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Off-topic Comments, and Nick Wade's Book

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41BYpEQumNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Of late people have been leaving off-topic comments early on in threads. I don’t understand why this is happening, as I always post (or try to) an “Open Thread” every Sunday. I don’t post enough at this point where this isn’t usually on the front page, or near it. Please make use of it! From now on I’m going to just not publish off-topic comments because it seems a little rude that people don’t post them in “Open Thread”. I see the beginning of all comments as I have to approve them manually right now, so there’s no reason to hijack another thread. It just annoys me, and probably makes me less likely to actually respond.

A lot of these off-topic comments lately have been about Nick Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. The reason I haven’t reviewed it is that I haven’t read it, and the reason I haven’t read it is that I don’t have the time. It is easy for me to read an article or paper, and then put up a quick response. Or perhaps one of my own analyses of data sets I have lying around. To read a book and then review it takes a lot more time. Second, there have already been a lot of reactions on the book, so I don’t see what I would have to add. Nick actually told me around four years ago that he was thinking about writing this book, so its appearance did not surprise me at all, though the mainstream reaction seems more muted than I would have guessed.


Some general points though. First, the modern American consensus that race is a social construct is true but trivial. It’s true because a de facto race such as “Latinos/Hispanics” were created in the 1960s by the American government and elite for purposes of implementing public policies such as affirmative action. Obviously this is a classic case of a social construct, as the quasi-racial category is based upon social, not biological, factors (Latinos/Hispanic can explicitly be of any race, though implicitly it’s transformed into a non-white class in the United States). A group like “black Americans” ranges from people with considerably less than 50% African ancestry to more than 90% African ancestry (though almost always black Americans who are not immigrants from Africa or first generation offspring of those immigrants have some segments of European ancestry). The problem is that people move from this non-controversial point, that some racial categories are social constructs, to the assertion that all racial categories are social constructs, and that phylogenetic clustering of human populations is irrelevant or impossible. It is not irrelevant, or impossible. Human populations vary, and that variation matters. Human populations have specific historical backgrounds, and phylogenetics can capture that history through methods of inference.

Moving from phylogenetics to population genetics, there is the question about whether population-genetic dynamics such as migration, drift, mutation, and selection have resulted in significant variation across human populations. Yes, they have. Human populations have significant functional differences which track regional adaptation, and also correlate to an extent with racial clusters, and phylogenetic history. The details here are empirical, and you need to take into account what we’re learning about human demographic history to make sense of how and when adaptation occurred. This where the controversial aspects of Wade’s book come in, because he argues that there are behavioral differences across populations due to distinctive evolutionary histories. Complex traits like behavior are often subject to numerous upstream causal variations, so untying the knot is not easy.

But I don’t think it’s impossible, and I suspect there are indeed behavioral differences between populations due to genetic differences between populations. The problem is that we haven’t really done enough research in this area to talk about the genetics of it in anything more than a speculative fashion, and complex traits which are less controversial and more tractable than behavior or cognition, such as height, have already presented difficulties for researchers despite extensive devotion of resources. But the truth of the matter in this area will come out at some point. As it is right now, it does indeed seem that the small differences in height between Northern and Southern Europeans are due at least in part to differences in frequencies of alleles which are known to influence height.

 

20 Comments to "Off-topic Comments, and Nick Wade's Book"

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  1. Robert Ford
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    It seems like the East Asian tendency to be quiet/passive could be genetic. E. Asians born and raised outside of East Asia tend to be pretty close to what you’d guess, right? “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” might be a saying that fits their behavior rather than one that sculpts it. I guess this wouldn’t be a surprise as higher IQ people aren’t often the belligerent. Anyone have thoughts?

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  2. Roundup of Book Reviews of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance | Occam's Razor
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    […] Razib Khan comments. […]

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  3. Rudy Weitz
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    With so much dangerous and irresponsible speculation coming out of the social sciences for the last 100 years, Wade’s reasoned thoughts on the genetic basis for human cultural evolution should be widely welcomed.

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  4. pseudoerasmus
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    I frequently see population geneticists or biological anthropologists categorically demanding to see the genomic evidence for claims about the biological origins of racial or ethnic variations in some behavioural trait, like IQ or time preference or whatever. “What alleles have been isolated and what traces of selection have been identified?” That’s of course a very tall order since, as Razib points out, it’s difficult to tease out the genomic correlates of a complex physical trait like height.

    But do such critics make the same demands for all evolutionary speculations ? The evolutionary literature high & low has always brimmed full of speculations about selection mechanisms. Hell, Richard Dawkins has had a whole career coming up with just-so stories of natural selection. While sex-selective arguments in evolutionary pschology have been a wee bit more controversial, they still don’t meet the kind of heated resistance from scientists that racial & ethnic arguments seem to do. Can you even have theoretical biology without inferences from phenotype ?

    So I’ve always thought there’s an egregious double standard applied to racial & ethnic variation in behavioural traits.

    Besides, it’s not like the inferences are entirely without evidence. Behavioural geneticists (who are psychologists, not geneticists) using twin & adoption studies have been able to make pretty reasonable inferences about the heritability of numerous traits. It’s a pretty solid finding of theirs, that the “shared familial environment” is small to nonexistent, depending on the trait. Yet no one has come up with a workable model of a cultural transmission of traits for the still viable part of the environmental variance (the non-shared environment) — despite its frequent occult invocation. In fact is there a workable model of cultural transmission of traits, at all ? Cultural transmission is just ad hoc, usually.

    Behavioural geneticists sometimes get criticised for supposedly confusing narrow-sense & broad-sense heritability. In such critiques phenotypes should be seen as a non-linear function of genes & environment (GxE) rather than, as behavioural geneticists model it, G + E (linear). But even if the behavioural geneticists have overestimated narrow-sense heritability by assuming that the coefficients of broad-sense heritability = narrow-sense, there is still a striking pattern of correlations (in IQ, for example) rising with the degree of genetic relatedness : Identical twins raised in same family (~0.85) > Id. twins raised separately (~0.75) > fraternal twins in same family (~0.55) > siblings in same family (~0.45) > parents & biological children living together (~0.4) > fr. twins raised separately (~0.35) > siblings raised separately (~0.25) > parents & biological children given up for adoption (~0.2) ≈ adoptive parents & children in same family (~0.2) > cousins (~0.15) > unrelated children in same family (~0.05)

    So is there a double standard in criticising research based on “inferences from social phenotype” ? Or is there a cultural-methodological gulf amongst theoretical evolutionary biology, inferential social science, and empiricists who put more stock reams of genomic data or controlled observations of fruitflies in the lab ?

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  5. A week of links - Evolving Economics
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    […] There are plenty of reviews of Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Robert VerBruggen‘s is one of the more interesting. We’ll be throwing a lot of social science under the bus if we apply Andrew Gelman’s filter more generally. Greg Cochran points to some errors and Razib offers a perspective. […]

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  6. Eugene Costa
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    Ah, apparently this fellow has read neither Herodotus nor Schopenhauer, nor the author of this “book”,whatever it is.

    This is a bit like a famous statistical historian who analyzed a mountain of census data and voting returns from various areas and, guess what–came to the “scientific conclusion” that throughout much of the 19th Century and early 20th century, voting patterns in the US were largely tied to religion.

    Of course, all the politicos and genuine US historians, who had known this as obvious, just shrugged in awe. Not at the drift of the data but at the complete waste of time this fellow’s combination of “science” and innate thickness was.

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  7. Razib Khan
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    So I’ve always thought there’s an egregious double standard applied to racial & ethnic variation in behavioural traits.

    well, not always. and yes, there is a double standard. or a higher standard.

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  8. Vijay
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    What is your take on Nicholas Wade’s firing/quitting/leaving? Do you believe it is due to the book?

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  9. Razib Khan
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    he took a buy-out 3 years ago:

    http://observer.com/2011/12/new-york-times-buyouts-leaked-12192011/

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  10. syon
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    Via Luke Ford, Wade talks about some of the difficulties that he faced writing the book:

    “Luke: “What were the biggest challenges in writing this book?”

    Nicholas: “I think the biggest challenge was that I had so few scientific sources to guide me in interpretation because this is an area where academics cannot tread for fear of being accused of racism and careers destroyed. All of the coverage of this topic in the scientific literature has the basic facts but few people draw them together. So I found the lack of guidance difficult, even more so when I came to the second part of the book. Historians and economics just never consider human evolution as a variable. They just assume all of the populations they are dealing with are interchangeable and that natural selection never need be an explanation to even consider. So there again, there was no guidance for someone trying to figure out the possible consequences of the fact that human evolution has continued and has never come to a stop.””

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  11. genobollocks
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    Remember our bet on the pre-registered replication study of stereotype threat work?

    I’m not 100% happy with it, because it seems underpowered based on the meta-analytic effect sizes I had seen (it was apparently based on the original study which should be subject to winner’s curse, ie. initial effect size overestimation), but I doubt another pre-registered replication of ST will fly in soon, so from my side the bet is on :-)

    http://ow.ly/i/5x1ZP the article should be out by May 19.

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  12. Razib Khan
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    genobollocks, update me on an open thread when it comes out. thanks

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  13. Andrew
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    I don’t know whether this is an open thread question or a Nicholas Wade question ?
    As far as I understand it was once widely believed that evolution happened to slowly to have caused changes between races/ancestry groups, ie since the time of modern humans. It now seems that there are examples (lactase persistence, altitude adaptations) that are more recent. Reading some of the responses to Nicholas Wade’s book it seems that many people assume because examples of relatively recent evolutionary changes exist there is no time constraint on these changes, such that major changes can occur in a couple of hundred years. What is your reasonably conservative estimate of the time frame for a change to a complex polygenetic trait like IQ or height.

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  14. linkfest: A Troublesome Inheritance | hbd* chick
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    […] Off-Topic Comments, and Nick Wade’s Book from razib (emphases from razib, too) – “Human populations vary, and that variation […]

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  15. Andrew,

    One of the more interesting exercises to be found in Falconer and Mackey’s Introduction to Quantitative Genetics is problem 20.2 (whose answer is found at the end the book).

    The exercise is based on data from a study of whites in Minnesota published in 1971. The question is, how much is IQ shifted per generation based on selection factors for IQ, where fitness is measured by family size?

    Certainly some rough estimates need to be introduced to address the issue. But the answer is an increase of app. 1 IQ point per generation.

    That’s damned fast.

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  16. syon
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    From Cochran’s review in WEST HUNTER:

    “When Wade talks about adaptation to high altitude among Tibetans occurring in only 3000 years, it makes me itch. Sure, it’s Rasmus Nielsen’s mistake, but I itch. When he says that Ashkenazi Jews are 5% to 8% European – when the real number is at least 45%, probably higher – I know it’s Harry Ostrer’s mistake, based on an outright lie by Doron Behar, but I still itch.”

    I thought that Ashkenazi ancestry was about where Cochran puts it, but he says that Wade is plunking for 5 to 8%. Normally I tend to accept Cochran in such matters, but Wade is a reputable guy. Is there a case for Ashkenazi Jews being only 5 to 8% European? Or is Wade just plain wrong?

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  17. Razib Khan
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    95% sure he (the researchers he is citing at the minimum) wrong

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  18. Andrew
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    @candid observer
    You wrote app. 1 IQ point per generation
    Sorry is that .1 or 1 point

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  19. Andrew,

    It is approximately 1 full IQ point per generation.

    In the solution to the exercise, two assumptions at the either end of a range were considered expressing in effect the relation of family size to IQ. Under one assumption, the increase in IQ was 0.95, and under another, the increase was 1.35 IQ points. It was expected that the correct figure would lie within that range.

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  20. A week of links | EVOLVING ECONOMICS
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    […] There are plenty of reviews of Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Robert VerBruggen‘s is one of the more interesting. We’ll be throwing a lot of social science under the bus if we apply Andrew Gelman’s filter more generally. Greg Cochran points to some errors and Razib offers a perspective. […]

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