Population geneticists to Nicholas Wade: You know nothing of our work!

Okay, I’m paraphrasing in that headline, but only barely. From Science Insider:

A best-seller by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade about recent human evolution and its potential effects on human cultures has drawn critical reviews since its spring publication. Now, nearly 140 senior human population geneticists around the world, many of whose work was cited in the book, have signed a letter to The New York Times Book Review stating that Wade has misinterpreted their work.

The letter is online, and it doesn’t mince words:

Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.

We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.

To those of us who’ve been complaining about Wade’s misappropriation of basic population genetics in support of his ideas about what people of different races may or may not be “adapted” to do, this is the equivalent of that scene from Annie Hall, except with more than a hundred Marshall McLuhans. Updated to add: The full list of 139 folks who signed the letter is posted here.

Sometimes, life is kinda like that. Hat tip to Jennifer Ouellette for the Science Insider story.

Updated to add: See also coverage by Nature, with some choice quotes from signatories; and by Jennifer Raff, who writes, “A strong blow has been dealt to scientific racism today.” Also, from Ed Yong:

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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.

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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.”

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A guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance, part I: The genetics of human populations

This is the first in a series of guest posts in which Chris Smith will examine the evolutionary claims made in Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. 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 month the former New York Times writer Nicholas Wade released his latest book on human evolution, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History (2014, Penguin Press). In it, Wade argues that the genomic data amassed over the past ten years reveal real and meaningful biological differences between races, and that these differences explain much of the cultural and socioeconomic differences between people. If you haven’t read a newspaper or picked up a magazine in the last month, you may not have noticed that Wade’s book has—predictably—prompted intense and impassioned reaction from scientists, sociologists, and commentators from across the political spectrum. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Charles A. Murray, author of The Bell Curve, called Wade’s book, “A delight to read … [that] could be the textbook for a semester’s college course on human evolution.” On the other hand, Arthur Allen, in his review for the New York Times, predicts that many readers will find Wade’s book to be, “a rather unconvincing attempt to promote the science of racial difference.”

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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.

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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.

Who are the people in your neighborhood, Baba Brinkman?

Baba Brinkman’s latest salvo in his quest for a fact-based justification for his proposal to select meanness out of the human race by not sleeping with it really boils down to a question most members of my generation will likely remember from a childhood saturated in “Sesame Street”: Who are the people in your neighborhood?

We’ve come to this question because Brinkman has finally discovered that there is, in fact, data that might suggest genetic variation contributes to variation in “meanness”—even if he couldn’t be bothered to cite it in connection with the campaign up to now:

In his new post, Yoder’s argument is not that male violence isn’t an adaptation; rather, he argues that our violent tendencies have been so completely drilled into us by natural selection that they show insufficient genetic variation for selection to act on …

He’s right that a complete lack of individual genetic differences in proneness-to-violence would be a death-blow for my campaign, but luckily for me and all the other peaceniks who support the DSWMP credo, Yoder simply didn’t bother to look up any of the evidence.

You have to love how, after implicitly conceding the factual point—that in his first attempt to shore up the scientific basis of DSWMP, he cited data that has nothing to do with the question at hand—Brinkman chides me for not doing my homework. In fact I’ve acknowledged at every step of our little back-and-forth that there is a body of research which suggests there’s some genetic contribution to variation in what we might call “meanness.” My argument isn’t that this genetic contribution doesn’t exist—it’s that this genetic contribution is pretty much meaningless from the perspective of an individual person’s dating life.

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