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I do not have a dog in the fight about dogs. My dad said that there was a dog in every boy’s life, and so we had some dogs when I was young, and then in my own life, no dogs. I was living a town life, and working, and had neither need nor wish for them. I have nothing against dogs, other than that they should live in the country, not the town, and preferably do something useful. In towns they are captive and, when badly trained, frequently a nuisance. In the country, so long as they are not worrying sheep, they are more agreeable company.

I can see that dogs have very probably evolved with us, in a symbiotic relationship. They know how to flatter us, in return for food and companionship. Parasitism it may be, but it works for many people, and virtually all dogs. Dogs and their owners are reciprocally besotted.

Frankly, I doubted owner’s stories about the intelligence of their pooches. We are creatures of habit, and dogs learn from observation how we are to be handled. So, it was with some initial hesitation that I looked at the research on canine intelligence, and then came to see that, after due allowance for restrictions on which tests which could be used, there was a case for comparing the intelligence of dogs and of dog breeds. The fact that the clever breed were sheep dogs pleased me. We all have to earn our keep.

Here is Rosalind Arden on the intelligence of dogs:

The other thing about dogs, is that they live shorter lives, so their generation pass more quickly, and can be observed as they evolve. Even more important, they can be bred through a selective process into different sorts, for different purposes. Assisted evolution in action. Hence, we can look at these close companions and make judgments about how characteristics and behaviours alter through evolution. We can even tamper so as to breed up dogs for our uses. Guide dogs, for example. Practically, dogs that can detect when we are about to have a fit. Perhaps even dogs that can detect our diseases before any other detection device can do so.

What can we find out from genetic analyses of dog behaviour and dog breeds?

Highly Heritable and Functionally Relevant Breed Differences in Dog Behavior
Authors: Evan L MacLean, Noah Snyder-Mackler, Bridgett M. von Holdt & James A.

* Correspondence to: [email protected] & [email protected]

Below I show the abstract verbatim, and have selected and abbridged the main points of the paper.

Abstract: Variation across dog breeds presents a unique opportunity for investigating the evolution and biological basis of complex behavioral traits. We integrated behavioral data from more than 17,000 dogs from 101 breeds with breed-averaged genotypic data (N = 5,697 dogs) from over 100,000 loci in the dog genome. Across 14 traits, we found that breed differences in behavior are highly heritable, and that clustering of breeds based on behavior accurately recapitulates genetic relationships. We identify 131 single nucleotide polymorphisms associated with breed differences in behavior, which are found in genes that are highly expressed in the brain and enriched for neurobiological functions and developmental processes. Our results provide insight into the heritability and genetic architecture of complex behavioral traits, and suggest that dogs provide a powerful model for these questions.

Studying aggression, fear, trainability, attachment, and predatory chasing behaviors on 14,020 individual dogs with breed-level genetic identity-by-state estimates from two independent studies we found that a large proportion of variance in dog behavior is attributable to genetic factors. The mean heritability was 0.51 ± 0.12 (SD) across all 14 traits (range: h 2 0.27-0.77), and significantly higher than the null expectation in all cases (permutation tests, p < 0.001).

Interestingly, the traits with the highest heritability were trainability (h 2= 0.73), stranger-directed aggression (h 2 = 0.68), chasing (h 2 = 0.62) and attachment and attention seeking (h 2 = 0.56), which is consistent with the hypothesis that these behaviors have been important targets of selection during the cultivation of modern breeds.

Overall, we identified 131 unique SNPs that were significantly associated with at least one of the 14 behavioral traits (Bonferroni p ≤ 0.05, Fig 2). Forty percent of these SNPs (n= 52) were located within a gene – none of which encoded for changes in the amino acid sequence of the protein. On average, the top SNP explained 15% of variance in the behavioral trait. Thus, while we identify multiple variants with moderately large effects, the variance explained by individual SNPs is far less than that explained by additive variation across the genome (heritability), suggesting that as in humans, behavioral traits in dogs are highly polygenic. However, the variance explained by the top SNPs in our analysis across breeds was, on average, more than 5 times higher than that from within-breed association studies.

Many of the gene-level associations with dog behavioral traits include (i) candidate domestication genes, (ii) genes mapped to phenotypes implicated in domestication, (iii) genes implicated in behavioral differences between foxes bred for tameness or aggression, and (iv) genes that underwent positive selection in both human evolution and dog domestication. For example, PDE7B, which is differentially expressed in the brains of tame and aggressive foxes has been identified as a target of selection during domestication, and is highly expressed in the brain where it functions in dopaminergic pathways. In our analyses, SNPs in this gene were associated with breed differences in aggression, which is consistent with data from experimentally bred foxes, as well as hypotheses that selection against aggression was the primary evolutionary pressure during initial domestication events.

The gene-trait associations identified in our study also align closely with similar associations in human populations. For example, breed differences in aggression are associated with multiple genes that have been linked to aggressive behavior in humans. Molecular associations with breed differences in energy include genes previously linked to resting heart rate, daytime rest, and sleep duration in humans. Lastly, breed differences in fear were associated with genes linked with temperament and startle response in humans, and several of the genes implicated in breed differences in trainability have been previously associated with intelligence and information processing speed in humans.

If the variants in genes identified in our analyses make major contributions to behaviour and cognition, then the associated genes should be (i) involved in biological processes related to nervous system development and function, and (ii) primarily expressed in the brain. Indeed, we found that behavior-associated genes (as identified through meta-analysis) were enriched for numerous nervous system processes. These processes include neurogenesis, neuron migration and differentiation, axon and dendrite development, and regulation of neurotransmitter transport and release.

• Category: Science • Tags: Dogs, Intelligence 
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Some things are associated with others. Some things you eat make you ill. Some animals attack you. Some places are dangerous, some people likewise. On a brighter note, some foods are tasty and healthy. Some animals can be domesticated, or at least are easy to hunt or trap. Some places are safe, and some people likewise.

Correlation is not causation, but it’s the way to bet. Your life may depend upon it. Under-predict dangers and you could end up dead. Better to be safe than sorry. Better to be sorry that you have missed some opportunities than to be dead. It is sensible to worry about what may happen. Stereotypes are your friend. They are preliminary observations about life. Improve them as you learn more. Some must be discarded, but many more can be sharpened up and refined.

Life is a dilemma. When searching for a meal you must avoid ending up as a meal. Be careful, but don’t worry so much that you cannot forage for food. Hunger will make you adventurous, and then you are at risk again.

Ideally, we would never calculate correlations coefficients, but would just look at the data properly plotted out, ideally over a long period, and judge things by eye. The shape of the distribution matters. Intellectual and scholastic tests need not be a perfect bell curve, though they can be pretty close to one.

Sometimes an unknown force distorts the distribution, as when illness and infections sap the wits of poor citizens living in bad circumstances. More mysteriously, sometimes distributions are almost normal, but pinched into a narrower range, as if bound by a tighter central limit. Why are some groups narrower than others? Women, for example? African Americans, for another? Easy to see how systematic disadvantage could shift a mean downwards, less easy to see how those forces could both encourage low scorers and discourage high scorers.

A correlation coefficient is a straight-line simplification. Useful, though. It captures a lot in a little number. Standard deviations are also very informative.

It is no disproof of a correlation that it is not unity. Most real-life correlations are far less than perfect, but will be much better than guessing, even though there will always be outliers. Adding up those outliers in terms of residuals (errors of prediction) is a useful way of understanding the power of predictions based on correlations. For example, if you have to predict the height of an unknown person, your best bet (least error prone) is to predict that they are of average height. If you are asked to predict the height of 100 people, betting that everyone of them is of average height results in your error of prediction being the same as the standard deviation of the height of the general population.

If you have extra knowledge, such as being told the height of the individual’s parents, then you can improve your prediction by taking that into account. You will have reduced your error of prediction, and can compare how much it improves your bets by comparing your reduced residual with that of the standard deviation of the population.

Some people really believe they have invalidated a correlation by drawing attention to a particular outlier. If you conceive of a correlation as an ellipse rather than a straight line you can see that the highest scorer on one variable will not be the highest scorer on the other variable. That only happens with perfect correlation. Steve Hsu explains the issue here:

Correlation is not causation, but you are more likely to find a cause in a correlated variable than in an uncorrelated one. Search where there is at least a trace of a putative connective tissue. If you think it was the tomato that upset your digestion, start your controlled trial on tomatoes.

Correlation is not causation, but sometimes a finding is suggestive, like a trout in the milk. It does not prove that the milk was watered, but it makes you suspicious.

The “correlation is not causation” mantra is true as far as it goes, but it tends to be used so as to argue that, despite many correlations linking A with B being found in different circumstances, these will somehow never suffice to strongly suggest a causal link between A and B. On the contrary, correlation is a necessary feature of causation, but not a sufficient proof. Correlation is not always causation, but it helps find causes. Correlation is a pre-condition of causality.

Michael Woodley has set a challenge: “Sure, correlation does not equal causation, but find me just one single instance of a causal relationship where there is no correlation (just one would suffice).”

Whilst it is true that correlation does not necessarily equate to causation, all causally related variables will be correlated. Thus correlation is always necessary (but not in and of itself sufficient) for establishing causation.

Woodley continues:

The claim that ‘correlation does not equal causation’ is therefore meaningless when used to counter the results of correlative studies in which specific causal inferences are being made, as the inferred pattern of causation necessarily supervenes upon correlation amongst variables. Whether the variables being considered are in actuality causally associated as per the inference is another matter entirely.

The correct critique of such findings therefore is from mediation, i.e. the idea that a given correlation might be spurious owing to the presence of ‘hidden’ variables that are generating the apparent correlation. A famous example is yam production and national IQ, which across countries correlate negatively. It would be wrong to say that yam production somehow inhibits IQ, as the association will in fact turn out to be mediated by something like temperature and latitude. These variables are in turn proxies for historical and ecological trends that make the sort of countries that yield fewer yams the sort of countries that are typically populated by higher ability people, and vice versa. The causation in this case is via additional variables, which cause the covariance between the two variables of interest, without there being a direct effect of one on the other.

Properly constructed multivariate models can use these patterns of mediation to infer the likelihood of causation going in one direction or another. Thus, it is possible to actually test causal inference amongst a population of correlated variables. By far the best way of doing this is to compare the fits of models containing specific theoretically prescribed patterns of causal inference against (preferably many) alternative theoretically plausible models, in which alternative patterns of causation are inferred (Figueredo & Gorsuch, 2007).

Sir William Gemmell Cochran termed this “Fisher’s Dictum‟:

“About 20 years ago, when asked in a meeting what can be done in observational studies to clarify the step from association to causation, Sir Ronald Fisher replied; `Make your theories elaborate.’ The reply puzzled me at first, since by Occam’s razor, the advice usually given is to make theories as simple as is consistent with known data. What Sir Ronald meant, as subsequent discussion showed, was that when constructing a causal hypothesis one should envisage as many different consequences of its truth as possible, and plan observational studies to discover whether each of these consequences is found to hold. (Cochran, 1965, §5).


• Category: Science • Tags: Correlation, IQ, Statistics 
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swan white

Thank you to all those who commented on the “Swanning About: Fooled by Algebra” blog and associated tweets. A number of themes came up, so here are individual responses I made to some comments, and also some general points.

Since Taleb thought he could dismiss a century of psychometry, there are rather a lot of references I needed to give in reply. I thought that if I attempted to list them all out it would swamp the text, hence my suggestion that people should use the search bar on my blog to pick up matters of interest, particularly the researchers I had named in my blog. Some people had difficulty with using a search bar or simply did not want to do so, and felt that the lack of specific references was suspicious, so here are some suggested starting points for the process of fact checking.

Brief guide to references

Doug Detterman founded the journal Intelligence and edited it for years, and has seen the field at close quarter for 5 decades. His overview is amusing and instructive. He did an updating of Jensen’s summary of the many relationships intelligence test have with real life achievements. To get even further detail you would have to do further reading, but you already realized that.

Here is another short cut:

Stuart Ritchie is an extremely active younger researcher, who gives an excellent account of more recent findings, and pays attention to those who think it fashionable to decry intelligence testing.

Another short cut:

This is my summary of a review paper written by Ian Deary, the leading researcher on intelligence. You could also just put “Deary” in the search bar and look at the selection of his many papers that I have commented on.

To orient yourself as to what intelligence means in everyday life, here is a summary I wrote some years ago. There is more detail to add to bring it up to date, but it serves to show the differences in ability which are often not visible because people tend to associate mostly with those at their occupational and intellectual level.

For research on occupational selection

For research on the achievements of very high ability people

For research on brain and intelligence

For a counter-intuitive finding about high and low intelligence brains

For a broader look at the field, here is a recent textbook on intelligence, covering the most quoted authors in the field:



The journal “Intelligence” is the main publication for intelligence research.

ISIR runs the international society and its conferences.

Two classic texts which cover many issues raised in comments, about bias and the nature of intelligence

Jensen. Bias in mental testing. 1980
Jensen: The g Factor: The Science of Mental Ability 1998

Some general points

It is no disproof of a correlation that it is not unity. Of course, there will be bright people who don’t achieve much, and less bright people who do very well. This has been known for a long time, perhaps at least two thousand years. The race is not always to the swift. Jensen explained that the range of intelligence was broadest at the lowest levels. Some bright people, for whatever reason, like simpler jobs. As jobs get harder the range begins to narrow as the lower intelligence levels drop out, finding the demands too high. More demanding occupations require brighter people.

A measure can be important and predictive, and the best available, without being perfect. If you can think of a better one than general intelligence, propose it. That old standby, social class of origin, has been superseded. It accounts for less variance than intelligence measured at 11.

Other proposed measures of intelligence are no better than the familiar general intelligence measure.

In summary, the next move should be from those who have something better to suggest, something which predicts human achievements better than general intelligence.

That new something should be better than just guessing.

• Category: Science • Tags: Heredity, Intelligence, IQ, Psychometrics 
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black swan google

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has tweeted a set of remarks about intelligence research.

He has now gathered those together into one format, with links and explanations.

There is no lack of confidence in his essay. There is much to discuss here, and what follows covers what I see as the main points. I have added some links to relevant publications, but you can put any of the concepts and author names in my search bar to get further details.

1 IQ is largely a pseudoscientific swindle

Given that Taleb criticizes the poor statistics used by intelligence researchers, a mild comment is that it would have been better to be more precise. I have assumed he means that more than half of intelligence research findings are wrong, and for malicious reasons. If this is his point, he is factually wrong.

2 IQ is stale, mostly measures very low intelligence, or a lesser form of intelligence for paper shufflers or those ill-suited to real life. “it explains at best between 13% and 50% of the performance in some tasks”. It is based on poor maths, and promoted by racists and swindlers.

It seems that Taleb has a poor opinion of many people. “Paper shufflers” probably include all the backroom workers who keep the books and process the transactions of star traders. The reason for his doubts about the maths behind IQ, Taleb explains, is that he can computer-generate correlations based on particular assumptions which then look like some of the reported findings on intelligence and scholastic attainment. He implies that if he can do that on a simple basis (create a mythical test which only measures below IQ 100 performance and progressively just add noise above that) then that invalidates the actual observations reported by Frey and Detterman (2004). This is not a compelling argument. A far simpler explanation is that a population wide measure (general IQ) is being compared with a scholastic test taken only by a selection of brighter students (SAT) yet still does a pretty good job of showing the link between the two. This is a real-life finding, of the sort that Taleb supposedly favours.

3 If you want to detect how someone fares at a task, say loan sharking, tennis playing, or random matrix theory, make him/her do that task; we don’t need theoretical exams for a real-world function by probability-challenged psychologists.

In fact, psychologists have understood this point. Hunter and Schmidt and Kunzel point out that the best test of whether a person can do a job is to let them try it. However, this is expensive in time and money, since you have to supervise them to prevent disasters, give them detailed instructions and monitor their performance carefully, all of which takes at least two weeks to get a reasonable estimate of the applicant’s capabilities. You cannot do this for all applicants, or it would take up all the staff time required for doing the actual work of the business. The above researchers show that an intelligence test is a close second-best in terms of outcome, and far quicker and cheaper. Add a test of honesty and you have an efficient selection system.

4 Different populations have different variances, even different skewness and these comparisons require richer models.

Again, most psychometricians agree with that and it has been known for decades. At the very least, they like seeing the data plotted out properly, so the actual findings are visible, and so that they can be analyzed by different statistical approaches. Nothing new or insightful here.

5 A measure that works in left tail not right tail (IQ decorrelates as it goes higher) is problematic.

Lubinski and Benbow have shown in prospective studies with a large sample that IQ is still predictive at the very highest levels, and keeps working at each higher band. Taleb’s point is demonstrably wrong.

6 It (IQ) can measure some arbitrarily selected mental abilities (in a testing environment) believed to be useful. However, if you take a Popperian-Hayekian view on intelligence, you would realize that to measure it you would need to know the mental skills needed in a future ecology, which requires predictability of said future ecology. It also requires the skills to make it to the future (hence the need for mental biases for survival).

Intelligence test items are not arbitrary. They are selected to represent a wide range of abilities drawn from actual tasks and real-life problems. They correlate highly with tests which specifically base themselves on real life tasks in American society, such as the Wonderlic Personnel Test. Linda Gottfredson has shown all this, many times, for decades. As to “mental skills needed in a future ecology”, that is an excellent example of intelligent behaviour, as is survival. In a Scottish population study, Ian Deary has shown that intelligence tested at age 11 predicted lifespan into old age. Brighter people were capable of surviving longer than the less bright. Taleb is wrong again.

7 Real life never never offers crisp questions with crisp answers (most questions don’t have answers; perhaps the worst problem with IQ is that it seems to selects for people who don’t like to say “there is no answer, don’t waste time, find something else”.)

If this were a relevant objection, then the crisp answers required in the Scottish 11+ would not have shown any relation to lifespan and decades of achievement. Equally, the crisp answers required of SMPY participants would not have predicted their mid-life achievements (and will probably predict decades of achievement as the follow-ups continue). Digits backwards is a crisp-answer task. It wastes little time, yet is a good predictor of general ability. Crisp test answers also correlate to many brain structure and function measures assessed by neuroimaging (Haier, 2017). Also, given that all puzzles require brain power, these selected items may tap a general ability to solve puzzles of a far more general and urgent nature.

8 It takes a certain type of person to waste intelligent concentration on classroom/academic problems. These are lifeless bureaucrats who can muster sterile motivation. Some people can only focus on problems that are real, not fictional textbook ones.

Taleb is very free with his insults. It might play to those already taking an anti-IQ stance. A rough measure of ability can be obtained in two minutes, which does not tax concentration. Sure, many people favour the practical over the academic, and might concentrate best on real-life problems. This is testable, and once again, on a broad range of people and a broad range of real-life problems, intelligence tests maintain predictive utility. Detterman shows many of the correlations.

9 IQ doesn’t detect convexity (by an argument similar to bias-variance you need to make a lot of small inconsequential mistakes in order to avoid a large consequential one. See Antifragile and how any measure of “intelligence” w/o convexity is sterile…)

• Category: Science • Tags: Intelligence, IQ, Psychometrics, Race and Iq 
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To the 12th Century Church of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, as is my custom, to celebrate the habits of my tribe. This time the service of the Nine Carols was in the evening under a full moon veiled in winter’s hazy clouds, though enough to light the road past the carp pond. The church was candle lit, and cosy.

The service began with the priestly warning that although his lapel microphone was working, the fixed microphone for the reading of the lessons was out of order. To make the point clear to those who would be doing the readings, he walked over to the mike and tapped it. A loud thumping sound filled the little nave. “It’s a miracle” said several parishioners.

Whereas in former times, when the village was visited by musicians and choirs, “Once in Royal David’s City” always began with the crystal-clear solo from a hidden soprano, these were more straightened circumstances, and the service notes said merely that the first verse would be sung by the women.

For the second carol the Reverend, perhaps conscious of the need for vocal equity, said that one verse would be sung by the men, who did so after their fashion. For the third carol, in a further variation, he proposed that one verse be sung by women and one by men. “Which verse for the gender fluid?” my pewmate muttered, and in the spirit of Christmas I told him to shut up. The rest of the carols we sang together as parishioners of all sexes, guided by familiar melodies.

The first lesson was read by one of our oldest residents, whose progress to the lectern was determined but frail, but with the gospel words he was transformed into a sonorous authority, in full command of himself and his text. The other readers were similarly direct and clear in their solemnity. There were no children doing readings, perhaps because among the 45 or so attending there were only three young children, and two teenagers.

By now the story of the birth defied any sense of news. Even the manifest ambiguities of the account were so familiar as to evoke no bemusement. The congregation was not there on theological grounds alone. The field and woods were wetly outside, and in the relative warmth of the village gathering a small hotplate in the chancel heated up the mulled wine, so the tempo of carols and lesson was in synchrony with these preparations, meaning that the candle light very occasionally gave way to dull torchlight when the stove needed adjusting.

No village can be a representation of a nation, still less a Saxon village with a hundred households, but the impression was of retreat and age, as if clustered round a dying flame, the ritual shorn of the numinous, a prelude only to refreshments, wine to pour out, another year, relatives to collect, problems at the airport, smiling at grandchildren, and outside the double oak doors the pond, Manor and maypole, the emblems of our past.

Saying farewell to the priest, with whom I had had a companionable Harvest Supper some months before I remarked “Thanks for separating us into the men and the women”. “Yes” he replied with a smile, “we make such separations, but do not ask them to cover their heads”. “That will come”, I replied. In jest, perhaps.

On the way back home the moon still shone on the wet road and the old buildings, a village half asleep.

Merry Christmas

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Birthday candle

The early months of 2018 were taken up with dealing with hostile press coverage of the London Conference on Intelligence, attacks which intended to prevent evidence-based discussion of group differences in intelligence, and sought to grossly misrepresent any discussion of genetic components in behaviour, lest new readers think for themselves. Stain the source: obscure the findings.

Analytics 2018 and total pageviews ever

Despite distractions, I wrote 46 somewhat longer posts and got 240,478 pageviews: 5,228 per post, which is most welcome. Thanks for reading. Comments continue to grow, with 516,906 words generated. My overall total since 2012 is roughly 750,000 words written, and 678,000 pages viewed, which is more impact than my published papers, and far more impact than just shouting at the radio or TV set.

More to the point, in 2018 there were notable advances in the understanding of the genetics of intelligence, in artificial intelligence, in brain scanning, and in intelligence research generally, so there were important things to write about. Most aspects of behaviour have a substantial heritable component, and these findings grow more numerous every month. It is an exciting time. Once artificial intelligence gets to grip with the genetics of intelligence then it will get even more exciting. It is possible that by the end of 2019 we will be able to predict close to 20% of intellectual variance from the genome alone.

Top 10 posts are shown below.

Analytics 2018 top ten

Three points stand out: first, although written several years ago, that old standby “The 7 tribes of Intellect” is still popular because it explains what intelligence means in everyday life. Second, James Flynn is now deeply concerned about data showing that children are now far less capable of applying scientific methods, and that that he is also very troubled by attacks on academic freedom and race and intelligence research. Although this last paper was the subject of a very recent post, it still drew enough interest in the very last few days of the year to make it into the Top 10.

Analytics 2018 regulars

Well, this is a test of quality. Over 57,000 sessions are one-night stands. I assume the statistics puts them off. Who knows? After that come the real aficionados, and to my surprise and delight, that includes 42,000 long-time readers. A special thanks to you.

Analytics 2018 demographics

Readers are mostly male, and cover all age ranges, with a peak at 25-34. Why? They may be more interested in blogs generally, but I would like to think that they have moved from the “prizes-for-all” subsidized world of school and college and have entered the world of work, which is far more demanding. There are fewer alibis and fewer glib evasions. Now it is for real. You have to make the grade in the jobs which will take up four decades of your life. This makes you curious about ability and problem-solving.

Analytics 2018 countries

US continues to dominate, in this blog as in real life. No sign of China. Are they being told what they may or may not read?

Many people have short attention spans or, conversely, are quick to realise that the site does not meet their interests. However, I am charmed at those who spent 30 minutes: almost like book reading. Great!

Analytics 2018 brief encounters

In all, a good blogging year.

Twitter followers have grown to 4,500. In the last three months my tweets gained 935,000 impressions. The tweet announcing the post about academic freedom got 26,400 impressions. Most other tweets about posts on the blog get roughly 6,000 impressions.

I am well aware that these are small numbers compared to those who blog about popular subjects, but I always compare them with the ground zero of not having commented at all.

Final plea: try to be kind to other commentators. Not all students do the necessary reading, and if they get insulted they probably never will.

• Category: Science 
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In the great cultural war which surrounds race and intelligence, James Flynn is on the side of the angels. I know this because he told me so. Happily, I know him well enough to know he was joking: he was admitting that he was well aware that his mostly environmentalist perspective was far more acceptable and popular than the much maligned “genes and environment” view that I hold. His remark was merely an aside in a longer conversation, of the sort one has with notable academics, in that they range widely over many topics, with the easy pace born of a deep interest in a whole range of ideas.

Last night I saw a very good performance of “Uncle Vanya” at the Hampstead Theatre (runs till 12 January) and, enjoy it as I did, within the somber bounds of Russian gloom, I would prefer a minute with James Flynn to 3 hours of Chekhov. Indeed, I think I avoid theatre because the ideas-per-minute payoff is usually lower than normal conversation with interesting people.

I digress. Flynn is good company, and a great champion of academic freedom. Last year I came to the attention of hostile critics, seeking to hound researchers who were already having to meet without publicity in private conferences, fearful of losing research grants and university posts because of wanting to research race, sex and historical cohort differences, which may strengthen or weaken the hypothesis that genes account for about half of the variance in individual and possibly group differences.

The general climate of opinion in Western universities is so hostile to genetic hypotheses about race, sex and cohort differences in intellectual ability that my initial wish in 2011 to have public meetings on these matters was dismissed by potential speakers. They told me I was naïve to believe that they could discuss such matters in public without encountering considerable career damage. I thought they were exaggerating. I was wrong. So, I went for a compromise: invitation-only meetings, no audience and little publicity, and very few outside invitees: family members, a few readers of my blog, the occasional journalist for background only.

Even with those precautions, some researchers who wanted to attend sent me private emails saying why they felt they could not. They explained that at their universities they were already under threat for even considering these topics. One said, presciently, that critics would pick on the one attendee who could be shown to have said or written something reprehensible, and then all participants would be tarred with the same brush. Most researchers, understandably, said they were busy or simply did not reply to my invitation. No shame. There are too many conferences.

Anyway, once the ravening pack were piling in to attack the conference for, among other crimes, having been “secret”, I explained to all my colleagues that there was a hostile press campaign under way. The first to write back to me in support of academic freedom was James Flynn.

Now Flynn has written a paper about academic freedom and race. Here is a summary, and a critique of some points.

There should be no academic sanctions against those who believe that were environments equalized, genetic differences between black and white Americans would mean that blacks have an IQ deficit. Whether the evidence eventually dictates a genetically caused deficit of nil or 5 or 10 or 20 IQ points is irrelevant. The hypothesis is intelligible and subject to scientific investigation. If that is so, you must have already investigated it if you are to know what is true or false. To prohibit others from investigation or publication of their results is to designate certain truths as the property of an elite to be forbidden to anyone else. It is to insulate them from whatever new evidence the scientific method may provide that would modify belief. A word to those who seek respectability by banning race/gene research: how much respectability would you get if your position were stated without equivocation? What if you were to openly say genetic equality between the races may or may not be true; and that is exactly why I forbid it to be investigated. Or: “I do not know if genetic equality is true and do not want anyone else to know.

I wish to say that scholars who hold the genetic hypothesis are not thereby, guilty of racial bias. There is no doubt in my mind that Arthur Jensen was innocent of this (Flynn, 2013). Moreover, research into this question should not be forbidden.

You might think it odd that Flynn has to say this, but there have been so many foolish statements to that effect, such as saying that the only reason to study race differences is to perpetrate racism (as if the only reason to find out if something is true is to then perpetuate a lie) that he is wise to correct misapprehensions.

Flynn then looks at a few weak arguments which purport to show that you cannot study the hypothesis that races differ in intelligence for genetic reasons. For example, that because races are sociologically defined they cannot differ genetically. Tell that to the Pygmies and the Watusi, says Flynn.

Flynn also makes a very interesting point about race and culture: no test is culture free, but if you cannot manage the culture where you live, then you will understandably be at a disadvantage. If you are really tuned to another culture then you face a choice: travel to where that culture is prevalent, or hang on with the culture that does not match your preferences, but provides you with other benefits. Since Flynn’s perspective is largely cultural, he freely gives his opinion that black subculture is a barrier to scholastic achievement. I think it hardly helps, but it may be irrelevant, since what matters is why some African Americans are drawn to non-intellectual rebellion in the first place. Thomas Sowell argues that the current sub-culture is a relatively new phenomenon, and that formerly African Americans were far closer to American cultural norms, particularly as regards marriage and family life.

Flynn continues:

We no longer hear much from those who once proposed a fourth argument: that all races share so many genes in common that it would be absurd to look for genetic differences (note: even this argument assumes the question is subject to investigation; they just think the answer is as obvious as height differences between Watusi and pigmies). We share 99% of our genes with Bonobo Chimpanzees. That 1% makes a huge difference in cognitive capacity: one hundredth of 1% might make a huge difference between socially identified groups.

When I was under attack, I got some wry amusement from hearing my critics trot out that argument, which I thought had been dropped in 1975.

Flynn notes an interesting phenomenon in universities:

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crispr He Jiankui

I think there is a rule in the application of science in medical settings: the first big step is taken by the person least suitable to take it.

Consider, for example, the first heart transplant. It was carried out by a showman surgeon who jumped the gun and did the operation before the problem of rejection was solved. So, who got the publicity, the queue jumper or the man who waited for the science to mature? Which name comes to mind most easily: Norman Shumway or Christiaan Barnard ?

Now we have an absurd, knight’s move intervention from China. He Juankui has jumped the gun by a decade, saying he did this to help a parent with HIV have healthy twins. It is an odd gene to delete, and might only afford partial protection. If you want to control HIV, the public health advice is to use a condom. If you have HIV there are drugs which reduce the symptoms and the transmission rate. Why go for this attempted vaccination which does not necessarily achieve the desired effect? CrispR is just a very sharp knife. It is not a roadmap into the genome. It does not of itself avoid unintended consequences. These are called “off target effects” and have to be estimated by other means. Is it gene surgery? That is showman hyperbole. The technique may have been used simply because it was possible to use it, and the location of that particular gene well-known, and the justifications added later. CrispR is not to blame. It is an excellent gene editing technique, precise and very cheap to use, and could eventually be used to deal with cystic fibrosis and other awful diseases which can be linked to very specific sections of the genome. However, off target effects will take time to reveal themselves. The results might not be pretty.

Fuller accounts can be obtained in other places.

What will this daft episode achieve? It will certainly anger many people. It stands a risk of further inflaming the debate so that all work in the field is tarred with the same brush. One guy’s experiments on a sabbatical could slow up more cautious research in many laboratories around the world.

On the other hand, absurd events can have a paradoxically liberating effect. They make people think. They bring ideas to the surface. Heart transplants did not work at first, but then became far safer. The upstart became a star, but the technique thereby got a massive boost, and overcame a perceived hurdle that the heart was somehow not to be tampered with, the heart of our selves.

This latest episode involves a very odd gene deletion, badly regulated, haphazardly reported, not yet fully revealed (the second twin might not have had an actual deletion), which might hold up better conducted programs to attempt to carry out more reasonable deletions.

On a broader scale, it could well be that CrispR is still a bridge too far, and not something we should meddle with in our own species. The unintended consequences are too serious.

In contrast, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is looking like a far more acceptable route to take. It would only apply to IVF births, and would not involve any manipulations of the genome. All the parents would be doing is making an informed choice about which of their own embryos had the best chance of a healthy life. Nothing has been changed in those embryos, but a choice formerly done by the throw of a dice can be made on the basis of an informative polygenic risk score. Even if the gains are very slight, doing a little better than chance is a good place to start. Evaluating the benefits of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis will itself take time. Some results will require decades to prove. When the choice really matters, taking the long view seems far better.

The He Juankui intervention is a mess: hinted at, partly trailed, partly kept hidden and vague, an affront to science reporting. It did not leak of its own accord. However, the conversation which follows the event may do some good, and better interventions may yet follow.

• Category: Science • Tags: Crispr 
ggose: generalist genes of small effect
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Plomin Blueprint

Robert Plomin. Blueprint. Allen Lane, London. 2018

Plomin has written the book that summarizes his career, the one that he previously avoided writing because of what he describes as his own cowardice. Harsh judgement, but investigators into the genetics of intelligence are given a rough ride in contemporary academia, where genetics generates a hostility not meted out to sociological explanations. Over his long and highly productive career Plomin thought it prudent to publish in scientific journals, rather than to go public with all his views, which would invite even more criticism than he was already getting from doing his scholarly work. So, this is his “coming out” book.

The analogy of a blueprint, of course, makes more sense to my generation than it probably does to more recent ones. No engineering analogy will fit the intricacies of biology, but the implication is clear: DNA is what makes stuff happen, given only some basic environmental circumstances habitually found on this planet. The genetic code is causal.

A blueprint is a plan. It is obviously not the same as the finished three-dimensional structure – we don’t look like a double helix. DNA isn’t all that matters but it matters more than anything else put together in terms of the stable psychological traits that make us who we are. (Prologue, ix)

I agree with the sentiment. I merely note that people now often say of organizations and products and cultural creations that “they have the DNA of their predecessors”. DNA is now a meme.

So, what does Plomin say, now that no reticence is required?

1 Plomin has written a clear and non-technical account which ought to be accessible to a wide audience. For example, pages 24 and 25 explain variance, covariance and correlation in simple terms, with two illustrative scatter plots, and subsequent pages show how correlations found in identical and fraternal twins are used to estimate heritability. Plain language is hard to write. This book reads well, and ought to reach a wider public. Even for those who have been reading his papers for the last decade, there are new things to learn from seeing the whole story in one place.

One natural casualty of writing for a general audience is that the text is reference-free. Some scholars may be hurt not to see their names in print, but it is the findings that matter. There is no author index, but a full 59 pages of supporting notes. These differ in their nature and intensity: some list relevant publications, others explain ideas and misconceptions in far more detail. Readers will differ in whether they read the notes, and if so, at what stage. I mostly left them to the end of each chapter, so as to let the narrative flow while scribbling in my own questions in the margins.

2 Plomin has given an enlightening account of his research career, culminating in the long-term Twins Early Development Study, which has become a front runner in the DNA revolution. Research is a life-consuming business. Some researchers give up their weekends, most don’t. TEDS has more than 12,000 twins, and has generated 55 million items of data, described in over 300 published papers and 30 PhDs. Respect.

3 Plomin shows that there is strong evidence that, as a rule of thumb, most human characteristics are 50% heritable. He concludes his second chapter saying: “Inherited DNA differences are by far the most important systematic force in making us who we are”.

4 Plomin makes big inroads into that great big squashy thing “the environment” by showing that important aspects of it are heritable. At first this sounds nonsensical, but I think Plomin wins through. For example, at first glance it would appear that because some mothers read to their children and others do not, the former habit is the key to children’s language development. Whole programs have been devoted to this supposition, including well meaning projects giving books to families, because it has been found that number of books in the house predicts children’s scholastic achievements. On the contrary, Plomin shows, “parents who like to read have children who like to read”.

Plomin first found this when studying stressful life events (relationship problems, financial status and illness) which seemed to be truly external to the individuals concerned. Identical twins were twice as similar as fraternal twins on these measures (correlations of .30 and .15 respectively). These apparently completely environmental events were almost a third due to genetics.


Identical twins are more concordant for divorce (55%) than fraternal twins (16%). Divorce does not rain down unbidden from the sky: it happens more frequently to those who are joyful, engaged with life, emotional and impulsive. So there. In 20,000 adopted individuals the likelihood of divorce was higher if their real mother, who played no part in their upbringing, later got divorced, than if their adoptive mothers later got divorced. After controlling for genetics, Plomin says, no environmental causes of divorce have been identified.

Divorce doesn’t just happen by chance. We make or break our relationships. We are not just passive bystanders at the whim of events “out there”. Pg 39.

TV has been associated with many unfavourable outcomes, perhaps unfairly. Interestingly, parents and their children are more similar (.30) than adoptive parents and their adopted children (.15) in the time they devote to this freely chosen activity. In fact, heritable components are found in many traits which had been classified as “external” such as chaotic family environments, being bullied, neighbourhood safety, being exposed to drugs, and quality of marriage. Plomin calls this “the nature of nurture”. Smart, but confusing. I said in 2013 that they were “self-made environments” or “personally created niches”. Our genetics influences us in the way we build our nests.

Plomin explains:

Some children have more accidents than others: the number of children’s scrapes and bruises shows genetic influence. For adults, automobile accidents are not always accidental either, of course. Automobile crashes are often caused by reckless driving – driving too fast, taking chances or driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs. Pg 48.

Years ago I had hoped that the Home Observation for Measurement of Environment would provide detailed indications of which aspects of the environment were worth manipulating so as to boost children’s intelligence. Families showed the expected .5 correlation with HOME, adopted children half that. All the good parenting is revealed to be half of it due to genetic causes. Brighter parents have brighter children. Although it looks as if encouragement is doing the trick, it is at most half of the cause of the children being bright. Plomin concludes:

Genetic differences in children’s aptitudes and appetites affect the extent to which they take advantage of educational opportunities. [] This is a general model for thinking about how we use the environment to get what our DNA blueprint whispers that it wants. Pg 51

5 Plomin reveals the counter-intuitive finding that DNA matters more as time goes by. Heritability estimates for intelligence rise as we age, possibly because the niches we create help boost our intellectual skills over our lifetimes. Eventually, we become more like our parents.

• Category: Science • Tags: Genetics, Heredity, Robert Plomin 
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Group 5 fists hold closely together

“Scientific Racism” is an oxymoron. The truth cannot be racist, and lies cannot be science. If you say something truthful about a racial difference then that is true, not a lie, and not racism. If you say something about racial groups which is untrue, then that is not science, it is false, and science has to correct mistakes as soon as possible.

Scientific racism is a contradiction in terms.

Nonetheless, the epithet “scientific racism” is often thrown at any study of racial differences as if, whatever the outcome of the research, the mere investigation transgresses some a priori truths. The argument seems to be: “we know that racial differences do not exist, so those who argue against that view are wrong, whatever their investigations may suggest”. In simple terms, if a person can be considered a racist, then the fact that they “do science” is simply another one of their fiendish tricks. The scientific part becomes an additional outrage, a vain attempt to prove true something already known to be wrong.

The blanket condemnation of evidence-seeking is not always applied to differences which have medical connotations. Race-based differences in vulnerability to illnesses is often exempt from hostile criticism. A welcome respite. However, the evolutionary processes which affect the organs of the body are not guaranteed to leave the brain above the audit, somehow exempt from selection. If one genetic group differs in one regard it is worth studying if they differ in other regards.

It may not be obvious at first, but if you want to combat racism and sexism you need the benchmark of open discussion about racial and sexual differences. Otherwise, how do we know which claims about group differences are clearly wrong and which are right? These are empirical matters and you need to establish the truth before you can demonstrate what deviates from it. The most effective way to find the truth is free and open inquiry into all group differences. We should be on the side of those who want to know more, not those who want to know less. We should oppose those who want other people to know less, while they are free to find out as much as they can, and then decide what to hold back.

I know that some researchers will want to hold back findings which they believe will halt their careers. It is a tough choice. I sympathize with their dilemma, and look forward to the day when they can all publish their findings openly.

The study of racial differences has been criticized as pseudo-science. Of course, one should be against pseudo-science, as one should be against pseudo-journalism, and pseudo-outrage and pseudo everything. But why should one branch of science be called pseudo, and another not? All branches of science depend on maintaining scientific standards whatever the topic is. Any errors need to be corrected by better methods. There is as much scope for error when comparing racial groups as when comparing social class groups. Selection criteria are rarely pure, and can be subject to confounding.

We should aim for high standards in everything we investigate. One way to achieve that is to examine the ideas we love with as much ferocity as the ideas we find repellent. That will keep us closer to the truth.

• Category: Science • Tags: Academia, Political Correctness, Racism 
James Thompson
About James Thompson

James Thompson has lectured in Psychology at the University of London all his working life. His first publication and conference presentation was a critique of Jensen’s 1969 paper, with Arthur Jensen in the audience. He also taught Arthur how to use an English public telephone. Many topics have taken up his attention since then, but mostly he comments on intelligence research.