Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Genes and Race: The Distant Footfalls of Evidence:  A review of Nicholas Wade’s book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History“.

Despite the great care the author below took not to tread on any toes, waves of shrieks emanated from the always irrational Left in response to it.  As a result SciAm issued an apology for publishing it.  The author, Ashutosh Jogalekar,  was eventually fired over it.  He is a chemist of apparently Indian origin so has obviously missed some of the political indoctrination that dominates the social sciences and humanities in America today. 

Also reproduced below by the same author is an article about briliant physicist Richard Feynman.  The author deplores episodes of sexism in Feynman's life  but makes the perfectly reasonable sociological observation that the sexism concerned was typical of Feynman's times so should be judged in that context.  That article REALLY caused explosions at SciAm.  They were in such a spin over it that they at first de-published it.  Open censorship has a bad name, however, so they later re-published it.

SciAm is not really interested in science, however, as their advocacy for the global warming cult shows. Theory contradicted by the evidence does not bother them. They are really The Unscientific American.  A conservative boycott of the publication  would be fitting -- JR

In this book NYT science writer Nicholas Wade advances two simple premises: firstly, that we should stop looking only toward culture as a determinant of differences between populations and individuals, and secondly, that those who claim that race is only a social construct are ignoring increasingly important findings from modern genetics and science. The guiding thread throughout the book is that “human evolution is recent, copious and regional” and that this has led to the genesis of distinct differences and classifications between human groups. What we do with this evidence should always be up for social debate, but the evidence itself cannot be ignored.

That is basically the gist of the book. It’s worth noting at the outset that at no point does Wade downplay the effects of culture and environment in dictating social, cognitive or behavioral differences – in fact he mentions culture as an important factor at least ten times by my count – but all he is saying is that, based on a variety of scientific studies enabled by the explosive recent growth of genomics and sequencing, we need to now recognize a strong genetic component to these differences.

The book can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part details the many horrific and unseemly uses that the concept of race has been put to by loathsome racists and elitists ranging from Social Darwinists to National Socialists. Wade reminds us that while these perpetrators had a fundamentally misguided, crackpot definition of race, that does not mean race does not exist in a modern incarnation. This part also clearly serves to delineate the difference between a scientific fact and what we as human beings decide to do with it, and it tells us that an idea should not be taboo just because murderous tyrants might have warped its definition and used it to enslave and decimate their fellow humans.

The second part of the book is really the meat of the story and Wade is on relatively firm ground here. He details a variety of studies based on tools like tandem DNA repeats and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that point to very distinctive genetic differences between populations dictating both physical and mental traits. Many of the genes responsible for these differences have been subject to selection in the last five thousand years or so, refuting the belief that humans have somehow “stopped evolving” since they settled down into agricultural communities. For me the most striking evidence that something called race is real comes from the fact that when you ask computer algorithms to cluster genes based on differences and similarities in an unbiased manner, these statistical programs consistently settle on the five continental races as genetically distinct groups – Caucasian, East Asian, African, Native American and Australian Aboriginal. Very few people would deny that there are clear genetic underpinnings behind traits like skin color or height among people on different continents, but Wade’s achievement here is to clearly explain how it’s not just one or two genes underlying such traits but a combination of genes – the effects of many of which are not obvious – that distinguish between races. The other point that he drives home is that even minor differences between gene frequencies can lead to significant phenotypic dissimilarities because of additive effects, so boiling down these differences to percentages and then interpreting these numbers can be quite misleading.

Wade also demolishes the beliefs of many leading thinkers who would rather have differences defined almost entirely by culture – these include Stephen Jay Gould who thought that humans evolved very little in the last ten thousand years (as Wade points out, about 14% of the genome has been under active selection since modern humans appeared on the scene), and Richard Lewontin who perpetuated a well-known belief that the dominance of intra as opposed to inter individual differences makes any discussion of race meaningless. As Wade demonstrates through citations of solid research, this belief is simply erroneous since even small differences between populations can translate to large differences in physical, mental and social features depending on what alleles are involved; Lewontin and his followers’ frequent plea that inter-group differences are “only 15%” thus ends up essentially translating to obfuscation through numbers. Jared Diamond’s writings are also carefully scrutinized and criticized; Diamond’s contention that the presence of the very recently evolved gene for malaria resistance can somehow be advanced as a dubious argument for race is at best simplistic and at worst a straw man. The main point is that just because there can be more than one method to define race, or because definitions of race seem to fray at their edges, does not mean that race is non-existent and there is no good way to parse it.

The last part of the book is likely to be regarded as more controversial because it deals mainly with effects of genetics on cognitive, social and personality traits and is much more speculative. However Wade fully realizes this and also believes that “there is nothing wrong with speculation, of course, as long as its premises are made clear”, and this statement could be part of a scientist’s credo. The crux of the matter is to logically ask why genes would also not account for mental and social differences between races if they do account for physical differences. The problem there is that although the hypothesis is valid, the evidence is slim for now. Some of the topics that Wade deals with in this third part are thus admittedly hazy in terms of corroboration. For instance there is ample contemplation about whether a set of behavioral and genetic factors might have made the West progress faster than the East and inculcated its citizens with traits conducive to material success. However Wade also makes it clear that “progressive” does not mean “superior”; what he is rather doing is sifting through the evidence and asking if some of it might account for these more complex differences in social systems. Similarly, while there are pronounced racial differences in IQ, one must recognize the limitations of IQ, but more importantly should recognize that IQ says nothing about whether one human is “better” or “worse” than another; in fact the question is meaningless.

Wade brings a similar approach to exploring genetic influences on cognitive abilities and personality traits; evidently, as he recognizes, the evidence on this topic is just emerging and therefore not definitive. He looks at the effects of genes on attributes as diverse as language, reciprocity and propensity to dole out punishment. This discussion makes it clear that we are just getting started and there are many horizons that will be uncovered in the near future; for instance, tantalizing hints of links between genes for certain enzymes and aggressive or amiable behavior are just emerging. Some of the other paradigms Wade writes about, such as the high intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews, the gene-driven contrast between chimp and human societies and the rise of the West are interesting but have been covered by authors like Steven Pinker, Greg Cochran and Gregory Clark. If I have a criticism of the book it is that in his efforts to cover extensive ground, Wade sometimes gives short shrift to research on interesting topics like oxytocin and hormonal influences. But what he does make clear is that the research opportunities in the field are definitely exciting, and scientists should not have to tiptoe around these topics for political reasons.

Overall I found this book extremely well-researched, thoughtfully written and objectively argued. Wade draws on several sources, including the peer reviewed literature and work by other thinkers and scientists. The many researchers whose work Wade cites makes the writing authoritative; on the other hand, where speculation is warranted or noted he usually explicitly points it out as such. Some of these speculations such as the effects of genetics on the behavior of entire societies are quite far flung but I don’t see any reason why, based on what we do know about the spread of genes among groups, they should be dismissed out of hand. At the very least they serve as reasonable hypotheses to be pondered, thrashed out and tested. Science is about ideas, not answers.

But the real lesson of the book should not be lost on us: A scientific topic cannot be declared off limits or whitewashed because its findings can be socially or politically controversial; as Wade notes, “Whether or not a thesis might be politically incendiary should have no bearing on the estimate of its scientific validity.” He gives nuclear physics as a good analogy; knowledge of the atom can lead to both destruction and advancement, but without this knowledge there will still be destruction. More importantly, one cannot hide the fruits of science; how they are used as instruments of social or political policy is a matter of principle and should be decoupled from the science itself. In fact, knowing the facts provides us with a clear basis for making progressive decisions and gives us a powerful weapon for defeating the nefarious goals of demagogues who would use pseudoscience to support their dubious claims. In that sense, I agree with Wade that even if genetic differences between races become enshrined into scientific fact, it does not mean at all that we will immediately descend into 19th-century racism; our moral compass has already decided the direction of that particular current.

Ultimately Wade’s argument is about the transparency of knowledge. He admonishes some of the critics – especially some liberal academics and the American Anthropological Association – for espousing a “culture only” philosophy that is increasingly at odds with scientific facts and designed mainly for political correctness and a straitjacketed worldview. I don’t think liberal academics are the only ones guilty of this attitude but some of them certainly embrace it. Liberal academics, however, have also always prided themselves on being objective examiners of the scientific truth. Wade rightly says that they should join hands with all of us in bringing that same critical and honest attitude to examining the recent evidence about race and genetics. Whatever it reveals, we can be sure that as human beings we will try our best not to let it harm the cause of our fellow beings. After all we are, all of us, human beings first and scientists second.



Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon

I fell in love with Richard Feynman when I was in middle school. That is when I discovered “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman” in my dad’s bookshelf. For the first few hours I laughed till tears were rolling out of my eyes. This was not science, it was choice entertainment of the highest order. Whether he was fixing radios by “thinking”, blowing up the physics lab at Princeton to test his thoughts on a water sprinkler experiment or cracking top-secret safes at Los Alamos for pure amusement, there was no one like Feynman. This perception was shared by almost all his colleagues and millions of Feynman fans around the world. I was hooked....

My first foray into taking a more critical view of Feynman came from his once arch-rival and contender for most brilliant theoretical physicist in the world, Murray Gell-Mann. Unlike many others Gell-Mann was never swayed by the Feynman legend, so he provides a good conduit through which to view the latter’s personality. Although dismissing his status as some kind of a physics God, Gell-Mann genuinely admired Feynman’s brilliance and originality – on this count there seems to be unanimous consensus – but his take on Feynman’s personal quirks is more revealing. The main thing about Feynman that really got Gell-Mann’s goat was that Feynman seemed to “spend a huge amount of time generating anecdotes about himself”. Now that much would be clear to anyone who does even a perfunctory reading of “Surely You’re Joking…” but Gell-Mann’s opinion of Feynman seems to indicate a much more deliberate effort on Feynman’s part to do this. Feynman often used to portray himself as some kind of working class city slicker thrown in the middle of distinguished, Sanskrit-quoting, tea-imbibing intellectuals at Princeton or Los Alamos, but the fact was that he relished being a contrarian among these people. A more careful reading of “Surely…” makes it clear that he got into thorny situations deliberately. One suspects that much of this was simply the result of boredom, but whatever the reason, it does give credence to Gell-Mann’s observation about him trying hard to generate stories about himself.

The deliberate generation of these stories could occasionally make Feynman appear like a jerk. A case in point concerns an anecdote when he kept the tip for a meal hidden beneath an inverted glass full of water. He wanted to illustrate to the waitress a clever way of sliding the glass over to the edge of the table, collecting the water without making it spill, and retrieving the tip. But of course he did not actually tell the waitress this; he wanted to simply play a prank so he left it to her to figure it out. The incident is actually trivial and those who would complain loudly about the poor woman having to mop up the water just to get her tip are exaggerating their case, but it does capture a central thread in the Feynman narrative, the physicist’s often casual habit to inconvenience other people simply to prove a point, play a prank or conduct an experiment. He did this all his life, and a longer view of his life and career gives you the feeling that most of his colleagues put up with it not because they actually enjoyed it, but because they benefited from his brilliance too much to really bother about it.

What started bothering me more the deeper I dug into Feynman’s life was something quite different: his casual sexism. The latest insight into this comes from Lawrence Krauss’s book “Quantum Man” which does a great job explaining the one thing about Feynman that should matter the most – his science. But Krauss also does not ignore the warts. What startled me the most was the fact that when he was a young, boyish looking professor at Cornell, Feynman used to pretend to be a student so he could ask undergraduate women out. I suspect that this kind of behavior on the part of a contemporary professor would almost certainly lead to harsh disciplinary action, as it should. The behavior was clearly, egregiously wrong and when I read about it my view of Feynman definitely went down a notch, and a large notch at that. Feynman’s apparent sexism was also the subject of a 2009 post with a sensationalist title; the post pointed out one chapter in “Surely…” in which Feynman documented various strategies he adopted for trying to get women in bars to sleep with him. Neither were Feynman’s escapades limited to bars; more than one of his biographies have documented affairs with two married women, at least one of which caused him considerable problems.

It’s not surprising to find these anecdotes disturbing and even offensive, but I believe it would also be premature and simplistic to write off Richard Feynman as “sexist” across the board. People who want to accuse him of this seem to have inadvertently cherry-picked anecdotes; the nude painting in topless bars, the portrayal of a woman in a physics lesson as a clueless airhead, the propensity to lie on the beach and watch girls. But this view of Feynman misses the big picture. While not an excuse, several of his 1950s adventures were probably related to the deep pain and insecurity caused by the death of his first wife Arlene; by almost any account the two shared a very deep and special bond. It was also during the late 40s and early 50s that Feynman was doing some of his most intense work on quantum electrodynamics, and at least a few of the situations he narrates were part of him letting off steam.

Also importantly, while some of Feynman’s utterances and actions appear sexist to modern sensibilities, it’s worth noting that they were probably no different than the attitudes of a male-dominated American society in the giddy postwar years, a society in which women were supposed to take care of the house and children and men were seen as the bread winners. Thus, any side of Feynman that raises our eyebrows is really an aspect of a biased American society. In addition, Feynman’s ploys to pick up girls in bars were – and in fact are – probably practiced by every American male seeking companionship in bars, whether consciously or unconsciously; what made Feynman different was the fact that he actually documented his methods, and he was probably the only scientist to do so. In fact we can be thankful that society has now  progressed to a stage where both genders can practice these mate-seeking strategies on almost equal terms, although the gap indicated by that “almost” deserves contemplation as an indication of the unequal bargaining power that women still have. The point though is that, whatever his actions appear like to a modern crowd, I do not think Richard Feynman was any more sexist than a typical male product of his times and culture. The fact that society in general behaved similarly to what he did of course does not excuse the things he did, but it also puts them in perspective. I think recognizing this perspective is important partly to understand how our views on sexism have changed for the better from 1950 to 2014. The encouraging development is that actions by Feynman – and male society in general – that were considered acceptable or amusing in 1950 would quite rightly cause instant outrage in 2014. We still have a long way to go before both genders achieve parity in science, but the change in attitudes is definitely encouraging.

However the fact that simply dismissing Feynman as sexist is problematic is ascertained by this 1999 article from the MIT Tech (by a woman) which gives us a more complete picture of his views toward women. As far as we know, there is no evidence that Feynman discriminated against women in his career; the letters he writes to women in the collection of letters edited by his daughter indicate no bias. Both male and female students admired him. His sister Joan documents how he was always supportive of her own career in physics. At one point he came to the aid of a female professor filing a discrimination suit at Caltech. In addition he was a devoted husband to his first and third wife and a loving and supportive father to his daughter who in fact tried hard to get her interested in science.

The irony thus seems to be that, just like Feynman was fond of generating cherry picked anecdotes about himself, we seem to be fond of generating skewed, cherry picked anecdotes about him that accuse him of sexism. In fact most conversations about Feynman seem to center on a few select anecdotes that showcase some side of his character, whether positive or negative, and this anecdotal reading of his life is something he himself encouraged. But a more complete view of Feynman’s life and career indicates otherwise. My own perceptions of Feynman have changed, and that’s the way it should be. At first I idolized Feynman like many others, but over time, as a more careful reading of his life revealed some of the unseemlier sides of his character, I became aware of his flaws. While I still love his lectures and science, these flaws have affected my perception of his personality, and I am glad they did. There are things that he said or did that are clearly wrong or questionable at the very least, but we can at least be grateful that we have evolved to a stage where even the few instances of his behavior that have been documented would not be tolerated on today’s college campuses and would be instantly condemned. As a man I do not now admire Feynman as much as I did before, but I am also glad to have a more complete understanding of his life and times.

However I think it’s also important that we don’t make the same mistake that the “Feynman industry” has made – focus on a part of the celebrated physicist’s life and ignore many others. Feynman was a brilliant physicist, Feynman was occasionally sexist – and sometimes disturbingly so- and Feynman also supported women in science. One reason why it’s interesting to explore these contradictory sides of Feynman’s personality is because he is not a scientist who is usually regarded as complicated and contradictory, but the facts indicate that he was. Feynman himself did a kind of disservice by sending a few wrong messages through the recounting of his adventures, and others have performed an equal disservice by embellishing his achievements and papering over his ugly side. But knowing his emphasis on honesty and integrity in science – one ethic that does consistently shine forth from the narrative of his life – he would almost certainly want us to do better. We can condemn parts of his behavior while praising his science. And we should.


There is a  new  lot of postings by Chris Brand just up -- on his usual vastly "incorrect" themes of race, genes, IQ etc


For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH,  POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated) and Coral reef compendium. (Updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten.

List of backup or "mirror" sites here or  here -- for when blogspot is "down" or failing to  update.  Email me  here (Hotmail address). My Home Pages are here (Academic) or  here (Pictorial) or  here  (Personal)


No comments: