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A1NAcdjOTNL._SL1500_ In about 12 hours I will have Xunzi: The Complete Text delivered to my Kindle. I’m very excited, because Xunzi is an individual who I very much admire for his insights, and, whose thought was extremely influential in Chinese history. Yet from just noting that unlike Confucius and Mencius he does not have a Latinized name, you can infer that his status and prominence is not as great as these two figures. One reason given is that his reputation declined in early China because of his influence upon the Legalist school. These were the ideological brains behind the first Chinese truly unitary imperial state, which collapsed due to its insufferable totalitarianism. But the case can be made that Xunzi’s thought lived on in the substance of what became “State Confucianism”, and would echo down to the early 20th century (in fact the modern Chinese Communist party seems to be resurrecting State Confucianism). Therefore, to understand Xunzi is to some extent to understand a system of social-political governance which maintained itself robustly over ~2,000 years. The continuity of the Han dynasty, 2,000 years ago, down to the Qing dynasty (the Manchus), which fell in the early decades of the 20th century, is such that a mandarin of the earlier period could at least comprehend the basic underlying foundations of the state the society in 1900. Imagine transposing a Roman senator to Italy in 1900.

The great antagonists of the early Confucians, and perhaps the polar opposite of Xunzi’s pessimistic and realist world-view, were the Mohists. Because we know of the Mohists mostly through the commentaries and recollections of their Confucian enemies we must be careful about assuming we know in exact details of what they truly espoused, but one of the clear issues where they seemed to differ from Confucians is that they held to a very flat and universal sense of human affection, affinity, and empathy. In contrast, the Confucians acknowledged that by their nature humans exhibited concentric circles of affinity, from the family outward. The details here may vary from society to society, but it strikes me that we must acknowledge that the Confucians were making peace with a fundamental reality of our evolutionary history as social apes whose lives revolved around different degrees of relations. The Mohist ideal of universal love has an abstract simplicity and Utopian attraction, but it can never serve as the basis of a well ordered society, as opposed to the guiding principle of very particular individuals who are distinctive from the rest of society (religions like Christian and Buddhism seem to make a nod to this when they allow for the creation of religious societies who notionally discard ties with their families and natal communities).

{BA845C5B-D10D-4626-9894-69157F818F3D}Img400 At the heart of Mohism was a great impulse. If compassion toward others is good, why not maximize compassion to all human beings? Why not? The abstraction is elegant in its plain and forceful logic. Ethical ratiocination of this sort is at the heart of works such as John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice or Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. But just as the simple elegant maxims of ancient Mohism were marginalized by the messier and less coherent, but more pragmatic, teachings of Confucius and his heirs, modern political philosophy tends to intersect only marginally with modern political policy and economy (actually, State Confucianism fused classical Confucianism with the practical statecraft of Legalism, while later Neo-Confucianism added a metaphysical element, stimulated and borrowed from Buddhism). The Utopian radicalism of Mohism though turns out not be an ancient Chinese novelty. Rather, it issues forth repeatedly in the human experience whenever millenarian Utopianism seems the only solution to the tragedies of the age. Christian radicals in 3rd century Anatolia, Protestant separatists, and the Lingayat movement all touched the same human impulse which resulted in the elaboration of Mohism as an answer to the anarchy of the age. And yet all these movements were tamed and made peace with the world as it is, engaging in evolution rather than revolution, incrementalism instead of overturning the order (social and religious movements which don’t make peace with reality are not long for this world).

51nxI22xWCL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_ Why is any of this relevant today? Because today we are arguing about the same things that the ancients did, and that our descendants will (assuming limitations on post-human transformations). It comes to mind when you read op-eds such as Markus Bergström’s in The Washington Post, Losing the birth lottery. Though a relatively mild and pragmatic case for open borders, it ends with this sentence: “While many opportunities in life are unequally distributed, our legal rights must always be universal.” This sort of universalism is deeply appealing to many. It leads to the emergence of trans-national ideologies, from Marxism to anarcho-capitalism in politics, and of course the world religions. These are systems of government and life which are true, and right, in all times and all places. They presume a sort of leveling of human existence, one way of flourishing above all. Though not as nakedly idealistic, the same mentality has been co-opted by the trans-national capitalist elites. The Wall Street Journal has been proposing open borders for decades, and the global elite sees no downsides in free flow of goods, people, and capital, all of which they can leverage and benefit off of. Prosaically these elegant models seem to overlook the reality of organically developed institutions in which markets and societies operate. To give an extreme example, adding 150 million Cantonese Chinese to Japan would change Japan in many ways which would have economic and social consequences. But rather than rehashing the scholarship on the benefits of social cohesion, it is important perhaps to suggest here that this universalist world-view forgets that humans differ, and that one system may not be beneficial in the same way to all.

Bergström’s logic could just as apply to families, as opposed to nations. Some people are born to families, and endowed with genetics, which give them greater opportunities in this world. Attempts to eliminate this problem, such as in Israeli kibbutzim, have failed. The original collectivist ethos of Black Bear Ranch commune in Northern California began to disappear once individuals began having children, and separating from the whole to create their own nuclear families. One of the ironies of scares over “family values” is that in reality you can push human social arrangements only so far before they veer back toward what is comfortable for us. State Confucianism succeeded, and was a robust ideological glue for the Chinese polity for 2,000 years, because it extended and modulated natural human impulses. It did not attempt to recreate humans de novo based on an abstraction. An elegant but thin fragment of ourselves can not stand against the windows of our deep evolutionary past.

Drill But the tendency to push logic to its limits, beyond the normal range of human behavior and sentiment, is not a limited concern. I think it crops up in this Michael Brendan Dougherty piece, The troubling persistence of eugenicist thought in modern America. In The American Conservative Noah Millman responds:

My own view is that eugenic motivations aren’t suspect as such, but perfectly normal. They just need to be tempered with a whole lot of humility, the recognition that the fantasy of total control is and always will be just that—a fantasy—and the consciousness that if we can’t imagine the joy of the inner life of someone different from us (someone with Down Syndrome, someone deaf, someone gay, someone who sucks at tennis), that’s our problem, not an objective sign of their deficiency. And coercion in a matter as intimate as childbearing should have to clear a very high bar for justification—and I can’t imagine eugenic motivations ever legitimately clearing that bar. Bearing all that in mind, I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting to have the healthiest children we can, and doing what we can to get what we want. Including thinking about their genes.

The_Blank_Slate A GATTACA scenario is not only unrealistic, but probably not a world most of us would want to live in. But there’s a long way between here and there. The Golden Mean is not an exotic or amazing principle, but a way to temper our noble idealism, and yet not be reduced to our most self-interested and basest instincts. The fact that the vast majority of parents would prefer that their children not have Down Syndrome does not mean that democratic majorities would today assent to sending Down Syndrome patients to the gas chambers. Slippery slope arguments are often interesting, but usually they are not relevant, because we as human beings tend to be able to quite easily anchor ourselves somewhere along the slope, balancing our intuitions, reason, and background. Speaking of which, Millman asks straightforwardly whether Dougherty issue isn’t with abortion, and that is a policy and ethical debate which is so polarized that it doesn’t reflect the true common sense perspectives of most humans. No matter what they say most pro-life people don’t think a first trimester abortion is equivalent to premeditated homicide of an individual which has been born and has an independent existence. And no matter what the likes of Amanda Marcotte claim, having an abortion is never going to be like going to the dentist to fill a cavity. No matter what some activists might wish for, but abortion will always have some stigma, just as it will likely remain legal (and is becoming legal in more, not fewer, jurisdictions). Developmental biology does not avail us of clean and simple solutions in this area. The fetus means more to us than a developing collection of cells, but it is not a full person in the sense that your neighbor is a full person.

Where this leaves us is that we need to go case by case, accept that there is some validity in meliorism, but also expect limits to Utopianism because of the modal human hardware/software package. Slavery was the norm among post-hunter gatherer societies for most of the past 10,000 years, but has been abolished over the past 100. Previous ethical-religious philosophies often suggested that it was an institution which did not elevate humanity, or allow society to fully flourish, but they understood that it was an unfortunate basic feature of human existence. But that necessary existence was only conditional on particular social-economic systems of production and organization. Once those systems began to loosen, total abolition could emerge as a viable and realistic option.* But more simple and elementary human realities are not so easily abolished or reformed. The family in some way seems to be a structure and unit which is necessary, and can not be eliminated, even if on the margins it can be modified into distinct and diverse forms. Human prejudices and preferences for particular sorts, whether it be the opposite sex (on the whole), or people of similar kind (whether it be racial, religious, ethnic, or class), are likely going to persist in some form because we are a “groupish” species. Not only have we flourished in groups, our cognitive architecture is geared toward multiple levels of sociality and familiarity. We will never flatten the chain of affinities.

Much of this is banal and obvious to most. But nevertheless it needs to be elaborated, because the commanding heights of our culture are assaulted by the propagandists of logic and reason applied in domains where feelings are preeminent. As David Hume asserted, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

* Note that some societies, such as Han Imperial China, tended to limit the prevalence of chattel slavery for various reasons, in contrast to others to which they are compared, such as Imperial Rome, where it flourished.

• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: Sociobiology 
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Just pre-ordered a Kindle Edition of Napoleon Chagnon‘s new book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. I didn’t even know this was coming out next week, but The New York Times Magazine has a piece up, The Indiana Jones of Anthropology, which chronicles the controversial the life & times of Chagnon. My previous posts about cultural anthropology were written with no knowledge about the impending publication of this article, or Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir. But the timing is fortuitous. One complaint by rightfully enraged cultural anthropologists (I didn’t deny that I was attacking their profession in the most extreme terms) is that I didn’t really offer an argument. As I said, the reason is that life is short and I’m not interested in convincing anyone.

But here’s a section of the article above which reflects just what I was alluding to:

The A.A.A.’s El Dorado task force was the most ambitious investigation to date but was undermined by a lack of due process. The group went so far as to interview Yanomami in Venezuela but, according to Chagnon, failed to give him an opportunity to respond to its verdicts. As Gregor and Gross put it, what the inquiry most clearly demonstrated was not Chagnon’s guilt or innocence but rather anthropology’s “culture of accusation,” a “tendency within the discipline to attack its own methods and practitioners.”

At least one task-force member had doubts about the exercise. In April 2002, shortly before the group released its report, Jane Hill, the task force’s chairwoman and a former president of the A.A.A. wrote an e-mail to a colleague in which she called Tierney’s book “just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that).” Nevertheless, she said, the A.A.A. had to act: anthropologists’ work with indigenous groups in Latin America “was put seriously at risk by its accusations,” and “silence on the part of the A.A.A would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity.”

Again, this doesn’t prove anything. But it isn’t as if the perception that cultural anthropology tends to eat its own came out of a vacuum. Personally I find the behavior of Jane Hill even more disturbing. Is it truly the case that on occasion an innocent man must die so that we should respect the law?

Ultimately I have to admit that over the years I’ve been a lot less sure about the evolutionary framework that Napoleon Chagnon works within. Not because I reject evolutionary frameworks, but because the devil is in the details of the logic and data. Chagnon is right, evolution needs to be brought into the discussion. But if so, it has to be done subtly and with due respect for the complexity of the topic. Shouting “Nazi!” is only going to distract from the hard working of figuring the shape of reality.

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John Horgan has a long review of Robert Trivers’ long overdue book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. I really don’t care how well Trivers analyzed the topic, this is such a rich and important issue that I can’t help but think he must have hit some important mines of insight. I haven’t read The Folly of Fools, but I can recommend Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers. It’s not just a compilation of papers, there are biographical chapters which flesh out the context behind a particular idea at a given time. Trivers also shows up prominently in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate and Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species.

• Category: Science • Tags: Evolutionary Psychology, Sociobiology 
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A new paper in PLoS Biology is rather like the last person to leave turning the light off. Evolutionary psychology as we understood it in the 1980s and 1990s is over. Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology:

None of the aforementioned scientific developments render evolutionary psychology unfeasible; they merely require that EP should change its daily practice. The key concepts of EP have led to a series of widely held assumptions (e.g., that human behaviour is unlikely to be adaptive in modern environments, that cognition is domain-specific, that there is a universal human nature), which with the benefit of hindsight we now know to be questionable. A modern EP would embrace a broader, more open, and multi-disciplinary theoretical framework, drawing on, rather than being isolated from, the full repertoire of knowledge and tools available in adjacent disciplines. Such a field would embrace the challenge of exploring empirically, for instance, to what extent human cognition is domain-general or domain specific, under what circumstances human behaviour is adaptive, how best to explain variation in human behaviour and cognition. The evidence from adjacent disciplines suggests that, if EP can reconsider its basic tenets, it will flourish as a scientific discipline.

By “evolutionary psychology” the authors are not addressing a field just at the intersection of evolutionary biology and psychology. Rather, they’re speaking to the group of scholars who came to the fore in the 1990s under the leadership of Leda Cosmides and John Toobey as UCSB. These thinkers adhered to a specific set of parameters outlined above in regards to the basic theoretical framework of evolution and cognition through which their empirical research was framed. I can not speak to the cognitive psychology, the presumed massive modularity for example, but it does seem that their assumptions about human evolutionary history are a touch antiquated. Sometimes I wonder if this might be a feature and not a bug. I’ve been told personally by two people who knew the goings on at the UT Austin evolutionary psychology program that there wasn’t much emphasis on keeping up to date on the most recent work in evolutionary or genetic science (or at least there wasn’t in the mid-2000s, which is when my sources were familiar with the state of the research being done). The impression I received is that that would just muddy the waters and weaken the theoretical basis of the research program.

But sometimes the bedrock needs to be shaken up. It seems that time is upon us. From what I can gather evolutionary psychology was very much a response to the sociobiology controversies of the 1970s. On the one hand there was a real scientific distinction. Many of the sociobiologists were fundamentally biologists dabbling in social theory, while evolutionary psychology was more often dominated by social scientists who took biology seriously. But the reality is that sociobiology by 1980 had a major public relations problem, especially in the social sciences, which was dominated by what Toobey and Cosmides termed the Standard Social Science Research Model. The evolutionary psychology paradigm was more constrained and tightly focused, and its emphasis on human universals helped it mollify somewhat the charges of ‘genetic determinism.’ After all, genetic determinism is a lot less threatening when it is proposing theses which one finds appealing and praiseworthy. A few of the sociobiologists, such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, were not always keen on discarding the older term, but I think most understood that it was a small price to pay for continuing the program of synthesizing human behavior and biology.

Today there’s no need for half-measures or the erection of a hardy citadel robust and rigid in theory against the hordes of the SSRM. E. O. Wilson’s vision of consilience is coming to fruition not through a top-down project, but via the bottom-up reality of the emergence of a disparate array of scientific fields whose tentacles reach into varied domains, and bind them together. Nature is one after all, it is just our perception and cognition which is fragmented. The realization of a comprehensive and near total understanding of human genetic variation at the sequence level is within reach as more and more human genomes get cataloged. At this point talking about the “Paleolithic Mind” and the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” seems quaint. One must be cautious, knowing that a genomic region may have been the target of powerful selective forces within the last ~10,000 years does not usually transparently tell us exactly the functional fitness rationale for that adaptive event. But it’s early days yet.

The letter of Toobey and Cosmide’s paradigm will be brutally violated in the coming decades. That’s science, the smasher of idols. But the spirit of their enterprise will live on. After all, despite some of the over enthusiasms of their acolytes they were never believers that biology dictated all. Rather, they were pushing back against the tendency to see ‘culture’ as a plastic and omnipotent deus ex machina in the mental furniture of social scientists. I place culture itself in quotes because the same spirit which scientists working with cold and positivist aims also animates those anthropologists who operate within the small ‘naturalistic paradigm’ of that discipline, who aim to reduce culture down to its constituent parts, rather than leave it to be a protean mystery.

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I would say The Mismeasurement of Man is one of the most commonly cited books on this weblog over the years (in the comments). It comes close to being “proof-text” in many arguments online, because of the authority and eminence of the author in the public mind, Stephen Jay Gould. I am in general not particularly a fan of Gould’s work or thought, with many of my sentiments matching the attitudes of Paul Krugman in this 1996 essay:

….Like most American intellectuals, I first learned about this subject [evolutionary biology] from the writings of Stephen Jay Gould. But I eventually came to realize that working biologists regard Gould much the same way that economists regard Robert Reich: talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right. Serious evolutionary theorists such as John Maynard Smith or William Hamilton, like serious economists, think largely in terms of mathematical models. Indeed, the introduction to Maynard Smith’s classic tract Evolutionary Genetics flatly declares, “If you can’t stand algebra, stay away from evolutionary biology.” There is a core set of crucial ideas in his subject that, because they involve the interaction of several different factors, can only be clearly understood by someone willing to sit still for a bit of math. (Try to give a purely verbal description of the reactions among three mutually catalytic chemicals.)

But many intellectuals who can’t stand algebra are not willing to stay away from the subject. They are thus deeply attracted to a graceful writer like Gould, who frequently misrepresents the field (perhaps because he does not fully understand its essentially mathematical logic), but who wraps his misrepresentations in so many layers of impressive, if irrelevant, historical and literary erudition that they seem profound.

Yes, I am aware that some biologists would disagree with this assessment of Gould’s relevance. But I remain generally skeptical of his arguments, though over the years I have become more accepting of the necessity of openness to a sense of ‘pluralism’ when it comes to the forces which shape evolutionary processes. And certainly there is interesting exposition in a book like The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, but there was no need for ~1500 pages (Brian Switek did fine with a little over ~300 pages in covering similar territory as the first half of the book). Whatever valid positions Gould staked out in opposition to excessive adaptationist thinking on the part of the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy of the mid-20th century, his penchant for self-marketing and repackaging of plausible but not particularly novel concepts was often destructive in my experience to the enterprise of a greater public understanding of science.

When I was in 8th grade my earth science teacher explained to the class proudly that he was not a “Darwinian,” rather, he accepted punctuated equilibrium. One must understand that much of his audience was Creationist in sympathy because of the demographics of the region, but I was frankly appalled by his explicit verbal rejection of “Darwinism,” because I knew how the others would take it (my best friend in the class was a Creationist and he kept chuckling about “monkeys turning into men” throughout the whole period). I remained after to further explore this issue with my teacher. I expressed my bewilderment as best as I could, and it came to pass that my teacher explained that he had arrived to his skepticism of the rejected model of Darwinism via the works of Stephen Jay Gould. With his silver tongue Gould had convinced him that the future of evolutionary science lay with punctuated equilibrium, which had already overthrown the older order. A 13 year old can only go so far, and so I moved on.

But this incident made be very suspicious of Gould’s influence on people from that point onward, and I became even more skeptical after I found out that the sophistic proponent of what later become Intelligent Design, Phillip E. Johnson, was mining his more rhetorical jeremiads against Darwinism like it was Tombstone in the 19th century. To his credit Gould delivered an aptly savage review to Johnson’s Darwin on Trial for his lawyerly misrepresentations, but Stephen Jay Gould himself sowed the seeds for this by portraying himself to the public as the scourge of the priests of the Church of Darwin. His contributions to the broader canvas of evolutionary biology (that is, outside of his academic specialty in paleontology) are probably as substantive as Richard Dawkins’ ideas are to the understanding of the role of religion in society. Gould was an intellectual polemicist of the first order.

This goes back decades. In the 1970s he was a member of the Sociobiology Study Group, whose intellectual weight helped lead to a groundswell of activism against E. O. Wilson’s project of a biologically informed approach to social science. Eventually Wilson was accused of genocide and doused with cold water at the 1979 AAAS meeting (Gould disassociated himself from that sort of “infantile” behavior, but in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate it seems clear that Wilson believed that the Harvard professors who saw dark intentions behind his project of fusing social science with biology helped foster the atmosphere of intimidation).

This is all a long way of saying that I give Gould his due and acknowledge his influence on the ideas of Elisabeth Vrba. But when he steps outside of the domain of paleontology in general I dismiss appeals to Gouldian authority, whether it be in evolutionary biology on a grand philosophical scale, or the triviality of human races as biological entities.

And so we come to a paper in PLoS Biology, The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. Now, let me make one thing clear: the authors are not racists. They make that clear repeatedly; they abhor racism. But they also abhor falsity. They find that Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that Samuel Morton’s cranial measurements of 19th century skulls were influence by his bias due to his belief in the superiority of the white race is false. Why? While Gould reanalyzed the data, the authors measured the original skulls (or more precisely, half of the original skulls). Here’s the abstract:

Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and science historian, argued that “unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm” because “scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth”…a view now popular in social studies of science…In support of his argument Gould presented the case of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and physical anthropologist famous for his measurements of human skulls. Morton was considered the objectivist of his era, but Gould reanalyzed Morton’s data and in his prize-winning book The Mismeasure of Man…argued that Morton skewed his data to fit his preconceptions about human variation. Morton is now viewed as a canonical example of scientific misconduct. But did Morton really fudge his data? Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted? We investigated these questions by remeasuring Morton’s skulls and reexamining both Morton’s and Gould’s analyses. Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould. In fact, the Morton case provides an example of how the scientific method can shield results from cultural biases.

In their measurements they found that there were errors in Morton’s methods: but they were not systematically biased in the direction which his preference for white racial superiority would have led him to. On the contrary, if anything his errors went in the other direction. The prose in the paper is pretty straightforward, eminently polite, and charitable to Gould in light of the fact that he is no longer with us and able to respond forcefully. Here’s Box 2 for a flavor:

Box 2. Did Morton manipulate his samples? Gould states that “as a favorite tool for adjustment, Morton chose to include or delete large subsamples in order to match grand means with a priori expectations”…This criticism stems from the fact that each of Morton’s broader racial samples (e.g., “Indian”) were composed of multiple population subsamples, typically with differing mean cranial capacities. Thus it is possible to alter the overall “race” means by manipulating their constituent subsamples, and Gould charges that Morton did just that in order to obtain the results he expected.

For example, Gould compares the cranial capacities in Morton’s 1839 and 1849 publications and finds that “Morton’s Indian mean had plummeted to 79 in3.… But, again, this low value only records an increasing inequality of sub-sample size. Small-headed (and small-statured) Peruvians had formed 23 percent of the 1839 sample; they now made up nearly half the total sample”…However, the “Indian” mean was 79.6 in3 in Morton 1839 and 79.3 in3 in Morton 1849, so the “plummet” Gould refers to was all of 0.3 in3. More importantly, Morton in 1849…explicitly calculated his overall “Indian” average by taking the mean of three subgroups: Peruvians, Mexicans, and “Barbarous Tribes”—this is readily apparent in Morton’s table reprinted in Gould…As such, the percentage of the overall “Indian” sample composed of Peruvians is irrelevant to the overall mean, as it is only the Peruvian average which impacts the overall value. The Peruvian average changed by less than 1 in3 from Morton 1839 (n = 33) to Morton 1849 (n = 155).

Clearly, Morton was not manipulating samples to depress the “Indian” mean, and the change was trivial in any case (0.3 in3). In fact, the more likely candidate for manipulating sample composition is Gould himself in this instance. In recalculating Morton’s Native American mean, Gould…reports erroneously high values for the Seminole-Muskogee and Iroquois due to mistakes in defining those samples and omits the Eastern Lenapé group entirely, all of which serve to increase the Native American mean and reduce the differences between groups.

And so it goes on. The authors are concerned that Gould’s “proof” of Morton’s bias is now a case study in many universities. But the bias is probably not there. And so it is with many of Gould’s assertions and poses in my opinion. The thickness of his prose may persuade the many, but persuasion by bluff does not entail correctness.

Humans are creatures of bias, and we are shaped by our age. I recently reread an old edition of Descent of Man on my Kindle and I definitely glossed over some racist assertions by Charles Darwin (and I’m certainly one who has a low outrage threshold, whatever the opinion). Darwin may have been a liberal of his age, but he was still a man of his age at the end of the day. This does not negate his greatness as a scientist. Reality is. We may see through the mirror darkly, but there is something on the other side beyond our imaginings. Darwin, for all his flaws that we perceive in our own time due to the values which we hold dear and essential, nevertheless grasped upon a critical fragment of objective reality. Whatever chasm which time imposes because of the waxing and waning of cultural values, we are anchored within the same stream of objective reality and the truths which undergird that reality. I caution against excessive reliance on one paper, one figure, on result, because of the darkness through which we muddle. But reality does exist, and we sometimes need to set aside expectation or preference when we go about ascertaining its true shape.

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In The New York Review of Books Richard Lewontin has a long review up of Evelyn Fox Keller‘s last work, The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture. Here’s the blurb from Duke University Press:

In this powerful critique, the esteemed historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller addresses the nature-nurture debates, including the persistent disputes regarding the roles played by genes and the environment in determining individual traits and behavior. Keller is interested in both how an oppositional “versus” came to be inserted between nature and nurture, and how the distinction on which that opposition depends, the idea that nature and nurture are separable, came to be taken for granted. How, she asks, did the illusion of a space between nature and nurture become entrenched in our thinking, and why is it so tenacious? Keller reveals that the assumption that the influences of nature and nurture can be separated is neither timeless nor universal, but rather a notion that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the late nineteenth century. She shows that the seemingly clear-cut nature-nurture debate is riddled with incoherence. It encompasses many disparate questions knitted together into an indissoluble tangle, and it is marked by a chronic ambiguity in language. There is little consensus about the meanings of terms such as nature, nurture, gene, and environment. Keller suggests that contemporary genetics can provide a more appropriate, precise, and useful vocabulary, one that might help put an end to the confusion surrounding the nature-nurture controversy.

Fox Keller may have a novel and fresh take on the whole issue, but let’s not pretend this is a new line of exploration. The fundamental incoherence of the public perception of “nature vs. nurture” is a literal cottage industry, and has been for a long time. Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture for example has this description from Publisher’s Weekly:

“Nature versus nurture” sums up in a nutshell one of the most contentious debates in science: Are people’s qualities determined by their genes (nature) or by their environment (nurture)? The debate has only grown louder since the human genome has been found to comprise only 30,000 genes. Some scientists claim that we don’t have enough genes to account for all the existing human variations. Ridley, author of the bestseller Genome, says that not only are nature and nurture not mutually exclusive, but that “genes are designed to take their cue from nurture.” Genes are not unchanging little bits of DNA: their expression varies throughout a person’s life, often in response to environmental stimuli. Babies are born with genes hard-wired for sight, but if they are also born with cataracts, the genes turn themselves off and the child will never acquire the ability to see properly. On the other hand, stuttering used to be ascribed solely to environmental factors. Then stuttering was found to be clearly linked to the Y chromosome, and evidence for genetic miswiring of areas in the brain that manage language was uncovered. But environment still plays a role: not everyone with the genetic disposition will grow up to be a stutterer. Ridley’s survey of what is known about nature-nurture interactions is encyclopedic and conveyed with insight and style. This is not an easy read, but fans of his earlier book and readers looking for a challenging read will find this an engrossing study of what makes us who we are.

As for Lewontin’s essay it reminds me somewhat of ‘concern trolling’. He points to serious confusions and potential intractabilities in how the forces of natural selection operate upon individuals and species, but at the end it is clear that he is mostly just exultant about the problem of ‘missing heritability’ because it keeps at bay a genomic resurrection of concerns which were at the heart of his activism in the ‘sociobiology wars’ of the 1970s.

And I don’t know how to view stuff like this:

Beginning with her consciousness of the role of gender in influencing the construction of scientific ideas, she has, over the last twenty-five years, considered how language, models, and metaphors have had a determinative role in the construction of scientific explanation in biology.

Perhaps Lewontin is using the term ‘determinative’ in a ‘figurative’ fashion for ‘rhetorical’ ‘effect’, but really comes close to the ‘science is just another myth’ line which served for the purposes of obtaining tenure in some Studies somewhere in the 1980s, but generally came to be seen as unserious (especially in the light of the recent revival of Creationism in more sophisticated form as Intelligent Design, which often makes pretty clear recourse to the tools and modes of Critical Theory). Lewontin ends with some allusive scare mongering about scientists playing God:

In May 2010 the consortium originally created by J. Craig Venter to sequence the human genome gave birth to a new organization, Synthetic Genomics, which announced that it had created an organism by implanting a synthetic genome in a bacterial cell whose own original genome had been removed. The cell then proceeded to carry out the functions of a living organism, including reproduction. One may argue that the hardest work, putting together all the rest of the cell from bits and pieces, is still to be done before it can be said that life has been manufactured, but even Victor Frankenstein started with a dead body. We all know what the consequences of that may be.

• Category: Science • Tags: Evolution, Sociobiology, Sociology 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"