Bad genetics exposed


If you read Nathaniel Comfort’s scathing review of Robert Plomin’s book, Blueprint, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. He was holding back, maintaining the decorum of the journal as best he could. He gives a more thorough criticism on his blog, Genotopia, and wow, it’s even more brutal. Sometimes a more thorough and nuanced analysis just leads to an even stronger condemnation.

…Plomin’s argument is socially dangerous. Sure, genes influence and shape complex behavior, but we have almost no idea how. At this point in time (late 2018), it’s the genetic contributions to complex behavior that are mostly random and unsystematic. Polygenic scores may suggest regions of the genome in which one might find causal genes, but we already know that the contribution of any one gene to complex behavior is minute. Thousands of genes are involved in personality traits and intelligence—and many of the same polymorphisms pop up in every polygenic study of complex behavior. Even if the polygenic scores were causal, it remains very much up in the air whether looking at the genes for complex behavior will ever really tell us very much about those behaviors.

In contrast—and contra Plomin—we have very good ideas about how environments shape behaviors. Taking educational attainment as an example (it’s a favorite of the PGS crowd—a proxy for IQ, whose reputation has become pretty tarnished in recent years), we know that kids do better in school when they have eaten breakfast. We know they do better if they aren’t abused. We know they do better when they have enriched environments, at home and in school.

We also know that DNA doesn’t act alone. Plomin neglects all post-transcriptional modification, epigenetics, microbiomics, and systems biology—sciences that show without a doubt that you can’t draw a straight line from genes to behavior. The more complex the trait in question, the more true that sentence becomes. And Plomin is talking about the most complex traits there are: human personality and intelligence.

Plomin’s argument is dangerous because it minimizes those absolutely robust findings. If you follow his advice, you go along with the Republicans and continue slowly strangling public education and vote for that euphemism for separate-but-equal education, “school choice.” You axe Head Start. You eliminate food stamps and school lunch programs. You go along with eliminating affirmative action programs, which are designed to remediate past social neglect; in other words, you vote to restore neglect of the under-privileged. Those kids with genetic gumption will rise out of their circumstances one way or another…like Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson or something, I guess. As for the rest, fuck ’em.

I can see how that wouldn’t get printed in Nature, but he’s exactly right on every single point. Plomin, no matter what his own political views, has written a garbage book that plays right into the hands of the right wing, from the title onwards. It’s shocking that Plomin is completely oblivious to how crude and wrong his understanding of modern genetics is…a lock of understanding that allowed him to write a whole book on his ignorance. It’s a bit like Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance — another instance of Dunning-Krueger fused with 19th century racism.

Hey, though, if you care about this stuff, and are interested in how good science can be communicated well, I have a treat for you: tomorrow, Tuesday, at 6:30 Eastern, you can tune in to an online discussion between Jennifer Raff and Carl Zimmer on Why You’re You: Explaining Heredity to a Confused Public.

Note that this is not a debate — it’s a conversation between two well-informed individuals on good science, and how to explain it. I’ll be checking in!

Comments

  1. says

    I just finished reading Zimmer’s book on heredity, “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh.” What an excellent piece of work. He’s a fantastic writer.

  2. vucodlak says

    @ goldstino, #2

    I used to have fun trolling and arguing with people in alt-right sites but I am finding that arguing with the self-righteous and hypocritical politically correct police is even funnier.

    Any fool can shit on the rug.

  3. consciousness razor says

    goldstino is a person, and all people are mortal, so it follows that goldstino is mortal — possibly also delusional, since people can be that too, until they die of course.

    This biology “professor” apparently doesnt know what every grandma has known for thousands of years: the apple does not fall far from the tree.

    You make an excellent point. It just goes to show how dogmatic and ignorant scientists are. Clearly, their political views are blinding them to the capital-T Truth. It was the most obvious choice by far, but they didn’t even bother to ask what grandmothers for thousands of years have “known” when they wrote their biology textbooks. Inconceivable!

    If one were to make a blueprint of a tree, it would be a picture of that tree. You could of course make a picture of an apple too. Trees and apples don’t look like DNA molecules. You could also make a movie of an apple falling from a tree, if (like most grandmothers, I suppose) you think it’s important to consider how things change over time. That movie would show other things on Earth which are neither the tree nor the apple … that is, if it were a movie that depicts what’s actually going on and how such things actually work.

    These are all totally appropriate analogies. And it’s well known that analogies are how the best thinking is done, not with trifles like logic and evidence.

  4. chris61 says

    Plomin, no matter what his own political views, has written a garbage book that plays right into the hands of the right wing, from the title onwards.

    Have you read Plomin’s book, PZ? Have you read anything by Plomin?

  5. logicalcat says

    Damn these ppl start to sound like creationist after a while.

    “We know the TRUTH. You are just afraid of the TRUTH. We are more rational because we know the real TRUTH!”

    You know whats your problem Goldstino? You are all attitude, zero substance. You talk shit about TRUTH, and rational, and being unbiased and all that, but never actually give any evidence. Go ahead. Post some shit. ou’ve made several claims, so the rational thing to do is now to back it up with evidence. Pls do.

  6. nomdeplume says

    It is beyond belief, almost, that anyone with even a nodding acquaintance of human beings and their lives could believe that environment isn’t the major factor in determining the course of those lives.

  7. says

    I am finding that arguing with the self-righteous and hypocritical politically correct police is even funnier

    Yet you complain about “hysterical and infantile insults” – if you actually thought it was ‘fun’ you’d enjoy it, wouldn’t you? Tell me, do you also study the culture of tone trolls?

  8. zenlike says

    Oh look, the alt-right troll doesn’t understand consent. No wonder you whined about the poor menz being accused of sexually inappropriate behavior, goldstino, because you show the same behavior: you do not accept another person saying “no”.

  9. says

    Great, yet another example of science being preverted to accomodate a political agenda. This biology “professor” apparently doesnt know what every grandma has known for thousands of years: the apple does not fall far from the tree.

    1) For thousands of years, grandmas and everybody else knew that the sun moves around the earth.
    2) It’s funny how self described “liberal people” will jump onto any right wing bullshit as long as it has a “sciency” look.
    3) Actually, that’s a very nice metaphor, let’s explore it. Let me switch to sunflowers as they grow faster. I feed the birds in winter. Mostly sunflower seeds mixed with cheap fruit and nuts muesli. Of course, the birds will lose some sunflower seeds which then start to grow around the house, particularly in the small stripe of pebbles around the house where it’s impossible for the birds to find them again.
    In spring I removed all those I could find and planted them into a big pot. I then watered those plants and gave them sticks to support their weight. Now, just like the birds hadn’t gotten all the seeds, i hadn’t gotten all the seedlings. Some just grew in the garden. One particular seed fell into some mouldy wood and germinated there, another one fell into the cracks in the cellar floor and germinated there.
    The last two died, of course. Not enough sunlight, water or ground. The ones that grew in the garden grew to about half a metre, with flowers the size of my palm. Some of them died during the drought.
    The ones I replanted grew to heights between 1.5m and 2m, with flowers of 30cm in diameter.
    So, maybe, if an apple tree grows on poor soil and is poorly tended, the seedlings are likely to fall on poor soil and be poorly tended as well?
    I mean, I can also talk to you about how we revived the two old apple trees in our garden with some proper care?
    Because as every gardener has known for a few thousand years: If you want your plants to grow nicely, you need to invest a lot of time into their care, not to mention fertilizer and water…

  10. chris61 says

    @10 Giliell

    On the other hand Giliell, if you plant seeds from both giant and dwarf varieties of sunflowers and provide them with the same nutrients, time and care, the giant varieties will grow bigger and their flowers will be larger.

  11. says

    Chris 61
    Indeed, indeed. What an amazing observation. Has the Nobel committee called already?
    I mean, if this is an extension of the above metaphor of my sunflowers then we can also apply this to the human world and go back to the influence of both genes and environment on humans. Tell me, which humans are giant sunflowers, which humans are dwarf sunflowers?

  12. petesh says

    @12: Easy peasy. Humans like me are giant sunflowers; humans not like me are dwarf sunflowers.

    Oh, but then giant sunflowers are an ecological catastrophe in an overburdened planet. Obviously they should be clear-cut, or at least trimmed. Darn it, this sciencey thing is tricky,

  13. chris61 says

    @12 Giliell

    I mean, if this is an extension of the above metaphor of my sunflowers then we can also apply this to the human world and go back to the influence of both genes and environment on humans.Tell me, which humans are giant sunflowers, which humans are dwarf sunflowers?

    Personally I think it’s more of an analogy than a metaphor but in any case it’s yours, so you tell me.

  14. says

    Personally I think it’s more of an analogy than a metaphor but in any case it’s yours, so you tell me.

    ???
    No, seriously, you introduced a new factor, which is “different varieties” so you need to connect the dots. I can hardly explain your idea to you, though probably the problem is that you are in dire need of it because you don’t understand it yourself but thought you sounded clever.

  15. chris61 says

    @Giliell

    All traits show significant genetic influence. No traits are 100% heritable.

    Directly from the horse’s mouth (Robert Plumin).

  16. chris61 says

    @18 Giliell
    For any human trait that shows a normal distribution the humans at the ends of the distribution are the equivalent of giant and dwarf sunflowers.
    @17 petesh
    Covered by sentence 2.

  17. says

    No. Giant & dwarf sunflowers are the product of different alleles. The analogy would only be appropriate if a single variant produced both giants and dwarfs. You can’t claim they represent part of a spectrum, since those traits are discrete, and since you haven’t shown that the human traits you want to compare them to are similarly the product of discrete alleles.

  18. says

    For any human trait that shows a normal distribution the humans at the ends of the distribution are the equivalent of giant and dwarf sunflowers.

    Holy cupcake.
    No.
    My out of a 25 kg bag of sunflower seeds sunflowers are the equivalent. Because they still produce variation. You, on the other hand, want to put people into distinctive easily distinguishable groups as if we came in neat little packets with a nice lable on it.

  19. chris61 says

    No. Giant & dwarf sunflowers are the product of different alleles. The analogy would only be appropriate if a single variant produced both giants and dwarfs. You can’t claim they represent part of a spectrum, since those traits are discrete, and since you haven’t shown that the human traits you want to compare them to are similarly the product of discrete alleles.

    Sunflowers have been bred and/or selected for relatively homogenous genotypes/phenotypes. While the analogy is inappropriate to the extent that giant and dwarf sunflowers represent different species (or so google tells me), I very much doubt the trait of height is discrete in sunflowers any more than it is in human beings and if you interbred viable hybrids you could indeed end up with a spectrum of heights. And while genetically identical sunflowers would give you a spectrum of heights when grown under different environmental conditions, genetically diverse sunflowers would also give you a spectrum of heights when subjected to the same environment.

    You, on the other hand, want to put people into distinctive easily distinguishable groups as if we came in neat little packets with a nice lable on it.

    Don’t know where you got that from.

  20. says

    Don’t know where you got that from.

    Probably from where you introduced varieties of sunflowers that you can buy in neat little packets.

  21. chris61 says

    @23 Giliell
    I sort of figured that since neither you nor I can buy human beings in neat little packets you would understand that was not the characteristic of different varieties of sunflowers that I was comparing to the former.

  22. says

    Chris 61
    You still haven’t told us which humans are which sunflowers. You know, the ones you can easily identify and who are just not as “tall” as the others, no matter how much you take care…

  23. chris61 says

    @25 Giliell
    All traits show significant genetic influence, whether you be a sunflower or a human being. That’s it. Anything you choose to infer from that is your inference, not my implication.

  24. John Morales says

    chris61, you didn’t answer the actual question; it was not whether
    all traits show significant genetic influence”, it was which “humans are which sunflowers”.

    (Weak evasion)

  25. Dunc says

    All traits show significant genetic influence

    Unless you’re defining “trait” in such a way as to render this a tautology, this is fairly obvious bollocks. I very much doubt that the language I speak or my preferences in literature “show significant genetic influence”. Are these not “traits”?

  26. chris61 says

    @28 Dunc
    That you speak or read at all certainly shows significant genetic influence.

    it was which “humans are which sunflowers”.

    I thought that was pretty evident. Tall people (say upper 5% for height) would be giant sunflowers and short people (say lowest 5% for height) would be dwarf sunflowers.

  27. consciousness razor says

    That you speak or read at all certainly shows significant genetic influence.

    Here, you’re not just failing to give a decent analysis of the specific traits at issue (i.e. language and literature preferences) — it’s got to be difficult, so that’s at least understandable — but you also claim with certainty that speaking/reading (as well as not doing so) is all by itself a demonstration of “significant genetic influence.” What influence has been shown? If it’s so significant and so clear to you that this can be known with certainty, then it should be relatively easy to explain.

    Is illiteracy a genetic disorder? The explanation for why some people don’t speak or read typically involves a variety of social factors, doesn’t it? Poverty isn’t in your genes, being in a country with a bad educational system isn’t in your genes, living in a society that doesn’t strongly promote literacy isn’t in your genes, and so forth. Don’t those kinds of things typically have something to do with whether or not a person speaks or reads? So what should make us certain that a genetic influence has been shown somehow, when a person exhibits such traits? And which set of genes are supposed to be responsible?

  28. Dunc says

    That you speak or read at all certainly shows significant genetic influence.

    This is so general as to be meaningless. Yes, everything that people do is fundamentally shaped by our body plans and our general cognitive and sensory capacities, but that doesn’t mean that you can claim “significant genetic influence” on more specific culturally-bound traits. Reading is an invention, a skill which you have to be taught. Surely you can’t be proposing that there’s a “significant genetic influence” on which cultures developed literacy and which didn’t?

    You might as well claim that, since everything we do ultimately depends on our capacity for aerobic metabolism, all human traits show a significant mitochondrial influence.

    Of course, this sort of strategic retreat from the specific to the general is one of the classic hallmarks of the bullshitter… Is there a “significant genetic influence” there too?

  29. says

    chris61, you didn’t answer the actual question; it was not whether
    all traits show significant genetic influence”, it was which “humans are which sunflowers”.

    I guess that’s bnecause by now she’s noticing what a hole she dug herself into, because it’s pretty difficult to apply “different species of sunflowers show great differences in a trait they were selectively bred for (while still showing significant variety in that trait within each species)” to humans.
    cr

    Is illiteracy a genetic disorder? The explanation for why some people don’t speak or read typically involves a variety of social factors, doesn’t it?

    Leaving aside that reading and writing really are cultural techniques that are still newer than smartphones to my personal timeline when seen in respect to human history, and the fact that until 200 years or so ago most people couldn’t read anyway and didn’t need it either, reading and writing issues are really complex issues.
    Actually my job is to help kids with learning issues. Some of these kids have general learning disabilities, so they are simply slower and will probably never reach very abstract thinking levels. Some of their parents hold PhDs. Others have severe issues in single fields. One kid has severe dyslexia. He will happily write you a letter, but to you this will look like a monkey got angry at a typewriter. He’s really good at maths and he is intellectually completely able to, say, describe a character or something. Since I’m in constant contact with his parents so we can help him the best, I know they can write just fine.
    And then there are kids who are significantly below the expected reading/writing skills for their age because the normal process was disturbed by things like illness, frequent changes of teachers or schools, severe family issues…
    And they are just the extreme cases. Many of our kids are poor readers/writers because they come from poor families where books are not common and often not valued. Middle class kids of educated parents get a ton more input and training.
    My own kids get regularly praised for their high level of language which is then often confused with intelligence.

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