Saturday, November 2, 2013

Heads, We Win!

            The relationship between the head and the mind is a subtle one, and it has led generations of scientists into difficult straits.  The brain is inside the head.  Aside from Aristotle and his most devout followers (who thought the brain's primary function was to cool the body), nearly all ancient and modern European scholars have understood the brain's primary function to be in producing thoughts.  Yet different people have different thoughts - some bad, some good.  And some people have mental gifts - for mathematics, for art, for socializing.  Is it because they have different kinds of brains?  Is it because they have different kinds of heads?

            Perhaps we should look to science to find out.

            In the first half of the 19th century, one of the most popular applied sciences was known as phrenology, developed by medical anatomists.  It answered  the question, "Why do people have such different personalities?" by recourse to medical anatomy.  The logic, primitive if comprehensible, was that people have different personalities because they have different brains; the brain is composed of various modules for music, love, fidelity, and the like, and since the skull encloses the brain, we can read one's personal talents and abilities from the overdeveloped or underdeveloped parts of their brain, which are inscribed upon the surface of the skull.  Just as a home-wrapped Christmas present might contain a bulge for a part that is a bit too large for its box, so too does the skull have bulges corresponding to the overdeveloped parts of the brain governing particular personality attributes.  All we need to do, then, is to feel the bumps on your skull, and we can tell you about your latent abilities.

            By the latter part of the 19th century, this was generally looked upon scornfully by the mainstream anatomical community, which had its own crude logical practice.  Just as a large pancreas secretes more insulin, it stands to reason that a large brain secretes more thoughts.  Thus, people with large brains are more intellectually gifted than people with smaller brains.[1]  One of the strongest early advocates of this idea, Samuel George Morton of Philadelphia in the 1840s, was also a believer in phrenology.  And yet, it was not too difficult to find small-brained geniuses and big-brained dummies.

            Perhaps, then, the head's gross shape had something to do with it, in addition to the head's gross size and surface details, or perhaps instead of them.   Some people (and populations) had long heads; others had short, broad heads.  Standardized measurements and a pompous scientific vocabulary developed in the middle of the 19th century described long-heads as dolichocephalic and broad-heads as brachycephalic.  As descriptions of people, of course, they were fine, but as explanations for their histories and social conditions, they were nonsensical, even if scientifically mainstream.[2] 

            The early anthropologist Franz Boas began to debunk the value of head shape, for any other purpose than descriptive, by empirically contrasting the head shapes of immigrants with the heads of their children and other family members, and showing that this trait was heavily influenced by the environment.[3]  On the other hand, the early physical anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička wrote with dismissive condescension about phrenology, but when given the chance to examine the brain of a recently deceased Eskimo (Inuit) from Greenland, he leapt at the opportunity.  His 1901 paper on "An Eskimo Brain" was not followed by one on "An Eskimo Arm" or "An Eskimo Liver," so he clearly regarded the organ as one of especially great scientific interest.  It is not clear, though, just what he expected to learn from it, although he quite ghoulishly concludes, "The marked differences  ...  from those of the whites  ... makes a future acquisition of Eskimo brains very desirable."[4]

            By the 1920s, it had become clear that culture was not to be found inside people's brains, but rather, constituted a part of the environment that imposed itself upon people's brains.  This is not to say that all brains are identical, but like arms and livers, their differences are largely irrelevant to the question of why different groups of people behave as they do, or have the histories that they do.  In pathological cases, the structure of a brain might be interesting, but it functions pretty much the same way in all normal people, whatever language they speak, and whatever their social background, class, diet, traditions, or values may be.

            By the 1950s, the physical anthropologists had come around as well - to the recognition that measuring head size and shape had its uses, but none of them involved the question of why different groups of people think and act as they do.  The eventual apprehension of this fact was doubtless a consequence of the fact that the physical anthropology of the Nazis, like their human genetics, was not all that different from its American counterpart, and had to be fundamentally reconceptualized after World War II.[5] 

            The head studies, however, required admitting an exception to the guiding principle of anatomy: that form follows function.  The new physical anthropology,[6] christened by Sherwood Washburn in 1951, would finally follow the cultural anthropologists, and hold as axiomatic that variation in mental properties and functions is disconnected from physical variation in head form.  There is a wide range of variation in normal human heads, and a wide range of variation in normal human thoughts, and they only map on to one another in the grossest or crudest of ways.  You can't legitimately infer cultural difference from the observation of cranial difference, nor cultural similarity from the observation of cranial similarity.  The reason is that they are epistemologically disconnected, for cultural differences are the products of history, not biology. 

            Thus, heads are more-or-less interchangeable across the great bulk of our species, and the brains inside them can do pretty much what anyone else's brain can do, except in pathological or exceedingly unusual cases. Consequently, when we encounter a modern human skull in the ethnographic, archaeological, or fossil record, we are going to assume that it housed a normal modern human brain, just like yours and mine, and consequently was capable of thinking the full range of normal modern human thoughts, just like yours and mine.  That seems to be the best inference we can draw from two centuries of studying the anthropology of heads.

[1] There are still a few psychologists who maintain this.  Actually, however, the correlation of IQ with brain size is far lower than the correlation of brain size with body size.  In other words, big people tend to have big brains.  If it were true that brain size were a significant determinant of intelligence, then the smartest people on earth would be football linemen.
[2] Gould SJ (1981) The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W W Norton.
[3] Boas F (1912) Changes in the bodily form of descendants of immigrants. American Anthropologist 14: 530-562
[4] Hrdlicka A (1901) An Eskimo brain. American Anthropologist 3: 454-500.  This was the brain of Qisuk, one of the "New York Eskimos" whom Franz Boas convinced Robert Peary to bring to the Big Apple from the Arctic.  All but Qisuk's son died within a few months.  I discussed this in Chapter 8 of Why I Am Not a Scientist.
[5] Marks J (2010) The two 20th century crises of racial anthropology. In: Little MA, Kennedy KAR, eds. History of Physical Anthropology in the Twentieth Century. Lexington Books Lanham, MD: pp. 187-206.
[6] Washburn SL (1951) The new physical anthropology. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II 13: 298-304

Monday, October 28, 2013

Scars of human evolution, part deux

Physical anthropologist Wilton Krogman wrote a classic article in 1951 for Scientific American called “The Scars of Human Evolution,” back when you could actually make sense of the stuff in Scientific American.  It addressed half of human evolution: bipedalism.

Hard as it may be to believe, the evolution of our other most basic adaptation is under-theorized.  I refer to our symbolic mode of communication, language.   Language, which is coterminous with symbolic thought – if you can think it, you can say it – was an unusual and apparently very good evolutionary innovation.  It was so good, indeed, that it created physical problems that the human body had to solve secondarily in order to make it work, and to some extent never did solve fully.

First, it expanded our heads.  Symbolic communication requires a big brain, as well as an extended period of immaturity in order to learn how to do it properly.  It is so difficult that we hardly even appreciate how difficult it is.  From the bottom up, we learn what sounds make sense.  Are “s” and “sh” variants of the same sound, or different sounds?  What about “l” and r”? Or “r” and “rr”?  Or the “Ch” in “Chanukah” or the “Zs” in “Zsa-Zsa”?  Are they their own sounds, or some weird variants of “Hanukah” and “Cha-Cha”?  We also learn how to combine those sounds, and use them to refer to objects, or acts, or states.  We could call those combinations of sounds “lexemes,” but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just call them “words”.  We also learn how to combine those words in meaningful ways – to state, inquire, praise, predict, recall, using any of the myriad grammatical forms at our disposal.  And on top of all that, we learn intonation, sarcasm, and bodily gestures to go along with the rules of sounds, their correspondences, and combinations.  The price for all of this was a brain inside a baby’s skull that hardly fits through the birth canal.  And the solution to that problem was to make birthing social.  Where an ape squats and delivers, a human almost always needs to have someone else around.

Second, language reorganized our throats.  To make all of those sounds, our larynx is positioned lower down in the throat than it is in apes and babies, who cannot make those sounds.  The price we pay is that the passage of air into our lungs and of food into our bellies now criss-cross, which they do not in apes, which means that we can choke on our food far more readily than a chimpanzee can.  The solution is: Don’t eat so fast, and try not to breathe while you are swallowing.

Third, language not only worked over our throats and brains, but our teeth as well.  Catarrhine primates often have large, sexually dimorphic canine teeth, which they use as social threats and in the occasional actual fight.  Classic sexual selection theory holds that in species in which males actively compete for mates, they do so using their canine teeth.   In species where there is less competition for mates, because males and females pair off, the males and females have equal-sized canine teeth, as in the monogamous gibbons.  This is often invoked as evidence that sexual selection has been reduced in the human species, which may well be true.  The problem is that those gibbon canines, which are non-dimorphic, are also actually quite large.  Ours are non-dimorphic, but small.  Why?  Because it is really hard to speak intelligibly through large, interlocking canine teeth.  Ask any vampire (and see if you can understand their response).  The price for the reduction of the canine teeth was that our canine teeth are not going to intimidate other members of our own species, nor defend us against member of other species.  Good thing we started using tools.

And fourth, in addition to reshaping our brains, throats, and teeth, language also reshaped our tongue.   To make the sounds we do, our tongue became more muscular, rounded,  and enervated than an ape’s tongue.   For this the cost was quite severe.  An ape dissipates heat, as most mammals do, by panting.  But to use your tongue primarily for talking, it will require that your body produce another way of dissipating heat.  Our ancestors did that by loading up our skin with sweat glands, for evaporative cooling.   But evaporative cooling only works efficiently with bare skin; so our body hair had to get shorter and wispier than that of an ape. 

Walking and talking are what are most fundamentally human, and it is quite extraordinary that they rhyme. So the next time you choke, sweat, scream for an epidural, or reach for a weapon to protect yourself because you lack confidence in your teeth to protect you, reflect on the fact that our body parts are interconnected, and that language was such a good way to communicate that it screwed you up in so many other ways.   I didn’t mention it, but there is a fifth price as well for language:  having to listen to people who don’t know when to shut the fuck up.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back

Some of you older folks may remember the case in which geneticist Therese Markow (then of Arizona State, now of UC-San Diego) bled a Native American tribe on the promise of studying diabetes, and then piggybacked some research on schizophrenia and population structure and history onto that promise; except that she didn't tell them about it and they didn't consent to it.  This had been "situation normal" in the field for decades, but in the wake of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, born 1990) and the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP, died 1996), it is no longer acceptable practice.

The Havasupai case helped to reframe the relationship between scientists and Native peoples, which had been tested by the HGDP, and which had relied for decades on the assumption that there was a gentleman's agreement between the geneticist and the tribe, and that the geneticist could say anything to get the genetic samples from the tribe, and after it was out of their bodies, it was the property of the scientist, who could then do pretty much anything with it, including research that the tribe had not agreed to, and trading samples to other labs for other research.  But no more.  

In April 2010, the lawsuit brought by the Havasupai against Markow's institution was settled out of court, and the tribe, the university, and the bioethics community were all satisfied with the results.  I wrote it up for Anthropology Today shortly afterwards.

Now that we have blown up the Death Star, however, the Empire is striking back.  Ricki Lewis, the author of a major textbook on human genetics, and thus with the potential to miseducate thousands of students in human genetics, now says that Teri Markow did not actually study schizophrenia, the investigation and report commissioned on behalf of ASU and the Havasupai was a smear job, and the charges against her were entirely false.

So we are compelled to revisit the case once more.  Think of Teri Markow as Alex Rodriguez, and yourself as Bud Selig.

Ricki Lewis carried out a literature search and discovered that Teri Markow never published on the genetics of Havasupai schizophrenia.  From this, she concludes that Markow never actually studied it.

Like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the narrative that the geneticist sought schizophrenia genes in Havasupai DNA became established fact with the repeating. Soon the accounts of the case began quoting and citing each other, as if the original documents that held the truth didn’t even exist.

The trail of original documents is actually rather interesting.  The most significant document is the one produced by Arizona State's investigation at the end of 2003, known as the Hart Report.  Ricki Lewis dismisses it, because she has additional secret information:   

I’ve got more background than went into the blog, and based on it, I wouldn’t trust the Hart report.

Be that as it may, the Hart report was based on extensive interviews and paper trails, and was as comprehensive as could be expected, to the satisfaction of both the Havasupai and the university.  It discusses lots of other original documents, such as consent forms.  In fact, it tells us that in an interview with Markow in 2003, "Markow had indicated, during the course of the interview, that she had lost or misplaced the file containing the informed consents from 1991 on ...".  The dog ate my consent forms.

Another original document is a story that appeared in Phoenix Magazine in 2008 by Jana Bommersbach, which says,

Markow maintains to this day that she had permission to test for things other than diabetes and that her “proof” is the consent forms signed by some of the Havasupai who donated blood. She insists the project had two focuses: diabetes and schizophrenia.

So in 2008, Markow was saying that schizophrenia had been a research focus of hers, and in 2013 she is saying that it wasn't?  Or more precisely, in 2013 Markow is enlisting a shill in the genetics blogosphere to deny that schizophrenia in the Havasupai had ever been a research focus of hers?

Further, the Hart Report says:

Dr. Markow was funded by NlMH and NARSAD to study the role of genetic factors in schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder "which occurs at a significantly greater rate among the Havasupai (7%) than in any other population (1 %). Interestingly, all cases of schizophrenia occur in lineages tracing back to a single man (a shaman or medicine man) who lived in the 1880's."

NIMH is the National Institutes of Mental Health, not a cartoon.   NARSAD is the National Alliance for the Research of Schizophrenia and Depression, now called the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.  In other words, among the original documents are funded grant proposals for research on schizophrenia.

The NARSAD grant for 1990-1991 was a big one, but unfortunately, the dog ate that, too.  According to the Hart report,

Information was hard to obtain on this grant. It is our understanding that it was funded in the amount of $92,880.00 and provided funds for the blood collection, processing and analysis that led to the genetics studies undertaken at Arizona State University (and elsewhere)....

Dr. Markow submitted the letter of intent for this grant, which requested funds to "initiate a major research program on the etiology of schizophrenia in a unique patient population in Arizona," the Havasupai. ... She proposed conducting the research in two stages. The first stage was to involve the collection of data, and it was for this stage that she was asking NARSAD, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, for funding. She indicated that support for the second, more extensive stage would be sought from NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health. We have uncovered no evidence to establish that this letter of intent, or other documentation associated with this grant proposal, was presented to the Havasupai.

The NIMH grant was for "Genetic Analysis of the Dopamine Receptor Gene Family" and provided funding for Markow from 1992 through 1995.  The Hart report says,

the two primary goals of the project were, first, to determine the amount of genetic variation present in the dopamine receptor gene family in the Havasupai and, second, to statistically analyze the data to determine if any genetic variation was associated with the development of schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, the dog ate that grant proposal as well.  Teri Markow had a very hungry dog.

So what of this bizarre blog post by this textbook author?  The research didn't get very far, and didn't come up with anything publishable, which is why Ricki Lewis did not find any publications on it.  But how on earth can anyone claim that there was no research?  When she asks rhetorically, "Why did articles twist events to seem as if she had intended all along to study schizophrenia?" the obvious answer is that because Markow had indeed been interested in studying schizophrenia, and had received grants to do it.

So I pointed that out to Ricki Lewis, and she responded:  "just because you are funded from a certain source with a disease name in its title does not mean that you are or are intending to do research on that particular disease."   

Read that again, slowly.  A major science textbook author is telling human genetics students that they can apply for cancer funding from, say, the National Cancer Institute, and get it, while not actually having any interest in cancer or performing any research relevant to cancer.  I think she's wrong.  In fact, I think the National Cancer Institute would consider that fraudulent.

Teri Markow herself jumped in, but didn't say, "No, we did not study schizophrenia" - which was presumably the point under contention.  Instead, she said blah blah blah:

First of all, the consent forms speak for themselves with respect to the breadth of studies. However, without sufficient and appropriate genetic variants, association studies of any disease are not possible. The first step therefore, with our funding, was to seek genetic variability that could be useful in studies of disease. While we did not find sufficient variability with the techniques available at that time to perform association studies, we at least were able to provide people with feedback about their health status with respect to diabetes, because the test for this is simple. Had there been sufficient variability for stringent association studies for any disorder, we could have proceeded. 

However, even if there had been the requisite variability, stringent diagnostic testing for schizophrenia would require a major effort, including lengthy interviews, that never could have gone undetected by the participants. This fact, plus the fact that I have never published a paper on schizophrenia in the Havasupai, answer your question quite definitively.

This is from someone who received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to study the genetics of schizophrenia in the Havasupai, but came up with nothing publishable.  But whether they came up with anything publishable is not the issue, this issue was whether research was carried out on the topic, without the knowledge or consent of the Havasupai.  The latter clause has not been challenged; the Havasupai were not aware that their blood was being used for any studies other than diabetes.

Those of us of a certain age can remember the "non-denial denial" from Richard Nixon's office in the old days of Watergate. 

So I tried again: "What I am hearing is that Dr. Markow sought and received funding from an agency that focuses on schizophrenia, without any intention of actually studying schizophrenia, and ultimately performing no science related to that illness."  Neither Ricki Lewis nor Teri Markow responded to that.  I suspect that if Markow publicly agreed with it, she might be incriminating herself.

Teri Markow seems to have had little difficulty in obtaining research grants or faculty positions subsequent to the Havasupai case, and now studies Drosophila.  She is probably very nice, and I've never thought that she did anything worse than what was common practice at the time.  It was the common practice that was being challenged.

One of my favorite examples of that practice is from a puff piece that Time Magazine ran on the HGDP, in which Luca Cavalli-Sforza was trying to show himself off as a swashbuckler.  And as S. J. Perelman once said, no man ever buckled a better swash.

On one occasion, when Cavalli-Sforza was taking blood from schoolchildren in a rural region of the Central African Republic, he was confronted by an angry farmer brandishing an ax.  Recalls the scientist, “I remember him saying, ‘If you take the blood of the children, I’ll take yours.’ He was worried that we might want to do some magic with the blood."  (Time Magazine, 16 January 1995)

When people come after you with an ax, that is usually a clue that you have not received their voluntary informed consent.  That is why there is no HGDP anymore, and why Teri Markow now works on flies.

Bioethics serves to make scientists responsible social actors, especially if they don't want to be responsible social actors.  Time was, that a scientist could do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted, for any reason they wanted.  Now they can't.  The lesson we learned around the middle of the last century is that the progress of science is great, but when it bumps up against human rights, human rights wins, hands down.  That's a good lesson for genetics students to learn. 

And what is the author/blogger Ricki Lewis's stake in all this?  Why bother to revisit a dead issue, and mount such a preposterous defense of Markow's work?  Maybe she's one of those people still fighting the Science Wars, who thinks that bioethics is just a set of obstacles to scientific research.  She does seem to hold some unusual views about science: "Science has nothing to do with belief, it is about data and evidence."  Actually, science has a lot to do with belief; for example, if you believe that you can do science on people without their consent, then you don't get to do the science.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Creationism as a problem in applied anthropology

I’ve been engaging with creationists in various ways for longer than most people have.  I met my first one in the graduate dorm at the University of Arizona around 1976.  I couldn’t believe it; I felt like I was talking  to a medieval necromancer. 

               That was a long time ago, over 35 years, and we have been spectacularly unsuccessful  in our engagement with creationism since then.  Obviously there are people who have worked wonderfully in defense of science education, like my dear friend Genie Scott, without whose efforts there would probably be twenty states banning the teaching of evolution altogether today.  But the fact remains that over the last twenty years or so, about half of adult Americans have consistently self-identified as creationists.

               Rather than ask what’s wrong with them ,why they are such morons, as one usually hears in this context, I think we should turn it around and look at that fact as a statement about the colossal failure of science education.  Now let  me make my point clear at the outset:  I am not denying that the creationists are ignoramuses; I am saying that that fact does not dictate a solution to the problem of creationism.  The solution comes from first identifying it as a problem of applied anthropology.

               Again, full disclaimer.  I am not a very spiritual person, and certainly not a creationist.  My dues to the National Center for Science Education are paid in full, and unless you’re Genie, I’ve probably been a member of NCSE longer than you have.  I can be an asshole, but I don’t believe that it makes for good negotiations.   When I taught intro physical anthropology at Berkeley back in the late 1990s, I had Phil Johnson come over and give a guest lecture on Intelligent Design.  I think my students (who already had heard about Natural Theology, because I gave them the intellectual context for understanding Darwinism) learned more about it from him than they would have from me.  And I learned more about it from lunch with Phil Johnson than I did from reading his work.  Or, as I once put it in the Anthropology News (Nov.  2005, p. 3)

Now there are a lot of intersecting political agendas here.  Republicans, for example, refuse to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change for different reasons  than evolution.  The first is about corporate economic interests; the second is about theology.

               Anyway, this post is inspired by a viral video  from a few months ago, when Louisiana was holding hearings to try and repeal the latest in a seemingly endless series of creationist bills.

               A retired science teacher named Darlene Reaves gives testimony, and is queried by a legislator named Sen Walsworth  about experimental evidence for “Darwin’s theory of evolution”.  He seems to take “Darwin’s theory of evolution” to mean, quite reasonably, something about the origin of people by a naturalistic transformation of simpler forms of life.  And he has heard that science privileges experimental results, so he asks her about the experimental evidence for human evolution.

               But rather than say, “There is a lot of indirect experimental evidence” and perhaps go on to talk about it, she responds with evidence for her idea of Darwinian evolution, which, again quite reasonably, means (to her) descent with modification and adaptation by natural selection. 

               Her initial response (@ 0:21) is about observational evidence, not experimental evidence, and the lawmaker corrects her.  She insists that he pay attention, and she goes on to talk about the fossil record.   This is nice, but it’s not an answer to the question.

               So he tries again, and asks her for “an experiment that proves [Darwin’s theory of evolution] beyond a shadow of a doubt.”  And she responds with a discussion of selection in bacterial colonies.

               There are only three things wrong with this response, as far as I can see.    First, even on a good day, it would have little to do literally with “Darwin’s theory of evolution” since Darwin didn’t know anything about bacteria, or how they evolve.  Second, even creationists generally will concede that microevolution happens, and as Darwin understood, you just need domesticated plants and animals to show it; the question is, can you extrapolate from that to the history of life?  The Origin of Species is, in Mayr’s famous phrase, “one long argument” that indeed you can.  But the point needs to be argued, because it is unprovable experimentally.  (The most important argument IMHO, is: If you can’t extrapolate simply and easily from microevolution to macroevolution, and there are  complications like speciation, then just how is that an argument for biblical literalism?)  Third, if we accept the unarticulated premise that there is a connection between bacterial selection and human origins, the fact remains that he is interested in people and she is answering about bacteria.  That’s why he asks @ 0:52: “They evolved into a person?”

               The questioner has asked what is, on the surface at least, a very simple question: Is there an experiment you can do to prove that humans arose by naturalistic processes from ape ancestors?  The correct answer would be “No” and to follow it with an excursus into scientific epistemology.   But that would require interacting with scholars in the humanities, and thinking about other things than biology – like history, anthropology, and philosophy – and that would probably hurt.

               So instead, we answer “Yes” and declare our interlocutors to be idiots. 

               Which is the strategy that has been failing for decades.

               But the history of colonialism shows pretty clearly that powerful groups who declare their antagonists to be ignorant fools simply manage to foster long-term resentments.  That is why I think this is an applied anthropology problem.  The lawmaker doesn’t understand the concept of model organisms – the idea that we can learn something about our own species by studying other, “simpler” species.  Explain it to them!   Otherwise the endeavor sounds like “the  old bait-and-switch” in which the scientist gives answers to questions that aren’t asked, and doesn’t answer the questions that are.   The stupid creationist is interested in human origins, but is being lectured about bacteria, and actually asks what that has to do with humans, because, as he says at @ 1:03, “I think that’s what we’re talking about”.  To which the biology teacher responds, “That’s not what we’re talking about.  We’re talking about evolution.”

               Sadly, the only modern ethnographic study of creationism is by a mathematician.  I haven't read it yet, because frankly I struggle with ethnography by actual ethnographers.  (There’s also the nice old one by Chris Toumey, God’s Own Scientists, but that was even before Intelligent Design re-galvanized the anti-evolution political lobby.)