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 genedered.  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
Yanomamo 
Hadza 
Ache
Tasaday.  
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. 


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Epigenetics as epiphenomenal

               There is an interesting intellectual war going on right now, between scientist/author Siddhartha Mukherjee and molecular geneticists.  It was precipitated by Mukherjee’s recent article in The New Yorker on the wonderful world of epigenetics.

               Geneticist Jerry Coyne  objected stridently to the New Yorker essay. Now, Coyne is one of those people who thinks that a real scientist should not be able to tell a human from an ape, and has chastised me in the past for being able to.  Such people are either deaf, dumb, and blind, or else they don’t think that the choice to privilege genetic relations (which make it hard to tell humans from apes) over ecological relations (where it is really, really easy to tell humans from apes) requires a justification.   In fact, in the 1960s, G. G. Simpson demanded such a justification, and never got one. Historians like Marianne Sommer, Joel Hagen, and Michael Dietrich have been writing about it.

               Mukherjee is responding to his critics.  Anyway, since I already knew that Coyne is apparently not very good at confronting his intellectual prejudices, I thought it might be a good time to reconsider just what is at stake intellectually in this epigenetics business. I talked about this a little in my Annual Review of Anthropology article a few years ago.  But actually it’s a nice example of how understanding the science can be helped by asking the lawyerly question “Cui bono?” (who benefits?).  And further, it helps to show that this isn’t a controversy of biology, but of biopolitics.

               Point #1: Human genetics is invariably biopolitical. To see this point, you must grapple with the history of human genetics.  Not the history as told by scientists, the time-line approach that begins, “Once upon a time there was Archibald Garrod...” – but the history as told by historians.  That’s the history that looks at what scientists said to the public, and at the associated social relations.  The twentieth century, after all, began with eugenics and ended with “genohype” – which no sensible geneticist wants to defend today.

               And we nearly span the century when we compare the concluding statement of the first textbook of Mendelism (1905) with the director of the Human Genome Project’s comment to Time Magazine in 1989. First, the eponymous Reginald C. Punnett, remembered in science today for his square:

“As our knowledge of heredity clears and the mists of superstition are dispelled, there grows upon us with an ever increasing and relentless force the conviction that the creature is not made but born.”

               Ummm, WTF?  Granted, genetics was important enough to him to write a book about, but the message that “the creature is not made but born” is certainly not its central message.  Its central message is about how the creature gets born – not that the facts of birth are the only important things about it.

               Compare James Watson: “We used to think our fate was in the stars.  Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in our genes.”

               Now, I know, throwing out Watson quotes is hardly even fun any more, and nobody in science really believes him.  But let me just remind you that he knows more about DNA than you do, and he has a fucking Nobel Prize.  What have you got?

               What these two thoughts have in common, 84 years and a whole lot of data and theory apart, is their biopolitics.  They are saying something very important, and it’s not about fruitflies, nor is it about the ABO blood group.  It’s about your lot in life.  It’s about who you are, and what you can aspire to become. And it’s a fairly pessimistic note, if your origins are humble: You can never transcend you ancestors. Read it:

The creature is not made, but born.
Our fate is in our genes.
Your personal development is strictly limited by your ancestry.

Now, that is a message that resonates far beyond genetics.  It is familiar to readers of 1994's The Bell Curve, for instance, whose authors were a psychologist and a political theorist.  It is there in the 19th century political writings of Arthur de Gobineau.  It is also familiar to readers of pre-modern geneticists, such as August Weismann and Francis Galton.
         
            What is interesting in the present context is the broad opposition to that pessimistic statement, and the alternative scientific venues for studying how the creature is indeed made, our fates are not in our genes, and we can become different from our ancestors.
     
              One such venue, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was the inheritance of acquired characteristics, often known as Lamarckism. This of course petered out with the suicide of Paul Kammerer in the 1920s, but has never been entirely buried. Bipedalism, after all, was a behavioral choice made by our ancestors, for which we no longer have a choice.

               Another venue for studying how we are made is culture, which eventually superseded eugenics as the favored mode of improving society in the 20th century.

               And still another is human adaptability.

               So over the course of the 20th century, we actually learned that, despite the biopolitical rhetoric of geneticists, there were in fact several significant ways in which you could become different from your ancestors and not necessarily be limited by them.

              The scientistic rhetoric turned once again with the Human Genome Project in the 1980s. To get that program off the ground, molecular geneticists groomed the public with sound-bites like James Watson’s.  Then (like the eugenicists of the 1920s) they embarked on a wildly successful public education program, to convince taxpayers that three billion dollars to sequence the human genome would be the best three billion dollars we ever spent.

               And a wave of purple scientific prose flowed in its wake.  Remember “Mapping the Code”?  That’s still my favorite mixed metaphor.  And “Mapping our Genes”? And “The Human Blueprint”? And “The Book of Man”?  How about “The Code of Codes”?  (I still don't know what that actually means, except that it is vaguely evocative of Jesus as "King of Kings," and of The Godfather, as "capo di tutti capi".)  Remember how the Human Genome Project was the most important scientific revolution since Galileo and we were going to know what it meant to be human and cure all genetic diseases and stuff?

               Ah well, the important thing is, they got the money.  So what if the public transiently believed that your DNA code was the most important thing about you? Hey, it's just a hypothesis.  And it might be true, right?
   
               Let’s now answer the question “Cui bono?”  Who benefits by having the educated public misbelieve that your DNA code is the most important thing about you?  Two principal groups – just as in the 1920s.  First off, the one percent – those now favored by nature, not merely by avarice or luck or unscrupulousness - and who are inclined to try and give their own kids a financial leg up in this dog-eat-dog world, rather than redistribute the wealth in the form of public goods and services that might permit others to compete more fairly in that world.

               And second, the molecular geneticists – the ones now studying the most important thing about you.  Your DNA code.  In fact, anything’s DNA code.  It’s also The Frog Blueprint and The Book of Frog.  That is Point #2: It is in the interests of the molecular geneticists to have you believe that everything important about you lies in the field of molecular genetics.

               That is a significant convergence of interests with the one percent.  Back to history.

              By the late 1930s, the developmental geneticist C. H. Waddington was distinguishing between the kind of information in a human cell that distinguishes one person from another (genetic) and the kind of information that distinguishes one cell type from another, with identical DNA sequences (epigenetic).  Waddington’s  reputation had been all but eclipsed in genetics, when Stephen Jay Gould revived him in evolutionary biology, specifically in the call for an evolutionary science of organismal form, rather than the reductive evolutionary science that was normative in the 1980s.

               Epigenetics is a label for the non-reductive study of heredity.  You are no longer just your ancestors’ DNA sequences, but also their methylation and transcriptional regulation patterns.  But more significantly, your genetics is far more conservative than your epigenetics.  Your “epigenome” is responsive to the environment; that is to say, it adapts.  And it does so far more rapidly and directly than your genome does.

               That extends our list of alternative scientific venues for studying your non-DNA-sequence-based self just a bit.  In addition to the study of possible Lamarckian inheritance, culture, and human adaptability, there is now epigenetics.  In other words, the significance of epigenetics lies in its biopolitical role as a reaction against the genetic determinism, or hereditarianism, that accompanied the Human Genome Project.

              There is, in fact, a lot more at stake than just transcription factors.  The smart geneticists already know that.

               Waddington, it turns out, was a very smart one.  He was a broad intellectual, and actually wrote a book about art at the end of his life.  I don’t think he was that big of a Marxist, as Mukherjee suggests, although he was certainly left of center politically, and was instrumental in getting the famous University of Edinburgh science studies program going (known as the “strong programme”).

              Waddington’s biology was also always very well-informed anthropologically.  When he and his wife visited New York they always stayed with Margaret Mead.  Why? Because Waddington’s BFF from college days at Cambridge was Mead’s third husband, Gregory Bateson.  (Waddington’s daughter is a distinguished Cambridge social anthropologist.)  The major influence on Bateson and on Waddington was not the philosopher Marx, but the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, also very much the anti-reductionist, but a bit more spiritual.

               At least I think so.  He may have been less impenetrable in person. He’s fucking tough in print.  

               Gregory Bateson’s 1936 ethnography Naven acknowledges some influence of Waddington and Whitehead in a footnote.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The time Simpson sounded like Carlin

          G. G. Simpson loved words, and used them exceedingly well. He kept the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary behind his writing desk. He also subscribed to the updates that the OED regularly published.

           One day when I arrived, he was particularly gleeful because he had gotten a volume of the updates, which included slang usages. He showed me the book, which was the volume S.

           I smiled politely, and he explained that this was the first volume of the OED updates that he had received. I smiled politely again. And he said, and I’ll swear to this on a stack of first editions of The Origin of Species, “It means that I have ‘shit’ but I haven’t gotten ‘fuck’ yet!”



Monday, January 11, 2016

Homo naledi shows how biological anthropology is not biology, and can't be, and shouldn't be


            I once read somewhere that the most interesting thing about human evolution is how everbody thinks they understand it.

            I suspect it's because everyone thinks they own a piece of it.  It's the story of where we came from, after all!  And not just any story of where we came from - it's the authoritative, scientific story.

            The authoritative origin stories are not like other stories.  They are value-laden in ways that other scientific stories are not.  Archaeology is routinely used in the service of nationalism, for example.  Rather moreso, at least, than fruitfly genetics is, so a fruitfly geneticist, or a general biologist, might be excused for not being an appropriately critical reader of the literature on human evolution or diversity, where there is rather more at stake.  It is a different and unfamiliar literature to them, and consequently requires some additional intellectual effort for a trained biologist to make sense of. Some don't bother.

            Now, there have been some very insightful contributions to the scholarly literature on human variation and evolution from biologists, even fruitfly geneticists, over the years.  I can think of three off the top of my head.


1935
2011
1962
Julian Huxley collaborated with the Cambridge social anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon for this important early critique  of race, We Europeans. Rob DeSalle collaborated with biological anthropologist Ian Tattersall on their recent book, Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth.  And Doby was a friend and collaborator of several anthropologists, including Sherwood Washburn, Ashley Montagu, and Margaret Mead.

            In science, our answers to the question of where we came from are stories that center around a descent from the apes.  And our characters are already there for us: The human lineage is composed of species, just like the units of paleontology and ecology. A recent ethnographic paper by Eben Kirksey begins, "Taxonomists, who describe new species, are acutely aware of how political, economic, and ecological forces bring new forms of life into being." That is probably true, but I think generally not in the first person. That is to say, the taxonomist working with "political, economic, and ecological forces" is usually somebody else; I'm the taxonomist who is uncovering raw nature.

            Back in 1945, paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson was reviewing the literature on  mammal taxonomy, but when he got to humans, he found it impenetrable.  He had an idea why it was so impenetrable to him, as well: “A major reason for this confusion is that much of the work on primates has been done by students who had no experience in taxonomy and who were completely incompetent to enter this field, however competent they may have been in other respects”.[1] 
GGS in 1983

            Granted that many of the workers in the field may have been trained principally in medical anatomy rather than in evolutionary paleontology, Simpson thought it was reasonable to expect that an expert on  the species of other kinds of mammals should be able to translate freely to the literature on human evolution, because the units ought to be the same.  But he misunderstood the species in our own lineage, for these taxonomic entities are not like the taxa of biology.  Simpson hoped to study his ancestors dispassionately and rationally, as perhaps Vulcans  contemplate their ancestors.[2] But a purely rational and logical Vulcan approach to ancestry involves not dividing people into relatives and non-relatives, for they acknowledge that rationally and logically, everyone is related. They also do not consider ancestry beyond the twelfth generation (approximately 300 earth-years, because in the 12th generation, every sexually-reproducing organism had 4096 ancestors, which is rather a lot to track; and each contributed less than 1/40 of 1% of the genome, so none of them on average is particularly genetically significant).  But we aren’t Vulcans, we are Earthlings, and we treat our kinship and descent in all kinds of meaningfully irrational (but nevertheless coherent and logical!) ways, even in science.

            The classification of our ancestors is still vexed.  Sure, scientists acknowledge some of our colleagues to be “lumpers” or “splitters” – interpreting anatomical diversity among the fossils to be the result of age, sex, pathology, deformation, and microevolution,  thus “lumping” the fossils into few species; or conversely “splitting” them into many species by interpreting the anatomical diversity taxonomically.  But there is something else going on here.  This is participation in the construction of an authoritative story of our ancestry.  There is simply more at stake than in the narrative of clam or deer ancestry. The units here, the species, are not comparable to the species the zoologist is familiar with, for these are not units of ecological genetics, but units of story.
[from a forthcoming paper in Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences]

           The lumper story is one of the continuity and survival of the lineage; the splitter story is one of diversity and extinction of different lineages. Is the story of our ancestry like a tree trunk, or like a bush? The lumper inclines to the former; the splitter inclines to the latter. But those are significantly different shrubbery metaphors to be imposing upon the same sample of fossils. 

            Some decades after Simpson lodged his complaint, paleobiologist Tim White reiterated it, while reviewing a book on the history of "the" 22 species in our lineage: “Many of the putative species are chronotaxa; others are not even valid species in that sense. No one really thinks that available hominid fossils represent 22 separate species lineages in the last six million years.”[3]  Except, possibly, for the authors of the book under review.

           Or perhaps they didn’t really believe it either.  The assumption here that needs to be interrogated is that the fossil taxa of other groups of animals  are comparable – are made the same way, for the same reasons, of the same elements – as the fossil taxa of our own ancestors.  And that is the key error: Fossil animal species are units of biology; fossil human ancestors are bio-cultural units of narrative.  This is not to say that they don’t overlap, and that there were no zoological species in our ancestry.  The problem is that those zoological species are inaccessible to us, and so – rather like the angels sitting on the pinheads – we can see different numbers of species and tell quite different stories from the same empirical database.  This is consequently not an empirical issue at all, but a hermeneutic issue.

A recent book by a historian tells readers on its cover that 100,000 years ago “at least six human species inhabited the earth.”  Yet few practicing biological anthropologists would come up with the number six as the target number of species in the human lineage that inhabited the earth 100,000 years ago; and far fewer would acknowledge the particular six that the author does: Homo sapiens, H. neanderthalensis, H. erectus, H. soloensis, H. denisova, and H. floresiensis.  After all, “H. denisova” has not been formally named, and is based on the genome of a Siberian finger bone, which is itself simply a variant of the Neanderthal genome, which is not clearly a different species in the first place, since recreational genomic ancestry services (for about $200) will now identify the circa 5% of your genome that ostensibly comes from Neanderthalswhich sounds very un-species-like.

            Is the tally right or wrong, then? It is actually neither.  We can’t say, because the zoological answer is inaccessible to us.  These are units of mythology, not of zoology.

            Another of the six presumptive species 100,000 years ago is Homo soloensis.  That name is a linguistic marker, denoting a particular set of Indonesian fossils, anatomically continuous with Homo erectus before and with Homo sapiens after.  As such, it is a named place-saver for a part of the human lineage – a rivulet, or capillary, or rhizome that better represents its elements metaphorically than a tree-limb does.  But in the words of Tim White, “no one really thinks” that this set of fossils represents a valid zoological species of their own.  There is no Homo soloensis. In other words, the ontological status of Homo soloensis is the same as that of Mother Corn Spirit. Neither is a unit of nature, but a unit of meaning or narrative which, to a believer, is perfectly sensible in the context of a story about origins. Homo soloensis is something, but it is not a zoologically familiar species, a fact of nature, so to speak. It is a named fictive ancestor, with more symbolic than naturalistic properties.  In the most fundamental way, human ancestry is self-consciously a story, and taxa like Homo soloensis and H. denisova are the components of this particular historical account.

            And likewise, Homo naledi, the newest major addition to our family tree. “But is it real?“ some journalists queried. Of course it’s real, you didn’t just imagine it.  “But is it real biologically?” they persist.  And that is my point: It doesn’t matter; Homo naledi is not an element of biology; it is an element of our origin story.  It is part of the bricolage of origin story-making.[4]  There is no true or false answer to Homo naledi as a zoological species; for the category of zoological species does not apply to things like Homo naledi.  The mistake here lies in assuming that Homo naledi designates a unit of zoology; that there is an underlying natural taxonomy in human ancestry that will be revealed by the proper ratiocination.  If you're looking for zoological reality, look for it at the genus level. It isn't there at the species level.

            Such is the long-standing taxonomic fallacy in grappling with the science of who we are and where we come from.  On a bio-political terrain, a preparation in biology is inadequate to comprehend the taxonomy, for it is not biological taxonomy.  To the extent that our ancestry is populated by species, those species are attempts to impose a taxonomic structure, which we assume ought to be there, upon an assortment of fossils from various times and places, with diverse anatomies, representing distinct lineages different from one another and yet connected in complex ways. There are a lot of ways of doing it, and they are all very sensitive to the conditions under which the science itself is practiced.

            If the Neanderthals and the Denisovans are not like zoological species, then what might they be like? And here we return to Linnaeus. They would be at most subspecies, as Linnaeus considered unfamiliar peoples to be.  In other words, the classification of extinct humans intergrades into the classification of extant humans. This fallacy – imposing taxonomic structure upon our ancestry, and mistaking the bio-political categories of our story for natural units – is the same fallacy we find at the heart of race.  For race, the meaningful story is “Who are we?” rather than “Where did we come from?” but the problem is the same, mistaking bio-political units of people for zoological units of people.  And those two questions are invariably intertwined, whether the answer comes from science or from any other system of explanatory narrative.




* This blog post is cobbled together from some forthcoming work, mostly Why is Science Racist? (Polity Press, 2017).




[1] Simpson, G. G. (1945) The principles of classification and a classification of mammals Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 85:1-349, quotation from p. 181.
[2] Vulcan is the “Star Trek” planet, notable for the overbearing rationality of its inhabitants.
[3] White, T. D. (2008) Review of The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans, by G J Sawyer and Viktor Deak. Quarterly Review of Biology 83:105-106, quotation from p. 105.
[4] Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962) used the term “bricolage” to refer to the available elements a mythmaker draws on, while tinkering with them to construct a resonant story. It was borrowed by molecular biologist François Jacob (1977) to argue that evolution is more like a tinkerer than like an engineer.