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  • Robert Plomin’s “Blueprint”: The Reply of the Walking Dead

    Posted on January 30th, 2019 Helian No comments

    The significance of Robert Plomin’s Blueprint is not that every word therein is infallible. Some reviewers have questioned his assertions about the relative insignificance of the role that parents, schools, culture, and other environmental factors play in the outcome of our lives, and it seems to me the jury is still out on many of these issues. See, for example, the thoughtful review of Razib Khan in the National Review. What is significant about it is Plomin’s description of new and genuinely revolutionary experimental tools of rapidly increasing power and scope that have enabled us to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that our DNA has a very significant influence on human behavior. In other words, there is such a thing as “human nature,” and it is important. This truth might see obvious today. It is also a fact, however, that this truth was successfully suppressed and denied for over half a century by the vast majority of the “scientists” who claimed to be experts on human behavior.

    There is no guarantee that such scientific debacles are a thing of the past. Ideologues devoted to the quasi-religious faith that the truth must take a back seat to their equalist ideals are just as prevalent now as they were during the heyday of the Blank Slate. Indeed, they are at least as powerful now as they were then, and they would like nothing better than to breathe new life into the flat earth dogmas they once foisted on the behavioral sciences. Consider, for example, a review of Blueprint by Nathaniel Comfort entitled “Genetic determinism rides again,” that appeared in the prestigious journal Nature. The first paragraph reads as follows:

    It’s never a good time for another bout of genetic determinism, but it’s hard to imagine a worse one than this. Social inequality gapes, exacerbated by climate change, driving hostility towards immigrants and flares of militant racism. At such a juncture, yet another expression of the discredited, simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature seems particularly insidious.

    Can anyone with an ounce of common sense, not to mention the editors of a journal that purports to speak for “science,” read such a passage and conclude that the author will continue with a dispassionate review of the merits of the factual claims made in a popular science book? One wonders what on earth they were thinking. Apparently Gleichschaltung is sufficiently advanced at Nature that the editors have lost all sense of shame. Consider, for example, the hoary “genetic determinism” canard. A “genetic determinist” is a strawman invented more than 50 years ago by the Blank Slaters of old. These imaginary beings were supposed to believe that our behavior is rigidly programmed by “instincts.” I’ve searched diligently during the ensuing years, but have never turned up a genuine example of one of these unicorns. They are as mythical as witches, but the Blank Slaters never tire of repeating their hackneyed propaganda lines. It would be hard to “discredit” the “simplistic idea that genes alone control human nature” by virtue of the fact that no one ever made such a preposterous claim to begin with, and Plomin certainly wasn’t the first. Beyond that, what could possibly be the point of dragging in all the familiar dogmas of the “progressive” tribe? Apparently Nature would have us believe that scientific “truth” is to be determined by ideological litmus tests.

    In the next paragraph Comfort supplies Plomin, a professor of behavior genetics, with the title “educational psychologist,” and sulks that his emphasis on chromosomal DNA leaves microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts, and developmental biologists out in the cold. Seriously? Since when did these fields manage to hermetically seal themselves off from DNA and become “non-overlapping magisteria?” Do any microbiologists, epigeneticists, RNA experts or developmental biologists actually exist who consider DNA irrelevant to their field?

    Comfort next makes the logically questionable claim that, because “Darwinism begat eugenics”, “Mendelism begat worse eugenics,” and medical genetics begat the claim that men with an XYY genotype were violent, therefore behavioral genetics must also “begat” progeny that are just as bad. QED

    Genome-wide association (GWA) methods, the increasingly powerful tool described in Blueprint that has now put the finishing touches on the debunking of the Blank Slate, are dismissed as something that “lures scientists” because of its “promise of genetic explanations for complex traits, such as voting behavior or investment strategies.” How Comfort distills this “promise” out of anything that actually appears in the book is beyond me. One wonders if he ever actually read it. That suspicion is greatly strengthened when one reads the following paragraph:

    A polygenic score is a correlation coefficient. A GWAS identifies single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the DNA that correlate with the trait of interest. The SNPs are markers only. Although they might, in some cases, suggest genomic neighborhoods in which to search for genes that directly affect the trait, the polygenic score itself is in no sense causal. Plomin understands this and says so repeatedly in the book – yet contradicts himself several times by arguing that the scores are in fact, causal.

    You have to hand it to Comfort, he can stuff a huge amount of disinformation into a small package. In the first place, the second and third sentences contradict each other. If SNPs are variations in the rungs of DNA that occur between individuals, they are not just markers, and they don’t just “suggest genomic neighborhoods in which to search for genes that directly affect the trait.” If they are reliable and replicable GWA hits, they are one of the actual points at which the trait is affected. Plomin most definitely does not “understand” that polygenic scores are in no sense causal, and nowhere does he say anything of the sort, far less “repeatedly.” What he does say is:

    In contrast, correlations between a polygenic score and a trait can only be interpreted causally in one direction – from the polygenic score to the trait. For example, we have shown that the educational attainment polygenic score correlates with children’s reading ability. The correlation means that the inherited DNA differences captured by the polygenic score cause differences between children in their school achievement, in the sense that nothing in our brains, behavior, or environment can change inherited differences in DNA sequence.

    I would be very interested to hear what Comfort finds “illogical” about that passage, and by virtue of what magical mental prestidigitations he proposes to demonstrate that the score is a “mere correlation.” Elsewhere we read,

    Hereditarian books such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994) and Nicholas Wade’s 2014 A Troublesome Inheritance (see N. Comfort Nature 513, 306–307; 2014) exploited their respective scientific and cultural moments, leveraging the cultural authority of science to advance a discredited, undemocratic agenda. Although Blueprint is cut from different ideological cloth, the consequences could be just as grave.

    In fact, neither The Bell Curve nor A Troublesome Inheritance have ever been discredited, if by that term is meant being proved factually wrong. If books are “discredited” by how many ideological zealots begin foaming at the mouth on reading them, of course, it’s a different matter. Beyond that, if something is true, it does not become false by virtue of Comfort deeming it “undemocratic.” I could go on, but what’s the point? Suffice it to say that Comfort’s favorite “scientific authority” is Richard Lewontin, an obscurantist high priest of the Blank Slate if ever there was one, and author of Not in Our Genes.

    I can understand the editors of Nature’s desire to virtue signal their loyalty to the prevailing politically correct fashions, but this “review” is truly abject. It isn’t that hard to find authors on the left of the political spectrum who can write a book review that is at least a notch above the level of tendentious ideological propaganda. See, for example, Kathryn Paige Harden’s review of Blueprint in the Spectator. Somehow she managed to write it without implying that Plomin is a Nazi in every second sentence.  I suggest that next time they look a little harder.

    My initial post about Blueprint tended to emphasize the historical ramifications of the book in the context of the Blank Slate disaster. As a result, my description of the scientific substance of the book was very broad brush. However, there are many good reviews out there that cover that ground, expressing some of my own reservations about Plomin’s conclusions about the importance of environment in the process. See, for example, the excellent review by Razib Khan in the National Review linked above. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the book itself is only 188 pages long, so, by all means, read it.

  • Robert Plomin’s “Blueprint” – The Blank Slate and the Behavioral Genetics Insurgency

    Posted on January 28th, 2019 Helian No comments

    Robert Plomin‘s Blueprint is a must read. That would be true even if it were “merely” an account of recent stunning breakthroughs that have greatly expanded our understanding of the links between our DNA and behavior. However, beyond that it reveals an aspect of history that has been little appreciated to date; the guerilla warfare carried on by behavioral geneticists against the Blank Slate orthodoxy from a very early date. You might say the book is an account of the victorious end of that warfare. From now on those who deny the existence of heritable genetic effects on human behavior will self-identify as belonging to the same category as the more seedy televangelists, or even professors in university “studies” departments.

    Let’s begin with the science.   We have long known by virtue of thousands of twin and adoption studies that many complex human traits, including psychological traits, are more or less heritable due to differences in DNA. These methods also enable us to come up with a ballpark estimate of the degree to which these traits are influenced by genetics. However, we have not been able until very recently to detect exactly what inherited differences in DNA sequences are actually responsible for the variations we see in these traits. That’s were the “revolution” in genetics described by Plomin comes in. It turns out that detecting these differences was to be a far more challenging task than optimistic scientists expected at first. As he put it,

    When the hunt began twenty-five years ago everyone assumed we were after big game – a few genes of large effect that were mostly responsible for heritability. For example, for heritabilities of about 50 per cent, ten genes each accounting for 5 per cent of the variance would do the job. If the effects were this large, it would require a sample size of only 200 to have sufficient power to detect them.

    This fond hope turned out to be wishful thinking. As noted in the book, some promising genes were studied, and some claims were occasionally made in the literature that a few such “magic” genes had been found. The result, according to Plomin, was a fiasco. The studies could not be replicated. It was clear by the turn of the century that a much broader approach would be necessary. This, however, would require the genotyping of tens of thousands of single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (snips). A SNP is a change in a single one of the billions of rungs of the DNA ladder each of us carries. SNPs are one of the main reasons for differences in the DNA sequence among different human beings. To make matters worse, it was expected that sample sizes of a thousand or more individuals would have to be checked in this way to accumulate enough data to be statistically useful. At the time, such genome-wide association (GWA) studies would have been prohibitively expensive. Plomin notes that he attempted such an approach to find the DNA differences associated with intelligence, with the aid of a few shortcuts. He devoted two years to the study, only to be disappointed again. It was a second false start. Not a single DNA association with intelligence could be replicated.

    Then, however, a major breakthrough began to make its appearance in the form of SNP chips.  According to Plomin, “These could “genotype many SNPs for an individual quickly and inexpensively. SNP chips triggered the explosion of genome-wide association studies.” He saw their promise immediately, and went back to work attempting to find SNP associations with intelligence. The result? A third false start. The chips available at the time were still too expensive, and could identify too few SNPs. Many other similar GWA studies failed miserably as well. Eventually, one did succeed, but there was a cloud within the silver lining. The effect size of the SNP associations found were all extremely small. Then things began to snowball. Chips were developed that could identify hundreds of thousands instead of just tens of thousands of SNPs, and sample sizes in the tens of thousands became feasible. Today, sample sizes can be in the hundreds of thousands. As a result of all this, revolutionary advances have been made in just the past few years. Numerous genome-wide significant hits have been found for a host of psychological traits. And now we know the reason why the initial studies were so disappointing. In Plomin’s words,

    For complex traits, no genes have been found that account for 5 per cent of the variance, not even 0.5 per cent of the variance. The average effect sizes are in the order of 0.01 per cent of the variance, which means that thousands of SNP associations will be needed to account for heritabilities of 50 per cent… Thinking about so many SNPs with such small effects was a big jump from where we started twenty-five years ago. We now know for certain that heritability is caused by thousands of associations of incredibly small effect. Nonetheless, aggregating these associations in polygenic scores that combine the effects of tens of thousands of SNPs makes it possible to predict psychological traits such as depression, schizophrenia and school achievement.

    In short, we now have a tool that, as I write this, is rapidly increasing in power, and that enables falsifiable predictions regarding many psychological traits based on DNA alone. As Plomin puts it,

    The DNA revolution matters much more than merely replicating results from twin and adoption studies. It is a game-changer for science and society. For the first time, inherited DNA differences across our entire genome of billions of DNA sequences can be used to predict psychological strengths and weaknesses for individuals, called personal genomics.

    As an appreciable side benefit, thanks to this revolution we can now officially declare the Blank Slate stone cold dead. It’s noteworthy that this revolutionary advance in our knowledge of the heritable aspects of our behavior did not happen in the field of evolutionary psychology, as one might expect. Diehard Blank Slaters have been directing their ire in that direction for some time. They could have saved themselves the trouble. While the evolutionary psychologists have been amusing themselves inventing inconsequential just so stories about the more abstruse aspects of our sexual behavior, a fifth column that germinated long ago in the field of behavioral genetics was about to drive the decisive nail in their coffin. Obviously, it would have been an inappropriate distraction for Plomin to expand on the fascinating history behind this development in Blueprint.  Read between the lines, though, and its quite clear that he knows what’s been going on.

    It turns out that the behavioral geneticists were already astute at dodging the baleful attention of the high priests of the Blank Slate, flying just beneath their radar, at a very early date. A useful source document recounting some of that history entitled, Origins of Behavior Genetics: The Role of The Jackson Laboratory, was published in 2009 by Donald Dewsbury, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Florida. He notes that,

    A new field can be established and coalesce around a book that takes loosely evolving material and organizes it into a single volume. Examples include Watson’s (1914) Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology and Wilson’s (1975) Sociobiology. It is generally agreed that Fuller and Thompson’s 1960 Behavior Genetics served a similar function in establishing behavior genetics as a separate field.

    However, research on the effects of genes on behavior had already begun much earlier. In the 1930’s, when the Blank Slate already had a firm grip on the behavioral sciences, According to the paper, Harvard alumnus Alan Gregg, who was Director of the Medical Sciences Division of Rockefeller Foundation,

    …developed a program of “psychobiology” or “mental hygiene” at the Foundation. Gregg viewed mental illness as a fundamental problem in society and believed that there were strong genetic influences. There was a firm belief that the principles to be discovered in nonhuman animals would generalize to humans. Thus, fundamental problems of human behavior might be more conveniently and effectively studied in other species.

    The focus on animals turned out to be a very wise decision. For many years it enabled the behavioral geneticists to carry on their work while taking little flak from the high priests of the Blank Slate, whose ire was concentrated on scientists who were less discrete about their interest in humans, in fields such as ethology. Eventually Gregg teamed up with Clarence Little, head of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and established a program to study mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, and, especially dogs. Gregg wrote papers about selective breeding of dogs for high intelligence and good disposition. However, as his colleagues were aware, another of his goals “was conclusively to demonstrate a high heritability of human intelligence.”

    Fast forward to the 60’s. It was a decade in which the Blank Slate hegemony began to slowly crumble under the hammer blows of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Robert Trivers, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and especially the outsider and “mere playwright” Robert Ardrey. In 1967 the Institute for Behavioral Genetics (IBG) was established at the University of Colorado by Prof. Jerry McClearn with his colleagues Kurt Schlesinger and Jim Wilson. In the beginning, McClearn et. al. were a bit coy, conducting “harmless” research on the behavior of mice, but by the early 1970’s they had begun to publish papers that were explicitly about human behavior. It finally dawned on the Blank Slaters what they were up to, and they were subjected to the usual “scientific” accusations of fascism, Nazism, and serving as running dogs of the bourgeoisie, but by then it was too late. The Blank Slate had already become a laughing stock among lay people who were able to read and had an ounce of common sense. Only the “experts” in the behavioral sciences would be rash enough to continue futile attempts to breath life back into the corpse.

    Would that some competent historian could reconstruct what was going through the minds of McClearn and the rest when they made their bold and potentially career ending decision to defy the Blank Slate and establish the IBG. I believe Jim Wilson is still alive, and no doubt could tell some wonderful stories about this nascent insurgency. In any case, in 1974 Robert Plomin made the very bold decision for a young professor to join the Institute. One of the results of that fortuitous decision was the superb book that is the subject of this post. As noted above, digression into the Blank Slate affair would only have been a distraction from the truly revolutionary developments revealed in his book. However, there is no question that that he was perfectly well aware of what had been going on in the “behavioral sciences” for many years. Consider, for example, the following passage, about why research results in behavioral genetics are so robust and replicate so strongly:

    Another reason seems paradoxical: behavioral genetics has been the most controversial topic in psychology during the twentieth century. The controversy and conflict surrounding behavioral genetics raised the bar for the quality and quantity of research needed to convince people of the importance of genetics. This has had the positive effect of motivating bigger and better studies. A single study was not enough. Robust replication across studies tipped the balance of opinion.

    As the Germans say, “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stark” (What doesn’t kill me make me strong). If you were looking for a silver lining to the Blank Slate, there you have it. What more can I say. The book is a short 188 pages, but in those pages are concentrated a wealth of knowledge bearing on the critical need of our species to understand itself. If you would know yourself, then by all means, buy the book.

  • Troublesome Nick and the Timid Echoes of the Blank Slate

    Posted on May 14th, 2014 Helian No comments

    You can still get in trouble for saying things that are true, or, for that matter, even obvious.  Consider, for example, Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.  I haven’t yet read the book, so have no comment on whether any of the specific hypotheses therein are scientifically credible or not.  However, according to the blurb at Amazon, the theme of the book is that there actually is such a thing as human biodiversity (hbd).  So much is, of course, not only true, but obvious.  The problem is that such truths have implications.  If there are significant genetic differences between human groups, then it is unlikely that the influence of those differences on the various metrics of human “success” will be zero.  In other words, we are dealing with a truth that is not only inconvenient, but immoral.  It violates the principle of equality. 

    It is only to be expected that there will be similarities between the reaction to this particular immoral truth and those that have been observed in response to other immoral truths in the past.  Typical reactions among those whose moral emotions have been aroused by such truths have been denial, vilification of the messenger, and the invention of straw men that are easier targets than the truth itself.  All these reactions occurred in response to what is probably the most familiar example of an immoral truth; the fact that genes influence behavior, or, if you will, that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.”  In that case, denial took the form of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, which perverted and derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  The messengers were condemned, not only with the long since hackneyed accusation of racism, but with a host of other political and moral shortcomings.  The most familiar straw man was, of course, the “genetic determinist.”

    Predictably, the response to Wade’s book has been similar.  Not so predictable has been the muted nature of that response.  Compared to the vicious attacks on the messengers who debunked the Blank Slate, it has been pianissimo, and even apologetic.  It would almost seem as if the current paragons of moral purity among us have actually been chastened by the collapse of that quasi-religious orthodoxy.  Allow me to illustrate with an example from the past.  It took the form of a response to the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  Entitled Against “Sociobiology”, it appeared in the New York Review of Books shortly after Wilson’s book was published.  As it happens, it didn’t have just one author. It had a whole gang, including such high priests of the Blank Slate as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The message, of course, was that all right-thinking people agreed that the book should be on the proscribed list, and not just a mere individual. Anathemas were rained down on the head of Wilson with all the pious self-assurance of those who were cocksure they controlled the message of “science.” For example,

     The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.

     Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

    and, of course, the de rigueur association of Wilson with the Nazis:

     These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

    Now, fast forward the better part of four decades and consider a similar diatribe by one of the current crop of the self-appointed morally pure.  The paragon of righteousness in question is Andrew Gelman, and the title of his bit is The Paradox of Racism. True, Gelman doesn’t leave us in suspense about whether he’s in the ranks of the just and good or not. He can’t even wait until he’s past the title of his article to accuse Wade of racism. However, having established his bona fides, he adopts a conciliatory, and almost apologetic tone. For example,

    Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics.

    Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.

    That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture.

    Obviously, Gelman hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years.  Here we find him peering back over his shoulder, appearing for all the world as if he’s afraid the truth might catch up with him.  He’s aware of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, perhaps the greatest debunking of the infallible authority of “science” of all time.  He allows that we might not merely be dealing with a racist individual here, but a racist truth. He even acknowledges that, in that case, something might actually be done about it, implicitly dropping the “genetic determinism” canard:

     Despite Wade’s occasional use of politically conservative signifiers (dismissive remarks about intellectuals and academic leftists, an offhand remark about “global cooling”), I believe him when he writes that “this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.” If researchers ever really can identify ethnic groups with genetic markers for short-term preferences, low intelligence, and an increased proclivity to violence, and other ethnic groups with an affinity for authoritarianism, this is something that more peaceful, democratic policymakers should be aware of.

    Indeed, unlike the authors of the earlier paper, Gelman can’t even bring himself to summon up the ghost of Hitler.  He concludes,

     Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.

    In a word, Gelman’s remarks are rather more nuanced than the fulminations of his predecessors.  Am I making too much of this apparent change of tone? I don’t think so. True, there are still plenty of fire-breathing Blank Slaters lurking in the more obscure echo chambers of academia, but, like the Communists, they are doing us the favor of gradually dying off. Their latter day replacements, having seen whole legions of behavioral “scientists” exposed as charlatans, are rather less self-assured in their virtuous indignation. Some of them have even resorted to admitting that, while it may be true that there is such a thing as human biodiversity, the masses should be sheltered from that truth. Predictably, they have appointed themselves gatekeepers of the forbidden knowledge.

    I note in passing the historical value of the attack on Wilson mentioned above.  Like many similar bits and pieces of source material published in the decade prior to 1975, still easily accessible to anyone who cares to do a little searching, it blows the modern mythology concocted by the evolutionary psychologists to account for the origins of their science completely out of the water.  According to that mythology, it all began with the “big bang” of Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  The whole yarn may be found summarized in a nutshell in the textbook Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss.  According to Buss, Sociobiology was “monumental in both size and scope.” It “synthesized under one umbrella a tremendous diversity of scientific endeavors and gave the emerging field (sociobiology) a visible name.”  And so on and so on.  At least that’s the version in my 2009 edition of the book.  “History” might have changed a bit since Wilson’s embrace of group selection in his The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012.  We’ll have to wait and see when the next edition of the textbook is published.

    Be that as it may, the fact is that the reason for the original notoriety of Sociobiology, and the reason it is not virtually forgotten today, had nothing to do with all the good stuff Wilson packed into the middle 25 chapters of his book that was subsequently the subject of Buss’ panegyrics.  That reason was Wilson’s insistence in the first and last of his 27 chapters that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.” There was nothing in the least novel, original, or revolutionary in that insistence. In fact, it was merely a repetition of what other authors had been writing for more than a decade. Those authors were neither obscure nor ignored, and were recognized by Blank Slaters like Gould and Lewontin as their most influential and effective opponents. They, and not any novel “scientific synthesis,” were the reason that such worthies paid any attention to Wilson’s book at all. And, much as I admire the man, they, and not Wilson, were most influential in unmasking the absurdities of the Blank Slate, causing it to stumble and eventually collapse. Those facts were certainly no secret to the authors of the article.  Allow me to quote them by way of demonstration:

    From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

    Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information.

     The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology.

    In a word, the Blank Slaters themselves certainly perceived nothing “novel” in Sociobiology. By the time it was published the hypotheses about human nature they objected to in its content were already old hat. They were merely trying to silence yet another voice proclaiming the absence of the emperor’s new clothes. Again, just do a little searching through the historical source material and you’ll find that the loudest and most influential voice of all, and the one that drew the loudest bellows of rage from the Blank Slaters, belonged to one of Wilson’s predecessors mentioned by name in the above quotes; Robert Ardrey. Of course, Ardrey was a “mere playwright,” and it’s a well-known fact that, once one has been a playwright, one is automatically disqualified from becoming a scientist or writing anything that counts as science ever after. Add to that the fact that Ardrey was right when all the scientists with their Ph.D.’s were wrong about human nature, and I think it’s obvious why making him anything like the “father of evolutionary psychology” would be in bad taste. Wilson fits that role nicely, or at least he did until his flirtation with group selection escalated into a full scale romance.  Ergo, Ardrey was declared “totally and utterly wrong,” became an unperson, and Wilson stepped up to fill his ample shoes.  Alas, if past history is any guide, I fear that it eventually may become necessary to drop poor Nick down the memory hole as well.  True, at least the man isn’t a playwright, but he isn’t sporting a Ph.D., either.  Really, how “scientific” can you be if you don’t have a Ph.D.?   In any case, the mythology that passes for the history of evolutionary psychology began “just so.”   

  • “On Aggression” and the Continuing Vindication of the Unpersons

    Posted on May 8th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    The vindication just keeps coming for the unpersons of the Blank Slate.  First Robert Ardrey’s “Territorial Imperative” is confirmed in an article in the journal International Security.  The authors actually deign to mention Ardrey, but claim that, even though their “novel ideas” are all remarkably similar to the main themes of a book he published almost half a century ago, it doesn’t count.  You see, unlike all the other scientists who ever lived, Ardrey wasn’t infallible, so he can be ignored, and his legacy appropriated at will.  Shortly thereafter, Ardrey’s “Hunting Hypothesis” is confirmed yet again, and in the pages of Scientific American, no less!  The article in question bears the remarkably Ardreyesque title How Hunting Made Us Human.  It does not mention Ardrey.

    Now another major theme from the work of yet another unperson whose life work and legacy don’t count because Richard Dawkins said he was “totally and utterly wrong” has been (yet again) confirmed!  The unperson in question is Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel laureate who dared to suggest that genes might have some influence on human aggression in his book, On Aggression, published back in 1966.  According to the authors of a recent Penn State study there is now some doubt about whether Lorenz was “totally and utterly wrong” after all.  Here are some blurbs from an account in the Penn State News:

    Aggression-causing genes appeared early in animal evolution and have maintained their roles for millions of years and across many species, even though animal aggression today varies widely from territorial fighting to setting up social hierarchies, according to researchers from Iowa State University, Penn State and Grand Valley State University.

    If these “mean genes” keep their roles in different animals and in different contexts, then perhaps model organisms — such as bees and mice — can provide insights into the biological basis of aggression in all animals, including humans, the researchers said.

    Do you think Lorenz will get any credit?  Dream on!  After all, he wasn’t infallible (what was it he was wrong about now?  The “hydraulic theory” or something), and it’s a “well known fact,” as Stalin always used to say, that any scientist who wasn’t as infallible as the Almighty should be ignored and forgotten and his work freely appropriated.  Or at least that’s the rule generally applied by the modern “historians” of the Blank Slate to scientists whose existence is “inconvenient” to their narrative.

    BTW, the title typically used for articles about the study is very amusing.  In most cases, it’s simply copied from the one used in the Penn State News; “Wasps use ancient aggression genes to create social groups”.  Move along people!  There’s nothing interesting here.  It’s just a dull study about wasps.

    No matter, studies on the influence of genes on human behavior continue to stream out of the Academy, demonstrating that, for the most part, such work can now be done without fear of retribution.  That, and not any vindicated or unvindicated scientific hypothesis, is the real legacy of Ardrey, Lorenz, and the other great unpersons of the Blank Slate.

  • “Designer Babies” and the Path to Transhumanism

    Posted on April 14th, 2014 Helian No comments

    That great poet among philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote,

    I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?  All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?  What is the ape to man?  A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.  And man shall be just that for the overman:  a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment… Behold, I teach you the overman.  The overman is the meaning of the earth.  Let your will say:  the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!

    Nietzsche was no believer in “scientific morality.”  He knew that if, as his Zarathustra claimed, God was really dead, there was no basis for his preferred version of the future of mankind or his preferred versions of Good and Evil beyond a personal whim.  However, as whims go, the above passage at least has the advantage of being consistent.  In other words, unlike some modern versions of morality, it isn’t a negation of the reasons that morality evolved in the first place.  It would have been interesting to hear the great man’s impressions of a world in which modern genetics is increasingly endowing the individual with the power to decide for himself whether he wants to be the “rope between man and overman” or not.

    Hardly a month goes by without news of some new startup offering the latest version of the power.  For example, a week ago an article turned up in The Guardian describing the “Matchright” technology to be offered by a venture by the name of Genepeeks.  Its title, Startup offering DNA screening of ‘hypothetical babies’ raises fears over designer children, reflects the usual “Gattaca” nightmares that so many seem to associate with such technologies.  It describes “Matchright” as a computational tool that can screen the DNA of potential sperm donors, identifying those who carry a risk of genetically transmitted diseases when matched with the DNA of a recipients egg.  According to the article,

    …for the technology to work it needs to pull off a couple of amazing tricks. For a start, it is not as simple as creating a single digital sperm and an egg based on the parents and putting them together. When an egg and a sperm fuse in real life, they swap a bunch of DNA – a process called recombination – which is part of the reason why each child (bar identical twins) is different. To recreate this process, the software needs to be run 10,000 times for each individual potential donor. They can then see the percentage of these offspring that are affected by the disease.

    It goes on to quote bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth:

    The system will provide the most comprehensive genetic analysis to date of the potential risk of disease in a newborn, without even needing to fertilise a single egg. It gives people more confidence about disease risk, says Green, who is not involved in the work: “If someone I care for was in the market for donor sperm I might encourage them to use this technology,” he says.

    In keeping with the usual custom for such articles, this one ends up with a nod to the moralists:

    As for the ethical issues, (company co-founder Anne) Morriss does not deny they are there, but believes in opening up the discussion “beyond the self-appointed ethicists”. “I think everybody should be involved – the public and the scientists and the regulators.”

    Indeed, “self-appointed ethicists” aren’t hard to find.  There is an interesting discussion of the two sides of this debate in an article recently posted at Huffington Post entitled The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies.‘ Such concerns beg a question that also came up in the debate back in the late 40’s and early 50’s about whether we should develop hydrogen bombs – do we really have a choice?  After all, we’re not the only ones in the game.  Consider, for example, the title of an article that recently appeared on the CBS News website:  Designer babies” on the way? In China, scientists attempt to unravel human intelligence. According to the article,

    Inside a converted shoe factory in Shenzhen, China, scientists have launched an ambitious search for the genes linked to human intelligence.

    The man in charge of the project is 21-year-old science savant, Zhao Bowen. He estimates more than 60 percent of your IQ is decided by your parents, and now they want to prove it.

    Asked how he would describe his ultimate goal, Zhao said it’s to “help people understand themselves and to create a better world.”

    The “self-appointed ethicists” can react to Zhao’s comment as furiously as they please.  The only problem is that they don’t have a monopoly on the right to make the decision.  They may not be personally inclined to become “the rope between man and overman.”  However, I suspect they may reevaluate their ethical concerns when they find themselves left in the dust with the apes.

    Pygmy Chimpanzee Laughs

  • Robert Trivers and Rutgers: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

    Posted on February 24th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Robert Trivers is a giant in the field of evolutionary biology.  The brilliance of his work has not faded over time, and has been in a field that is highly relevant to us all.  He has greatly enhanced our ability to understand ourselves.  It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of his work.  I just started reading a copy of novelist Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and was amazed to find artifacts of Trivers’ famous parental investment theory in the opening chapters!  If he were Japanese, the man would probably be declared one of the country’s living national treasures.  Not here, though.  Here it seems his reward is coming in the form of a constant stream of abuse from the Rutgers administration.

    I posted a bit about Trivers last year.  He had accused one of his graduate students of fraud in a scientific paper.  One of his colleagues who supported the alleged fraudster claimed that Trivers “frightened him in his office.”  For that he was banned from campus.  Now we learn he has aroused the ire of the Rutgers bureaucrats yet again.  Apparently Trivers objected to teaching a course on “Human Aggression,” claiming that he lacked expertise in the subject.  According to Kelly Heyboer of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, when forced to teach it anyway, “Trivers told students he would do his best to learn the subject with the students and teach the class with the help of a guest lecturer.”  For this, he was suspended.  According to Trivers, top university officials refused to even meet with him to discuss the subject.

    Can anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 50 years possibly fail to understand why someone like Trivers would object to teaching a class on “Human Aggression” in the context of evolutionary biology?  It has been the subject of furious ideological battles ever since Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz’ publication of On Aggression.  Forcing a scientist of Trivers’ stature to teach a course on the subject amounts to setting him up as a target for the zealots on both sides of the ideological barricades.  It is hard to explain such an act by Rutgers as other than either a malicious provocation or stupidity.

    I admire Trivers for fighting back.  As a professor with tenure nearing the end of his career, at least he’s in a position where he can fight back.  If you’ve ever seen the curriculum vitae of a young, tenure track assistant professor at a major university, you know the competition they face is fierce.  Without a gazillion publications, citations, invited talks, outside activities, prestigious awards, etc., they don’t even stand a chance.  For them, resistance to these bullies would be suicidal.  Trivers isn’t such an easy mark.

    Still, it’s stunning to me that Rutgers can get away with this kind of abuse, and that it passes almost unnoticed, not only in the popular media, but in the science journals and websites as well.  Where are the other greats in the field?  Apparently, they “just don’t want to get involved.”  Trivers may not be the easiest man to get along with, but he deserves better.

  • Science vs. Ideology in Genetics, in which Richard Dawkins and Professor Ceiling Cat Admonish David Dobbs

    Posted on December 8th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    Cultural determinism is like the Paris fashions.  It defies ridicule.  The idea is so useful that it won’t drown, despite the torrent of contradictory facts it has been submerged under lately.  The cobbling of utopias is great fun, and utopia is ever so much more plausible if only everything can be changed to the heart’s desire by culture and environment.  One of the more flamboyant examples of the phenomenon recently turned up in Aeon Magazine in the form of an article penned by science journalist David Dobbs.

    The title of the article, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, is provocative enough.  The Selfish Gene, of course, was the subject of a book with that title by Richard Dawkins.  Rubbing salt in the wound, Dobbs adds the byline, “The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”  All this irritated Dawkins’ friend Jerry Coyne, to the point that he not only read the rather lengthy article, but penned a pair of rebuttals on his Why Evolution is True website.  It wasn’t hard.

    Dobbs’ claim that Dawkins’ selfish gene version of evolution is wrong was based on his embrace of the idea of genetic accommodation.  Coyne (known to his students as Professor Ceiling Cat, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who visits his blog) described the idea in his second rebuttal as follows;

    Today’s discussion is on what Dobbs and some of the heroes of his piece (especially Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard) see as the truly novel and non-Darwinian refutation of the selfish gene idea: the idea of genetic accommodation.  “Genetic accommodation” has other names: it’s also been called “The Baldwin Effect” and “genetic assimilation.”  But all of these names refer to a single mechanism: instead of existing genetic variation being subject to natural selection in an existing or changing environment, the environment itself evokes phenotypic (not genetic) variation, which is then somehow fixed in the species’ genome.

    Dobbs’ version of this idea leads him to some rather startling assertions.  For example, he writes,

    Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful, and it’s vital for distinguishing one species from another.  We humans, for instance, share more than half our genomes with flatworms; about 60 per cent with fruit flies and chickens; 80 per cent with cows; and 99 per cent with chimps.  Those genetic distinctions aren’t enough to create all our differences from those animals – what biologists call our phenotype, which is essentially the recognizable thing a genotype builds.  This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently our remarkably similar genomes as we develop from zygote to adult.  The writing varies – but hardly as much as the reading.

    Great shades of Trofim Lysenko!  One can almost see the great Soviet con man in one of his Siberian laboratories, turning out a race of centaurs by astutely tweaking the “reading” of the genes of a zebra.  Where is Dobbs going with this?  Let’s cut to the chase and have a look at his thumbnail sketch of genetic accommodation:

    There lies the quick beating heart of her (Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s) argument: the gene follows. And one of the ways the gene follows is through this process called genetic accommodation. Genetic accommodation is a clunky term for a graceful process. It takes a moment to explain. But bear with me a moment, and you’ll understand how you, dear reader, could evolve into a fast and deadly predator.

    Genetic accommodation involves a three-step process.

    First, an organism (or a bunch of organisms, a population) changes its functional form — its phenotype — by making broad changes in gene expression. Second, a gene emerges that happens to help lock in that change in phenotype. Third, the gene spreads through the population.

    For example, suppose you’re a predator. You live with others of your ilk in dense forest. Your kind hunts by stealth: you hide among trees, then jump out and snag your meat. You needn’t be fast, just quick and sneaky.

    You get faster. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did.

    Then a big event — maybe a forest fire, or a plague that kills all your normal prey — forces you into a new environment. This new place is more open, which nixes your jump-and-grab tactic, but it contains plump, juicy animals, the slowest of which you can outrun if you sprint hard. You start running down these critters. As you do, certain genes ramp up expression to build more muscle and fire the muscles more quickly. You get faster. You’re becoming a different animal. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs. By the time your grandchildren show up, they seem almost like different animals: stronger legs, leaner torsos, and they run way faster than you ever did. And all this has happened without taking on any new genes.

    Then a mutation occurs in one grandkid. This mutation happens to create stronger, faster muscle fibres. This grandchild of yours can naturally and easily run faster than her fastest siblings and cousins. She flies. Her children inherit the gene, and because their speed wows their mating prospects, they mate early and often, and bear lots of kids. Through the generations, this sprinter’s gene thus spreads through the population.

    Now the thing is complete. Your descendants have a new gene that helps secure the adaptive trait you originally developed through gene expression alone. But the new gene didn’t create the new trait. It just made it easier to keep a trait that a change in the environment made valuable. The gene didn’t drive the train; it merely hopped aboard.

    In fact, all this is so banal, and so lacking in any serious departure from anything Dawkins said in The Selfish Gene, that Coyne apparently assumed that he’d missed something, and accused Dobbs of Lamarckism.  After all, if he wasn’t at least implying Lamarckism between the lines, there isn’t the shadow of a hook in this scenario on which to hang the claim that such “genetic accommodation” is in any way revolutionary, non-Darwinian, or non-Dawkinsian.  In fact, if you read the passage closely, you’ll see there’s nothing Lamarckian about it at all.  The kids and grandkids don’t get faster and stronger by inheritance or acquired characteristics, but merely by hanging out with their parental role models.  Evidently Dawkins himself noticed, because at this point he chimed in and wrote his own rebuttal, patiently Fisking Dobbs article, and quite reasonably pointing out that there was nothing in all this that contradicted Darwin or himself in any substantial way at all.

    Coyne and Dawkins concluded from all this that Dobbs was merely grandstanding.  As Dawkins put it, his article was,

    …infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial. You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y.

    True enough, but as scientists often do, Dawkins sees the basic absurdity of the article clearly enough, but fails to see that it is absurd, not because it is bad science, but because it is an ideological morality tale.  Let’s allow Dobbs to explain the moral of the story in his own words:

    The gene does not lead, it follows.

    And ‘evolution is not about single genes’ (West-Eberhard) says.  It’s about genes working together.

    It’s not a selfish gene or a solitary genome.  It’s a social genome.

    Not the selfish gene, but the social genome.

    And so, thanks to the environment, the collective once again triumphs over the “selfish” individual.  If you don’t get the ideological point, dear reader, I’m not going to spell it out for you.  I’ll let the ideologues do that for themselves.  See, for example, Drugged Individualism, in the November 1934 issue of the American Mercury, or The Myth of Individuality (by Theodore Dreiser, no less) in the March issue of the same year.  The hive mind hasn’t changed much in 80 years.