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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.

  • 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.