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Steven Pinker

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Genealogy—the study of who a person’s ancestors are—is viewed by American intellectuals as a quaint hobby of only individual interest. But it’s actually one of the most under-explored paths to better understanding humanity.

So I was quite pleased to see the cover story in the August 6, 2007 issue of The New Republic, The Genealogy Craze in America: Strangled by Roots [Free registration required, or read it here.] by Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and author of the outstanding 2002 bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Pinker has become perhaps the pre-eminent spokesman for the human sciences. His next book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, will be out in September.

I was especially happy because Pinker’s article cogently articulates many of the ideas about the overlooked importance of kinship that he and I kicked around via email in the late 1990s, and which have provided the basis for many of my articles ever since.

In The New Republic, Pinker graciously credits me with having forecast the present chaos in Iraq:

“In January 2003, during the buildup to the war in Iraq, the journalist and blogger Steven Sailer published an article in The American Conservative in which he

warned readers about a feature of that country that had been ignored in the ongoing debate. As in many traditional Middle Eastern societies, Iraqis tend to marry their cousins. About half of all marriages are consanguineous [between first or second cousins. A second cousin is someone who shares a great-grandparent]… The connection between Iraqis’ strong family ties and their tribalism, corruption, and lack of commitment to an overarching nation had long been noted by those familiar with the country. … Sailer presciently suggested that Iraqi family structure and its mismatch with the sensibilities of civil society would frustrateany attempt at democratic nation-building.”

Pinker also notes how little highbrow thought is given to genealogythese days:

“For all its fascination, kinship is a surprisingly neglected topic in the behavioral sciences. A Martian reading a textbook in psychology would get no inkling that human beings treated their relatives any differently from strangers. Many social scientists have gone so far as to claim that kinship is a social construction with no connection to biology.”

In reality, we more easily team up with our relations:

“… blood relatives are likely to share genes. To the extent that minds are shaped by genomes, relatives are likely to be of like minds. Close relatives, whether raised together or apart, have been found to be correlated in intelligence, personality, tastes, and vices.

This has profound social and political consequences:

“The overlap of genes among relatives does more than make them similar; it … sets the evolutionary stage for feelings of solidarity and affection at the emotional level, and that in turn shapes much of human life. In traditional societies, genetic relatives are more likely to live together, work together, protect each other, and adopt each other’s orphaned children, and are less likely to attack, feud with, and kill each other.”

Despite its tremendous predictive power, the genealogical perspective hasn’t caught on in academia. Why not?

One technical issue that confuses people: you need to be able to picture family trees in your head. Yet, the messy-looking family tree loaded with nephews and cousins that your uncle sends you in his Christmas card gives the wrong impression. To be able to generalize about genealogy, you need to imagine a cleaner, more abstracted diagram of your relation to your biological ancestors.

Let’s take a look at a two different types of family tree for, appropriately enough, Charles Darwin’s family.

The Darwin clan has maintained a level of distinguished achievement from the 18th Century into the 21st that few other families can match, furnishing ten Fellows of the famous Royal Society of scientists over six straight generations.

Here, Wikipedia provides a typical family tree with Darwin in the fourth row center. You can click on this yellow and blue image to see a larger, more legible version, but it’s still a seemingly shapeless mess.

While disorderly, this common format is highly informative. It showssome of Darwin’s many illustrious relatives, such as his grandson Bernard Darwin, a lawyer who pioneered golf writing in the London Times, his great-nephew Ralph Vaughn Williams, the admired composer, and, most relevantly, his half-cousin Sir Francis Galton, the polymath who founded, among much else, the scientific study of human heredity.

Galton was perhaps inspired to begin his inquiry into Hereditary Genius(the title of his pioneering 1865 book) by the fact that the one grandparent he shared with his famous cousin was Erasmus Darwin, who had been the most noted doctor in England and a prominent intellectual.

Still, for all the richness of its content, few could glance at this convoluted diagram and be reminded of such simple truths as that everybody has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so forth.

In contrast, here is a schematic of the family tree of Charles Darwin and his forebears as the scientist himself might have pictured it:

16 8 4 2 1
William Darwin        
  Robert Darwin      
Anne Waring        
    Erasmus Darwin    
John Hill        
  Elizabeth Hill      
Elizabeth Alvey        
      Robert W. Darwin  
Charles Howard        
  Charles Howard      
Mary Bromley        
    Mary Howard    
Paul Foley        
  Penelope Foley      
Elizabeth Turton        
        Charles Darwin
Thomas Wedgwood        
  Thomas Wedgwood      
Mary Leigh        
    Josiah Wedgwood    
  Mary Stringer      
      Susannah Wedgwood  
Thomas Wedgwood        
  Richard Wedgwood      
Mary Hollins        
    Sarah Wedgwood    
  Susan Irlam      

(Of course, while everybody has this same structure of ancestors, the number of descendents differs wildly. Darwin, for instance, had ten children. Thus, family trees of descendents can’t be standardized.)

Despite the elegance of this schematic, some problems inherent in the study of ancestry leap out.

  • First: few people know every name in their family tree back more than a few generations.

Darwin is one of the more famous men in history, and he lived in a culture obsessed with pedigree. He himself came from eminently respectable stock—besides his famous paternal grandfather, ErasmusDarwin, his maternal grandfather Josiah Wedgwood founded in 1759 what remains today the most famous brand name in fine china.

And yet, by the time we go back four generations, we only know the names of 12 of Darwin’s 16 great-great-grandparents. Another generation back, and we are missing 14 of the 32 names, including one on the more traditionally posh paternal side of his family.

  • Second: cousin marriage is not exclusively confined to theMiddle East.

Darwin’s grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, the great potter, married Sarah Wedgwood, a third cousin. (Darwin himself married Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin. Unsurprisingly, their children were sickly and/or brilliant.)

  • Third: the sheer number of direct biological ancestors becomes mentally overwhelming the farther back you go in your family tree.

Ten generations in the past (at 25 years per generation, that’s about 250 years ago), your family tree has 1024 slots to fill. That’s too large a number for most people to deal with. So, genealogists try tosimplify ancestry, often by just tracking the surname through the direct male lineage. By way of illustration, the Darwin family name has been tracked back to William Darwin who died in 1542.

Beyond ten generations ago, the ancestor overload keeps getting worse, doubling with each generation. Twenty generations ago, you had room for 1,048,576 ancestors—a meg. Thirty generations—a gig. Forty generations (roughly around 1000 AD), you had more than a trillion openings for ancestors.

  • Fourth: nobody ever had a trillion separate living ancestors … obviously.

As Pinker explains:

“But the fact that our ancestors never covered the surface of the Earth ten deep shows that medium-distant-cousin marriages must have been the rule rather than the exception over most of human history… “

For example, due to Darwin’s Wedgwood grandparents being third cousins, the 64 slots in his family tree six generations before him were filled by only 63 separate people, with one Wedgwood doing double duty.

Because travel was so slow in the past, even in cultures that didn’tendorse cousin marriage a boy was more likely to marry the girl next door. So, couples often ended up related to each other by many genealogical pathways that added up to the equivalent of being a close relation.

Anthropologist Robin Fox, author of the classic Kinship and Marriage,observed:

“If we could only get into God’s memory, we would find that eighty per cent of the world’s marriages have been with at least second cousins. In a population of between three and five hundred people, after six generations or so there are only third cousins or closer to marry. During most of human history, people have lived in small, isolated communities of about that size, and have in factprobably been closer to the genetic equivalent of firstcousins, because of their multiple consanguinity.”

Sounds creepy. But Pinker says:

“This chronic incest, by the way, did not turn our ancestors into the cast of Deliverance. The degree of relatedness, and hence the risk that a harmful recessive gene will meet a copy of itself in a child, falls off a cliff as you move from siblings to first cousins to more distant cousins.”

If you could plot the actual unique individuals in your family tree, theywould initially fan out into the past, doubling with each generation, just like the number of slots in the family tree. But at some point in the past, the number of individuals would start to get fewer in number,ultimately forming a diamond-shaped rather than fan-shaped family tree. Genealogists label this pedigree collapse.

Demographer K.W. Wachtel estimated that an Englishman born in1947 would have had two million unique ancestors living at the maximum point around 1200 AD, 750 years before. There’d be a billion open slots in the family tree in 1200, so each real individual would fill an average of 500 places. Pedigree collapse would set in farther into the past than 1200.

Pedigree collapse delivers a profound implication about how the biology of race is rooted in the biology of family, even though so many fashionable thinkers today claim race doesn’t even exist. (But in my Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, the first definition of “race” is “1. A group of persons related by common descent orheredity,” so it’s hard to see how it can’t exist.)

Why only two cheers? Because, unfortunately, Pinker tries to avoiddiscussing the relation between genealogy and race. So his New Republic article is ultimately misleading.

Pinker echoes Steve Olson, author of Mapping Human History, who claims that everybody living today has a common ancestor within the last few thousand years. Pinker writes:

“The same arithmetic that makes an individual’s pedigree collapse onto itself also makes everyone’s pedigree collapse into everyone else’s. We are all related–not just in the obvious sense that we are all descended from the same population of the first humans, but also because everyone’s ancestors mated with everyone else’s at many points since that dawn of humanity. … a single mating between people from two ethnic groups results in all their descendants being related to both groups in perpetuity.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But the two Steves are getting themselves bogged down in essentially symbolic thinking—in which having one ancestor from racial group X is seen as in some way justas important as having millions of ancestors from racial group Y.

Ironically, Pinker makes gentle fun of genealogy hobbyists for gettingexcited about finding that they are distantly related to famous people:

“And before you brag about the talent or courage you share with some illustrious kinsman, remember that the exponential mathematics of relatedness successively halves the number of genes shared by relatives with every link separating them. You share only 3 percent of your genes with your second cousin, and the same proportion with your great-great-great-grandmother.”

But exactly the same math explains why intellectuals shouldn’t get soexcited about the fact that, say, tens of millions of white people in America are a tiny bit black. Neither means much.

The more significant insight we can garner from the necessaryexistence of pedigree collapse is not that everybody is related to everybody else, but that every person is much more related to somepeople than to other people.

Say that we somehow knew the name of every single ancestor of Charles Darwin who was alive 750 years before his 1809 birth. And say that, somehow or other, one of Darwin’s two million unique ancestors who populate the one billion open slots in his family tree was, say, n!Xao, a Bushman of the Kalahari Desert, from whom he was descended by one pathway.

That would certainly be interesting. But it wouldn’t be important in determining Darwin’s genetic makeup—because he’d also turn out to be descended from, say, William, a farmer in Wessex, by 500 differentpaths.

And then there would be Catherine and John and Ann and Mary and …

Add them all up and, yup! Darwin would be, for all practical intents andpurposes, English rather than Bushman.

As I reported earlier this year in, Oxford population geneticist Bryan Sykes estimates that the ancestors of living natives of the British Isles arrived there, on average, an astonishing 8,000 years ago, or 320 generations. Back that far, Darwin’s family tree wouldhave an unthinkably large number of slots to fill—a number with 96 zeros—but the number of unique individuals would be quite small.

In other words, we can be sure that Darwin was, for all practical purposes, racially English.

And that’s what’s missing from Pinker’s otherwise superb article: anexplanation of how kinship means not just family, but race.

As we’ve seen, pedigree collapse implies that when you go back enough generations, inbreeding become the overwhelming fact ofgenealogy.

And, as I pointed out in in 2002 in “It’s All Relative: Putting Race in Its Proper Perspective,” the most useful definition of a racial group is “a partly inbred extended family”.

Sure, the genealogical relationships between two randommembers of a racial group are usually not close. But they are numerous enough that they sum up to a sizable amount.

We can see these hereditary similarities within races all around us. The genetic anthropologist Henry Harpending of the U. of Utah has pointed out that if he had never met his grandchildren before, he’d have a hard time picking them out by sight from the other children playing on the street. Yet, he’d have very little difficulty visually distinguishing children by race.

Let’s try this experiment with Darwins. On the left is Charles Darwinand on the right is his beloved grandson Bernard Darwin, the golfjournalist. Notice the Darwin family genes?

Well, uh … maybe …

Perhaps you could pick Bernard out as Charles’ grandson if you had enough pictures, but what is more immediately evident is that,genetically speaking, they’re a couple of white guys.

According to Harpending’s genetic math, on average, people are as closely related to other members of their subracial “ethnic” group (e.g., Japanese or Italian) versus the rest of the world as they are related to theirgrandchildren or nephews and nieces versus the rest oftheir ethnic group.

That’s highly important to understanding how the world works.

With that caveat registered, let’s let Pinker have the last word:

“… the almost mystical bond that we feel with those whom we perceive as kin continues to be a potent force in human affairs. It is no small irony that in an age in which technology allows us to indulge these emotions as never before, our political culture systematically misunderstands them.”

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website features his daily blog.]

(Republished from VDare by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Steven Pinker 
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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the bestseller by MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, is one of the landmark reading pleasures of the year. With a style that’s both magisterial andentertaining, Pinker smacks around the dominant bad idea of the 20th Century: that all divergences from equality must be the fault of the social environment.

In the name of equality and social engineering, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, andPol Pot murdered tens of millions. And milder forms of this madness survive in the West today. (See, for example, my recent articles on the truth-telling teacher or William McGowan’s book Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism.)

When I interviewed Pinker, I asked him:

Sailer: Aren’t we all better off if people believe that we are not constrained by our biology and so can achieve anyfuture we choose?

Pinker: People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, “Give us schmaltz!” They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

Reading The Blank Slate is particularly enjoyable to me because Pinkerand I are so much on the same wavelength. We even have similar expansive concepts of evidence, relying not just on refereed journals but also on Tom Wolfe, Dave Barry, and the great Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

Further, Pinker is an enthusiastic subscriber to my iSteve mailing list. And arguments that I’ve made over the years pop up throughout The Blank Slate.

For example, according to Pinker, his section on IQ on pp. 149-150embellishes upon various of my articles. My VDARE series on how to help the left half of the bell curve was apparently a particularly fruitful source. Here’s an excerpt from The Blank Slate with links to my supporting articles:

“I find it truly surreal to read academics denying theexistence of intelligence. Academics are obsessed with intelligence. They discuss it endlessly in considering student admissions, in hiring faculty and staff, and especially in their gossip about one another. Nor can citizens or policymakers ignore the concept, regardless of their politics. People who say that IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to executing a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child’s IQ by five points, or the Presidential qualifications of George W. Bush.”

Several readers have complained that while The Blank Slate is excellent on sex and individual differences, it wimps out on racial differences. Myresponse: “Thank God.” Pinker is not only a major scientist, while I’m merely a journalist, but he’s also much more articulate. If he had written a book about race, there would be nothing for me to say.

Further, it’s important to realize how far Pinker has come over the years. He started out completely under the spell of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, the founders of evolutionary psychology, which has succeeded on politically-correct campuses by stripping from Edward O. Wilson’s discipline of sociobiology its emphasis on explaining humandifferences.

I’ve given Pinker a hard time over the years for this curious sentence in the conclusion of his first big book for a general audience, 1994′s The Language Instinct:

“… to a scientist interested in how complex biological systems work, differences between individuals are so boring!”

Clearly, this was wrong even in a technical sense. Scientists figuring out how the brain works have made much of their progress by comparing healthy individuals to, say, individuals who survived tragic accidents inwhich nine inch nails were driven through particular parts of their brains.

But the quote also catches the self-defeating ideological limitations that evolutionary psychology imposes upon itself to avoid political persecution. After all, we humans don’t find individual differencesboring at all. To us, they are quite possibly the juiciest subject in the universe.

Evolutionary psychology soon ran into a fundamental epistemological problem: data require contrasts. In other words, similarities anddifferences. Not surprisingly, evolutionary psychology has finished up largely focused on sex differences, which while they are certainly close to universal, are still very much human differences.

Pinker’s next big book, 1997′s

How the Mind Works, was much less dogmatic. But it was still stuck in the tradition of Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of “experimentalpsychology,” which also focuses on similarities. Pinker largely ignored differential psychology, founded by Charles Darwin’s smarter half-cousin Francis Galton.

In The Blank Slate, though, Pinker is much closer to synthesizing the two warring, but complementary, traditions.

On the subject of race, Pinker has progressed dramatically in just the last year. As recently as 2001, he told Skeptic magazine

“If our society did not divide people by race then the question of racial differences would be too scientifically boring for anyone to bother with. Races are biologically superficial, and they tie in to no real theory of how we evolved, so there is no coherent explanation as to why races should differ biologically.”

This assertion that hereditary groups “tie in to no real theory of how we evolved” would have come as quite a surprise to Charles Darwin. After all, he entitled his big book On the Origin of Species by Means ofNatural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

This is not a minor quibble: without inherited racial variation, therecould be no evolutionary process. All of Pinker’s theories of how evolution affected humanity would have no foundation to stand upon.

Now, however, in The Blank Slate, Pinker’s definition of race has vastly improved (p. 144):

Nowadays it is popular to say that races do not exist but are purely social constructions. Though that is certainly true of bureaucratic pigeonholes such as “colored,” “Hispanic,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” and the one-drop rule for being “black,” it is an overstatement when it comes to human differences in general. The biologicalanthropologist Vincent Sarich points out that a race is just a very large and partly inbred family. Some racialdistinctions thus may have a degree of biological reality, even though they are not exact boundaries between fixed categories. Humans, having recently evolved from a single founder population, are all related, but Europeans, havingmostly bred with other Europeans for millennia, are onaverage more closely related to other Europeans than they are to Africans or Asians, and vice versa. Because oceans, deserts, and mountain ranges have preventedpeople from choosing mates at random in the past, thelarge inbred families we call races are still discernible, each with a somewhat different distribution of gene frequencies. In theory, some of the varying genes could affect personality or intelligence (though any such differences would at most apply to averages, with vast overlap between the group members). This is not to say that such genetic differences are expected or that we have evidence for them, only that they are biologically possible.

(Ahem! The formulation “a race is just a very large and partly inbred family” does not, in fact, come from my friend Vince Sarich, Berkeley professor emeritus and one of the founders of geneticanthropology. As far as I can confirm from Google searches, I myself introduced it in 1998 and continually polished it up through lastsummer’s summation in VDARE.COM “It’s All Relative: Putting Race in Its Proper Perspective.”)

The scientific study of race involves far more than the rather worn-out topic of black-white IQ differences. However, on this topic, Pinker now says that genetic differences aren’t needed to account for the black-white IQ gap. He thinks environmental differences are quite big enough.

That’s a perfectly valid scientific hypothesis–one that, unlike his earlier dogmatic dismissal of race, can be tested.

So let’s test it. As Pinker says: “People are surely better off with the truth.”

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and

movie critic for

The American Conservative. His website features his daily blog.]

(Republished from VDare by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Steven Pinker 
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Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

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