It’s the same old racist genetics

Another domain the alt-right neo-Nazis want to claim for their own is genetics. Sarah Zang has a very good overview of how the deplorables are eyeballing modern genetics and genomics, and mangling it to support their racist theories, titled Will the Alt-Right Peddle a New Kind of Racist Genetics? My only objection would be that this isn’t a new kind of racist genetics at all — it’s the same old garbage, in which they misinterpret results to support their preconceptions. The interesting thing, though, is that geneticists are gearing up to fight back.

Jedidiah Carlson was googling a genetics research paper when he stumbled upon the white nationalist forum Stormfront. Carlson is a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he is—to be clear—absolutely not a white nationalist. But one link led to another and he ended up reading page after page of Stormfront discussions on the reliability of 23andMe ancestry results and whether Neanderthal interbreeding is the reason for the genetic superiority of whites. Obsession with racial purity is easily channeled, apparently, into an obsession with genetics.

Stormfront has been around since the ’90s, which means it’s been around for the entirety of the genomic revolution. The major milestones in human genetics—sequencing of the first human genome, genetic confirmation that humans came out of Africa, the first mail-in DNA ancestry tests—they’re all there, refracted through the lens of white nationalism. Sure, the commentators sometimes disagreed with scientific findings or mischaracterized them, but they could also be serious about understanding genetics. “The threads would turn into an informal tutoring session and journal club,” observes Carlson. “Some of the posters have a really profound understanding of everyday concepts in population genetics.”

Carlson has been arguing with the bozos on Twitter, and I’ve been occasionally bouncing off them here and there — the “human biodiversity” gang, their intentionally neutral term for pseudo-scientific racism, kinda despises me. Even before I read this article, though, I was working up some new material for the genetics course I’ll be teaching in January specifically to address some of these problems at a fairly basic level.

One concern I’ve had for a while now is that often in undergraduate genetics we’re teaching a kind of simplified Mendelism as a starting point, and in the lab we do crosses that have been time-tested for clarity and consistency. Students start out with this kind of crude beanbag genetics in their heads, which actually is a good beginning point to get the concepts across, but then when we get into real genetics, that is considerably messier and more difficult, they may flounder. At least, that’s been my experience; but we also see it in the general public where they got a bit of Mendelian pea-crossing in high school, and then they hear something about epigenetics and just go off the rails.

This year I think my first class will involve throwing examples at them of unexpected genetics, stuff that doesn’t fit their high-school version, and start ’em out by preparing them to not trust simplistic interpretations, and to realize that Mendel’s results were a starting point for a model. It’ll also help to let them know that they don’t know everything right from the first day.

But then we’ll go right back to Mendel, and work our way up from that foundation to the hard, fun, bewildering stuff. And maybe I should try to include at least a little section on the genetics of race near the end. The garbage that Stormfront is peddling has been around for a long time, and maybe we need to start addressing it at the undergrad level now…and yes, at the high school level. I’ll have to leave that to the high school science teachers out there reading this.

There’s no such thing as male and female DNA

I’ve been away for a while — my beloved has been away for over a week (felt like longer), and I had to travel through the arctic wilderness and another icy storm to pick her up at the airport, and then we had to spend a night in a hotel because of said icy storm, and I just got home. It was aggravating because there was an extreme case of someone being wrong on the internet, and I’d left my laptop at home (it was supposed to be just a quick trip to Minneapolis and back!), so I was frustrated in my inability to reply. All I could see was Twitter, and that is not an appropriate place for a a sufficiently lengthy, ragey response.

It was Bryan Fischer. Savor the irony in this.

It’s a scientific, biological, genetic fact that DNA is either male or female. To reject that is to reject science. I’ll stick with science.

Yeah, the young earth creationist wants to stick with the science. Look, simple answer first: DNA is not gendered. There is no difference in sequence, structure, or conformation between males and females. Fischer has invented a false fact that only serves the sanctimoniousness of assholes.

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Science and race

The scientific conversation about race gets horribly warped in translation to the public — in general, a few right-wing crank sites are loud in their assertions that race is a biologically useful parameter, that it can be simplified into a few ‘obvious’ categories that somehow magically fall into perfect alignment with the assessment of bigots, and that culture is a relatively minor component that cannot overrule basic human nature…whatever that is. I highly recommend this article in which Agustín Fuentes and Carolyn Rouse talk about race — this is the biologically/anthropologically informed perspective.

One of the weird things I see over and over again is how recognizing the importance of human diversity is shoe-horned into simplistic categories. Rather than appreciating the complexity and ubiquity of genetic variation, it has to be mapped onto 18th and 19th century colonial perspectives, and it really doesn’t fit at all.

Agustín: There remains a strong desire to see that 0.1 percent as the “real” important part of the genome. In the United States, difference is always more important than similarity — the well-known “one-drop” racial classification categories. This is tied to the resilience of genetic determinism as an explanatory frame to make sense of social difference. There is an erroneous assumption that the variable genetic patterns in humans underlie relevant differences in health, behavior and even aptitude. This leads smack dab into the “race” issue.

Yes, different populations vary in some of the 0.1 percent of the genome that makes up much of human genetic diversity, but this variation does not represent biological races no matter how one manipulates/packages/represents it. Wade and others love to use standard data sets and compare the 0.1 percent variants in clusters of people from Nigeria, Western Europe, Beijing and Tokyo, and so on. Doing this does yield some patterned differences, but these populations do not reflect the entire continental areas of Africa, Europe and Asia, the classic “races.” A comparison of geographically separated populations within the continental areas also yields easily measurable variation of similar magnitude. Comparing 60 Nigerians to 60 European-descendant Americans to 60 people from Beijing and Tokyo gives the same level of differences in genetic variation as does comparing such clusters of people from Siberia, Tibet and Java (Asia) or from Finland, Wales and Yemen (“Europe”) or even Somalia, Liberia and South Africa (Africa). None of these comparisons give us races. Identifying a few genetic variants that are more common in some populations in some parts of some continents than they are in other populations in other parts of other continents does not come close to any biologically valid demonstration of race.

Then there are the academics that misrepresent the broader view that environment and genetics interact in complex ways that can’t be reduced to simple biological determinism. For decades, that’s been touted as the “blank slate” model, which is a total strawman, but it’s really easy to write popular essays and books that mock other academics for essentially recognizing the complexity of human behavior.

Carolyn: Some of these beliefs have been promoted for years by well-funded racist organizations such as the Pioneer Fund; this group had among its members the late Philippe Rushton, who believed that there is an inverse relationship between penis size and IQ. But there is also the more mainstream Heterodox Academy, an online forum dedicated to pushing the academy to the political right because, the group’s members believe, liberal scholars teach orthodox ideas “without any real evidence.” Listed among the entrenched, unsubstantiated orthodoxies held up for critique by the Academy is this one: “All differences between human groups are caused by differential treatment of those groups, or by differential media portrayals of group members” [11] They don’t like the idea that scholars question what actually constitutes human behavior. Notables listed on the Heterodox Academy’s advisory board in 2016 include Steven Pinker of Harvard, John McGinnis of Northwestern and John McWhorter of Columbia. It is fascinating that some scholars think evolutionary biologists who challenge the idea that humans can be neatly sorted into racial groups are doing so for political reasons.

It’s actually a pretty good recipe for getting well-known — conform to human biases, claim scientific justification, and write lots of reductionist tracts that pander to “common sense” attitudes about race. It’s especially successful in the US, I think, and then the people who know better have to write more complex dissections of reality that get ignored.

And then the lies simmer in the public consciousness and ooze up into academia. This is shocking:

While the compassion driving attempts to find genetic causes for racial health disparities can be celebrated, the insidiousness of the discourse must be noted. This can be seen in a 2016 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article that indicates many medical students think blacks and whites have significant physical differences based on their genes [14]. The authors interviewed first-, second- and third-year med students as well as residents about biological difference. The research showed, for ex- ample, that 63 percent of first-year students believed black skin is thicker than white skin. 46 percent of first-year students believed black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites’. The authors conclude, “A substantial number of white laypeople and medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites and demonstrate that these beliefs predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy.” Science historian Keith Wailoo wrote a response to the article in The Daily Beast, where he noted, “The UVA study turns our gaze to one important place where race problems are manifest — medical training and physician perceptions” [15].

While I agree that the findings are horrifying, I would like to highlight two things. First, the statistics seem to point not to medical school per se, but to undergraduate preparation and to public health discourses about race and biological difference. Notably, the data show that first-year and third-year students have vastly different beliefs about race. For example, 33 percent of first-year medical students said “Blacks have stronger immune systems than whites,” whereas only 5 percent of third-year students held this belief. Similarly, 42 percent of first-year students believed “Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites,” whereas 5 percent of third-year students agreed. Again, about 13 percent of first-year students believed “Blacks’ nerve endings are less sensitive than whites,” whereas 0 percent of third- year students held this belief [16].

I’ve encountered a few students who enter undergraduate studies with the idea that men have one fewer rib than women, which is a horrifying level of ignorance. That can get corrected quickly the first time they’re shown a display skeleton, though.

But medical students — they’ve already completed 4 years of undergraduate work, usually with a biology major, and they come out of it with those gross misconceptions? I’ve been trying to readjust religiously warped brains in the introductory biology class I teach with two whole lectures on creationism and misunderstandings of basic evolutionary biology, but I think I’ve been missing an entire vast category of bad folk biology assembled around misunderstandings about race. I’m going to have to drop one of my creationism sessions and replace it with a biology of race session, instead. A discussion about that PNAS article might be a good place to start.

Or we could just require every college student to take an anthropology course.

Course Design: What are you going to teach?


I already explained why I wanted to design a new course: because I was getting stuck in a rut of teaching the same thing, cell biology and genetics, every year, and because new courses are an opportunity for the professor to learn new things and acquire greater depth in a subject. But what specifically should I teach? I’ve actually got a secret list of courses I’d love to be able to dig more deeply into. Don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to get drafted into teaching even more new courses.

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The future of American science is in question

It sounds incredible that we are even asking that question here in the 21st century, in a country that is one of the world leaders in research in science and technology, but Trump has made it scarily relevant. His pick for the office of management and budget is a guy who thinks the funding of science might belong on the chopping block.

President-elect Donald Trump recently picked Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina to head the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Like many of Trump’s other Cabinet nominees, Mulvaney seems to have a disturbingly low opinion of science.

In a stunning September 9 Facebook post (that’s since been deleted but is still cached), Mulvaney asked, … what might be the best question: do we really need government funded research at all.

That was in the context of a discussion about funding programs to deal with the Zika virus. What Mulvaney argued was nonsensical and self-defeating: there had been studies that found the etiology of Zika-induced birth defects to be complex and variable (there have since been studies that showed a stronger and more consistent association), so he’s arguing that maybe we don’t need more scientific studies at all? This is a close-your-eyes-and-maybe-it-will-all-go-away approach. We don’t run away from complexity. We don’t expect that interactions in biology will be simple and clear and 100% reproducible.

This is also a matter of public health, rather than profit. We also don’t expect that the biomedical industry will, out of the kindness of their hearts, fund research on a low-frequency but tragically serious disease, nor are pharmaceutical companies, for instance, usually much concerned with public health measures to control disease vectors. This is exactly the kind of research that needs government funding — unprofitable, requiring multi-disciplinary approaches, with a need to work out basic mechanisms.

And that’s what compels Mulvaney to question the utility of government-funded research. I wonder what he thinks of Drosophila and zebrafish work?

Natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution

T. Ryan Gregory makes an important point about how evolutionary biologists should approach problems.

I will avoid the political aspect of this discussion and focus on the science involved in the debate, because I think it highlights an important issue: namely, the need for evolutionary biologists to consider and test alternative hypotheses, even if they are not as intuitively plausible as the main hypothesis. This is one of the reasons that evolutionary biologists often take issue with claims from evolutionary psychology — because evo psych often tends to present a plausible hypothesis but does little to critically evaluate its underlying assumptions and even less to present and rule out alternatives. In particular, evolutionary biologists should know better than to restrict the list of hypotheses ones based on selection, because there are usually viable non-adaptive hypotheses as well. Natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution.

And then he does precisely what we should do: he lays out a series of alternative explanation for size differences between males and females, and includes non-adaptive explanations. I know way too many boosters for evolutionary science whose brains would explode if you tried to tell them Trait X, which they think is important, doesn’t necessarily provide a selective advantage.

This is why I like to foist Elisabeth Llloyd’s book, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution on my brighter students: each chapter lays out an evolutionary explanation for female orgasms, and shows the evidence pro and con…and often the evidence con is so strong you have to marvel at the psychological appeal of adaptive explanations, that people would advance and promote such poorly evidenced ideas.

Gregory also points to a good post by Jesse Singal that highlights these fallacious explanations. He highlights arguments made by Holly Dunsworth that are particularly good. She’s not very happy with the adaptive just-so stories that reinforce bogus ideas about male dominance.

They’re all criticizing a post by Jerry Coyne that makes a standard complaint from the conservative side of science.

After providing some more evidence that “the larger size and strength of males is reflected in their behavior … and was almost certainly promoted by sexual selection,” Coyne bemoans the fact that so many on the left refuse to acknowledge it. “To deny that the differences between human males and females in size and strength are evolved is to deny at the same time that differences in behavior between males and females is evolved,” he writes. “Only the blinkered ideologue would do that. Sadly, these ideologues continue to promote antiscientific ideas on the Internet.”

Apparently, the “blinkered ideologue” he’s sniping at is…me. Unfortunately for his case, I don’t deny evolved differences between men and women — it would be rather difficult to do so with the evidence in such plentiful supply. What I reject is the notion that a) these are all adaptive, and b) that all of the differences are biological. There is a tendency to extrapolate unwarrantedly from the fact that many women have distinctive lumps of fat on their chests, to a sweeping judgment that therefore, their brains must be completely different than those of men. Worse, they then abuse evolutionary biology to claim that these differences are necessary and intrinsic, and anybody who thinks differently is one of those awful “blank slaters”.

But you can’t do that!

It’s taking a statistical property of a group, which is the product of both biological predispositions and cultural influences, and saying that Trait X must be biological in nature because Trait X exists. It’s nonsense. It takes hard work, which usually hasn’t been done, to tease apart environmental and genetic influences, and too often we fail to appreciate that the trait under consideration is a product of both.

Unfortunately, Singal also makes a statement that annoys me.

There really are people who deny there are any innate, evolutionary driven differences between men and women, and as Coyne points out this belief tends to come out of certain political movements who don’t view such differences as compatible with feminist or progressive beliefs and goals.

Who are these people? I’ve read a fair bit of feminist and scientific literature, I’m friends with a number of people who are labeled as ‘weird feminist extremists’ (usually by the kind of ignorant people who think “cuck” is a cogent insult), and I don’t know any who hold this view. Most feminists start with the position that men and women have differences, but these are unfairly and inappropriately extended to apply to every behavioral property, and fairly consistently to the detriment of women.

What’s usually going on is that some anti-feminist has made a bizarre, unbelievable, and often incorrect claim about feminism (they hate men, they want to rule the world, they think my penis is tiny, etc.), and people agree — yes, that is crazy — without checking to see whether any one of them actually said that. I’ve got people ranting that I don’t believe genes or chromosomes or hormones have any effect on humans, for instance, which is flat out crazy talk. But hey, vilifying your ideological opponents with lies is fair game, right?

Do not challenge the SJW, for they are fierce

Lorrie Goldstein is a writer for the Toronto Sun, one of those cheesy conservative tabloids that features half-naked “girls”, and rages against liberalism and science and those terrible transgender people. He tweeted out a challenge: Next time a Social Justice Warrior tells you “science is settled” on global warming, ask them to explain the science. Then watch the fun.

Yes, do. I knew this was coming. And it was quite fun to watch @karengeier lop off his ass and carve it into itty-bitty pieces. It’s so beautiful.