A guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance, part III: Has natural selection produced significant differences between races?

This is the third in a series of guest posts in which Chris Smith will examine the evolutionary claims made in Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. You can read part I here, and part II here. Chris is an Associate Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Willamette University. He uses population genetic approaches to understand coevolution of plants and insects, and he teaches the interdisciplinary course “Race, Racism, and Human Genetics” with Emily Drew.

A Troublesome Inheritance was published in 2014 by Penguin Books. Cover image via Google Books.

This spring former New York Times science writer, Nicholas Wade, released his latest book on human evolution, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. In it, Wade argues that genetic studies completed in the eleven years since the Human Genome Project was completed reveal real and important differences between human races. Unsurprisingly, the book’s release has been met with a sharply divided critical reception.Whereas the book has been widely embraced by those on the political right, and by the white identity movement, it has been panned by anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and population geneticists. For the last two weeks at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve been looking in depth at the literature that Wade uses to support his ideas. Last week I considered Wade’s argument that natural selection acting on the MAO-A gene – a neurotransmitter implicated in aggression and impulsivity – has led to behavioral differences between races. This week I will consider Wade’s larger claim that natural selection has produced numerous differences between races.

Throughout the book Wade continually repeats the mantra that natural selection on humans has been “recent, copious, and regional.” It would be hard to find an evolutionary biologist that would disagree with these rather vague pronouncements. Indeed, there are a multitude of studies showing that natural selection has acted on humans, and there is persuasive evidence that selection has caused evolutionary changes in human populations as we have adapted to diverse environments over the course of the last several thousand years (see, for example, Yi et al., 2010).

However, scratching the surface reveals that when he says that natural selection has been “recent, copious, and regional,” what Wade actually means is that natural selection has been “radical, complete, and racial.” By Wade’s account, natural selection has dramatically reshaped the human genome, producing major differences between races. This much more dramatic interpretation is entirely unsupported by the literature, however. In truth, Wade vastly overstates the portion of the human genome that shows evidence for natural selection, and where there has been recent natural selection acting on humans, its effect has primarily been to create genetic differences between members of the same race, and similarities between people of different races.

Continue reading

A guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance, part II: Has natural selection favored violent behavior in some human populations?

This is the second in a series of guest posts in which Chris Smith will examine the evolutionary claims made in Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. You can read part I here. Chris is an Associate Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Willamette University. He uses population genetic approaches to understand coevolution of plants and insects, and he teaches the interdisciplinary course “Race, Racism, and Human Genetics” with Emily Drew.

A Troublesome Inheritance was published in 2014 by Penguin Books. Cover image via Google Books.

Last week at Nothing In Biology Makes Sense, I began critiquing Nick Wade’s latest book, A Troublesome Inheritance. The book has produced a firestorm of criticism, largely because it argues that evolution has produced significant cultural and behavior differences between races.

Wade makes many sweeping claims, among them: that natural selection has made the English inherently fiscally prudent and more likely to defer gratification by saving for tomorrow, that events early in the history of Judaism caused the Jews to evolve features predisposing them to careers in banking, and that genetic variation in certain neurochemicals has made Africans inherently more violent.

Wade hangs these seemingly bizarre conclusions on the mantle of modern population genetics, which he claims confirms the existence of ‘three primary races,’ that have evolved real and significant cultural differences between them. By heavily referencing the scientific literature, Wade manages, as Mike Eisen put it, to “give the ideas that he presents… the authority of science… What separates Wade’s theories – in his own mind – from those of a garden variety racist is that they are undergirded by genetics.”

Continue reading

Pollination syndromes point to species interactions present and past

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Cardinal Flower

Want hummingbirds? Paint the town red. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region.

In my part of North America, spring is finally underway after a long slog of a winter. The trees lining the streets of my Minneapolis neighborhood are lacy-green with budding leaves, flowerbeds all over the University of Minnesota campus are yellow and red and pink with daffodils and tulips, and violets are popping up in the edges of lawns everywhere I look.

Of course, all of this colorful display isn’t for my benefit. Showy flowers are an adaptation to attract animal pollinators. Some flowers are quite precisely matched to a single species of pollinator, but most flowers have lots of visitors. These less specialized flowers are still adapted for their attractive function, though—and this is the origin of pollination syndromes.

Continue reading

How many moths must a sloth carry off for the sloth to rely on the moths?

Three Toed Sloth

Is it easier being green? Photo by Bas Boemsaat.

Sloths are weird critters. Cute, in a certain light, but mostly weird. They’re members—with armadillos and anteaters—in a superorder of mammals called the Xenarthra, which are united by a unique form of multi-jointed vertebrae. Their diet consists mostly of leaves, which are poor quality food, and hard to digest. Fortunately, they also have one of the slowest, lowest-energy lifestyles of any mammal, using heavily modified limbs to hang upside down from branches while they browse, their most recent meal fermenting in their guts.

David Attenborough got up close with a sloth—which he calls a “mobile compost heap”—in The Life of Mammals. He also observes one of the sloth’s weirdest behaviors: to answer the call of nature, it climbs all the way down to the ground.

Why do sloths go to all that trouble—and risk—just to poop? Well, according to a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society, they do it to feed poop-eating moths that help cultivate nutritious algae in their fur. No, but really.

Continue reading

Living at the edge, range expansion is a losing battle with mutations

Environments can vary substantially in habitat quality, local population abundance, or carrying capacity. Under some climate change scenarios, new, higher quality habitats become available along the margin of a species’ range (e.g. higher latitudes or altitudes) (Thomas et al 2001). These new habitats may be able to support larger population sizes. Factors of demography, evolution, and qualities of the abiotic and biotic communities all interact to determine where a species is found and may influence the ability of a species to expand its range. New research is building genetically explicit models in order to understand how the interplay of these different factors influence evolutionary changes,

Wordle of Peischl et al 2013

The authors of a recent study focus on how the interaction of the demographic process of range expansion changes the way that natural selection favors beneficial and deleterious mutations (Peischl et al 2013). Using both computer simulations as well as mathematical approximations, the authors find that at the range margins, individuals carry a substantial load of deleterious mutations.

Continue reading

BAH! This looks amazing

BAHFest , the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, is a competition to develop “well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory.” The whole thing was originally proposed in a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip proposing that human infants have been evolutionarily optimized for long-distance dispersal by catapult.

Coming up with “obviously wrong” scientific hypotheses is clever because it helps us think about why, exactly, we choose to believe the hypotheses that we do, and how we use (and misuse) evidence to make those judgements. My personal favorite example is a 1983 article, published in the journal Evolution, which evaluates all the possible reasons that natural selection has made offspring smaller than their parents [PDF]—smaller offspring are easier to hide, cheaper to make, easier to disperse, and easier to control in the event that their interests conflict with their parents’—but completely (and deliberately) misses the obvious, actual reason.

Last year’s BAHFest winner, Tomer Ullman, proposed that babies cry because the irritating, high-pitched noise helps prepare their caretakers for battle:

The next iterations of BAHFest are scheduled for 25 October in San Francisco, and a date to be announced in Boston.

Reference

Ellstrand NC. 1983. Why are juveniles smaller than their parents? Evolution. 37(5): 1091-4. doi: 10.2307/2408423.

On the evolution of blind cave fish.

Astyanax mexicanus cave dwelling form.

Evolution requires variation in traits among individuals to act. If evolutionary fitness is determined by a given trait, and everyone in a population has the trait, then there is no basis for natural selection to discriminate among individuals. Furthermore, when variation does exist, it must be genetically based so that it can be passed down by successful parents to their offspring. The trait variation on which selection acts can either come from genetic variation existing in a population before selection begins or it can result from new mutations. Because natural selection acts to eliminate unfavorable variation, there is a question as to how selection in a changing environment could reverse change, or remove a trait it had previously favored. Where would the necessary variation come from?

One controversial hypothesis is that genetic variation for a given trait can be masked from selection by very stable (or “canalized”) developmental processes. These canalized processes result in highly uniform traits within a population despite underlying genetic variation. Under certain environmental conditions (in particular, stressful ones), they can be destabilized, allowing underlying genetic variation to cause traits to vary, thus providing grist for natural selection’s mill.

Continue reading

Baba Brinkman says he wants my money

But he doesn’t want it badly enough to actually address the substance of any of my criticisms of his scheme to rid the world of meanness via “an entirely defensible ‘bottom up’ form of eugenics.”

Oh, and I see he’s speculating about my sex life. Real charmer, this guy.

In his non-response response, Brinkman doubles down on his fixation with the fact that, across human populations, males become more likely to be involved in violent crime right around the time we hit puberty:

Continue reading

Inane pseudo-scientific claptrap of the week: “Don’t sleep with mean people”

The maestro behind the “Rap Guide to Evolution,” Baba Brinkman, has a new idea for changing the world: don’t sleep with mean people. I know, right? You hadn’t thought about doing that, either?

Are you amazed at the clarity of Brinkman’s insight into the roots of human suffering? Then he would like you to give him money to help make his plan a reality. Well, to make a music video and a documentary and some billboards, anyway.

Or, you know, you could do something more useful with your money, like baking it into muffins as a fiber supplement. Or shredding it up to mulch your vegetable garden. Or using it to line a bird cage.

Continue reading

@NothingInBio at #Evol2013: What we’re presenting

Cecret Lake - Alta Utah

The Evolution 2013 meetings are nearly upon us, and most of the team here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! are going to be in Snowbird, Utah for the joint annual meeting of the American Society of Naturalists, the Society of Systematic Biologists, and the Society for the Study of Evolution. Rather than make you hunt through the online program, here’s where we’ll be, and what we’re presenting:

  • Amy will present “The population genetics of rapidly evolving reproductive genes: How much variation should we expect to find?” on Sunday at 9:30, as part of the Evolutionary Genetics and/or Genomics section in Cotton D/Snowbird Center. [program link]
  • Look for some of CJ’s work in a lightning talk by her dissertation advisor, Mark Dybdahl, titled “Identifying the molecular basis of coevolution: merging models and mechanisms” on Monday at 11:45, in Superior B/Cliff Lodge. [program link]
  • Noah will present “What can we learn from sequence-based species discovery? An example using sky island fly communities” on Tuesday at 9:30, as part of the Community Ecology and Evolution section in Peruvian A/Snowbird Center. [program link]
  • Sarah will present “Nature, nurture and the gut microbiota in the brood parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird” on Tuesday at 10:30, as part of the Community Ecology and Evolution section in Peruvian A/Snowbird Center. [program link]
  • Jeremy will present “Evidence for recent adaptation in genome regions associated with ecological traits in Medicago truncatula” on Tuesday at 2:45, as part of the Genetics of Adaptation section in Rendezvous A/Snowbird Center. [program link]

Looks like we’re in for a busy Tuesday! But this year, you won’t have to choose between us.