Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Good, The Bad, and the Scientists Who Don't Know the Difference

     One of the things I’ve been giving a bit of thought to, as I begin to contemplate retiring and not doing the stuff that I’ve been doing for the last few decades, is the biggest gap in my own education. I take no responsibility at all for the gap, for it is totally not my fault: I am the victim of a good science education that gave me no moral education. Like other scientifically-trained scholars, moral arguments intimidate me, I don’t know how to construct them and I don’t know how to evaluate them. I just know, like other scientists, that I’m good and I'm right and that you are a fucking asshole for doubting it.

    Looking back on the beginning of my career, which is what one does at this stage, I realize that there were three things I was most concerned with thirty years ago, aside from my actual lab research. These were questions involving:

(1) Racist science  

(2) Dishonest science


(3) Colonial science

    In retrospect, all three of these were linked by the moral question in science. Right and wrong, good and evil.  But having no background in philosophy or theology, I lacked the intellectual framework to understand my own interests, much less any vocabulary with which to describe them. The point is that scientists are expected to develop into moral beings without any education in it, which seems opposed to the rest of both education and the history of our species.

    Yet the public positions I adopted early in my career, which made me a dangerous radical to the older farts in physical anthropology, aren’t so radical any more, at least within contemporary biological anthropology. But some of our colleagues in cognate fields are a bit behind us, and it can be very frustrating to argue about basic moral issues with biologists, who have as little training in the subject as I do. Many of them, after all, spend their lives torturing vermin like fruit flies in order to unravel the mysteries of life. Is it worth it? Sure, ok, yeah, torment the damn flies for the good of science. 

    Back in 1871, John Murray in London published a very important two-volume work on human ancestry. The intellectual times and context were important. There was an important question out there, being debated by first-generation evolutionary biologists.  The Bible clearly states that Adam and Eve were placed in a garden, to till the field. Where, then, did hunter-gatherers come from? Were modern foragers degenerate descendants of the biblical horticulturists? Or were the foragers primordial, and the biblical story simply wrong?

    That question had been definitively answered by Darwin’s neighbor, John Lubbock, in his Pre-Historic Times (1865). Those times had been times of foraging, and they preceded agricultural times.  But that raised a second question: What of the living hunter-gatherers? What’s the matter with them? Why are they even there? The first Darwinian answer to that question came from the German Darwinian, Ernst Haeckel, in 1868. To Haeckel, the difference between the “savage” and the European was zoological. They were different species altogether.  In fact, Haeckel argued, savages should not even be classified with people; they should be classified with apes. But don’t take my word for it. Here's the English translation of 1876.

If one must draw a sharp boundary between them, it has to be drawn between the most highly developed and civilized man on the one hand, and the rudest savages on the other, and the latter have to be classed with the animals.

Lovely guy, Haeckel. And a great Darwinian. A credit to his field. Remember that line when you admire his artwork. Now his explanation for the existence of savages has a lot of biopolitical implications, which we need not dwell on here. Suffice it to say that it was not regarded as a very satisfactory answer in much of the rest of the scholarly community. 

    The next year, 1869, another first-generation Darwinian took a crack at the question: Why were there still savages?  Alfred Russel Wallace acknowledged that savages were smart. In fact, he reasoned, they were too smart. The savage has a brain as large and powerful as that of an Englishman, reasoned Wallace, but the savage doesn’t need it. It doesn’t take much brains to be a savage. And yet the savage has a brain. Moreover, most of human prehistory involved brainy savages, who evolved by natural selection. And yet, natural selection can’t make an organ that the body doesn’t use. So if apes evolved into savages, that process must have involved the acquisition of a big brain that natural selection couldn’t make because the savages don’t need or use it. 

    So if natural selection didn’t produce the big powerful brain that separates savages from apes (and allies them with Europeans, contra Haeckel) then what did produce that big unused brain?

The brain of pre- historic and of savage man seems to me to prove the existence of some power, distinct from that which has guided the development of the lower animals through their ever-varying forms of being.

You know what produced it. And Who. It was a miracle. From God.

    Charles Darwin wrote to him, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”

    So by 1870 the Darwinians were batting 0 for 2 in trying to explain the evolutionary relationship between savages and civilized people. Which brings us up to 1871 again, and the publication by John Murray of that very important two-volume work on human ancestry. Of course the author was Edward B. Tylor and the book was Primitive Culture.

    What Tylor did in Primitive Culture (1871) was to give yet a third explanation for the difference between the savage and civilized person. It was not a distinction of biological evolution, as Haeckel had it in 1868. Nor was it a distinction of supernatural evolution, as Wallace had it in 1869. Nope, in 1871 it was a distinction of cultural evolution. That was the correct, and ultimately paradigmatic, answer.

    Also, Darwin published The Descent of Man that year. And sadly, it doesn’t stand up much better under a modern reading than Tylor’s Primitive Culture does. They’re both quaint, insightful, and important in their time and place, and dated now. But what makes them all of those things? Graduate students should definitely try to find out with careful, critical readings.

    And that brings me to the direct inspiration for this rant. A few weeks ago, Agustín Fuentes, with whom I agree on the great majority of things I hold a professional opinion about, published an editorial in Science. Science is the leading scientific journal in America, and a guest editorial in it is way up high on the prestige scale. You can bet they vetted the essay pretty carefully. And they published it with some of Fuentes's pretty uncontroversial assessments, like these.

“Descent” is often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious. Darwin thought he was relying on data, objectivity, and scientific thinking in describing human evolutionary outcomes. But for much of the book, he was not. “Descent,” like so many of the scientific tomes of Darwin's day, offers a racist and sexist view of humanity....

Today, students are taught Darwin as the “father of evolutionary theory,” a genius scientist. They should also be taught Darwin as an English man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience.

No book on any science from 1871 stands up scientifically today. If you read a science book from 1871 you are probably reading it because someone told you it was important, and maybe it was. But you will have to probe to find what identifies it as a classic, and while you get there, you will struggle through the intellectual primitiveness of the work itself. And it will hopefully be a rewarding exercise, and then you can go back to reading the pdfs on line of the articles that aren’t even published yet in your favorite journals.

    Alas, there are some scientists out there who don’t countenance any critical reading of Darwin. Any criticism of Darwin is fodder for creationists, and therefore he must be defended at all costs. Which is pretty much what the Darwinian All-Stars managed to splutter out in their angry letter to the editor

    But first, let's go over the Darwinian All-Stars lineup. Leading off? Psychologist Andrew Whiten. Second, Walter Bodmer. That's right, Sir Walter Fucking Bodmer. Third, the geneticists: Brian and Deborah Charlesworth and Jerry Coyne. Next, psychologist Frans de Waal. And then six more of them, because, one supposes, something about group selection. And what is their top complaint?

We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices... 

    Now if you bothered to read Fuentes's essay (and here's the link again), you may be puzzled by their use of the adjective "vituperative". Let's just assume for the sake of parsimony that they don't know what the word means.

    So anything that we perceive as critical of Darwin must be suppressed, because it may aid the creationists. That is about the most pathetic admission of abject failure on the part of science educators that I have ever encountered. These scientists have been so unsuccessful in convincing the American public we evolved from apes, that they are going to respond by placing Darwin on a pedestal and reading his 19th century sexist and colonialist views uncritically. Good lord, could they possibly sound more like a cult?

    Without belaboring the essay or the response, I want to shift back to the general moral question in science. I’m expending a little bit of mental energy here pondering what appears to be scientists trying to shield students from confronting sexism, racism, and colonialism in scientific literature. That is an amazing corner to paint yourself into, rather like being anti-antifa, which would seem to be the equivalent of pro-fascist. 

    But to return to the moral question. While Darwin was rewriting the Journal of Researches (aka The Voyage of the Beagle) there was a lot going on politically, and the 1845 second edition contains a digression about how slavery really and truly sucks: 

if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin... It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

And folks have from time to time, trotted out that passage to show what a socially concerned and morally advanced fellow Darwin was.

    But let’s look a bit more closely at that thought. I think we would agree with Darwin (and even with his imaginary interlocutors, who are trivializing slavery by comparing it to mere poverty) that if the misery of the poor is due to our institutions, then great is our sin. But let’s turn the thought around. Suppose the misery of the poor is indeed actually due to the laws of nature. Then what? Fuck them and their misery, because at least we haven’t sinned?

    Darwin’s moral thinking here isn’t very moral at all. It’s weirdly amoral. The point Darwin is making is that slavery is much worse than mere poverty, no matter how much some people may try to equate them. Fair enough. But isn't there a problem with poverty too? The proper reaction to the misery of the poor is to work to alleviate it, not to try and figure out who to blame for it. Darwin is less concerned with the suffering and misery of the poor than he is about the cleanliness of his own soul, and perhaps that of his entire economic class (“our”).  And here is the moral problem for future generations: If the issue is who caused the misery, not how do we alleviate the misery, then that places a scientific premium on showing that at least you aren’t the cause of that misery.

    Which is why Charles Davenport blamed genes, C. C. Brigham blamed IQ scores, and Charles Murray blames them both. The important thing is to somehow blame the misery of the poor on “the laws of nature,” rather than on “our institutions”. For then, not only is “our” social class blameless, but we have used science to answer the unthreatening question we posed, yet actually done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor, regardless of why the fuck it’s there.

    The suffering is the problem, its etiology is secondary.

    That is a moral statement, however, and I don’t know how to defend it. Which is why I’m angry at my scientific education. And from the look of things, at a lot of other people’s scientific education as well.

    But this is funny. What had gotten me interested in scientific fraud was the DNA hybridization work of Sibley and Ahlquist back in the 1980s. Sibley is long dead, but Jon Ahlquist only expired recently, and his passing was noted ruefully by the creationists. You see, after a career falsifying data and committing scientific sins, it seems as though Ahlquist gave his life to Jesus, to absolve himself and atone for them.

    Well, that was convenient.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

I coined the phrase “Human Biodiversity”. Racists stole it.

The essay that follows was declined by the NY Times. However, a few days later (27 December 2019), they published a column by Bret Stephens on Jewish genius (or, Jewnius©) that actually cited the horrid 2005 paper on that subject by the late biological anthropologist Henry Harpending. Harpending was regarded by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a White Nationalist.

That is a very unusual status for an anthropologist. It raises an interesting issue, though, about Harpending’s legacy. I am in favor of his total erasure. I think his racism probably tainted everything he published, however nice he may have been in person, and I do not see what value there is in talking about him at all politely or respectfully, when his legacy is a black eye for the field of anthropology. Adam Rutherford has been crapping on him over on twitter.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s page on Harpending also uses the phrase “human biodiversity” quite a bit.


I coined the phrase “Human Biodiversity”. Racists stole it.
Jonathan Marks

It is rare for a professor to birth a meme. We inhabit ivory towers, very few of us are in the public eye, and those that aspire to be so are often regarded disdainfully by our peers.

For me, it increasingly seems as though my lasting contribution will be to have coined the phrase “human biodiversity” in my 1994 book of that name. Unfortunately it has come to mean the opposite of what I meant, due to the distortions of internet racists. In fact, they have even abbreviated “human biodiversity” as a meme for the semi-literate, HBD.  Journalist Angela Saini describes the appropriation of the phrase in her recent book, “Superior: The Return of Race Science.”

I was proud of the coinage a quarter-century ago, because I intended it to encapsulate the major discovery of the science of biological anthropology over the course of the 20th century. That century began with the scientific assumption that the human species came naturally divisible into a fairly small number of fairly discrete and homogeneous pseudo-taxonomic groups. We called them “races”. By century’s end, however, a great deal of empirical research had shown that our species does not in fact come structured that way. 

“Human biodiversity” was intended to label our newer understanding of the patterns by which people actually differ from one another, as an alternative to the earlier “race”.

“Race” and “human biodiversity” are quite simply different things, two sets of patterns that map very poorly onto one another – and it took the better part of the 20th century to demonstrate it. The subtitle of my book was “Genes, Race, and History” – to suggest that genes demonstrated that the proper place for race in science lay in its history, along with phlogiston, pangenesis, and creationism.

Race exists, of course, but its reality is not primarily biological. The reality of race is in the domain of the symbolic. Race is most real in the sense that, as is well-known, Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his black slave, Sally Hemings. Yet according to the only extant descriptions of her, Sally Hemings had light skin and long, straight dark hair. Why? Because only one of her four grandparents was African. She was a slave because of her symbolic ancestry, not because of her biological ancestry or her appearance.

Race is thus now recognized to be very real, as a system of human classification, as lived experience in a society of inequality. While it sometimes correlates with biology, the proper study of race lies in the study of law, discrimination, sociology, and political economy; the primary exception being in how social prejudice can affect the body itself.

“Human biodiversity” was intended as an alternative way of talking about human variation without the overarching assumption that our species sorts out into fairly discrete, fairly homogeneous races – as was assumed by scientists a century ago. But in the late 1990s, racists began to coopt the phrase as a more genteel and sciencey way to simply say “race”. In other words, they began to synonymize what should be antonyms.

Today all sorts of ideas that were only recently outmoded and unthinkable have become thinkable and real. The advancement of knowledge is clearly unsteady at best. I doubt whether the racists who invoke the phrase actually consult my book and learn that they are misapplying it. They probably wouldn’t care anyway.

To have provided racists with a scientific-sounding cover for their odious ideas is not something to be particularly proud of, but I can’t take it back. All I can do is disavow it.


Postscript:: on 12/29, The New York Times published this apology.
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Sunday, December 1, 2019

Necessity and Chance

This blog post began as a book review solicited by an online periodical called Inference: International Review of Science

But it turns out to be somewhat disreputable, funded by weird billionaire Peter Thiel, and with noted creationist shill David Berlinski as the third person on its masthead. Apparently the goal is to mix science andpseudoscience so readers become confused and manipulable, and what you end up with is a sort of Fox Science News.

So I withdrew the book review, but kept the book, because it’s a good one and (as I told them) I’m sure Peter Thiel can afford another copy. And here it is.

The Accidental Homo sapiens: Genetics Behavior, and Free Will by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle. Pegasus, 222 pp., USD$27.95.

We are storytelling creatures, the authors explain, before proceeding to tell their own story about where we came from. The origins question is, of course, one of surpassing breadth in our species. Evolve the ability to ask questions, and that particular one emerges near the top of the list: Where did we come from?
The authors are eminently qualified to tell a story that is both authoritative and engaging. Both are curators at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (Tattersall now emeritus). Tattersall’s expertise lies in primate anatomical evolution; DeSalle’s is in molecular evolution. They have written many books separately, and have previously collaborated successfully on the topics of beer, wine, and race.
What does it even mean to be an “accidental” species, anyway? There are several directions in which one could go.  First, one could argue that the nucleotide substitutions in the DNA that facilitated bipedalism, canine tooth reduction, cranial expansion, and the like, were all ultimately accidental miscopyings of the DNA in certain late Miocene apes. Indeed the great bulk of DNA changes are in fact neither good nor bad, but neutral, or close enough to neutral that they can be readily carried through the generations within the gene pool. The fact that some accidental DNA changes eventually proved valuable would be ignored here, for this would be a view of human evolution through a lens of the caprice of mutation. Alternatively, one could argue that, unlike many religious views, there is ultimately no reason or telos for our existence; our species is just another accident of nature, not special or central in the history of life, for they all come and go. This was the thesis of Henry Gee’s recent engaging polemic The Accidental Species,[1] but suffers from the fact that our undirected, decentralized, pedestrian development in the universe can’t be proved without standing outside of that universe, which is manifestly impossible, and consequently the point can only be vigorously asserted – even if it may well be true. Yet a third possible aspect of our “accidental” existence might be the stabilization of random variation in our species.  Just as there are one-humped (Dromedary) and two-humped (Bactrian) camels, and they both seem to work well as camels, maybe the features that characterize our own species are simply physical variations that work as well as their alternatives. An example might be the syndrome of smallish face, roundish head, and linear body build that seems to have emerged first in Africa about 200,000 years ago and now characterizes our entire species. Indeed when methods have been applied to detect the effects of deterministic natural selection on the evolution of the human form, they have generally failed, suggesting that much of our body or head shape may indeed be “accidental”.[2]  A fourth understanding of being “accidental” might be as the result of extraneous events: luckily surviving an asteroid impact or volcanic eruption, and subsequently repopulating the area in one’s own image. Yet a fifth might reside in the classical mathematics by which small gene pools (like those of our ancestors) can deviate from mathematical expectations over the generations, and large gene pools  (like ours today) can sustain large amounts of diversity – both of which come with unpredictable consequences.
The story told in The Accidental Homo sapiens is by and large a normative one, and the authors are on sure ground in their discussions of human biological evolution. This is actually not a situation to be taken lightly, for evolution is our particular origin myth, and everybody in science thinks they own a piece of it – unlike, say, boron or electromagnetism. There are, consequently, scientists who borrow and bend human evolution to construct narratives of our origin and nature without a deep knowledge of, well, human evolution.  Exhibit A, this book’s antagonists, are the evolutionary psychologists, who came to prominence in the 1990s with glib science bites about human nature. Tattersall and DeSalle argue that the evolutionary psychologists see too much determinism, and not enough accident, in the evolution of our species.
The first two chapters provide a very accessible introduction to statistical quantitative genetics, which is just as difficult to achieve successfully as it sounds.  The authors then introduce the possibility of associating quantitative continuous variation in normal human traits to DNA variations, and the limitations  of trying to do so.  Indeed, given the difficulties in establishing a classical Mendelian basis for a “hard” character like height, the difficulties are compounded in trying to do it for a “soft” character like extroversion or sexual inclination.
The middle of the book recounts the broad features of our ancestry, from the bipedal apes of five or six million years ago, through their descendants a million years ago, who had learned to cut things and burn things, to our (geologically-speaking) recent ancestors, talking and drawing.  The evolutionary novelties are biological, technological, and communicative. In the evolution of apes into humans, we can record alterations in the throat and mouth (permitting us to speak), and to the extent that it can be accessed comparatively, in the mind (giving us something to say). We often refer to these properties as symbolic thought, referring to the construction of meaningful imaginary connections between things, as in pointing. In pointing, there is no physical connection between the fingertip and the object, just a metaphorical extension of the fingertip in the mind of the pointer and of anyone with a similarly built brain.
While tools and art were certainly important products of the symbolic capacity, and hugely important in the latterly success of our species, they figure disproportionately in our narratives because they are preserved in the archaeological record. Yet along with tools and art, humans imagined a new social world into existence, which left no material traces yet certainly aided our survival in the material world. This was kinship, and its effects were very far-reaching, if often downplayed.
The final turn of The Accidental Homo sapiens brings us back into the present, trying to explain who we are and how we got here. Was there meaning inherent in the transition from ape to human?
Where the primary antagonists of Henry Gee’s similarly-titled book were those who tried to read purpose or direction into the history of life (No! Our species was accidental!), the targets here are principally modern scholars who see our bodies and minds as finely-tuned machines, having been twiddled and tweaked to precision over the ages by natural selection (No! Our species was accidental!). Hardly anyone doubts today that natural selection has acted upon the human species – the authors are not claiming that our ancestors’ brains grew by accident, but rather by virtue of the persistent long-term survival and proliferation of those bipedal apes that had bigger ones.  Their claim is more specifically about how universal and stringent natural selection has been. If natural selection is a sieve, are its pores large or small in any particular case?
When it comes to human behavior, the authors argue that the pores are large. That is to say, once we attained the biological ability to think, act, and speak symbolically, our species was capable of thriving with many different alternatives. This was arguably the “big discovery” of 20th century anthropology: that people all over the world are smart and can survive in places that you can’t, so if you find yourself among them, you had better hope they help you, because you’ll die if they don’t. While this may not sound like much, it was different from the knowledge brought by the early English settlers to America, with often tragic consequences for them.
The modern view, then, is that natural selection worked stringently on the pre-human brain up to a few hundred thousand years ago, when the adaptive value of the collective intelligence of cultures began to overwhelm the adaptive value of individual minds, and classical natural selection accordingly diminished. Nearly all of what people do consequently has negligible relative survival or reproductive value and is not the result of natural selection, but of historical contingency, or accident. That is as well the view of Tattersall and DeSalle, but not of their antagonists, the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. These latter scholars generally assume that natural selection acts on individual human behaviors, and consequently they generate biologically-based narratives for each one. By so promiscuously invoking natural selection, which is a genetic process, these scholars imagine the genes to be doing an awful lot of heavy lifting; but since they are mostly drawn from ethology and psychology, not genetics, it generally doesn’t bother them.  Tattersall and DeSalle are bothered, however, and argue against analytically atomizing human behaviors, against ascribing biological bases to the behaviors, and against invoking natural selection wantonly as their cause. That obviously leaves the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists in a limbo of bad evolutionary theory.
The criticism is welcome, as the abuse of evolution has a long and embarrassing history. The central problem that Tattersall and DeSalle highlight is the difficulty in reconciling binary Mendelian alleles (wrinkled/round, green/yellow, tall/short) to the quantitative and developmentally sensitive human organism, much less to its context-specific behaviors.
This problem has existed since the dawn of Mendelian genetics. In the early 20th century, America’s leading geneticists generally adhered to the proposition that people came in two Mendelian flavors, smart and “feebleminded”. Their arguments helped pass legislation to restrict the immigration of Italians and Jews into the US (1924) and to sterilize the poor involuntarily (1927), before the Germans even got the idea. Today’s abusers of Mendel are only slightly less crude, with genes “for” homosexuality, schizophrenia, aggression, or religiosity regularly touted, although with remarkably short scientific shelf-lives.
Tattersall and DeSalle rather favor a model in which genes could not do that much work, because they do not “code for traits” but set a range of possibilities, often quite broad, that can be expressed in various ways, dependent upon various factors. The pedagogical model we most often rely on imagines the phenotype (i.e, detectable physiology) to be readily predictable from the genotype (i.e, genetic status).  And sometimes that is true. If you have the alleles for cystic fibrosis, you will generally express the disease.  If you don’t, you generally won’t. If you have the alleles for lactate dehydrogenase A, you will generally express the enzyme. If you don’t, you generally won’t. But aside from pathologies and biochemicals, one hardly ever finds binary patterns. Rather, we find genes expressed in diverse ways (pleiotropy), genes affecting the expression of other genes (epistasis), traits that may not appear in spite of the genes (penetrance), and context-dependent gene expression (reaction norms). This is an immensely valuable presentation of the way genetics actually functions in human affairs, in contrast to the simplistic models underpinning the evolutionary psychology literature.
Where the authors come up just a bit shy, I think, is when they try to explain why reductive, hereditarian ideas about behavior and intelligence persist in the scholarly literature after all this time. They present a few possibilities : “the human mind … seems naturally drawn to reductionist explanations” (p. 45); “scientists may sometimes be uncomfortable with uncertainty, and … genetic and genomic hypotheses promise clear-cut cause-and-effect explanations (pp.72-72); and “when humans are told that something is very difficult or even impossible to do, the immediately attempt it anyway.” ( p. 73).
There is, however, something else at work, which scientists are generally loath to confront, for it exposes an embarrassing side of the practice of science. The sad fact is that arguments about genetic determinism take place upon a biopolitical and moral ground as well as upon an empirical scientific one.[3] The same philanthropies and demagogues that promote hereditarianism also promote scientific racism (i.e., the recruitment of authority of science in support of the evil politics of racism).[4] The hereditarian psychologists Arthur Jensen and Thomas Bouchard, the racist psychologist Philippe Rushton, and the hereditarian political scientist Charles Murray are all linked through networks of right-wing interests. And a lot of money has been spent to get wacko ideas into the scientific mainstream, with distressing levels of success.[5]
Classically, the argument looked like this: Blacks are inherently dumber than whites, therefore they do not deserve equal rights.[6]  The updated, subtler version goes: Low-IQ people are inherently dumber than high-IQ people; IQ determines social and political status; therefore social programs intended to ameliorate extreme social stratification are doomed to failure, and federal funding should be directed elsewhere.[7]
This is not a scientific problem, but a problem for science, and one that scientists are not trained to resolve – the problem of evil. The problem is social, political, and moral, and requires the constant vigilance of the scientific community to avoid sullying the good names of Darwin and Mendel.
After challenging the reification of genes, the attribution of human behaviors to them, and the blithe assumption by the evolutionary psychologists that acts are adaptive and governed by natural selection, Tattersall and DeSalle’s narrative winds down by engaging with our uniqueness as a species.  If, as the authors tell us, “no creature in the world today is more unlike its ancestor of two or three million years ago than we are,” then does that fact come with scientific implications? They toy with the idea of such a newly-arisen evolutionary gulf implying that our species alone ought to be placed in a new Subkingdom Psychozoa, as the biologists Julian Huxley[8] and Bernhard Rensch suggested many years ago. But they quickly reject it, because modern scientific sensibilities value phylogeny (how closely related we are to the apes) more highly than divergence (how different from them we have become). I wish they had pursued this point a bit further, because it is ultimately an arbitrary decision, which is nevertheless imbued with scientific meaning in spite of itself being largely “accidental”.
 The Accidental Homo sapiens is a short, straightforward book that tells a very scientifically validated story of who we are and how we got here.  There are various classes of data and evidence to work with. But making up imaginary genes as part of a narrative of human origins doesn’t do much credit to the scientific endeavor.  The authors strongly discourage it, and so do I.

[1] Henry Gee, The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[2] Lauren Schroeder and Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, "Evolutionary processes shaping diversity across the Homo lineage." Journal of Human Evolution 111(2017):1-17.

[3] John P. Jackson and David J Depew, Darwinism, Democracy, and Race: American Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology in the Twentieth Century. (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2017).

[4] William H. Tucker, The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002).

[5] Angela Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2019).

[6] Carleton Putnam, Race and Reason (Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1961.)

[7] Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve (New York: Free Press, 1994).

[8] Julian S. Huxley, "Evolution, biological and cultural." Yearbook of Anthropology [Continued as Current Anthropology] 0:2-25 (1955).

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Aretha Franklin, John McCain, Luca Cavalli-Sforza. They always go in threes.

I love Aretha. Got nothing to say about her.

John McCain I’m a little sick of. He was definitely a “flawed human” and will be remembered primarily for his flaws, which is probably better than being remembered for his political ideologies and for his complicity in producing the present political situation. He’s probably really only a great statesman in nostalgic comparison to the current administration.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza raises a similar question about the relative value of the flaws that compose our overall assessment of the scientist.  On this side of the ledger, a brilliant population geneticist who literally wrote the book on the subject.  Yup, even once signed my copy of Cavalli-Sforza and Bodmer.

And on that side of the ledger, a scientist who felt that ethics were obstacles, and maintained that the interests of the people whose blood he craved were anti-science, and thus irrelevant.

Gregor Mendel with just a dash of Mengele. (Godwin’s Law is notoriously hard to transcend in conversations about bioethics, isn’t it?)  But I suppose that’s the big question: How much pollution, and of what sort,  does it take to go from “flawed human” to “flaw in a human form”?

How does Cavalli’s bioethics flaw stack up against Paul Kammerer’s data falsification or Francisco Ayala’s sexual harassment? Discuss amongst yourselves.  

There was also that little problem of Cavalli's insistence that "race doesn't exist" while simultaneously reifying it by color-coding the indigenous inhabitants of the continents.  Same intellectual flaw as Linnaeus, but higher tech.

In the meantime, here is a review I wrote of a flawed biography of Cavalli a few years ago.  It originally appeared in  the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12:1001-1002 (2006).

Stone, Linda & Paul F. Lurquin. A genetic
and cultural odyssey: the life and work of L. Luca
Cavalli-Sforza. xxi, 227 pp., maps, figs, illus.,
bibliogr. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2005.
£29.50 (cloth)
   This book attempts an intellectual biography
of the renowned and controversial Stanford
geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza. There had been
many earlier attempts to use genetic data to
study human microevolution, with varying
degrees of success (see, e.g., Man 28: 153 and
28: 171, 1928); many attempts to model cultural
evolution; many retrievals of blood samples as
objects from the field; and certainly many
attempts to identify ethnohistoric events in
genetic patterns. This book, however, never
actually tells us what made Cavalli’s work
necessarily better; it unfortunately has little
interest in situating Cavalli’s work within the
history of human genetics, or of genetic-based
   In the 1960s Cavalli-Sforza began to study the
genetics of African pygmies, probably inspired
by James Neel’s work on Amazonians. His early
work involved applying multivariate statistical
techniques to genetic data from human
populations to see who was more closely related
to whom (assuming that genetic distance was
proportional to time since splitting; that splitting
was all that populations did; and that culturally
defined human groups could unproblematically
be considered as natural taxa); later he began to
model the transmission of ideas from person to
person (assuming they stay reasonably intact
and do not mean different things to different
people in different contexts); and finally he
dreamed up a big science project for human
population genetics – the Human Genome
Diversity Project (HGDP) – which ultimately
failed for its insufficient attention to issues in the
relevant cognate fields, notably anthropology
and bioethics.
   Cavalli-Sforza has been a grand dilettante,
in all the senses of that word, over his entire
professional life. He visits Central Africa as an
explorer and studies its pygmies as a geneticist,
not as an anthropologist. He reconstructs the
Neolithic as an antiquarian, not as an
archaeologist. He models cultural processes as a
statistician, not as an ethnologist. In all of these
cases, Cavalli’s work has been high-profile but
low-impact in anthropology. Does this require
an explanation, or is it simply to be expected,
like the work of a spectrum of anthropological
dilettantes, from Sir Grafton Elliot Smith through
Thor Heyerdahl, Robert Ardrey, and Erich von
Däniken, and right on up to Richard Dawkins
and Jared Diamond?
   Consistently opposing scientific racism,
Cavalli-Sforza has nevertheless never quite
understood the fundamental issues that
ultimately undid his HGDP and which have
recently been admirably analysed by Jenny
Reardon in Race to the finish (2005). He still
regrets his opponents’ politicizing the scientific
project – as if the programme to take, store, and
study the blood of 700 groups of native peoples
(which needs to be done before they go extinct,
he constantly reminded us) did not constitute an
overtly political act.
   Significantly, no great burst of insights or
discoveries have followed Cavalli-Sforza’s work in
anthropology, as it followed, say, the physicists’
early forays into molecular genetics. If we are to
believe the authors, the explanation lies in
American anthropology’s recent infatuation with
postmodernism, and its stand against science. In
lieu of a relevant citation, they provide an
anecdote: at the American Anthropological
Association meetings in New Orleans a few years
ago, a sharp spike in submissions led to an
unprecedented rejection rate of sessions and
abstracts. The authors of some of the rejected
papers decided (rather unscientifically) that this
was an expression of the well-known (or
perhaps widely imagined) hostility of American
anthropology to science, and stormed off to
found their own society and have their own
meeting. But I was there, and that episode
was never about ‘science’ at all; it was about
power and paranoia and too many submitted
   In fact, I have always thought that the root
of Cavalli-Sforza’s failure to connect with the
broader anthropological community is simply
that most anthropologists simply do not know
how seriously to take research that can contrast
the DNA of 64 samples of ‘Chinese ... living in
the San Francisco Bay Area’, 94 samples from
‘two groups of African pygmies’, and 110
samples from ‘individuals of European origin
from ongoing studies in our laboratories or
reported in the literature’, and conclude
sweepingly that ‘ancestral Europeans are
estimated to be an admixture of 65% ancestral
Chinese and 35% ancestral Africans’ (Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 88:
839, 1991). However sophisticated the statistics,
they simply cannot transcend the limitations of
unsophisticated epistemologies.
   More of a testimonial than a critical
intellectual biography, then, the book resists
engaging with anyone who has had anything
critical to say about any aspect of Cavalli-Sforza’s
oeuvre: Robert Sokal, for example, who
contradicted Cavalli’s interpretation of European
prehistory; Rebecca Cann, whose genetic data
suggested a very different global prehistory than
Cavalli’s; Debra Harry, an American Indian
activist who contradicted the promises and
predictions of Cavalli’s HGDP; Bryan Sykes, who
contradicted Cavalli’s ‘wave of advance’ model;
Masatoshi Nei, who applied a different statistical
technique than Cavalli to global allele
frequencies and got a different phylogenetic tree
and different branching dates; Ranajit
Chakraborty, who raised questions early on
about the HGDP’s navigation of a cultural and
political minefield in the large-scale collection of
native blood, and was quickly dropped from its
inner circle; or the numerous archaeologists
(pace Lord Renfrew) who have been critical of
Cavalli’s work on the spread of agriculture, and
the tenuous relationship between cryptic genetic
patterns and ethnohistory.
   Very oddly, the influential Harvard geneticist
Richard Lewontin’s famous 1972 ‘apportionment
of human diversity’ is even assigned to Cavalli,
and Lewontin himself becomes just ‘another
researcher (who confirmed Cavalli’s observation)
[and] did make a big deal out of this finding six
years later’ (p. 196). The only sense I can make
of the statement is that it may result from
Lewontin’s recently televised comment, ‘If I were
a South American Indian, I wouldn’t have let
them take my blood’ (,
which may have put him in the ‘enemy camp’, if
one sees the community of science in a
sufficiently Manichaean fashion.
   All of which is not to say that Cavalli-Sforza
does not deserve the testimonial; only that this
biography seems to replicate the very criticism
that one could reasonably level at the
anthropological corpus of its subject: an
uncritical and cavalier approach to history, a lot
of bluster, and rather too little reflection.

Jonathan Marks University of North Carolina
at Charlotte

Rest in Peace, Luca Cavalli-Sforza. 

Seriously, please don't rise from the grave and become the vampire geneticist that the Musée de l'Homme warned us about a few years ago, because unfortunately you were precisely the one they had in mind.