinism, but it’s hard to imagine a worse one than this. Social inequality gapes, exacerbated by climate change, driving hostility towards immigrants and flares of militant racism. At such a juncture, yet another expression of the discredited, simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature seems particularly insidious.

Comfort compares Blueprint to The Bell Curve (1994) and A Troublesome Inheritance (2014), two of the most controversial books in this field, whose authors he accuses of “leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda.” Comfort goes on to describe Blueprint’s central hypothesis—that the DNA revolution will enable us to make huge strides in fields like medicine and education—as “old hereditarian wine pipetted into tiny polygenic bottles.”

Comfort doesn’t outright accuse Plomin of racism, but treats his failure to mention race (or intersectionality) as incriminating:

Blueprint does depart from much prior hereditarian social science in not explicitly mentioning race—the hot-button issue of many earlier works. It instead looks at class. Plomin uses a data set of mostly white British twins, most of whom attended English grammar schools. Yet, given Plomin’s extensive experience and his footnotes, the absence of any explicit mention of race (to disavow it, say, or to allude to intersectionality) is conspicuous.

That ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ approach when it comes to finding evidence of racism is characteristic of those who see the spectre of eugenics haunting every genetics lab and I’ll return to it below. The sin Plomin is being accused of here may be ‘racial inexplicitness,’ a form of subterfuge that, according to critical race theorist David Gillborn, “allows hereditarian advocates to adopt a colorblind façade that presents their work as new, exciting and full of promise for all of society.” Incidentally, the data set Comfort is referring to in the above paragraph is the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) and only a small minority of the twins in that sample attended grammar schools.

Polygenic Scores

To assess whether Plomin is guilty of “determinism,” it helps to understand a little about polygenic scores, which much of his book is devoted to discussing. Studies of hundreds of thousands of individual genomes—known as genome-wide association studies, or GWAS—have enabled researchers to establish links between sites of genetic variation in particular populations —single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs—and particular phenotypic traits which vary from person to person, such as height and educational attainment. These links are known as polygenic scores. Armed with this information, geneticists (and direct-to-consumer genomics companies like 23andMe) can analyze the genome of a particular individual and make predictions about how tall that person is likely to be, how long they’re likely to remain in school, and so on. These predictions aren’t 100 percent accurate; rather, they’re expressed as percentiles or risk scores. So Plomin, for instance, is at the 90th percentile for height (he’s 6ft 5) and the 94th percentile for educational attainment (he’s a professor at King’s College London). The second largest GWAS to date was for years of education, or EduYears in the genetic jargon. It involved a sample size of over a million and found 1,271 SNPs associated with EduYears. A polygenic score based on this study predicts between 11 and 13 percent of the variance in educational attainment. That may not sound like much but it’s more than the variance predicted by many stand-alone environmental factors, such as parental education.

It should be obvious from the above that polygenic scores are probabilistic not deterministic, but in case that isn’t clear Plomin belabours the point: “Genetic influences are probabilistic propensities, not predetermined programming” (p.43); “Polygenic scores are useful for individual prediction only as long as we keep in mind that the prediction is probabilistic, not a certainty” (p.145); “Polygenic scores will always be probabilistic, not deterministic, because their ceiling is heritability, which is usually about 50 per cent” (p.150); “It is worth reiterating the mantra that polygenic scores are inherently probabilistic, not deterministic” (p.151); “It is important that parents are not fatalistic about their children, because polygenic scores are probabilistic not deterministic” (p.154); etc. How Comfort can accuse Plomin of “genetic determinism,” or of believing that “genes alone control human nature,” given his constant repetition of this “mantra,” is a mystery.

What seems to have convinced Comfort that Blueprint is “insidious” is Plomin’s claim that “genetics is the main systematic force in life.” What Plomin means by this is that while most human traits are no more than 50 percent heritable—that is to say, no more than half the phenotypic variance is linked to genetic variance—the salient aspects of the environment are not those experiences we share with our siblings, such as our parents’ socio-economic status, their approach to parenting, the neighborhood we’re brought up in or the schools we go to. Plomin has assembled a mass of research evidence, based on twin, adoption and family studies, showing just how little effect the shared environment has. “The astonishing implication from this research is that we would be just as similar to our parents and our siblings even if we had been adopted apart at birth and reared in different families,” he writes in Chapter Seven (‘Why children raised in the same family are so different’).1 In his most recent research, he has incorporated polygenic scores into the study designs. For instance, he worked on a study involving a U.K.-representative sample of 4,814 students that showed the type of school British children attend accounts for less than one percent of the variance in their exam results once you control for general cognitive ability, prior attainment, parental socio-economic status and polygenic score for EduYears. (Full disclosure: I was one of the co-authors of that study.)

Families and schools are what we think of as “nurture” and one interpretation of Blueprint is to see it as a salvo in the ongoing nature-nurture debate—a devastating, war-winning salvo. But it doesn’t follow that Plomin thinks the environment, as distinct from nurture, has no effect on the way people turn out. The environmental inputs that matter most, according to him, are what he calls our “non-shared” experiences—“unsystematic, idiosyncratic, or serendipitous events,” often mediated by our genetic predispositions. So when Plomin says genetics is by far the greatest systematic force in making us who we are, he isn’t saying the environment has no effect. It’s just that the environmental inputs that do have an impact are, for the most part, unsystematic.

“We now know that DNA differences are the major systematic source of psychological differences between us,” he writes in the ‘Prologue.’ “Environmental effects are important but what we have learned in recent years is that they are mostly random—unsystematic and unstable—which means that we cannot do much about them.”

This has far-reaching implications, many of which threaten to lay waste to vast areas of intellectual endeavor. Freudian psychoanalysis, for instance, is clearly bunk, as is most child psychology (unless it’s Judith Rich Harris patiently explaining why parents have little effect on the way children turn out). Parenting manuals? Not worth the paper they’re printed on.

What about education reform? That’s a tough one for me because I’ve devoted nearly a fifth of my life to trying to improve English public education, including co-founding four schools. But the implication of Plomin’s research is that it’s extremely hard, not to say impossible, for governmental agencies and charitable bodies to design systematic interventions, whether in early childhood or adolescence, that will reduce the attainment gap—which may explain why nearly all such attempts have failed. In fact, if you drive up standards in under-performing schools, the effect would be to increase the overall variation in attainment due to genes since if you equalize the environment you will increase the influence of genes, making exam results more, not less, heritable.

The most generous thing Plomin can bring himself to say about schools is that they matter, but they don’t make a difference. Don’t make a difference. There go the last 10 years of my life—poof. To paraphrase another scientist called Robert, Plomin is like Vishnu, a destroyer of worlds.2

Social Darwinism

But is he a social Darwinist? Critics of sociogenomics, like critics of sociobiology, usually take it for granted that anyone looking for biological influences on human behavior—coming down on the side of nature in the nature-nurture debate—is attempting to justify the status quo. That is, they assume that the scientist in question is committing the naturalistic fallacy: what is, ought to be. And one of the puzzling things about this debate is that it doesn’t matter how often the researchers in the dock deny this, they simply cannot disabuse their accusers of this notion. The most their critics will allow is that even if they aren’t making this link, their findings will be leapt on by Randian, free market evangelists—or members of the alt-Right—who are more prone to this type of faulty reasoning. But the accusers, too, often have difficulty uncoupling the normative from the descriptive. You might say they’re guilty of the moralistic fallacy—of believing that something cannot be true if it has unsettling moral implications. That could explain why they spend so much time trying to debunk the findings of researchers in this field—which doesn’t feel like a very wise strategy. After all, if the science the progressive liberals are trying to deny turns out to be true—and the evidence is pretty overwhelming—that will suggest to their political opponents that their beliefs are justified. Wouldn’t their energy be better spent making it clear that the moral case for a more equal society isn’t contingent on a particular conception of human nature, particularly not one so vulnerable to genomic revelation?

E.O. Wilson couldn’t have been clearer in his disavowal of social Darwinism, which he referred to as a “dangerous trap”:

The moment has arrived to stress that there is a dangerous trap in sociobiology, one which can be avoided only by constant vigilance. The trap is the naturalistic fallacy of ethics, which uncritically concludes that what is, should be. The “what is” in human nature is to a large extent the heritage of a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer existence. When any genetic bias is demonstrated, it cannot be used to justify a continuing practice in present and future societies.

Similarly, in Blueprint Plomin makes it clear that he doesn’t believe his findings can be used to justify socio-economic inequality. In the chapter entitled ‘Equal Opportunity and Meritocracy’, he writes:

Much of the concern about inequality and social mobility is about income inequality. Individual differences in income are, like everything else, substantially heritable, about 40 percent. Income correlates with intelligence, and genetics drives this correlation. But this does not mean that higher intelligence merits more income. I would argue that genetic wealth is its own reward. If society really wanted to reduce income inequality, it could do so directly and immediately with a tax system that redistributes wealth.

Plomin is insistent that no policy prescriptions follow from his research, or genetic research in general, since policies depend on values. But I would qualify that slightly. While science cannot tell us which ends to pursue, it can inform our choice of means and that is as true of social genomics as it is of aeronautical engineering. For instance, if you’re aim is to maximize your kid’s chances of getting into a top college, helicopter parenting probably isn’t going to help. Plomin calls the idea that your child’s future depends on how hard you push them an “illusion” and urges parents to “relax and enjoy their relationship with their children without feeling a need to mold them.”

More generally, behavioral genetics teaches us that if your goal is end-state equality, it’s naïve to think the state can just “wither away” after a massive redistribution of wealth and power has taken place. We know from the work of Plomin and others that one of the major sources of socio-economic inequality is the unequal distribution of genetic wealth, and that won’t be affected by the initial levelling. So the state will have to constantly intervene if the egalitarian utopia is to be preserved, drastically curtailing human freedom. That may be a price that some equalitarians are willing to pay—that’s a value-driven choice, not a scientific one. But the fact that scientists in this field have amassed so much evidence that human beings most definitely aren’t tabula rasa may be the underlying cause of the hostility they provoke from those whose political beliefs depend on the blank state hypothesis. The biologists who led the charge against Wilson, for instance, were all Marxists.

What About Race?

Is there something sinister about social genomics nevertheless that’s likely to resuscitate the corpse of race science and give succor to ethno-nationalists? Another review by Nathaniel Comfort in Nature, this one an out-and-out rave of a book called Social by Nature by Catherine Bliss which is highly critical of sociogenomics, was headlined ‘CRISPR’s Willing Executioners’. Not too subtle, that. In her book, Bliss wrings her hands with alarm at the “shocking parallels between sociogenomics and older, discredited sciences” and accuses genetic researchers of using essentialist language that “gives validity to unwarranted biological notions of race” and ignores the “structural” forces that prop up white privilege. But beyond these routine gripes, which will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the field of critical science studies, Bliss doesn’t flesh out why she thinks genomicists are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their eugenicist forebears. Yes, they share a genealogy, but as Plomin might say, the effect of that shared history is probabilistic, not deterministic.

Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution against Plomin is the fact that he was one of the signatories of the ‘Mainstream Science on Intelligence’ letter published in the Wall St Journal in 1994. Signed by a total of 52 intelligence researchers, it was a response to those critics of The Bell Curve who attempted to portray Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein as a couple of cranks on the outer fringes of the scientific community. The letter didn’t defend every claim in the book, but it confirmed that the authors’ summary of the science on intelligence was not some wildly distorted picture designed to further a racist agenda but reflected the mainstream consensus.

Plomin’s role in that affair has been brought up by at least one critic trying to find a covert racist agenda concealed between the lines of Blueprint (although not by Bliss or Comfort) so it’s worth pointing out that The Bell Curve is not the white supremacists’ manifesto it is often portrayed as being. Only one chapter in the book broaches the subject of whether ethnic differences in average IQ are genetically influenced, and if the authors’ object is to give succor to white nationalists they don’t do a great job since they point out that East Asians and Ashkenazi Jews have higher average IQs than whites. On the vexed issue of black-white disparities in intelligence, Murray and Herrnstein are painstakingly even-handed and their conclusion, based on their parsing of the evidence, is that the difference is likely to have something to do with both genes and the environment. “What might the mix be?” they ask. “We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate.”

Plomin provides no clue as to what he thinks on this issue, but the fact that he doesn’t explicitly repudiate Murray and Herrnstein’s hypothesis cannot be taken as a tacit endorsement, as Comfort implies. The focus of Plomin’s research has been about disentangling the effects of genes and the environment on individual differences; he has almost nothing to say about group differences in Blueprint other than to stress that his findings about the former are not applicable to the latter. “It is an important principle that the causes of average differences between groups are not necessarily related to the causes of individual differences within groups,” he writes in the book’s endnotes.

This principle also applies to more politically sensitive differences between groups, such as average differences between males and females, between social classes, or between ethnic groups. The causes of average differences are not necessarily related to the causes of individual differences. For example, some of the biggest differences between the sexes are found in childhood psychopathology—boys are many times more likely than girls to be hyperactive or to have autistic symptoms. However, these symptoms are highly heritable for both boys and girls, and genetic studies show that the same genes affect boys and girls. Although DNA differences are substantially responsible for individual differences in these symptoms, they do not appear to account for the average difference between boys and girls. What does account for the average difference? We don’t yet know.

When Plomin says the causes are not necessarily related is he allowing that they could be? The fact that systematic environmental inputs—parental socio-economic status, zip code, school quality, etc.—have a negligible effect on individual differences could lead some people to hypothesize that they might not have much impact on group differences either. You can imagine how a race realist might make use of that data to argue that mean differences in IQ between ethnic groups is unlikely to be explained by differences between their shared environments. Indeed, you could design a research study that tested that hypothesis, although it would not be easy and the databanks that Plomin makes use of contain very few children of non-European ancestry. (Ninety-two per cent of the children in TEDS are white.) There are also a host of complicated technical difficulties with group-difference studies, including what’s known as ‘measurement invariance’—the process of checking whether tests are measuring the same thing in different groups, and thus whether heritability estimates in one group can realistically be compared to those in others. In any event, you can be confident that Plomin isn’t going to go there. His agnosticism is even more resolute than Murray and Herrnstein’s: we simply don’t know what accounts for average differences between groups and he isn’t about to throw any light on the matter. His interest is confined to the etiology of individual differences.

Can GWAS Tell Us Anything About Black-White IQ Differences?

Will this question eventually be answered by genome-wide association studies? As the sample sizes multiply and the number of SNP ‘hits’ for EduYears soars beyond the 10,000 mark, will we learn what role genes play, if any, in black-white IQ differences? The answer is probably not.

There’s a simple reason for this and a not-so-simple one. The straightforward reason is that the genomic data used in GWAS are predominantly drawn from populations of European ancestry. A 2009 study found that 96 percent of GWAS participants were of European descent. When the same researchers updated their study seven years later, they found the proportion of individuals included in GWAS not of European descent had increased to nearly 20 percent, but much of this rise was due to more populations of Asian ancestry being included – the percentage of people of African and Latin American ancestry, Hispanic people and indigenous peoples had barely changed. So even though geneticists have identified over 1,000 SNP ‘hits’ for EduYears, the million-plus people in that particular GWAS were overwhelmingly of European ancestry.

Does that matter? As Richard C. Lewontin argued, human populations are “remarkably similar to each other”—we share about 99.5 percent of the same genes. So once you have a polygenic score that predicts between 11-13 percent of the variance in educational attainment for a particular population, why can’t it be applied to ever-so-slightly different populations to see if there are average differences between them? This is where it gets a bit more complicated. The short answer is it can, but it loses much of its statistical power. Populations may not differ from each other a great deal, but they are sufficiently different to make GWAS findings non-generalizable. The set of SNPs linked to years of education in, say, people of African ancestry are different to those for people of European descent.

There was a nice illustration of this point in a recent essay on social genomics by the Stanford sociologist Jeremy Freese. He discussed the efforts of a group of researchers to try and apply a polygenic score for height to a West African population:

The researchers took GWAS results for height, based on European-descended samples, and applied them to simulated European and West African populations based on established reference panels of gene frequencies for these populations. Startlingly, this work showed there was very little overlap in distributions: that is, nearly all West Africans would have lower polygenic scores for height than nearly all Europeans. So a näıve analyst given racially diverse data might conclude that polygenic score information was revealing the genetic basis of why West Africans are shorter than Europeans. But this cannot be right, because we know from the anthropological record the actual height distributions between these populations are not so different.

If you substitute “years of education” for “height,” you can see the difficulty of using polygenic scores to try and answer the question of whether ethnic differences in IQ are genetically influenced. And the problem will persist even when we have more diverse genomic data. Where we’re likely to end up is knowing which SNPs are associated with EduYears in population A and which are associated with EduYears in population B, but because the two sets of SNPs will be different we won’t be able to make a meaningful comparison between A and B.

Genetic Research Biased Towards Europeans

The fact that GWAS findings cannot be generalized across different populations—and polygenic scores are derived from a racially homogenous group, for the most part—is a hot-button issue in genomics because it means people of non-European ancestry will miss out on the benefits of the forthcoming biomedical revolution. For instance, if I know my polygenic risk score for cardio-vascular disease is in the 95th percentile, I can make various lifestyle adjustments to reduce the likelihood of having a heart attack. But the same data would be of no use to my Middle Eastern neighbor. The Guardian ran a piece about this recently entitled ‘Genetic research biased towards Europeans’ that quoted from a letter that Professor David Curtis, a geneticist and psychiatrist at UCL, had written to the leaders of the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust flagging up this issue. “U.K. medical science stands at risk of being accused of being institutionally racist,” he wrote.

The causes of this bias are complex, but it’s worth noting that the efforts of genetic researchers to collect data from diverse populations about 20 years ago were frustrated by anti-racist social science activists. (H/t Jeremy Freese.) The Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) was attacked by various social scientists who were concerned that a policy of collecting genetic data from different ethnic groups would lend scientific respectability to the idea that essentialist racial categories have some basis in biological reality and aren’t just social constructs. At one point, an anthropologist compared the head of the HGDP to Joseph Mengele.

The question of whether vernacular racial categories are scientifically useful is almost as highly-charged as the issue of black-white IQ differences and the two are closely related since one way of short-circuiting any speculation about the causes of those differences is to deny that the racial distinction is scientifically valid. While it’s true that the standard racial categories don’t exactly correspond to genetic population clusters and have been shaped by a complicated array of social, economic and historical forces, nevertheless they map on to each other pretty well. In the U.S., genetic information statistically predicts people’s self-reported ethnicity with a good deal of accuracy. In this study, for instance, the correspondence between various genetic markers and people’s self-reported racial identity (white, African-American, East-Asian and Hispanic) was “near perfect”. For a deep dive into these murky waters, see this Quillette piece by Bo Winegard and Brian Boutwell.

The anti-racist activists in the academy want to have it both ways. Twenty years ago, they argued it would have been wrong to collect genomic data from populations of African ancestry since that would have been tantamount to admitting that we’re not all genetically identical under the skin. Today, the fact that people of non-European descent are going to miss out on the medical benefits of GWAS-derived polygenic risk scores is itself a manifestation of racism in biomedical research.

Those scientists who want to draw attention to the racial bias in genetic research but who don’t want to acknowledge the scientific validity of race are in a tricky position. I suppose professor Curtis could argue that it would have been possible to collect genomic data from diverse populations 20 years ago without acknowledging the scientific reality of race. The researchers could have used the word “population” instead and sorted the samples according to genetic groupings that didn’t correspondent to vernacular racial categories –not exactly, anyway. But if you’re unhappy with genetic researchers for failing to do that, or the institutions that fund them, it doesn’t seem fair to label them “racist”. After all, you cannot chastise them for leaving out non-European “races” without invoking essentialist categories that, had they used them 20 years ago, probably would have led you to calling them “racist”. Indeed, they were called “racist” for committing precisely that sin. The most you can reasonably accuse them of is being “populationist”—or something.3

There are parallels here with the medical costs of insisting that gender is a social construct, something Claire Lehmann wrote about in Commentary last year. In 2013, the FDA finally acknowledged something it had known for 20 years, which was that women metabolized the active ingredient in Ambien at half the rate of men, and it recommended cutting the dose in half for women. A team of researchers at Scripps Health in San Diego estimated that in 2010 alone, Ambien and similar sleeping pills had contributed to 500,000 “excess deaths” in the form of accidental overdoses, car crashes and falls.

It would be ironic if people of non-European ancestry permanently miss out on the polygenic breakthroughs in preventative medicine because professors in critical science studies – even some actual scientists – insist that race is a social construct and accuse anyone who dissents from this orthodoxy of tacitly endorsing white privilege. That was the fate meted out to David Reich, the Harvard geneticist, after he wrote a measured op ed in the New York Times entitled ‘How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of “Race”’. Sixty-seven scientists and researchers immediately fired off a ‘we, the undersigned’ letter to Buzzfeed, chastising him for unwittingly perpetuating “hierarchies of race, sex and class.” Inevitably, they saw parallels between Reich’s op ed and “racially restrictive immigration laws in 1924” and even gave him a wrist slap for casually using terms like “male” and “female” without acknowledging the social construction of gender. Both Nathaniel Comfort and Catherine Bliss were among the signatories.

Old Whine in New Bottles

Four years before E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology, Richard Herrnstein, then a professor of psychology at Harvard, published an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled ‘IQ’ in which he argued that in societies where intelligence is increasingly linked to socio-economic status, as it is in America, there is a tendency for hierarchies to become genetically underpinned, thereby hampering movement from one class to another. He wasn’t celebrating this fact—on the contrary, he was sounding the alarm. But it didn’t take long for a pitchfork-wielding mob to assemble in Harvard Square. Protests were organized by Students for a Democratic Society and undergraduates were urged to ‘Fight Harvard Prof’s Fascist Lies.’ ‘Wanted’ posters started to appear around campus in the old Western style, with the words ‘Wanted for Racism’ emblazoned above a black-and-white picture of Herrnstein. According to the poster, he was wanted “for the fraudulent use of ‘science’ in the service of racial ‘superiority,’ male supremacy, and unemployment.”

For more than 50 years it has been impossible to talk about the biological influences on human behavior without provoking a hysterical reaction from the left and I’m afraid Robert Plomin’s Blueprint, which is a strong contender for science book of the year, is no exception. It’s old wine in new bottles, alright. But it should be spelt W-H-I-N-E. As Noah Carl has pointed out, much of the progressive left’s opposition to sociogenomics seems to be predicated on the belief that more harm than good will come from a scientifically-informed discussion of the links between genes and various psychological and medical traits, particularly if racial differences are introduced, and therefore it is justified in stifling this debate. But there’s scant empirical evidence that, provided it is informed by robust scientific research, this discussion will cause harm and several reasons to believe that suppressing it will.

 

Toby Young is an associate editor of Quillette.

Notes:

1 Some adoption studies find non-trivial effects of the shared environment on some traits, e.g. this one and this one.
2 There’s some evidence from twin studies that the shared environment does matter for educational attainment, even if it doesn’t much matter for other traits like intelligence. Plomin estimates that school shared environments account for about 20% of the variance in exam performance.
3 For more on the potential medical harm resulting from treating race as purely a social construct, see here, here and here.

60 Comments

  1. Farris says

    ….predicated on the belief that more harm than good will come from a scientifically-informed discussion of the links between genes and various psychological and medical traits, particularly if racial differences are introduced, and therefore it is justified in stifling this debate.

    Stifling debate has become a mainstay of the Left. They are the modern day “Thought Police”.

    XX or XY is a social construct. This is anti-science. Sexual orientation is the fly in the ointment. If sexual orientation is considered a social construct or choice, it would undermine gay’s oppressed minority status. There appears to be a lack of consistency in these positions. But of course pointing out inconsistencies is one of those thought crimes.

  2. Tyler D. says

    “Is Sociogenomics Racist?”

    The implication that we are going to have a reasonable discussion about this based around the information in the article … is hysterical.

  3. BrannigansLaw says

    “Is X racist?” Questions like these are meaningless thanks to leftist sociologist’s butchering of the word racist. To them it means any real or perceived ethnocentrism in whites alone.

    The only correct answer to a leftist who asks such a question, especially when X is a valid scientific field, is “who cares?”.

  4. Farris says

    “It’s never a good time for another bout of genetic determinism, but it’s hard to imagine a worse one than this. Social inequality gapes, exacerbated by climate change, driving hostility towards immigrants and flares of militant racism. At such a juncture, yet another expression of the discredited, simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature seems particularly insidious.”

    This is not a counter argument. It is a tantrum. It says I don’t want to hear it because the world is a bad place.

    Side note: Hysterical statements such as this do much to undermine AGW Theory.

    • Peter from Oz says

      ”Hysterical statements such as this do much to undermine AGW Theory.”
      Good, AGW theory is rubbish and needs to be undermined.

      • So you’re a climate scientist and understand the models well enough to critique them from an informed perspective? Somehow I doubt it. Seems much more likely that you’re ideologically opposed to government regulation of the economy so you engage in motivated reasoning to dispute science that you dislike. I actually hope you’re right, but almost all the evidence points in the opposite direction. If the overwhelming consensus of scientists is, in fact, correct, future generations will know who to blame.

        • Alistair says

          I am mathematical modeller and statistician and understand the models well enough to critique them.

          They are shit. Sorry; “Not entirely fit for the purposes for which they are used.”.

          There, fixed it for you.

          • @ Alistair

            Ali dear? Very surprised not to have heard back from you? I mean you are bit of a crook… but what happened?

    • Caligula says

      Whether or not it is a tantrum, it surely is a straw-man as absolutely no one has asserted that genes ALONE control human nature.

      Although it surely is true that theories favoring environmental influences will always remain attractive just because they inevitably offer far more hope for easy solutions to many social problems.

      Nonetheless,that seems a very poor reason to favor such theories. And a dangerous too, as there will always temptation to use violence as shock treatment if/when people fail to act as your utopian theories demand they must (if your glorious revolution is not to be lost).

    • Foyle says

      Climate models are vastly inadequate to the task of trying to accurately track and predict changes in atmospheric radiation/heat at altitude amounting to <0.1% of total incident flux. They are ultra-crude and unfit for purpose. They show no predictive 'skill' and those touting them make incredible claims that break all sorts of statistical and modelling rules (like IPCC's creating model 'means' in the crazy belief that averaging multiple wrong models is somehow more accurate!).
      The biggest problem is that they don't 'do' water. Phase changes (clouds with their radiation absorbing effects, condensation, freezing, sublimation or evaporative processes), convective processes (like huge effects of thunderstorms as surface heat removal/transfer processes in tropics), storm and wind related wave mixing, ice driven thermohaline convection and ocean over-turning and other global scale oceanic convective processes. Then there is the ridiculousness of grid cells on order of 100km (would need to be closer to meters to capture real cloud and storm convective processes).

      Computers would need to be at least trillions of times faster to do a reasonable job, but probably much greater to capture the huge number of additional processes that need to be modelled. It is little better than augury at this point, and certainly no basis for changing political policy.

      Which is not to say that the world isn't warming. Argo data provide the gold standard for proving that it is, and the rate at which it is happening (0.3°C/century upper ocean), that is proper empirical science.

  5. I think the fact that laypeople immediately leap to embrace genetics as deterministic, is evidence of why rational discussion is difficult.

    Whether it is phrenology, astrology, or DNA, there is always a concerted effort to find a mysterious woo that naturally elevates certain groups above others, and creates an aristocracy but instead of being justified by Gawd, is ordained by modern alchemy.

    Its rarely scientists themselves saying this, since most are wise enough to refrain, but laypeople, who eagerly use sciency sounding terms in order to bolster their case.

    • @chip, you make a very sweeping assertion without any supports that basically claims that ‘laypeople’ are too stupid to understand genetics and statistics and are to blame for a lack of rational discussion, but say scientists “rarely’ do this and are ‘wise.’

      Really? Which scientists would these be? The ones who tossed ice cold water on Wilson as he was about to speak shouting, “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!’ ? Those highly rational wise scientists?

      “Laypeople” can understand the nuances perfectly. It’s a subset of very vocal highly media-connected ideological ‘scientists’ who cannot.

      • I am happy to stipulate that some scientists do make these claims, and that some laypeople can grasp the nuances.

        But policy isn’t made by scientists, and the most vocal proponents of aristocracy are usually laypeople who misunderstand or deliberately distort science.

        The idea of discovering a secret divination of human excellence is as old as palm reading or chicken entrails.

        If genetics were as deterministic as racists wish it were, we wouldn’t need DNA tests to find the superior people- we could just look at who wins races, whose products sell the most, who gets the most votes, and voila, there we would have our genetically superior humans.

        But of course it never works that way, so there need to be elaborate theories as to why the person with the higher IQ, or better genes, somehow doesn’t get picked as Prom King or President-for-Life.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Chip,

      Maybe the tendency of lay people to embrace genetics as deterministic is is itself a genetic response. In other words, people are programmed to compete to form aristocracies.

      • Farris says

        @Chip
        There genetic markers for height, eye color, hair color, race ect… but mental acuity No way!
        I guess all those racists enjoy claiming Asians test highest.
        I wonder if there is a gene that makes one scream racist every time they hear an argument they can’t abide?

        • Did you read the article on Harvard?
          Asians don’t just magically float into Harvard on the magic of genetic superiority.

          And intelligence is only one of many factors that determine outcomes.

        • “There genetic markers for height, eye color, hair color, race ect… but mental acuity No way!”

          There can’t be “genetic markers for … mental acuity” because there are no psychophysical or psychological laws.

          • ccscientist says

            Can’t tell if you are being sarcastic, but genetics and affect IQ in terms of brain wiring, nerve speed, and overall metabolic competency (among many). It does not require a “psychological law”

          • I’m not being sarcastic. The main aspect of test-taking is thinking. Thinking is irreducible to the physical. Psychological traits are irreducible to the physical. Searching for “genes for” intelligence is a fool’s errand.

  6. Emmanuel says

    Claiming that an idea is morally or politically wrong is not the same as demonstrating that it is factually wrong. The fact that so many students, academics and journalists fail to do the difference between the two is a good evidence that there is a serious problem with the modern left wing intelligentsia.
    French sociologist Gerard Bronner, who is very critical toward the instrumentalization of his discipline by leftist activists often says that these people do not think in terms of true or false but in terms of good and bad. I believe it’s a good summary of the situation.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Well said, Emmanuel.
      I’m always amused by the fact that the leftists are very keen to use politics to get what they want, but cry foul if the right pushes its ideas.

    • Heike says

      This statement is supported by the works of Johnathan Haidt, who has found that Leftists value harm reduction over all other values. In fact, it is their only value. They see the world in black and white. Conservatives have five values. They see the world in full color.

      The people of the left underpin their politics with moral concerns about harm and fairness; they are driven by the imperative to help the vulnerable and see justice done. Conservatives and people of the right value these things as well but have several additional moral touchstones — loyalty, respect and sanctity. They value in-group solidarity, deference to authority, and the protection of purity in mind and body. To liberals, those sincerely held values can look a lot like, in Dr. Haidt’s words, “xenophobia, authoritarianism and Puritanism.” This asymmetry is the fountainhead of mutual incomprehension and disdain.

        • Heike says

          Citation: Haidt, J (2012). The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. Pantheon Books.

          I think my ultimate disagreement with Jonathan Haidt isn’t the idea that liberals have a two foundation morality and conservatives have a five foundation morality, but rather that the two distinctions made for liberals show a significant difference in how they think. In my view, purity is just the value system of the in-group. Harm is just the mechanism for establishing dominance. It’s hard for me to accept the notion that liberals believe in a system of harm reduction, when political correctness is instituted at such an insidious level that people who do not adhere to dogma get downgraded in university settings–especially in the social sciences. That is most certainly harmful, and it is a form of harm regularly practiced by liberals. One only needs to utter the name “Sarah Palin” to see how interested liberals are in women’s rights, or “Clarence Thomas” to see how interested they are in racial equality. I was never able to identify myself as a Democrat after his confirmation hearings.

  7. Edward says

    Brilliant piece. I’ll post some further thoughts tomorrow, but this along with the Plomin piece is Quillette at its best.

  8. Pingback: 1 – What Does Genetic Research Tell Us About Equal Opportunity and Meritocracy? | Traffic.Ventures Social

  9. The entire project of the left, from the time it got that name from the seating arrangement in the French National Assembly down to the present day, has been predicated on the notion that human nature is infinitely malleable, and that any differences between people that favor one over another are due to social circumstance, and thus inherently unjust.

    “Right wing” having no meaning more coherent than “opposed to the left”, I’m afraid anything (sociogenomics included) that demonstrates a fixed human nature, or finds some intrinsic basis for differences in outcomes, esp. outcomes which when statistically aggregated over groups, one of which is in favor with the left, and one of which is out of favor violate the left’s preferences, is “inherently right wing”.

    It has always struck me that it would be more interesting in America to ask Democrats, rather than Republicans, whether they believe in Darwinian evolution, since in terms of consequences for public policy, Rousseau is much further removed from Darwin than is the author of Genesis. The social good for a race of hairless ape that looked up at the stars, built Gothic cathedrals and formulated quantum mechanics is much more like the social good for a race of the fallen bearers of the image of God, than it is like the social good for a race of blank slates.

  10. Damian O'Connor says

    ‘Progressive Left’? What does that mean? What are they ‘progressing’ to? It seems to me that the Left are obsessed by creating a world of unattainable ends based on unpleasant means.

    Damian O’Connor.

    Author of ‘A Short Guide to the History of South Africa.’

  11. Hamilton Sunshine says

    The boy who cries wolf comes to mind.

    The left wing critics have a point BUT so much of their criticism is based on what feels like a deliberate misreading of the person they are crtitisicing right down to outright lying about what people said, that people are now begining to not listen at all. That’s on them. one day the left will be dead right about some seriously wrong person and they’ll be mystified about why nobody will listen to them.

  12. Jack B Nimble says

    This article by Toby Young is mostly well-written, but is marred by errors of fact and interpretation.

    “….Wilson was …..subjected to vicious barracking whenever he crossed Harvard Yard or attempted to speak in public….” 40 years ago, I attended a lecture on sociobiology by Ed Wilson in a huge, jam-packed auditorium. Except for an occasional shouted comment from the audience, the lecture went off without a hitch.

    “….It involved a sample size of over a million and found 1,271 SNPs associated with EduYears. A polygenic score based on this study predicts between 11 and 13 percent of the variance in educational attainment….” Sample size is less important than having an unbiased sample. As the author notes, many ethnic groups are under-represented in this sample, so the study has limited validity.

    And those 1271 SNPs? There are [roughly] 20,000 genes in the human genome, so as the number of SNPs screened increases, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. And there is nothing in this SNP-centric research program to indicate how individual genes affecting educational performance might be identified and characterized. As others have noted elsewhere, these SNP-based studies are statistical, not biological or genetic, and it is important not to over-sell the results. SNPs are the basis of the typical but scientifically dubious ‘ancestry tests,’ and I’m not sure that a polygenic score will ever be useful in education, either. The notion of a ‘genetically-customized’ individual education track is laughable.

    “…As Richard C. Lewontin argued, human populations are “remarkably similar to each other”—we share about 99.5 percent of the same genes…..” Gene sharing and genetic similarity are two completely different things. Humans share 100% of their genes in common, except for those Y-linked genes absent from females and extremely rare instances of deletion homozygotes [most of which are lethal]. Anyway, average population similarity is a meaningless concept–what is needed is an NxN matrix showing pairwise genetic similarities or distances among N population samples. That is a common method of analysis in population genetics.

    “….The biologists who led the charge against Wilson, for instance, were all Marxists….” If you ask a Marxist for the time of day, would you automatically doubt their answer? Lewontin, for example, is a Marxist, but he has made some of the most insightful criticisms of the IQ-heritability agenda. He has noted, correctly, that heritability is not a property of a trait like intelligence, but rather a population-wide number that can vary across populations and among environments within populations. Caught up in their excitement over their own ideas, people like Plomin forget this important caveat.

    “….the efforts of genetic researchers to collect data from diverse populations about 20 years ago were frustrated by anti-racist social science activists. (H/t Jeremy Freese.) The Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) was attacked by various social scientists who were concerned that a policy of collecting genetic data from different ethnic groups would lend scientific respectability to the idea that essentialist racial categories have some basis in biological reality and aren’t just social constructs…” My recollection is that the HGDP failed because scientists couldn’t agree among themselves how to collect genetic samples–whether on a rigid square grid laid over geographic maps, or on some other, more flexible scheme. And there were and are legitimate concerns about whether genetic data from various indigenous populations might be commercialized or monetized without their consent, as well as issues of loss of privacy and autonomy. Recent history has shown that those are VERY legitimate worries.

    Finally, Young treats this whole issue like a standard left-right controversy, whereas in general people on the left are MORE open to genetic explanations of human behavior than those on the right. See my comment in an earlier thread: https://quillette.com/2018/08/09/a-striking-similarity-the-revolutionary-findings-of-twin-studies/#comment-30332 for more discussion and links on this important question.

    • peterschaeffer says

      JBN,

      You wrote “As the author notes, many ethnic groups are under-represented in this sample, so the study has limited validity.”. Seems like a very questionable statement. More than just flirting with biological racism.

      If race is just a social construct, then what possible difference could it make if certain ethnic groups are underrepresented? If the biological concept of race is invalid and no biological classification of race is possible, then ethnic under-representation can not possibly be a problem.

      You need to think about this a bit more.

  13. Edward says

    “The most generous thing Plomin can bring himself to say about schools is that they matter, but they don’t make a difference.”

    As you point out in note 2, Plomin estimates that the shared environment accounts for 20% of the variance in academic performance, and I recall one study conducted by Plomin and colleagues which puts the figure at 30-35% at GCSE level.

    See: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0080341

    The overall literature suggests that schooling accounts for no more than 10% of the variance in academic performance. Thus, schooling accounts for perhaps a third of the variance that can be attributed to the shared environment.

    This is a non-negligible figure. It’s likely the case that white working-class students in the UK, for instance, are dramatically underperforming at GCSE level (failing to get at least a C grade) due to poor shared environment.

    Naturally, improving schooling, the home environment, and so on, is going to increase the proportion of the variance that can be attributed to genetic differences. This is still a worthy goal, however, if we want everyone to be able to achieve their genetic potential.

    One of the reasons that Plomin and colleagues have failed to find that grammar/private schools have a beneficial effect once controlling for genetics and IQ is that most grammar school and private school students would have went to reasonably good non-selective state schools anyway (the class stratification of the UK state school system is hardly a secret), given that most of them come from relatively affluent, middle-class backgrounds. Thus, their ‘controls’ in non-selective state schools are doing just fine too on the whole, but the minority of working-class students who are being held back by their schools would likely benefit from a grammar school education. This is borne out by the evidence.

    However, the evidence seems to suggest that the majority of working-class students left behind in the non-selective state system would suffer as a result. Thus, grammar schools have no effect on the chances of affluent, middle-class kids; they have a positive effect on the minority of working-class kids who would get into grammar schools; but they have a negative effect on the majority of working-class students.

  14. Why the focus on IQ? Plomin also says personality is largely heritable. It is the combination of traits that determine where an individual ends up.

    An example of individual variability in the real world is differences in the sensitivity to drugs. In the case of anaesthesia and chemotherapy, where too much or too little have major consequences, we need specialists who spend all their time diddling with individual differences, most of which are strongly related to genes. For drugs that have wide safety margins like antibiotics, the GP just floods everyone. If buying a puppy, the sensible person considers the behavioural characteristics of the breed; in my previous business I considered the behavioural characteristics of different strains of rats, and even within strains there were individual differences. We know we can breed animals for both trainability and reactivity. Why should human characteristics be different. Each still needs to have the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities.

    PS, plumbers have to be pretty damn smart, or else you will end up having to mend and re-doo.

  15. True Fezer Wolff says

    “To paraphrase another scientist called Robert, Plomin is like Vishnu, a destroyer of worlds.”

    Small correction: Vishnu is the sustainer; Shiva is the destroyer.

    • I thought that at first, but when I checked the quote it was Vishnu.

    • Nick Ender says

      I think he was referring to Oppenheimer’s famous quote “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” during his time working on the Manhattan Project. I may be wrong about that.

  16. peterschaeffer says

    Lewontin’s views should not be dismissed because he is/was a Marxist (Marxists were highly critical of Lysenko for example). However, he should be criticized because he was wrong. He used observed high variability in single genes (which ins’t always true) to suggest (claim) that genes could not be used to distinguish races.

    This turns out to be false. So false in fact, that the phrase “The Lewontin Fallacy” has been coined to describe it. See “Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin’s Fallacy” in Wikipedia. How many people have earned their own fallacy? Quote

    “Edwards argued that while Lewontin’s statements on variability are correct when examining the frequency of different alleles (variants of a particular gene) at an individual locus (the location of a particular gene) between individuals, it is nonetheless possible to classify individuals into different racial groups with an accuracy that approaches 100 percent when one takes into account the frequency of the alleles at several loci at the same time. This happens because differences in the frequency of alleles at different loci are correlated across populations—the alleles that are more frequent in a population at two or more loci are correlated when we consider the two populations simultaneously. Or in other words, the frequency of the alleles tends to cluster differently for different populations.

    In Edwards’s words, “most of the information that distinguishes populations is hidden in the correlation structure of the data.” These relationships can be extracted using commonly used ordination and cluster analysis techniques. Edwards argued that, even if the probability of misclassifying an individual based on the frequency of alleles at a single locus is as high as 30 percent (as Lewontin reported in 1972), the misclassification probability becomes close to zero if enough loci are studied.”

    • Jack B Nimble says

      @peterschaeffer

      The entire Wikipedia article you quoted from is more nuanced than your excerpt:

      Lewontin “…..found that the majority of the total genetic variation between humans (i.e., of the 0.1% of DNA that varies between individuals), 85.4%, is found within populations, 8.3% of the variation is found between populations within a “race”, and only 6.3% was found to account for the racial classification. Numerous later studies have confirmed his findings. Based on this analysis, Lewontin concluded, “Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance.” ….”

      Was he speaking of practical significance or statistical significance? That isn’t clear, but Edwards’ critique refers to statistical significance, and the critique relies on the well-known fact that even trivially-small differences between groups can be found to be statistically significant if the sample size is large enough.

      I personally think that ‘racial’ classification is impossible in the face of high admixture [cross-mating] rates in humans. For example, persons in New Orleans who identify as being of African descent have an average of 23% European ancestry based on genetic markers. Instead of discrete classes, there is a genetic continuum from predominantly European to predominantly African genomes. Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002929707616280

      We now have a lot more genetic data for humans than we did in 1972, so it is worth revisiting the issue of classification more rigorously. Witherspoon et al. (2007). “Genetic Similarities Within and Between Human Populations”. Genetics. 176 (1): 351–359 reported that “…..the answer to the question “How often is a pair of individuals from one population genetically more dissimilar than two individuals chosen from two different populations?” depends on the number of polymorphisms used to define that dissimilarity and the populations being compared. ….Given 10 loci, three distinct populations, and the full spectrum of polymorphisms (Figure 2E), the answer is ….nearly one-third of the time. With 100 loci, the answer is ~20% of the time and even using 1000 loci, [the answer is ~]10%. However, if genetic similarity is measured over many thousands of loci, the answer becomes “never” when individuals are sampled from geographically separated populations.

      On the other hand, if the entire world population were analyzed, the inclusion of many closely related and admixed populations would increase…..the classification error rates….despite the use of >10,000 polymorphisms….”

      In other words, the probability of individuals from different populations being more similar genetically than individuals from the SAME population can be as high as 30%, depending on which loci and populations are sampled. That result implies a high level of mis-classification. So, depending on circumstances, Lewontin’s fallacy is not a fallacy at all.

      • peterschaeffer says

        JBN, You write “I personally think that ‘racial’ classification is impossible in the face of high admixture [cross-mating] rates in humans”

        What you believe to be true and what is true are not the same thing. It turns out that ‘racial’ classification (based on genes) is both easy and very highly accurate.

        See “Genetic Structure, Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity, and Confounding in Case-Control Association Studies”

        “We have analyzed genetic data for 326 microsatellite markers that were typed uniformly in a large multiethnic population-based sample of individuals as part of a study of the genetics of hypertension (Family Blood Pressure Program). Subjects identified themselves as belonging to one of four major racial/ethnic groups (white, African American, East Asian, and Hispanic) and were recruited from 15 different geographic locales within the United States and Taiwan. Genetic cluster analysis of the microsatellite markers produced four major clusters, which showed near-perfect correspondence with the four self-reported race/ethnicity categories. Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity. On the other hand, we detected only modest genetic differentiation between different current geographic locales within each race/ethnicity group. Thus, ancient geographic ancestry, which is highly correlated with self-identified race/ethnicity—as opposed to current residence—is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population. Implications of this genetic structure for case-control association studies are discussed.”

        In other words, race can be determined from genes with 99.86% accuracy.

        • Jack B Nimble says

          @peterschaeffer

          Did you read the methods section of that paper?? If you had, you would have encountered this nugget:

          “………. Because our goal is classification, we used the “NOADMIX” option in structure, so that the entire genome of each individual was assumed to have been derived from a single homogeneous population…..”

          In other words, the authors ignored the possibility of admixed genomes [contrary to the article on human admixture that I cited earlier, from sciencedirect.com], because their over-riding goal was to classify individuals into groups, and admixture would have interfered with that goal.

          The program they used for this part of the analysis, ‘structure,’ is designed to find population clusters, and if you ask the program to find k=3 genetic clusters, it will. If you ask it to find k=6 clusters, it will, and so on. Finally, please ponder this part of the authors’ discussion:

          “….there may not be discrete subgrouping but continuous ancestral variation that could lead to stratification bias. For example, African Americans have a continuous range of European ancestry that would not be detected by cluster analysis but could strongly confound genetic case-control studies. Furthermore, our analysis likely underrepresents individuals with recent mixed ancestry (who would require more complex categorization)…”

          • peterschaeffer says

            JBN, Alas your conclusions don’t follow from your argument. If admixture (which is real) was a major influence (which it is not), then the program should have less accurate as a consequence. It wasn’t. The computer program was able to guess each people’s race (matching each person’s personal racial identification) with a 99.86% accuracy (in other words, almost perfect). If Lewontin’s model was even trivially correct, the results of the computer program would have been no better (or only slightly better) than random.

            Admixture should have decreased (not increased) the accuracy of the program. Clearly, admixture did not have any major effect. For some actual data on the degree of admixture in the U.S. population, see “Why Race as a Biological Construct Matters” and “To Classify Humanity Is Not That Hard”.

            Let me offer an analogy that may help you. If you start in Guatemala City and walk too Point Barrow Alaska the climate will change. The weather in Guatemala City and Point Barrow are actually quite different. However, there is no magic line where the weather changes from tropical to arctic. You are arguing that the absence of such a line “proves” that “climate does not exist”. However, the reality is that “climate does exist”. Would you choose the same wardrobe for Guatemala City versus Point Barrow? If not, why not? Given the absence of climate magic line, how can you justify having different clothes for each locale?

            Note that the same model (of variation) applies to air pressure, color, land versus water, hot versus cold, gravity, etc.

            “………. Because our goal is classification, we used the “NOADMIX” option in structure, so that the entire genome of each individual was assumed to have been derived from a single homogeneous population…..”

            Have you thought about the implications of your quote from the paper? Apparently, not. Given the (limited) reality of admixture and the specification of NOADMIX in running the program, the results should have been less accurate as a consequence. They weren’t. If Lewontin was correct, the specification of NOADMIX should have produced results equal to chance (or slightly better). However, the actual results were “near perfect”.

            ““….there may not be discrete subgrouping but continuous ancestral variation that could lead to stratification bias. For example, African Americans have a continuous range of European ancestry that would not be detected by cluster analysis but could strongly confound genetic case-control studies. Furthermore, our analysis likely underrepresents individuals with recent mixed ancestry (who would require more complex categorization)…””

            The Neil Risch paper was written to facilitate biomedical research. The existence of admixture does diminish (somewhat) the usefulness of race for medical purposes. Quote from David Reich supporting this point.

            “When we looked in more detail, we found that this region contained at least seven independent risk factors for prostate cancer, all more common in West Africans. Our findings could fully account for the higher rate of prostate cancer in African-Americans than in European-Americans. We could conclude this because African-Americans who happen to have entirely European ancestry in this small section of their genomes had about the same risk for prostate cancer as random Europeans.”

            In other words, the range of European ancestry does not materially diminish the accuracy of using to genes to assign race, even if it does somewhat diminish the usefulness of race for biomedical purposes. Note that even before genetic studies became commonplace, forensic anthropologists could easily identify the race of a skeleton.

            Let me quote from the Risch paper.

            “We note that the genetic cluster results indicate that older geographic ancestry—rather than recent geographic origin—is highly correlated with racial/ethnic categorizations and, thus, is the major determinant of genetic structure in the population. Although our results suggest that genetic stratification may exist within racial/ethnic groups—specifically, whites and African Americans sampled from different geographic locations in the United States—we found the differences based on current geography to be quite modest.”

            Quite simply, this demolishes Lewontin. If Lewontin’s model was even trivially correct, then Risch could never even come close to 99.84% accuracy (“near perfect’). Yet, he does.

            As a closing comment, did you actually look at the graphs and charts in the Risch paper. They show extreme clustering. Note that the articles by Razib Khan also show a high level of clustering.

          • Jack B Nimble says

            @peterschaeffer

            “…. the graphs and charts in the Risch paper…..show extreme clustering….”

            To address that, we need to go deeper into their methods:

            “……Genetic Distance Analysis

            We created 18 subpopulations on the basis of the participants’ SIRE and the recruitment site (the few individuals who identified their race/ethnicity as “other” were excluded from this analysis). As a measure of genetic distance, we computed the “coancestry coefficient” among groups (Reynolds et al. 1983). The coancestry coefficient is a measure of distance that is closely related to an average value of FST across genes. To visualize these genetic distances, we performed multidimensional scaling (MDS) analysis (Mardia et al. 1980). In simple terms, this analysis provides a configuration of 18 points on a two-dimensional plane, such that the Euclidean distances among these points match the genetic distance matrix as closely as possible…..”

            In brief, they are averaging across the microsatellite loci and across individuals within the 18 subpopulations to get average distances among subpopulations. Then they display the averages in two dimensions, but in doing that, detailed information about the variation within the subpopulations is lost, and the 18 points appear to be more divergent than they really are.

            To illustrate the problem, we could do the same MDS analysis on average height in 18 sport teams: 9 pro basketball teams and 9 pro baseball teams. The 9 basketball team average values would cluster together, and ditto for the baseball teams, obscuring the fact that some baseball players are as tall as, say, some point guards. For classification purposes, an ordination method that uses the raw data, like PCA, is required [but even that method is sensitive to sample size effects].

            Your climate example is irrelevant for the purpose of classification, and in fact, it illustrates why classification based on averages is invalid. We could classify local climates based on yearly-average temperature into “hot, mild and cold,” categories, but that would group some non-seasonal environments like tropical montane sites [where temperature hardly varies all year] with seasonal temperate sites [where temperature varies drastically through the year, but the average is mild].

            Finally, classification is always easy if you ignore intermediate cases or have a rule such as the ‘one drop rule’ that assigns intermediate cases to one category or the other:

            “….. The one-drop rule is a social and legal principle of racial classification that was historically prominent in the United States asserting that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan African ancestry (“one drop” of black blood) is considered black (Negro in historical terms), its implications of racial purity being that anyone unable to pass for white in the context of the US racial hierarchy is assigned the lower status of being non-white or colored.

            This concept evolved over the course of the 19th century and became codified into the law of some states in the early 20th century. It was associated with the principle of “invisible blackness” and is an example of hypodescent, the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union between different socioeconomic or ethnic groups to the group with the lower status.

            The legal concept of the “one-drop rule” does not exist outside the United States. It is defunct in the United States and was never codified into federal law…..Whites also applied this rule to mixed-race descendants of Native American and African ethnicity, classifying them as African. In this they ignored how people identified themselves; many Native American tribes reared children of mixed race as culturally within their tribe. This distinction was critical as Native American slavery had ended during the colonial years. A child of a Native American mother should not be enslaved….

            Before 1930, individuals of visible mixed European and African ancestry were usually classed as mulatto, or sometimes as black and sometimes as white, depending on appearance……But, in 1930, due to lobbying by southern legislators, the Census Bureau stopped using the classification of mulatto. Documentation of the long social recognition of mixed-race people was lost.

            The binary world of the one-drop rule disregarded the self-identification both of people of mostly European ancestry who grew up in white communities, and of people who were of mixed race and identified as American Indian. In addition, Walter Plecker, Registrar of Statistics, ordered application of the 1924 Virginia law in such a way that vital records were changed or destroyed, family members were split on opposite sides of the color line, and there were losses of the documented continuity of people who identified as American Indian, as all people in Virginia had to be classified as white or black……” See Wikipedia article on ‘One drop rule.’

            But always remember…….”Race is not a social construct”

      • peterschaeffer says

        JBN, You need to read D. Reich (3/23/2018) in the NYT. Let me quote

        “But over the years this consensus has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy. The orthodoxy maintains that the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.”

        “I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.””

        Read it all (Reich’s essay).

        • There are two arguments I am aware of concerning the “social construction” of race.

          One is that there are simply no biological correlates to existing schemes of classification, except maybe a few genes for melanin. This is often suggested but trivially false.

          The second is that there are true genetic differences between populations, but the genetic differences are basically the same with distance, so race amounts to an arbitrary dividing line.

          Reich’s research demonstrates this is not true, there are real genetic clusters, and rapid changes in the genetic clusters at discrete places in geography. Further, Reich’s work suggests certain facts of pre-history about what genetic “mixing” typically looks like (hint: males on horseback come in, rape local females and kill off local males). It “sort of” suggests that something like “social darwinism” is a decent description of why we have the genetic structures in populations that we observe today. It also demonstrates that old fashioned German “pseudoscience” was mostly correct about how modern European populations got the way that they are, and modern archaeologists turned out to be the real purveyors of pseudo-science.

          I don’t know how others feel, but I was pretty pissed when I started to look into these questions, and realized that the conventional wisdom consisted of lies, obfuscations, fallacious arguments and outright academic fraud (Gould). I’m still pissed when I read about why heliocentrism is pseudoscience, and how Galileo was a racist in Vox.

        • peterschaeffer says

          JBN,

          Below I have responded to your latest comments in some detail. However, some “big picture” observations are warranted at this point. You wrote

          “I personally think that ‘racial’ classification is impossible in the face of high admixture [cross-mating] rates in humans”

          That’s a statement of fact that is either true or untrue (or possibly some combination). As it turns out it is not true. In any logical debate there is the concept of an existence proof. If I found a planar map that required 5 colors, the 4-color map theorem would be dead. If I found a set of numbers that violated Fermat’s enigma, his enigma would be dead.

          This is not a minor point. For example, the Euler’s sum of powers conjecture was disproven by finding a specific counterexample.

          For better or worse, the Neil Risch paper is an existence proof that ‘racial’ classification is quite possible. If Lewontin’s model was correct, Neil Risch could not have succeeded, but he did. If admixture was a dominant characteristic of the human genome, then Neil Risch could not have succeeded, but he did.

          It doesn’t actually matter how Risch succeeded, only that he did. He was able to have a computer look at human DNA and guess race with 99.84% accuracy versus individual self-identification. Of course, there isn’t anything unique about Risch’s results. Others have found ‘racial’ classification based on genes to be straightforward. Quote from David Reich.

          “Groundbreaking advances in DNA sequencing technology have been made over the last two decades. These advances enable us to measure with exquisite accuracy what fraction of an individual’s genetic ancestry traces back to, say, West Africa 500 years ago — before the mixing in the Americas of the West African and European gene pools that were almost completely isolated for the last 70,000 years. With the help of these tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.”

          For another example, take a look at “The Inconvenient Science of Racial DNA Profiling”. A scientist by the name of Tony Frudakis was able to identify the race of a serial killer in a police investigation in Louisiana. The police in Louisiana were looking for a white male killer based on (mis)information received early in the case. They were wrong. Frudakis examined DNA samples collected in the investigation and told the police that the killer was probably 85% Black and 15% Native American. Based on this new information the police starting examining new suspects and found the actual killer (who matched Frudakis’s description rather well).

          If Lewontin’s model was correct, this technique would never have worked. Yet, it did. If you model was correct, this technique would never have worked. Yet, it did. Note that the Frudaks methodology emphasizes admixture and still yields the same results.

          On to your comments…

          If you check male/female heights in the U.S. they are (roughly) 69.1 inches for men and 63.7 inches for women. The male SD is 2.9 inches. The female SD is 2.7 inches. If we just used averages we would conclude that men are 5.4 inches taller than women (which is true on average). However, allowing for a normal distribution of heights (which is roughly correct), we actually get some overlap in male and female heights.

          However, if male and female average heights were the same (and the SDs were the same), we couldn’t distinguish between males and females by height.

          In other words, averaging males and females only makes them look different because they actually are different. If Lewtonin’s model was correct or your model was correct, averaging would not create differences where they don’t actually exist. Averaging only yields differences to the extent that they actually exist. In your terms, average baseball heights will only differ from average basketball heights if basketball players are actually taller than baseball players.

          Note that Razib Kahn doesn’t use exactly the same techniques and comes up with rather similar results. Check his charts. They show the same clustering that Neil Risch observes.

          Climates are well known to differ in more than mean temperate. They also vary in the SD of temperature (as well as rainfall and many other dimensions). In conventional terms, a maritime climate has a relatively low SD of temperature and a continental climate has a relative SD of temperature. For example, San Diego and Nashville have the same average temperature, but seasonal variation is much greater in Nashville than San Diego. The terms ‘maritime’ and ‘continental’ (as they pertain to climate) are of long standing. I didn’t invent them.

          You are arguing that climates cannot be classified because intermediate climates exist. They (intermediate climates) do exist. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t call Point Barrow Arctic and Guatemala City tropical. Note that intermediate forms exist for air pressure, color, land versus water, hot versus cold, gravity, etc. A physicist will tell you that an infinite number of colors exist between green and blue (which is true). Are you really going to claim that we can’t tell the difference between green and blue because intermediate colors exist?

          “Finally, classification is always easy if you ignore intermediate cases or have a rule such as the ‘one drop rule’ that assigns intermediate cases to one category or the other.”

          There are actually two points here. The first point is that we can (and do) classify climates as Arctic (Point Barrow) and Tropical (Guatemala City) even though we know that intermediate climates certainly exist. The second point is that for human genomes, intermediate forms really aren’t that important. Human genomes are strongly clustered in real life. Take a look at the first chart (labeled “Credit: Characterizing the admixed African ancestry of African Americans”) in “Why Race as a Biological Construct Matters”. Could anyone looking at the graph fail to see differentiation (even with limited admixture).

          Take a look at second chart in “To Classify Humanity Is Not That Hard”. The genetic clustering of the human genome is pretty obvious. Once again, if either you or Lewtonin was correct, a graph like this could not exist. Yet, it does.

          I would be the first to argue that race is both a biological construct and a social construct. For example, no gene codes for the word ‘Oreo’. Yet that word is used as a slur in the Black community.

          • Jack B Nimble says

            @peterschaeffer

            Classification is not science; we can and do classify things that are not natural, like cars, TV shows, appliances, etc. The reason that I think classification or categorization of humans is impossible scientifically is because you can’t appeal to nature or science to decide how to handle intermediate cases. Nature doesn’t supply any guidelines for dealing with variation on a continuum.

            Classification ALWAYS has to deal with intermediate cases, and how one handles those cases can be pretty arbitrary. If admixed genomes were vanishingly rare, then human classification would be ‘natural.’ Such a situation may have existed say, 10,000 years ago, when humans were a lot less mobile and the Americas were geographically isolated from Eurasia [except across the Arctic in winter]. That situation no longer exists, unless the attempt at classification is restricted to phenotypically-extreme individuals.

            The main reason that situation no longer exists is that humans DO migrate, especially in the last 500 years, and when different ‘races’ meet they tend to admix–that is just a fact of human history. Recent genetic research has shown that anatomically-modern humans mated with Neandertals and Denisovians, and other ‘races’ and admixtures in the human past have also been discovered.

            I chose to emphasize this fact of human history over Lewontin’s claim, because as I noted before, it isn’t clear if he was talking about statistical significance or biological significance. But look, 5% added genetic variance among ‘races’ is pretty small. In almost any other situation, people would look at the 95% of the total variance that is shared among ‘races’ and say “Gosh….genetics shows that humans are all pretty much alike.” Why spend so much time talking about the tiny portion of variance that separates ‘races’? And don’t talk to me about medicine; if a doctor wants to know if a patient has a particular genetic condition, there are usually specific tests for that; ‘race’ is a poor proxy.

            ‘Common wisdom’ and social construction tend to exaggerate the differences among ‘races,’ just like you do when you minimize the importance of admixture in human history. I remember a story of a White woman who received an emergency blood transfusion and somehow learned that the donor was Black. She was shocked, SHOCKED, to learn that different ‘races’ shared the exact same blood groups. She had assumed that they were completely incompatible.

            Writing in the modern Civil Rights Era (early 1970s), Lewontin struck a blow against the then-prevalent common wisdom on ‘racial’ differences, and he was right to do so.

          • peterschaeffer says

            JBN,

            Earlier you wrote “As the author notes, many ethnic groups are under-represented in this sample, so the study has limited validity.”. Seems like a very questionable statement. More than just flirting with biological racism.

            If race is just a social construct, then what possible difference could it make if certain ethnic groups are underrepresented? If the biological concept of race is invalid and no biological classification of race is possible, then ethnic under-representation can not possibly be a problem.

            “Classification is not science” Wow, that is a new one. I guess Point Barrow and Guatemala City really do have the same climate. Blue and green are really the same color. Sea level and outer space have the same amount air (which presumably doesn’t exist). Do I need to continue the list?

            You seem to be obsessed with intermediate cases. Of course, they exist. However, they are rare. Check the Razib Khan’s charts. Read the Neil Risch paper. If intermediate cases weren’t rare, how exactly did he (Risch) get 99.84% accuracy? How did Tony Frakudis help find a killer? What is David Reich doing for a living? You seem to think intermediate cases predominate. They don’t. Check the actual statistical data on the subject.

            In Risch’s data, only two of 3,686 individuals had a classification probability below 0.95. That should tell you something.

            Let me use a more contemporary example. Senator Warren took a DNA test recently. The published results suggest she might be 1/64th to 1/1024th Native American. Razib Khan suggests that the correct result might be 1/50th. In any case, she is overwhelmingly white. Technically, she has some non-White ancestors. Her DNA could be considered to be an admixture or an intermediate case. In practice, this is obviously nonsense.

            “Why spend so much time talking about the tiny portion of variance that separates ‘races’?”

            This question has many answers. Let me start by quoting David Reich.
            “I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. I am also worried that whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as “scientific proof” that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims.”

            I would argue that the truth matters, and matters more than making people feel good about themselves. Even if most genes do not significantly differ between races, some do. Some are profoundly different.

            Ironically (given Lewontin) one of them is the Duffy blood type gene. See “Duffy antigen system” in Wikipedia. Another set are SLC24A2/SLC24A5. At this point we don’t which genes will only slightly vary (or not at all) between races and which ones will be massively different. Duffy is related to Malaria which means that has been heavily selected for and against in evolutionary history.

            Blood types do not differ enough (by race) to create compatibility problems. However, other genes (for example bone marrow) do differ by more than enough. Quote from Razib Kahn

            “I have no idea why people would be skeptical of it, the way it is presented by many scholars makes the implication clear that phylogeny is impossible, that differences are trivial. Both these are false impressions. I do not believe that the fact that mixed-race people’s real problems obtaining organs with the appropriate tissue match is a trivial affair. Human genetic differences have plenty of concrete impacts which are not socially constructed.”

            This statement by itself, should be the final nail in the coffin of “race has no biological basis”. Somehow it probably won’t be.

          • Jack B Nimble says

            @peterschaeffer

            “Race” has so many connotations and shades of meaning that biologists [including me] avoid the term, as I pointed out here:

            https://quillette.com/2018/07/01/she-has-her-mothers-laugh-the-powers-perversions-and-potential-of-heredity-a-review/#comment-25938

            No biologist denies that human molecular lineages or clades can be identified by analyzing a non-recombining molecule like mitochondrial DNA. Recombination and admixture mean that a similar clear-cut analysis is impossible with nuclear genes.

            You keep obsessing over the 99.84% correct assignment in the AJHG paper from 2005. That paper was not an attempt to assay human genetic diversity on a global scale. Instead, it was part of a much larger NIH-funded multi-year study on high blood pressure. No attempt was made to randomly sample persons across regions or within regions. Instead, as the authors make clear in the inaugural paper, samples were deliberately chosen NON-randomly, so no conclusions can be drawn about the global human population that was not correctly sampled. I don’t understand why you find this point so difficult to comprehend.

            There’s no political correctness here, just concern for methodology and for not drawing ‘racial’ conclusions from a study that was never intended or designed to document differences in random samples across a range of ethnic or linguistic groups. Their samples were chosen mostly because they were logistically easy to obtain [USA and Taiwan]. No need to travel to remote or politically unstable areas of S. America, SE Asia or Africa!

            If you don’t believe me, here is an excerpt from the inaugural paper:

            GENOA (Genetic Epidemiology Network of Atherosclerosis) includes 3 field centers: the field center in Jackson, Miss, recruited African Americans; the field center in Starr County, Tex, recruited Mexican Americans; and the field center in Rochester, Minn, recruited non-Hispanic whites. The field centers in Jackson, Miss, and Rochester, Minn, recruited sibships containing at least 2 individuals with hypertension diagnosed before age 60. Because of the high prevalence of non–insulin-dependent diabetes in the Mexican American population, and the resulting confounding that this would create, the field center in Starr County recruited sibships containing at least 2 individuals with adult onset diabetes. All available full biologic siblings of the index sibling pairs were invited to participate in interviews, physical examinations, and phlebotomy.

            HyperGEN (Hypertension Genetic Epidemiology Network) has field centers in Birmingham Ala; Forsyth County, NC; Framingham, Mass; Minneapolis, Minn; and Salt Lake City, Utah. African American and non-Hispanic white hypertensive siblings and their parents (when available) and 1 [or more] untreated adult offspring of some of the siblings were recruited. Preference in ascertainment and recruitment was given to hypertensive sibships in which at least 1 of the subjects was classified as having severe hypertension. In addition to the core examination, stressed blood pressures and a variety of hypertension-related intermediate traits (eg, urinary aldosterone and catecholamines) were also measured.

            Source: Hypertension [2002] 39:3-9, emphasis added

            Ironically, in a later paper the investigators deliberately sampled ADMIXED individuals for mapping specific genes associated with hypertension, because human linkage mapping is easier in such samples than in non-admixed samples.

          • peterschaeffer says

            ““Race” has so many connotations and shades of meaning that biologists [including me] avoid the term, as I pointed out here:”

            Given the level of intolerance and repression in public life these days, it’s no surprise that phrases such as “continental origin”, “population group”, “ancestral population”, and/or “ancestry group” etc. are in vogue these days. Of course, honest people recognize that these phrases and just cloaks for what ordinary people call ‘race’.

            I am sure you are familiar with the sad saga of Larry Summers at Harvard or James Damore at Google (along with many, many others). The fact that their remarks were models of scientific balance and intellectual integrity didn’t help them a bit. The baying mob went after them and got the kill. Biology is a taboo subject in the PC/SJW/Cultural Marxist world. Indeed, reality is the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the academic deconstructionists.

            Quote from Larry Summers

            “Now, I’m somebody who believes very strongly in diversity, who resists racism in all of its many incarnations, who thinks that there is a great deal that’s unjust in American society that needs to be combated, but it seems to be that there is a kind of creeping totalitarianism in terms of what kind of ideas are acceptable and are debatable on college campuses.”

            “No biologist denies that human molecular lineages or clades can be identified by analyzing a non-recombining molecule like mitochondrial DNA. Recombination and admixture mean that a similar clear-cut analysis is impossible with nuclear genes.”

            Wow is that untrue. Take a look at any (any) of the following sources.

            See “Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed)” in the NYT by Amy Harmon. Check out the chart labeled “Myth #1 “Race has no biological basis”. Seems like genetic differentiation isn’t that hard using non-mtDNA. Of course, the very same Amy Harmon wrote another NYT article, “In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice”. Quote

            “genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA”

            See “Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation” Science (3/2008). See Fig 1. Seems like it wasn’t very hard for the authors to classify humanity.

            See “The universal genetic program and the custom-built phenotype: implications for race and sex” by Ed Hagen. See figures 2 and 3. Seems like it wasn’t very hard for the author to classify humanity using non-mtDNA.

            See “’How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’” by David Reich. Quote
            “Groundbreaking advances in DNA sequencing technology have been made over the last two decades. These advances enable us to measure with exquisite accuracy what fraction of an individual’s genetic ancestry traces back to, say, West Africa 500 years ago — before the mixing in the Americas of the West African and European gene pools that were almost completely isolated for the last 70,000 years. With the help of these tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.”
            Seems like it wasn’t very hard for the author to classify humanity using non-mtDNA.
            See also “The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race”. Quote “Recent research on the human genome challenges the basic assumption that human races have no biological basis. In this article, we provide a theoretical synthesis that accepts the existence of genetic clusters consistent with certain racial classifications as well as the validity of the genomic research that has identified the clusters, without diminishing the social character of their context, meaning, production, or consequences.”
            Seems like it wasn’t very hard for the authors to classify humanity using non-mtDNA.

            See also “To classify humanity is not that hard” by Razib Khan. Quote

            “The idea that human phylogeny is impossible is in the air, I have heard it from many intelligent people. I have no idea why people would be skeptical of it, the way it is presented by many scholars makes the implication clear that phylogeny is impossible, that differences are trivial. Both these are false impressions. I do not believe that the fact that mixed-race people’s real problems obtaining organs with the appropriate tissue match is a trivial affair. Human genetic differences have plenty of concrete impacts which are not socially constructed.”

            Seems like it wasn’t very hard for the author to classify humanity using non-mtDNA. Note that Razib Khan may be using the data from one of the other studies listed above.

            Note that none of the above studies/articles was authored by Risch and all of them are global, rather than U.S. focused. Also note that none appear to be mtDNA based.

            As for the Risch study, you assert that it was part of “larger NIH-funded multi-year study on high blood pressure”. Given that the authors weren’t looking for a biological basis for race (presumably), that would make the study more valuable, rather than less. You assert that “No attempt was made to randomly sample persons across regions or within regions”. Why should that make any difference… Unless DNA varies by region…

            Just a few days ago, I saw an article titled “White-People-Only DNA Tests Show How Unequal Science Has Become”. Once again we have an author suggesting (more than suggesting) that race and biology might be related. Why should that make any difference… Unless DNA varies by region…

          • peterschaeffer says

            JBN,

            You wrote “As the author notes, many ethnic groups are under-represented in this sample, so the study has limited validity.”. Seems like a very questionable statement. More than just flirting with biological racism.

            If race is just a social construct, then what possible difference could it make if certain ethnic groups are underrepresented? If the biological concept of race is invalid and no biological classification of race is possible, then ethnic under-representation can not possibly be a problem.

            You need to think about this a bit more.

          • Jack B Nimble says

            @peterschaeffer

            As usual, you have misunderstood my comments. I never said that mtDNA could classify humans, only that it could identify clades. I never said that there are no biological differences between the commonly named ‘races’ like Whites and Blacks, only that these differences have been grossly exaggerated in popular culture, and that the existence of admixture means that classification is impossible without adoption of arbitrary, non-scientific rules like the one-drop-rule.

            You are still misunderstanding the 2005 AJHG paper:

            “……..As for the Risch study, you assert that it was part of “larger NIH-funded multi-year study on high blood pressure”. Given that the authors weren’t looking for a biological basis for race (presumably), that would make the study more valuable, rather than less. You assert that “No attempt was made to randomly sample persons across regions or within regions”. Why should that make any difference… Unless DNA varies by region….”

            The authors deliberately recruited and sampled self-identified African-Americans. Persons with some African ancestry but who do not identify as African-American wouldn’t have been included. So their sample was biased in that regard [and was greatly restricted geographically, just USA and Taiwan]. As a result, their data can’t be fixed or used to make statements about global human population structure.

            If the goal is to understand human history in its entirety, instead of buttressing pre-conceived ideas on ‘racial’ differences in the USA, sampling has to include all human populations including areas of admixture. No one would make claims about the diversity of automobile models, or food dishes, or clothing styles in the whole world by just observing the USA and Taiwan, and the same is true of human diversity. Exhaustive sampling is critical!!

            After I wrote my last comment, I found the website of the Council for Responsible Genetics. They have lots of resources including this article by DeSalle and Tattersall–

            http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/GeneWatch/GeneWatchPage.aspx?pageId=532

            It is basically an early draft of a chapter from their new book–

            ‘Troublesome Science: The Misuse of Genetics and Genomics in Understanding Race’ by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle

            That chapter deals with all the issues you have raised, and it rebuts your major assertions from the human genomics literature. In the future, I will just point you and other readers [if anyone else is following this thread] to that book and that website.

            Here’s their comment on the Rosenberg studies [2002, 2005] and others:

            “…… Consider the following scenario: populations of a cosmopolitan organism are examined for their genetic variability by sequencing the genomes of individuals from Africa and Oceania. Not surprisingly some genetic differences are detected and found to be significant, in that some are unique to the individuals from Africa while others are unique to individuals from Oceania. A big hoopla could be made, and species existence could be claimed, but this would be poor science because the severity of the test is so low as to make the test meaningless. Why? Because the organism might also exist in Europe, the Americas and East Asia. By leaving out the populations “in between” one would miss the connectedness of the two populations initially sequenced. This phenomenon in widely-distributed populations has led many researchers of human genetics to the words of Frank Livingstone: “There are no human races, there are only clines.”

            Wade understands this. Here is how he describes a genome-level polymorphism study and how it can be interpreted in a taxonomic context. He first uses a 2002 study by Rosenberg et al.[3] to suggest that there are five clusters of people on the planet. This important study used genomic information (nearly 400 markers) from 1,000 people, and employed the STRUCTURE clustering approach. These 1,000 subjects “clustered naturally into five groups, corresponding to the five continental races.” This study was soon criticized by several researchers, who objected that intermediate populations needed to be examined to exclude potential clinal variation. Wade then describes the next study that Rosenberg et al. did, which was to increase the number of markers to nearly 1,000.[4] Not surprisingly, they obtained the same results. Wade uses this second study to suggest that more data in this case address the “cline” criticism. More data would certainly help – they always do – but the critical addition in this case would not be more genetic markers, but more individuals from different geographic areas. These were not supplied, but Wade nevertheless uses the expanded genomic information (i.e. the doubling of the number of markers) to state categorically that “They found the clusters are real.” (Italics added).

            More importantly for our argument about taxonomy, Wade goes on to discuss the inclusion of new information (using a newer genetic survey technology than in the Rosenberg et al. study) to address the problem. In this newer study, 1,000 different individuals were surveyed, but from 51 well defined geographic areas.[5] And instead of five major groups, the researchers in this study clustered their subjects into seven major groups. What is more, when even more subjects were added to Rosenberg’s data set, as was done by Sarah Tishkoff and her colleagues, 14 clusters were inferred.[6] You might have smelled a rat here. But here is how Wade handles this new information:

            “It might be reasonable to elevate the Indian and Middle Eastern groups (the two new ones) to the level of major races, making seven in all. But then many more subpopulations could be declared races, so to keep things simple, the five-race continent based scheme seems the most practical for most purposes.” (Chapter 5, p 102)

            Any self-respecting taxonomist would avoid the kind of language used by Wade here. It is unscientific and circular. We have heard the argument that just because inferences about the number of races vary, it doesn’t mean race doesn’t exist. An argument commonly used to shore up this view is that people disagree on the number of shapes, but shapes still exist. But this argument merely trivializes the definitions we use in science generally and taxonomy specifically.

            There are 6-7 billion human beings on the planet, and the best test of any hypothesis about human genomes and populations would include them all. Of course, this is not possible at present. But if it were possible, and the clustering were performed as in the two studies we refer to above, we wonder how many groups might fall out. We suspect that, depending on the markers used, it might be as many as the number of nuclear families there are on the planet. Certainly the patterns that would emerge from such a global analysis would not be anywhere near clear with respect to any definition of race that one could come up with. Clearly, clustering is inadequate on its own to address problems like this in taxonomy and systematics…..”

  17. Quiddam says

    If non-shared environment can be safely ignored because there is nothing we can do about it, then the same is even truer of genetics. So that is where the ideological bias is subtly inserted, and then informs all the rest. And it is the natural fallacy. It stops being descriptive when you stop caring about something because it is not useful to you (so a moral argument). In this case, it is not just a fallacy, but also it is internally inconsistent (colloquially called a lie). That is all there is to it.

    Comfort pointed out to the fact, if I understand him correctly, that heritability is actually a ceiling, so if it is 50% in a given environment, no matter how many studies you do on genetic traits, it can’t go over that. And in fact, both studies would be independent, so you can’t make genetic data to after that deny the environment, it is going above that ceiling. It’s common sense, but pretty easy to grasp. If his research does not do that, it is probably because of the tools he is using, which deny the environment or dismiss it from the go. Then his conclusion is simply a circular argument. If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    The study on shared environment is interesting, but going from that one study to conclude that no shared environment has any bearing on any outcome seems like an overgeneralization. The only thing you can safely say is that those variables put together don’t, which can partly be due to a diminishing return, as you add variable. I don’t know enough to be able to tell, but it goes against common sense if you take it literally. If it was true, then just putting your children in a basement with no food for a few years should not affect them in their future enterprise. Now, of course people are free to do what they want, I would just not take this seriously, it seems abusive, if not criminal.

    • Nick Ender says

      Quiddim

      Did you read the article? Everything you brought up was addressed. The problem is that very soon we will be able to do something about genetics. And they did not rule out environmental factors, just that those factors were negligible and/or impossible to quantify.

      Your comment is a great example of reading (if you did read it) what you want to into something. It’s clear as day. The article was very persuasive.

  18. Ray Andrews says

    All this twisting ourselves in knots to avoid knowing what we know because we are afraid that it will lead to Auschwitz (again). There is another solution: just view people as individuals rather than as instances of their Victim-Identity. A brilliant female mathematician is just what she is, regardless of how many other women are brilliant mathematicians. A black chess grandmaster is a grandmaster, irrespective of how many others there might be or not be. We can face the facts and the sky need not fall. Nobody worries that lefties are overrepresented among computer chip designers, we just don’t worry about it.

    • @Ray – This is the bottom line. Truly the solution to it all I agree…

      Now if we could just get people to get off the power high they are all on with tribe this and tribe that (I for one am a tribe of 1 or maybe 4)…

  19. Nick Ender says

    Oh man. I know this article wasn’t meant to be humorous but I was laughing out loud at some points. This whole conversation—or lack there of—is the absolute height of irony. Seriously, we are living in the Upside-down. I mean to have to relearn that gender is not a social construct (not entirely at least), and that population groups diverse enough to be distinguished from other population groups by eye may have varying genetic influences is just hilarious to me. And I know that it’s not flat out obvious, but for the love of god, it’s pretty close.

  20. Ahhh, I get why Toby Young is so keen to write articles about a topic he’s unqualified to comment on:

    “The most generous thing Plomin can bring himself to say about schools is that they matter, but they don’t make a difference. Don’t make a difference. There go the last 10 years of my life—poof.”

    He thinks that acknowledging IQ is heritable gives him an excuse for the failure of the “free schools” project he backed, where he wasted a whole bunch of state education funding setting up expensive schools that were no better than other state schools.

    Of course, just as his lack of expertise in education led him to fail, his lack of expertise in genetics shows when he tries to write on the topic. The extremes of anti-hereditarianism on the left are definitely silly, but it’s also silly to imply as he does that ‘race’ is a valid scientific concept, when variation between populations is way more complex than simplistic popular racial categories can capture.

    Maybe if he’d actually done a science degree, he’d see that education does have value if you want to actually learn to understand complex things, instead of just shitting out superficial thinkpieces.

  21. ccscientist says

    If one is concerned about outcomes, it should be noted that blacks are capable of doing better than they currently are. Children without a father do worse in all life outcomes, including years of school and chances of going to jail. As Sowell has noted, before the 1960s and welfare, blacks had about the same levels of marriage and employment (at lower wages of course) as whites and had a low imprisonment rate. Nothing ruins your financial prospects like going to jail. A recent study showed that black men who attend church had a 57% higher chance of becoming middle class. So huge gains are possible whatever the IQ debate says. However, the Left insists that it is racist to criticize black culture, even if it involves gangs and murder, so this avenue for improvement is not open to discussion.

    • Sure, the Black community has been the “beneficiary” of the single mummy welfare state, and any competent social scientist will admit single mummys are good at raising juvenile delinquents and criminals. The Black community has also been the “beneficiary” of open borders, whereby young Black men are replaced in low skill jobs by foreign workers who will work harder for less money, and are less likely to organize unions.

      But looking at these factors would tend to cast open borders and mainstream feminism in an unfavorable light, and the left is no more willing to have an honest discussion of the actual cultural factors that contribute to Black dysfunction than they will about genetics.

      Just read anything in the Washington Post or the NYT on “racism in the criminal justice system” and count how many times they bring up the Black homicide rate (which has run about 6x to 8x times the white homicide rate for decades). Wouldn’t you think that that might be a factor in why there is a persistent “racist” difference in incarceration rates?

      Lies, obfuscation, propaganda, that is the Progressive Left, when it is not spewing anti-white national socialist rants.

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