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A Bit Rich

I don't know if John Derbyshire is being factually accurate when he states that certain kinds of genetic research are impeded by a chilling effect that can basically be laid at the door of liberals. He says researchers worry that if they do something that turns up race-correlated differentials or whatever, that they'll be pilloried. I can't say if that's true or not, but it has a certain plausibility to it. What doesn't have much plausibility is the notion that this sort of thing is really a bigger deal than the right's effort to expunge the main bit of science underlying all of contemporary biological research. But conservatives elites could hardly complain about that sort of thing.

In case this was unclear, by "the main bit of science underlying all of contemporary biological research" I mean the theory of evolution, and not anything as mundane as embryonic stem cells which, though certainly promising, are tangential to a lot of what one might want to do. If we don't teach evolution to the next generation of kids, it's hard to see how any biological or medical research could possibly go forward in this country.

November 23, 2004 | Permalink

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Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are skeptical about John Derbyshire's latest NRO article, The Swelling Wave. Derbyshire fears that political correctness is thwarting computational genetics. He has glimpsed a tumescent wave of knowledge gathering off shore... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 23, 2004 11:54:16 AM

Comments

On the other hand... liberals and a liberal worldview are heavily entrenched within the scientific community, whereas creationists are distinctly outside the scientific community. So the possible stifling effect of "this might turn up racist-sounding results, so I won't pursue this line of research" might *in practice* have more impact on the actual research program of geneticists than creationists' attempts to derail the teaching of evolution.

Obviously, creationism is still the bigger danger to scientific understanding within American society as a whole, which is in the long run more important than views within the scientific community, because science is ultimately funded and supported by the public.

Posted by: Andrew | Nov 23, 2004 10:01:28 AM

Matt, you're a philosher, can you comment on this? Kevin says:

"And not just morally neutral things like Tay-Sachs among Jews or sickle cell anemia among Blacks, but gene complexes related to, say, mathematical ability or verbal skills."

Are math and verbal skills morally relevant? Do we use these characteristics to determine who we can harm? For instance, suppose every member of one race had less intelligence than every member of another race, is it OK to enslave them? Do we justify (morally) the experimentation with chimpanzees because of their intelligence? If so, is it morally OK to use humans with less intelligence than the average chimpanzee?

Or in the workplace, is it morally wrong to hire the person with the greatest intelligence?

Can anyone give an example of how math or verbal skills are morally relevant? I can't think of any.

Posted by: JeffB | Nov 23, 2004 10:11:34 AM

"Can anyone give an example of how math or verbal skills are morally relevant? I can't think of any."

Sure: affirmative action. African-Americans and Hispanics qualify for affirmative action because their math and verbal skills are lower than that of whites and Asians.

Posted by: tc | Nov 23, 2004 10:22:19 AM

I'll just assume, a la Jared Diamond, that Europeans, Asians, and mid-easterners are the dumbest races, but the hardiest and most disease-resistant, whereas people who didn't get to agriculture until quite late, like Papua New Guinieans, Australian Aborigines, and Maoris are the smartest. Makes sense to me, and it has the favorable feature that, since I'm of European descent, if they ever come up with anything difinitive regarding my intrinsic genetic intelligence, my null hypothesis will be confirmed at worst, and if it isn't, I'll find myself in a better intelligence category than expected :^).

Flippancy aside, all new scientific hypotheses are held guilty until proven innocent. Race science has a rather long and not particularly glorious history, and its contemporary advocates, such as Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein, Richard Lynn, and Tatu Vanhanen, do little to boost its comtemporary reputation. Geneticists studying race-linked traits may discover interesting things, but they usually remember that only 10% of varying genes in humans are race-linked.

Question: Everyone believes that there are racial differences in dermal melanin, and some other minor things like Tay-Sachs, but nobody seems to believe that there are significant differences in, say, the way different races' kidneys work, though there's probably as much genetic description of a kidney as a brain. Derbyshire and his geneticist friends always seem to find racial differences in how brains work, never less spicey organs like kidneys or livers. Why is that, do you suppose?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 23, 2004 10:33:23 AM

Derbyshire seems to be full of shit. Claiming that researchers are turning away from Alzheimer's research due to race/intelligence questions? Jeebus, the Alzheimers field is exploding with new researchers and massive federal as well as private funding. You gotta love the whole "I have an unnamed friend who claims something is happening even though all evidence points to the opposite" column style. It's almost like Thomas Friedman's taxi drivers.

Posted by: Bender Rodriguez | Nov 23, 2004 10:46:51 AM

> For instance, suppose every member of one
> race had less intelligence than every member
> of another race, is it OK to enslave them?

It is amazing to me how this discussion centers around North American and Northern European cultural norms of "racial purity". How does this discussion even apply to a culture like Brazil, where it is considered culturally desirable to marry someone from a different "race" (or at least ethnicity or skin color)? Or for that matter, in Southern California, where cultural mixing (= back seat action) is going on at a tremendous rate?

What if all the blacks in the US (lower average SAT score) suddenly married Koreans (high average SAT score)? What would happen to theories of intelligence based on genes after the first set of children were born?

Human beings have different abilities, sure. We read to our babies from the time they were 1 month old. Oddly enough, they are now good readers and considered "intelligent". What about families who don't do that?

And in my experience most people only use about 20% of their god-given abilities anyway.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Nov 23, 2004 10:50:23 AM

"Can anyone give an example of how math or verbal skills are morally relevant?"

Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise. And so forth.

Did Jared Diamond ever say his Papuan friends are innately smarter (on average) than Europeans et al? I recall he made such a suggestion in "Guns, Germs & Steel," to the effect that if you can survive with nothing but stone tools, you must be a brilliant survivor. It seemed to me that statement was conjectural, made to challenge conventional wisdom.

Posted by: Grumpy | Nov 23, 2004 10:51:27 AM

I probably shouldn't say this, but...

"What if all the blacks in the US (lower average SAT score) suddenly married Koreans (high average SAT score)?"

Easy answer: golf would rapidly become the most popular sport in the land.

Posted by: Grumpy | Nov 23, 2004 10:54:26 AM

tc: Affirmative action may be one example. But I think the basis for affirmative action may be that they belong to a race that has been excluded from schools, jobs, homes, etc and not because they are in a group with lower math and verbal skills.

Posted by: JeffB | Nov 23, 2004 10:58:42 AM

Bender,

From other links in Drum's discussion it appears that Derbyshire is both wrong and that Alzheimer's research is, in fact, a backdoor into this sort of thing.

Posted by: Publius Rex | Nov 23, 2004 11:06:27 AM

"conservative elites"

nice work. Pound it home ...

Posted by: praktike | Nov 23, 2004 11:07:02 AM

Cranky, Maybe I'm trying to overstate my point, but I agree with most of what you say. I just don't see how "mathematical ability or verbal skills" are morally relevant (ie, that they determine how my actions affect others). Regardless of peoples' abilities in these things (whether derived from genetics or environment), it would still be morally wrong to cause them unnecessary harm or suffering. It would still be morally right to hire people based on if they have the abilities or skills needed to perform the job. But thinking about this more, I guess the one place where math ability and moral relevancy intersect is when we decide how much schooling (and resources) to provide students who are underperforming due to a genetic condition.

Posted by: JeffB | Nov 23, 2004 11:31:45 AM

"Derbyshire seems to be full of shit." That's like saying "evolution's just one theory of many."

Part of the problem is that geneticists, perhaps more than other biologists, really really believe their branch of the scientific tree is almighty. Thus, for most geneticists (at least the ones I've metand worked with), if they were to find genes that correlated with race and intelligence, would automatically assume this means that they've found "the gene for intelligence", rejecting any and all plausible counteracting explanations from other biological specialties. So if any geneticists are afraid to look into this stuff, it's more because they fear what they *think* it would mean that what it would actually mean. One of several philosophical mistake Derb makes in this piece (another is confusing correlation with causation, possi. Scientific No-No #1).

In the end, intelligence & race are so poorly defined and hard to measure and genetics is so difficult to use to prove strict causality in humans that this research means almost nothing. And it's potential isn't much greater: even if you did find a gene that demonstrably caused improvements on some intelligence component and was strongly correlated to ethnic identity, it still would be useless to tell you anything about the intellectual ability of person X from that ethnic group because no gene or cluster of genes will have a 100% correlation with any component intelligence, and likely no ethnic group will have a monopoly (or complete lack) of this gene. It should be especially meaningless to a political faction that argues for strict individualism, but for some reason they remain strengly drawn to it. More importantly, by the time you've figured this all out, the human population will be so ethnically interbred that it will be meaningless!

Posted by: Adam M | Nov 23, 2004 11:57:08 AM

Adam, I'm guessing that you don't actually know any geneticists. The ones I know certainly believe in enviromental effects.

"even if you did find a gene that demonstrably caused improvements on some intelligence component and was strongly correlated to ethnic identity, it still would be useless to tell you anything about the intellectual ability of person X from that ethnic group"

No, but it would tell you that you couldn't simply assume that any differences you saw in scholastic accomplishment statistics were due to, say, racism.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 23, 2004 12:49:54 PM

As Elson points out, any chilling effect that might exist has less to do with contemporary liberals and more with a history of gross misuse of quasi-genetic pseudoscience to support racism, eugenics/mandatory sterilization, genocide, etc. After the Holocaust tolerance for this garbage dropped, oh, just a little. Edwin Black's "War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race" is a good (if imperfect) account . . .

-Dan S.

Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 23, 2004 12:50:40 PM

I think Andrew is right.

The best evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists anyway. There really is a conflict between fundamentalism and evolution. The fundamentalists aren't just blowing smoke. Compromises such as a belief in telelogical or god controlled evolution really are not a correct way to think about evolution.

Posted by: Joe o | Nov 23, 2004 12:59:56 PM

It is a matter of course that genomic medicine and informatics is a field fraught with ethical issues, not just concerning race. Just look at the institutional guidelines and oversight committees that have sprung up to deal with them. It's a bit naive to consider otherwise.

On the other hand, the attack on science by creationists is a very real problem made all the worse by sociologists and political scientists who implicitly support this attack under the guise of attacking evolutionary psychology. This problem is endemic and cannot be isolated to a group of fringe creationists.

Posted by: eudoxis | Nov 23, 2004 1:17:15 PM

nobody seems to believe that there are significant differences in, say, the way different races' kidneys work

It depends what you mean by "how kidneys work." If you mean the gross physiology of the organ, no. If you mean the cascade of various molecules that help to regulate the circulatory system (which has, of course, everything to do with the kidney) -- well, I bet there are some differences. (I can't quote chapter and verse, but I can go look something up in Medline if you're skeptical.) Whether these differences are completely swamped by larger-scale environmental/socioeconomic differences: that's why epidemiologists do what they do, to find these things out.

Posted by: Zackary Sholem Berger | Nov 23, 2004 1:37:43 PM

Derbyshire is intellectually dishonest. He's trying to make it seem as if the entire field of computational genomics is under siege. To hear Derbyshire and his mystery man, you'd think everyone is tiptoeing around the genome for fear of stumbling on a racial difference.

If there's an issue here, it's academic freedom to study potentially controversial claims about racial and sexual differences. Instead of championing academic freedom for genuinely controversial research, Derbyshire slimily implies that PC-ers run amok are threatening computational genomics as such. His implication that the forces of political correctness are crippling basic research is both wrong and offensive.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Nov 23, 2004 1:51:54 PM

"North American and Northern European cultural norms of 'racial purity'."

Almost all N. American blacks have European ancestors. European slaveowners in N. America, not surprisingly, tended to sleep with their female slaves . . .

Posted by: rea | Nov 23, 2004 2:01:21 PM

There are general taboos in science against 'blaming the victim', as people fear that science will be used to justify (and perhaps legitimate intensifying) inequalities.

The biggest taboo is investigating genetic differences between racial groups for anything other than purely medical subjects. Given the way in which science has been abused, I think this taboo is healthy. There is a lesser taboo on sex differences (and on sexual orientation differences).

An exception here is the higher mortality of males. Given that we are emerging from a male-dominated (at least in explicit, formal power) society, there are no qualms about accepting the higher mortality of men as natural (in the sense of genetic) and 'natural' (in the sense that it's inevitable, not worthy of moral outrage, etc.).

There are also no qualms about blaming men for their higher incidence of health-damaging habits, instead of decrying the injustice that men are targetted by evil corporations. Nor do we hear that their health-damaging habits are stress-compensations for their miserable lives. (In the public health literature, smoking, drinking heavily, eating richly, and lack of exercise are always the result of stress, never because people enjoy those goods or enjoy leisure. Public health depts are dominated by normative sociology, whereby all unhealthy things are caused by morally objectionable things.)

This dichotomy between the way in which the lives of the powerful and less powerful are analyzed indicates, to me, that scientists are allowing politics (egalitarian liberal-left in this case, in contrast to hierarchical conservative-right before WWII) to improperly influence their science.

It would be better to have no such taboos, for we do not want to make our visions of a moral society contingent on what science may turn up in the future. Instead, we should man the barricades at what the appropriate response is to scientific findings, which are themselves morally neutral.

Posted by: dubious | Nov 23, 2004 2:04:35 PM

It should be especially meaningless to a political faction that argues for strict individualism, but for some reason they remain strengly drawn to it.

the reason this work has relevance to individualists is that intergroup differences, whether they be genetic or cultural, can falsify the assumption that assuming all racism/sexism/culturalism is eliminated all groups will be equally represented in field A, B, C, D....

for example, articles like this suggest that it is "troubling" that there are few women become computer scientists. the assumption is that if it wasn't for the all pervasive hand of the the Man (or whatever) women would want to become computer scientists. there are complex reasons that women might not want to become computer scientists, and acknowledging that other factors besides the Man might be at play is something that needs to be addressed. for example, perhaps once reason that women don't become computer scientists is that very bright females are more socially adept than bright males and know that they would be better as physicians and lawyers, while geeky bright males know that comp sci and academia is there best shot.

Posted by: razib | Nov 23, 2004 2:11:51 PM

eudoxis --

To construe attacks by social scientists on evolutionary psychology as implicit support for creationism is absurd.

Evolutionary biology is an empirical science, and the primary data source for this science is the fossil record. Evolutionary psychology is an interesting speculative field of intellectual inquiry, but there is almost no data available that allows one to test its speculations. The mind does not leave a fossil record.

You may feel that the social science establishment treats evolutionary psychology unfairly, but to pretend that this supports the arguments of creationists completely ignores the enormous body of data in the fossil record that supports (and guides the course of) the biological theory of evolution.

Posted by: Alex R | Nov 23, 2004 2:16:01 PM

Almost all N. American blacks have European ancestors. European slaveowners in N. America, not surprisingly, tended to sleep with their female slaves . . .

Which is why, if you want good information about racial differences, you'd be blazingly stupid to use the US population as your sample. What you should be doing is finding long-isolated populations in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. And having them take the SAT.

Posted by: Hogan | Nov 23, 2004 2:21:33 PM

Evolutionary biology is an empirical science, and the primary data source for this science is the fossil record.

let me be frank and assert that this shows your ignorance of the science, what you speak of is paleontology. mathematical population biological studies in the vein of william d. hamilton or j. maynard smith can test microevolutionary hypotheses in the lab (flies) and out in nature (ecology). genomic sequencing can lead to phylogenetic inferences that supplement and build upon fossil based cladistics.

see the recent contents for biomedcentral evolutionary biology. very few of them relate to fossils (though that is a subset of evol. bio).

now, since you seem under this misimpression about evol. bio, i see no reason why people should credit your critiques of evolutionary psychology.

Posted by: razib | Nov 23, 2004 2:39:11 PM

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