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.

Friday, March 23, 2018

There's an arrogant anti-intellectual hereditarian at Harvard who isn't Steven Pinker! Who would have thunk it?

Harvard geneticist David Reich had an op-ed in the New York Times today that I find stimulating. As stupid genetics rants about human variation go, actually this one is better than many of them. Reich positions himself against Henry Harpending, James Watson, Nicholas Wade, and Hitler. So far, so good.

                But Reich, like many geneticists writing about race, does not really know what he is talking about. One of the major scientific accomplishments of the 20th century was to distinguish the study of race from the study of human variation. Reich works on the latter. But he writes about the former because (1) it’s more interesting; and (2) he doesn’t understand the difference.

                He argues against two groups of non-existent scholars: Those who believe everyone is the same, and those who believe genetics has no effect on cognition or behavior. He condescendingly refers to the first category of strawmen as “well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations.”

                Anthropologists have in fact been studying the differences among populations for a long time. At issue are its patterns. They are, in order: (1) cultural; (2) quantitative; (3) clinal;  and (4) local. If there were no differences among populations, we would not have been able to find that.

                The other category of strawman involves the denial of genetic “influences on behavior and cognition”.  Once again, nobody denies it; at issue are its patterns.  Time was, when geneticists were taught to distinguish between the causes of variation within groups and between groups. The old Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin explained it back in the days of the racist psychologist Arthur Jensen and the racist physicist William Shockley. Suffice it to say that Reich’s examples are all within-group examples.  (They are also correlations, which he implies are causative.  Time was when geneticists were taught that distinction as well.)

This is why it is important, even urgent, that we develop a candid and scientifically up-to-date way of discussing any such differences, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and being caught unprepared when they are found.
Yes, indeed.  The problem is that apparently he has not read widely enough to encounter such a framework.

This is why knowledgeable scientists must speak out. If we abstain from laying out a rational framework for discussing differences among populations, we risk losing the trust of the public and we actively contribute to the distrust of expertise that is now so prevalent. We leave a vacuum that gets filled by pseudoscience, an outcome that is far worse than anything we could achieve by talking openly.
I generally don’t use the word pseudoscience, since it’s usually being propounded by scientists, and only visible in retrospect, like phrenology and eugenics.  Unfortunately the biggest boost that racial pseudoscience has traditionally gotten is the combination of arrogance and ignorance that geneticists have brought.  Remember Bruce Lahn, who identified the genes responsible for the backwardness of Africans in Science in 2005?  It’s not that, as Reich says, “discoveries could be misused to justify racism.” It’s that racism inheres in the research, because the people doing it have often been ignorant and myopic. They are technologists, not scholars; that is the danger.

                Reich fears, like Lahn, that the rest of us may be “anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations.”  Again, no, that’s not the problem at all. It’s that we don’t want racists studying human variation any more than we would want creationists studying bipedalism. We know that their intellectual prejudices corrupt their research.  It’s been going on for a long, long time.

     I can’t wait to read his new book on the racial invasions throughout prehistory.

     And so I guess this reinforces that the answer to the question I posed last year is still "yes".  It's a newer and more benign scientific racism - not the scientific racism of Harpending, Watson, and Wade - but whether it's ankle-deep or hip-deep, racist bullshit is still racist bullshit.

Friday, November 3, 2017

G. G. Simpson story #4

There's a new "species" of orangutan.  I hope it's very successful, because I love orangutans. But of course there is no discovery of a new species here; what's new is the recognition of between-group differences.  In other words, we have a new highly endangered species of orangutan, and the old highly endangered species now has 800 fewer members than it had the other day. What it really means is that we have changed what we mean by "species" as primatology has become increasingly driven by conservation concerns. I've written about this (and in actual print, not in a fucking blog). In a nutshell, it represents the species as a biopolitical unit.

Anyway, this got me thinking about a conversation I had with Dr. Simpson in 1983.  

So one day I got him talking about the famous Classification and Human Evolution conference sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and organized by Sherry Washburn in 1962.  (Boy, talk about a manel! Click here to see the participant list!)  On the one hand, Simpson and Mayr were there, and Simpson had just published Principles of Animal Taxonomy. On the other hand there was a lot of weird stuff said in front of these ostensible experts.  Simpson recalled being particularly agitated by Louis Leakey’s comment, which seemed to suggest that there was no reason to even try and do animal taxonomy well.  From Leakey’s published text,

Since the names which we apply, at any and every level in the taxonomic sequence are inevitably arbitrary and artificial, it does not, I believe, matter what we decide to do, provided only that the majority of those who are concerned in the classification, at any given time,  are agreed as to how they will use the classification system that is set up and provided they are clear as to what they mean by the different names that are applied [italics in original].

“I thought that was about the most foolish thing I had ever heard anyone say about taxonomy,” recalled  Simpson.  I expected a punch line, and waited for it. “Then,” he continued, “Morris Goodman spoke.” 

Relevant Literature

Hagen, J. B. "Descended from Darwin? George Gaylord Simpson, Morris Goodman, and Primate Systematics." In Descended from Darwin: Insights into the History of Evolutionary Studies, 1900-1970, edited by Joe Cain and Michael Ruse, 93-109. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2009.
Leakey, L. "East African Fossil Hominoidea and the Classification within This Super-Family." In Classification and Human Evolution, edited by S. L. Washburn, 32-49. Chicago: Aldine, 1963.
Simpson, G. G. Principles of Animal Taxonomy.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.
Sommer, M. "History in the Gene: Negotiations between Molecular and Organismal Anthropology." Journal of the History of Biology 41, no. 3 (2008): 473-528.

And always consult this blog post before teaching primate taxonomy, you ex-ape!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Who wants Charles Murray to speak, and why?

Some years ago, I wrote a broad critique of The Bell Curve, that old Social Darwinist psychology tome from 1994 by the hereditarian psychologist Richard Herrnstein and conservative political theorist Charles Murray. It was in a very nice collection edited by Besteman and Gusterson (who ought to be a law firm, but are actually cultural anthropologists), called Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong.

             A few years later, Paul Erickson and Liam Murphy included it in their reader on the history of anthropological theory. In fact, the third edition of that reader (2010) actually began with Marx and ended with Marks.  That was pretty cool.  The fourth edition (2013) also started with Marx and included Marks, but had a couple of more readings after Marks.

             They kicked me out of the fifth edition (2016).  No hard feelings, though, because I’m cited in their companion volume, A History ofAnthropological Theory.  But I know why they did it, too.  My essay was very dated. It was criticizing a twenty-year-old bit of pseudoscience, which only old people remember.  Richard Herrnstein is dead.  Charles Murray is just a distant irrelevancy.

            Well, the joke’s on them.  

Charles Murray is back again.  He had surfaced briefly a couple of years ago, when Nicholas Wade’s racist anti-science bullshit called A Troublesome Inheritance was published.  That’s the book that stimulated an issue of critical, negative reviews in the scholarly journal Human Biology, by the likes of Agustin Fuentes, Jennifer Raff, Charles Roseman, Laura Stein, and your humble narrator. It also stimulated a letter in the New York Times by nearly 150 geneticists repudiating Wade’s invocation of their scientific field.  And they ought to know.

In fact, pretty much the only mainstream review of Nicholas Wade that was positive was the one in the Wall Street Journal, by Charles Murray.  So on this side, we have the biological anthropologists and human geneticists in accord that Wade’s racist screed is a perversion of the relevant sciences, in which they are, for all intents and purposes, experts.  And on the other side, the political theorist  Charles Murray, who seems to wish that the "science" in Wade’s book were true, regardless of what the data show and the experts think.  That’s pretty anti-science.  It’s just like the creationists, anti-vaxxers, and climate-change-deniers. What do they all have in common? They like to argue the science with the scientists.

It’s like mansplaining, only less gendered.  Moronsplaining.

So Charles Murray is still out there, still sponsored by the right-wing think-tank called the American Enterprise Institute, and ever ready to publicly hawk a book of pseudoscience that the scientific community repudiates. Still ready to peddle his own antiquated ideologies about rich people being genetically smarter than poor people. And since social programs designed to assist the poor are doomed to failure because the poor are innately stupid, they should be abolished.

              To the extent that class and race are correlated in the US, Murray’s ideas about the poor being genetically stupid make an easy transition into the world of scientific racism.  And it wasn’t accidental.  The Bell Curve cited literature from The Mankind Quarterly, which no mainstream scholar cites, because it is an unscholarly racist journal, supported by the Pioneer Fund, that wacko right-wing philanthropy that has thrown money at wacko eugenicists, racists, segregationists, and hereditarians of all stripes, since its inception in 1937 under the aegis of the wacko eugenicist Harry Laughlin. The Bell Curve also cited the work of that racist wacko psychologist Philippe Rushton – who believed that the mean IQ of Africans is genetically set at 70, and that Africans had been r-selected for high reproductive rate and low intelligence – and then pre-emptively defended his wacko racist ideas in an appendix.  Even the wacko evolutionary psychologists distanced themselves from Rushton, appreciating the toxicity of his ideas: “Bad science and virulent racial prejudice drip like pus from nearly every page of this despicable book,” wrote David Barash in the journal Animal Behaviour.

                But Charles Murray wasn’t smart enough to see it.  He couldn’t see the virulent racial prejudice in the work he was defending.  Or else he was blinded by his own prejudices.  It’s age-old bind: ideologue or idiot?

                And now the alt-right has gained political ascendancy, and Charles Murray is on a speaking tour.  And he gets shouted down and driven off of Middlebury College.  But he gets invited to other colleges and his message is heard. 

He is invited to Notre Dame by a political science professor named Vincent Phillip Muñoz, and is civilly and effectively rebutted by Agustín Fuentes.

But let’s back up a clause or two.  Who is inviting Charles Murray to speak at their college, and why?  At Middlebury, he was invited by Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics, who told her story in the New York Times, as wanting to engage with his ideas. Likewise, Muñoz argues that “Murray makes an important argument that should be heard”. Even the New York Times agrees he should say his piece.

                I’m going to disagree.  Charles Murray talks science that is bogus, and political philosophy that is evil, and uses one to justify the other.  He doesn’t need to be heard by anybody, any more than a creationist, or a pedophile, or an anti-vaxxer deserves to be heard. 

                So this is what I find confusing. In the free marketplace of ideas in contemporary political science, we still entertain the scientific hypothesis that the poor deserve what little they have because they are genetically stupider than the rich? First of all, I don’t know any geneticist who agrees to the the second clause.  A hundred years ago, geneticists believed that. Since the Great Depression, however (which democratized poverty), not too many geneticists have believed it.  (The late Henry Harpending did. That was probably an example of Planck’s Principle.)

                Rather, nearly all contemporary geneticists seem to think that the old lefty J. B. S. Haldane more or less got it right when he said, “The average degree of resemblance between father and son is too small to justify the waste of human potentialities which an hereditary aristocratic system entails.” Let me translate: You inherit a lot of stuff, and some of that stuff is genetic.  But a lot of the most important stuff – like, privilege – is not. And it is a big mistake to confuse the two categories. Consequently, if you are committed to the proposition that genetic properties are more important than everything else, that is a moral proposition not supported by genetics itself, you smug bastard.

                Class advantages are very real, but they aren’t genetic. Doesn’t everybody know that?

                I think it’s kind of weird that political scientists would be willing to entertain ostensibly scientific ideas – in this case about human genetics – that the relevant scientists themselves do not take seriously.

                But Charles Murray isn’t a geneticist.  He is a genetics fanboy. Imagine that you were a professional magician, with a three-year-old child trying to convince you, and everyone else around, that everything important in life is caused by magic.

                That said, however, don’t think I’m going to let geneticists off the hook so easily. Sad to say, there are, and always have been, opportunistic geneticists who recognize the self-interest in telling the public that everything important in their lives is genetic. Over a century ago, there was Reginald C. Punnett, inventor of the eponymous Square, who ended the first English textbook on Mendelian genetics with the conclusion that “progress is question of breeding rather than of pedagogics; a matter of gametes, not training…. [T]he creature is not made, but born.”  The American geneticist Charles Davenport jumped on the Mendelian bandwagon, and soon explained class differences just as Charles Murray does.  But rather than speak of cryptic factors, as Murray does, Davenport  isolated the cause of those class differences in the gene for feeblemindedness.  Rich white people from northern Europe had one allele; everybody else had another. But whether you speak of specific genes for feebleminded or cryptic genetic factors that cause the poor to be stupid, it’s still fake science. 

               The Bell Curve capitalized on the popularity of the Human Genome Project in putting forth its thesis about the genetic stupidity of poor people in the 1990s.  Some geneticists repudiated it, but others recognized, as the geneticists of the 1920s did, that it was good for the business of genetics.  When Science reviewed Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race – a classic of American racist thought, which was read in defense of Karl Brandt at the Nuremberg trials to show that the Germans had simply been doing what the Americans were advocating – it concluded with a sobering thought: “This is a book that will … help to disseminate the ever-growing conviction among scientific men of the supreme importance of heredity.” Sure, the genetic theory in question might be inane, might be evil, and it might be false, but it definitely is good for business. More recently, the Human Genome Project was backed up with all sorts of purple prose about how your DNA sequence was the most important thing about you: The Code of Codes, The Book of Man, and the like.  They knew it was bullshit then, and that’s why there is such interest in epigenetics now

               These geneticists are reprehensible, because they provide the hereditarian soil for scientific racism.  The geneticists may not themselves be racists, but their idiotic statements about what they think their knowledge applies to have indeed sometimes crossed over.  James D. Watson, who knows more about DNA than you do, caused a stir a decade ago, when he said that different groups of people have different “powers of reason”.  The rest of the genetics community disagreed, and challenged his own powers of reason.

                And here is the newest exhibit. A video from the famous mouse genetics lab in Bar Harbor, Maine.  It tells you about genetics and genomics, and how genetics controls things like your  eye color and good taste.

Wait, what? (It’s at 0:15). Good taste is genetic?

Well she was a bit coy about it, wasn’t she?  She delivered the line with a giggle, and the disclaimer, “maybe even good taste”.

Geneticists know that good taste is not genetic, because good taste is context-dependent and locally-specific. Geneticists of the 1920s knew that it was in their short term interests to have the public believe that any and all shit was innate.  But the field evolved, and can’t afford to devolve.

It would be nice if we could get beyond genetics-vs-culture, so we could talk more comprehensively about “embodiment”.  But the hereditarians and racists won’t allow it.

We should not be debating the innate intelligence of black people, or of the poor, on college campuses or anywhere.  It is a morally corrupt pseudoscientific proposition. 

It's like inviting a creationist or an inventor of a perpetual motion machine. The university should not be a censor, but it sure as hell is a gatekeeper.  At this point, sometimes they go all radical epistemological relativist and and say that all ideas deserve a hearing.  But all ideas don't deserve a hearing.  The universe of things that do get discussed and debated on college campuses is rather small in proportion to the ideas that people have debated over the years.  Should we stone witches? No. Might the speed of light be 140,000 miles per second, rather than 186,000? No.  Might the universe just be made up of earth, air, water, and fire? No.  Might Africans just be genetically stupid? Might people who want to debate this point have their fundamental civic morality called into question instead?

This also raises bigger problems.  Geneticists that mislead the public about what human genetics explains.  College faculty that can’t identify pseudoscience.  There were, after all, any number of serious refutations of every aspect of The Bell Curve

Let me give the last word, then, to Allison Stanger, who invited Charles Murray out to Middlebury College and got roughed up a bit, because she thinks that the innate intelligence of black people ought to be a debatable topic; which apparently ruined the pleasure she ordinarily derives from tormenting marginalized people. As she casually explained it in the New York Times:
I had tough questions on both the controversial “Bell Curve,” in which he partly blames genetics for test score differences among races ... But the event had to be shut down, lest the ensuing dialogue inflict pain on the marginalized.


[Note:  Apparently Stanger herself did not invite Murray, but “welcomed the opportunity to moderate a talk with him on campus.”  In any case, we still disagree on the central issue of whether the innate intellectual capacities of non-white people should be a subject open for debate on campuses in 2017.]

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Annoying books, cont'd: Matt Ridley's "The Evolution of Everything"

Matt Ridley's book, The Evolution of Everything, answers the question, “What if everything in the universe were to be understood as differentially-replicating elements, whose bestest alternatives have been tested in free competition and have thrived to produce all the good stuff in the world?” The first few chapters deal primarily with the evolution of the natural order, and the remaining dozen with the evolution of socio-cultural forms, and the big message is: Systems spontaneously create and maintain themselves efficiently without governmental interference.

The meaning of evolution is that all social planning is bad. In fact, it’s creationist.  Leave it all alone, and the cream will rise naturally to the top, as it always has, and the future will be as rosy as the past.

In the midst of all this cry for freedom and deregulation – including the environment, by the way, which the author apparently believes can also take care of itself – we encounter the occasional grudging admission that such freedom might not actually evolve the best of all possible worlds. “The right thing to do about poor, hungry and fecund people is to give them hope, opportunity, freedom, education, food and medicine, including of course contraception” (p. 214). But Ridley never mentions how this “doing” and “giving” will come about, when his entire social desideratum involves allowing the free market of natural selection to work without any centralized plan. Perhaps I can be forgiven, then, if I doubt the author’s sincerity when he sheds a few tears on behalf of common folk.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and historian Richard Hofstadter are helpfully identified as Marxists, although the latter’s identity is merged with that of the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, who may or may not be a Marxist. Just in case you’re worried about who the Marxists are. 

Apparently the author is.  Perhaps his obsession with Marxists arises from the fact that he is a Conservative member of the House of Lords, holding the rank of Viscount.  Much of the book consists of historical vignettes, but Ridley’s history is notably bloodless; one without colonialism, slavery, destitution, or exploitation, on which Marxist histories tend to harp.   It’s a happy history, of free trade, free markets, and free progress.  In other words, someone whose ancestors were busily rigging the system so that your ancestors and mine would suffer, now wants to tell you that the system works fine, so leave it alone.  

I actually found myself trying to suppress a sense of moral outrage as I worked my way through this book. Ridley idealizes a system of social behavior that runs on greed, maximizes inequality, and fails to engage with issues like justice and fairness.  It is a troubling caricature of Darwinism, and I frankly came to see the book as an abuse of science, as an attempt to rationalize an evil social philosophy by recourse to nature. “The whole idea of social mobility,” he explains, “is to find talent in the disadvantaged, to find people who have the nature but have missed the nurture” (p. 166). Well, no.  Actually the idea of social mobility is to reduce the overall proportion of privileged, wealthy douchebags who think that they owe their station in life to their inherent virtues.

You know what? Fuck him. Fuck his ancestors too.  What some inbred twit thinks the about the evolution of human society is about as relevant as what a raccoon thinks. The reason this kind of pervy-Darwinistic thought was repudiated many decades ago is that it was recognized as the vulgar self-interested bio-politics of the rich and powerful. If there is a Darwinian lesson to be extracted from the history of the 20th century, it is probably that the poor require constant protection from the ideologies of the overwealthy and underpigmented. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Brief review of Tom Wolfe's "The Kingdom of Speech"

I really wanted to like this book, for the simple reason that any book that the obnoxious fruifly geneticist Jerry Coyne is that contempuous of, can't be all bad. But sadly, it really is all bad.

Tom Wolfe's new book is indeed as bad as advertised, but it isn't creationist. His big idea is taken from linguist Daniel Everett (Language: The Cultural Tool), that language isn't a biological autapomorphy, like eyebrows or valgus knees, but a discovery or invention, like bifacial handaxes. The possibility that the dichotomy might be a false one apparently occurs to neither of them.

If it were not in some sense a biological feature, then it is difficult to explain why our vocal tract differs from a chimpanzee’s; and why you can’t teach a chimp to talk, as psychologists from Robert Yerkes on down have tried and failed to do.  And if it were not a cultural feature, then it is difficult to explain why people speak so many different more-or-less equivalent languages, rather than just one really good language

The first half of the book is a child’s romp through the career of Charles Darwin, written in an overtly anachronistic, and frankly sophomoric, style. The second half of the book leaps to savage Noam Chomsky. You can get distracted by Wolfe giving Ian Tattersall a post at MIT (p. 149), or awarding Joseph Dalton Hooker a knighthood 20 years before Queen Victoria did (p. 32), or his antiquated use of “man” as a generic term for the species, but it really isn’t even worth the time.  “Even the smartest apes don’t have thoughts, “ he writes on p. 162, “so much as conditioned responses to certain primal pressures.”  Who knew there were any real Cartesians left?

What ties the two halves of this short book together is not so much the history of linguistics (no Saussure, and a passing mention of Edward Sapir), but the foregrounded information that science is a social activity, with rhetoric, persuasion, and alliance as components. Somebody really ought to write a book about that.

Wolfe’s rhetoric is mainly deployed to boost the work of Everett, who seems to be rather a better linguist than ethnographer.  He says that the Pirahã language lacks the feature of recursion, which Chomsky believes that all languages have.  This ought to be little more than classic “Bongo-Bongoism” – the ethnographic demonstration that the mythical people of “Bongo-Bongo” lack whatever facet of human behavior all people are supposed to have, as first-generation ethnographers aggressively liked to point out a century ago.   But when Everett writes about the overall simplicity and primitiveness of the Pirahã language and lifeways, Wolfe notes that the published comments in Current Anthropology were dubious. “They all had their reservations about this and that,” Wolfe writes (p. 119). But “this and that” were actually the articulated doubts about the basic competence of Everett’s ethnography.  That is serious, because it means that the stuff being said about the Pirahã is not quite reliable enough to be considered as anthropological data. They “had preserved a civilization virtually unchanged for thousands, godknew-how-many-thousands, of years” (p. 113). When Wolfe calls them “the most primit – er, indigenous – tribe known to exist on earth” (p. 142), the sophisticated reader may be forgiven for reading it as romanticized pseudo-anthropological nonsense.  

After all, every sophisticated reader knows that the most primit - er, indigenous tribe known to exist on earth are really the KhoiSan
Oh shit, maybe these guys really are!

Anyway, without differentiating between (vocal) speech and (cognitive) language, Wolfe eventually deduces that speech is what made us significantly different from other animals, something that “no licensed savant had ever pointed ... out before”.  So you had better not look too hard for licensed savants pointing it out.

Wolfe concludes with a radical taxonomic proposition: that humans are cognitively so distinct that we should be alone in a higher taxonomic category.  If you don’t know that Julian Huxley said as much in the 1950s, and Terry Deacon (1997) more recently – at the subkingdom and phylum levels, respectively – then you might find the suggestion original or threatening. It’s actually neither. It’s just a matter of how much or how little you choose to privilege phylogeny when classifying. 

All in all, the wrong stuff.