Anthropologists on Race

When’s the last time you held a scientific journal? Probably never, I bet. In the age of digital publishing, distinct “volumes” are mostly a nod to tradition instead of something curated, during those rare times where you can access them at all.

This virtual issue, organized by contributing editor Channah Leff and managing editor Sean Mallin, brings together articles published in American Anthropologist around race and biology, focusing on genetics as one way to understand–and counter misunderstandings about–human difference. From early work on immigration and evolution to more recent work on epigenetics, anthropologists have been at the forefront of conversations about what race is–and what it isn’t.

Which makes this virtual edition of American Anthropologist quite a treat. It isn’t often you get to hear scientists break down the concept of race, and rarer still to realize how long they’ve been questioning it for.

With what we know now, two conclusions are quite inescapable. First, human races – like higher taxonomic units – are subject to evolutionary change. Second, the particular traits by which races distinguish themselves are subject to natural selection, and therefore do not have eternal taxonomic value. I n retrospect, all of the characters used in constructing a classification of man must have been grist in the evolutionary mill.

Now we cannot have change and no change simultaneously. Present frequencies of blood groups or of morphological traits are, at best, interim reports of present conditions. They need not be identical to frequencies in the recent or remote past, and they need not predict gene or trait frequencies in the future. […] As a consequence, the search for ancestors becomes far more difficult than it once seemed. … As soon as we accept changes in gene frequencies, we can no longer employ present frequencies as certain indications of past events.

While this obvious corollary admittedly pulls the rug from beneath our more cherished reconstructions, evidence for changing race may free us from the burden of prefabricated and hypothetical ancestors.

Garn, Stanley M. “Race and Evolution.” American Anthropologist 59, no. 2 (April 1, 1957): 218–24.

Nor is that even the oldest paper in the collection; one from 1912 found large physical changes in the children of immigrants which brought them in line with the locals, demonstrating a plasticity that contradicts to the rigidity demanded by biological race. If you’d rather have a broad overview of the subject,

We present a review of the history of scientific inquiry into modern human origins, focusing on the role of the American Anthropologist. We begin during the mid–20th century, at the time when the problem of modern human origins was first presented in the American Anthropologist and could first be distinguished from more general questions about human and hominid origins. Next, we discuss the effects of the modern evolutionary synthesis on biological anthropology and paleoanthropology in particular, and its role in the origin of anthropological genetics. The rise of human genetics is discussed along two tracks, which have taken starkly different approaches to the historical interpretation of recent human diversity.

Hawks, John, and Milford H. Wolpoff. “Sixty Years of Modern Human Origins in the American Anthropological Association.” American Anthropologist 105, no. 1 (March 1, 2003): 89–100.

For those who are about to wail about them taking a constructivist approach which denies genetics, you’re in for a bit of a shock.

Indeed, multiple studies in 2017 have dramatically expanded our knowledge of genomic variation involving hundreds of ancient and present‐day peoples from across the globe (Marciniak and Perry 2017; Nielsen et al. 2017). Maybe not surprisingly, the results of these studies have empirically confirmed that our understanding of human genetic variation was incomplete, flawed, and biased (Martin, Gignoux, et al. 2017). More relevant to this review, these studies, in addition to the massive amount of data that they produced, have also added dozens of new twists to how we perceive human variation. […]

We have known for some time that contemporary genetic variation is best explained by “geography.” In other words, the closer two humans are geographically, the less their genetic variation to each other is expected to be (Novembre et al. 2008)—mostly independent of ethnicity, religion, or any other group identities. Now our field is at a stage to move beyond simple geographic distance and take the topographic features (e.g., mountains, deserts, seas, etc.) into account to visualize and understand the paths and barriers to contemporary genetic variation (Peter, Petkova, and Novembre 2017). Ancient genomics has now added a chronological twist to it. It turns out that genetic continuity in a given region across time is often an exception rather than the rule (Kılınç et al. 2016; Lazaridis et al. 2016; Skoglund et al. 2017; but see Yang et al. 2017). People move, interact with their neighbors, and create ever‐changing gradients of genetic variation across time and geography.

Gokcumen, Omer. “The Year In Genetic Anthropology: New Lands, New Technologies, New Questions.” American Anthropologist 120, no. 2 (June 1, 2018): 266–77.

A number of anthropologists embrace genetic testing, and find that it also discounts lay views of race. For instance, genetic testing has found there are distinct lineages, which is what biological race would predict, but was able to trace some of them back to admixture from Neanderthals and Denisovians. In other words, the racial categories we’ve settled on today don’t map to the lineages we find in our genes.

There’s even some general-purpose awesomeness in this treasure trove.

The value ladenness of this science allows us to identify an important popular fallacy—that a primary axis of modern society is science versus nonscience. Yet no one is really “anti‐science”; such a person is a product of scientistic paranoia. We all make decisions about what science to accept, what science to reject, and what science to ignore. … After all, biological anthropology is obliged to navigate between the creationists, on the one hand, who don’t take evolution seriously enough, and enthusiasts of fads like eugenics in the 1920s or “The Paleo Diet” today, on the other hand, who take evolution too seriously. So, who is worse: the citizen who rejects evolution or the citizen who uses evolution to rationalize a program of genocide? Both are out there and are actively constructing, imposing, and utilizing different meanings on the science; whether or not either of them accepts the descent with modification of species—and is thus “pro‐science”—may be a trivial question.

Marks, Jonathan. “Commentary: Toward an Anthropology of Genetics.” American Anthropologist 116, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 749–51.

As if you didn’t need enough reason to dig in, this is a limited-time offer: these papers will slip back behind the paywall at the end of 2018. So go on, feast your eyes and feed your brain.

EvoPsych and Scientific Racism

I’m not a fan of EvoPsych. It manages the feat of misunderstanding both evolution and psychology, its researchers are prone to wild misrepresentation of fields they clearly don’t understand, and it has all the trappings of a pseudo-science. Nonetheless, I’ve always thought they had enough sense to avoid promoting scientific racism, at least openly.

[CONTENT WARNING: Some of them don’t.]

[Read more…]

Intelligence and Race, in sub-populations

I’ve read a fair number of papers covering race and genes. In fact, before I go farther, here’s a bibliography:

In this article, the authors argue that the overwhelming portion of the literature on intelligence, race, and genetics is based on folk taxonomies rather than scientific analysis. They suggest that because theorists of intelligence disagree as to what it is, any consideration of its relationships to other constructs must be tentative at best. They further argue that race is a social construction with no scientific definition. Thus, studies of the relationship between race and other constructs may serve social ends but cannot serve scientific ends. No gene has yet been conclusively linked to intelligence, so attempts to provide a compelling genetic link of race to intelligence are not feasible at this time. The authors also show that heritability, a behavior-genetic concept, is inadequate in regard to providing such a link.

Sternberg, Robert J., Elena L. Grigorenko, and Kenneth K. Kidd. “Intelligence, race, and genetics.” American Psychologist 60.1 (2005): 46.

The literature on candidate gene associations is full of reports that have not stood up to rigorous replication. This is the case both for straightforward main effects and for candidate gene-by-environment interactions (Duncan and Keller 2011). As a result, the psychiatric and behavior genetics literature has become confusing and it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge. The reasons for this are complex, but include the likelihood that effect sizes of individual polymorphisms are small, that studies have therefore been underpowered, and that multiple hypotheses and methods of analysis have been explored; these conditions will result in an unacceptably high proportion of false findings (Ioannidis 2005).

Hewitt, John K. “Editorial Policy on Candidate Gene Association and Candidate Gene-by-Environment Interaction Studies of Complex Traits.” Behavior Genetics 42, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 1–2. doi:10.1007/s10519-011-9504-z.

[Read more…]

Gimmie that Old-Time Breeding

Full disclosure: I think Evolutionary Psychology is a pseudo-science. This isn’t because the field endorses a flawed methodology (relative to the norm in other sciences), nor because they come to conclusions I’m uncomfortable with. No, the entire field is based on flawed or even false assumptions; it doesn’t matter how good your construction techniques are, if your foundation is a banana cream pie your building won’t be sturdy.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe EvoPsych researchers are correct when they say every other branch of social science is founded on falsehoods. So let’s give one of their papers a fair shake.

Ellis, Lee, et al. “The Future of Secularism: a Biologically Informed Theory Supplemented with Cross-Cultural Evidence.” Evolutionary Psychological Science: 1-19. [Read more…]

Steven Pinker, Crank

At least he doesn’t start out that way.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases. … Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there.

For a non-physicist, it’s a decent formulation. It needs more of a description of entropy, though. In computer science, we think of it as how much information is or could be packed into an space. If I have a typical six-sided die, I can send you a message by giving it to you in a specific configuration. If I just ask you to look at a specific side, there are only six unique states to send a message with; if I also ask you to look at the orientation of the other sides, I can bump that up to twenty-four. I can’t send any more information unless I increase the number of states, or get to send multiple die or the same die multiple times. Compression is just transforming a low-entropy encoding into a high-entropy one, saving some time or space.

The physics version is closely related: how many ways can I shuffle the microscopic details of a system while preserving the macroscopic ones? If you’re looking at something small like a computer circuit, the answer is “not many.” The finely-ordered detail can’t be tweaked very much, and still result in a functional circuit. In contrast, the air above the circuit can be mixed up quite a bit and yet still look and act the same. Should a microscopic fluctuation happen, it’ll be far more harmful to the circuit than the air, so when they do inevitably happen the result is a gradual breaking up of the circuit. Its molecules will be slowly stripped off and brought into equilibrium with the air surrounding it, which also changes but less so.

Still with me? Good, because Pinker starts to drift off..

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is acknowledged in everyday life, in sayings such as “Ashes to ashes,” “Things fall apart,” “Rust never sleeps,” “Shit happens,” You can’t unscramble an egg,” “What can go wrong will go wrong,” and (from the Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn), “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”

That’s not really the Second Law, though. Pinker himself acknowledges that it only applies to closed systems, but anyone who’s looked up can attest that it isn’t. This comes up all the time in Creationist circles:

There is a mathematical correlation between entropy increase and an increase in disorder. The overall entropy of an isolated system can never decrease. However, the entropy of some parts of the system can spontaneously decrease at the expense of an even greater increase of other parts of the system. When heat flows spontaneously from a hot part of a system to a colder part of the system, the entropy of the hot area spontaneously decreases!

It’s bad enough that Pinker invokes a creationist-level understanding of physics, but he actually manages to make them look intelligent with:

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. … Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

There is no “wrong” ordering of molecules in the air or a computer chip, only orderings that aren’t what human beings want. “Misfortune” is a human construct superimposed on the universe, to model the goal we strive for. It has no place in a physics classroom, and is completely unrelated to thermodynamics.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.

Poverty is the inability to fulfill our basic needs. Is Pinker saying that, by default, human beings are incapable of meeting their basic needs, like food and shelter? Then he is effectively arguing we should have gone extinct and been replaced by a species which has no problems meeting its basic needs, like spiders or bacteria or ants. This of course ignores that economies are not closed systems, as the Sun helpfully dumps energy on us. Innovation increases efficiency and therefore entropy, which means that people who can’t gather their needs efficiently given what they have are living in a low entropic state.

But I thought entropy only increased over time, according to the Second Law? By Pinker’s own logic, poverty should not be the default but the past, a state that we evolved out of!

More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff.

Ooooh, I get it. This essay is just an excuse for Pinker to whine about progressives who want to improve other people’s lives. He thought he could hide his complaints behind science, to make them look more digestible to himself and others, but in reality just demonstrated he understands physics worse than most creationists.

What a crank. And sadly, that seems to be the norm in Evolutionary Psychology.

No, that is not a Sokal hoax; that is a legitimate paper published by two leading Evolutionary Psychologists! There must be something about the field that breeds smug ignorance…