Thursday, June 9, 2011

Brain fart?

Eleven years ago, the psychologist Philippe Rushton sent a lot of social scientists a little booklet, which was an abridgement of his book, Race, Evolution, and Behavior.  Rushton’s work is easily appreciated as falling within the generally constituted domain of scientific racism, for example in his belief that the average IQ of native Africans is 70 (or the equivalent of a European with mild Down’s syndrome).  Pretty much any knowledgeable scholar can see the primitive racist assumptions guiding the work – the misapplication of evolutionary theory, mistaking the facts of social history for those of biological microevolution, overblown claims about innateness of IQ, and the use of idiotic surrogate variables, like crime rate and degree of civilization, for intelligence – not to mention penis size and libido for reproductive rate.  Len Lieberman did a nice critique of Rushton’s nonsense  a while back.  Joe Graves did such a good job revealing the utter biological incompetence in Rushton’s work that if I remember correctly, Rushton may have actually threatened him with litigation.

[Lieberman , L. 2001. How "Caucasoids" Got Such Big Crania and Why They Shrank: From Morton to Rushton. Current Anthropology 42:69-95.]

[Graves, J. 2002. The misuse of life history theory: J. P. Rushton and the pseudoscience of racial hierarchy. In Race and Intelligence: Separating Science from Myth, edited by J. Fish. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 57-94.]

When Rushton’s awful book was published, sociobiologist David Barash, fearing that it might give human sociobiology a bad name (as if such a thing were possible), reviewed it in the British journal Animal Behaviour in terms that merit quoting in order to properly admire them.  “I don’t know which is worse,” wrote Barash, “Rushton’s scientific failings or his blatant racism.”  Methodologically, said Barash, Rushton cherry-picks data of very dubious quality to make his pseudo-scientific argument, which amounts to

the pious hope that by combining numerous little turds of variously tainted data, one can obtain a valuable result; but in fact, the outcome is merely a larger than average pile of shit.

[Barash, D. P. 1995. Book review: Race, Evolution, and Behavior. Animal Behaviour 49:1131-1133.]

Damn, I wish I had said that.  My hat goes off to Barash for saying it.  I would argue, further, that racism should be no more tolerable in science than creationism is.  (In fact I do argue that, in a forthcoming essay for a volume called Pragmatic Evolution, edited by Aldo Poiani, and being published someday by Cambridge.)

Oddly, though, some otherwise reputable scholars had trouble critically evaluating Rushton’s work.  I have occasionally referred to these scholars as ”Mr. Eds”,  being knowledgeable about their narrow area, but so unfathomably ignorant outside that narrow area that they are essentially talking horses.   Mathematical geneticist Henry Harpending, for one, was so uncritical about Rushton that Rushton excerpted a blurb from Harpending’s review in the aforementioned pamphlet. 

"Rushton's Race, Evolution, and Behavior.. .is an attempt to understand [race] differences in terms of life-history evolution.. . . Perhaps here ultimately will be some serious contribution from the traditional smoke-and-mirrors social science treatment of IQ, but for now Rushton's framework is essentially the only game in town."

[Harpending, H. 1995. Human biological diversity. Evolutionary Anthropology, 4 (3):99-103.]

He missed what most others found to be retrogressive, incompetent, and galling in the book.  In the same review Harpending also expressed his admiration for The Bell Curve, which a lot of people had problems with, and which also included a pre-emptive defense of Rushton in an appendix, since it cited about twenty of his papers.  Another senior biological anthropologist, Ralph Holloway, also had trouble reading Rushton critically, and defended Rushton’s work to an early internet chat group in 1999: “I know Phil Rushton, and have had the pleasure of his visit to my lab, and even was able to talk to him at the last AAPA Meetings, and while I disagree with his theories, I have not found him to be a ‘bigot’.” “In short, a ‘racist’ he may be, but I don’t see the ‘bigotry’ myself, despite to what uses his theories might be put.”

Whatever.  As if a guy who ass-rapes evolutionary ecological theory in order to show that Africans have an innate intellectual ability equivalent to mentally handicapped Europeans, might merely be a racist but not a bigot – and may not be responsible for how other people will use his objective, scientific work?

As cranial anatomists go, Holloway is a distinguished one, but if you’re going to talk about race, you have to be able to read the literature critically.  After all, there is supposed to be a distinction between, say, neurobiology and phrenology, which may not be readily apparent to outsiders.  And anyone who can’t read Rushton’s work critically simply isn’t competent to teach anthropology, much less to represent it publicly.  I wrote a monthly column in the Anthropology News (formerly, the Anthropology Newsletter) for the General Anthropology Division, and when we received Rushton’s Abridgement, I said something about it:

Which reminds me, did you all get your copies of the Special Abridged Edition of J Philippe Rushton’s book, Race, Evolution & Behavior? The mass mailing was bankrolled by the Pioneer Fund, an organization outed in a famous essay in the New York Review of Books on Dec 1, 1994 by Charles Lane. With friends like Henry Harpending (Utah) and Ralph Holloway (Columbia), Rushton shows how just hard it is to tell bio-anthropological science from racist pseudo-science.

            [Anthropology News, February 2000, p. 60]

The other day my attention was called to Holloway’s recent writing on the subject.  In 2008, Holloway published an old fart memoir in the Annual Review of Anthropology, and included the following statement.

Indeed, Jon Marks claimed he “outed” me as a “racist” (Marks 2000; see Holloway 2000 for reply) in his biological section of the American Anthropologist Newsletter because I had the temerity to defend Arthur Jensen against Loring Brace’s assertion that Jensen was a bigot. I had read much of this literature (e.g., Jensen 1998) including Jensen’s infamous 1969 piece in the Harvard Law Review and did not find him a racist.

 [Holloway, Ralph L. 2008. The Human Brain Evolving: A Personal Retrospective.  Annual Review of Anthropology,. 37:1–19]

Let’s overlook Holloway’s inability to judge Arthur Jensen’s infamous claim that blacks are innately intellectually inferior to whites as racist.  Let’s also overlook that the periodical was called the Anthropology News, not the American Anthropologist Newsletter.  Finally, we'll overlook that it was in the General Anthropology Division column, not the Biological Anthropology Section column (which I had in fact edited a few years earlier).  Now let’s start looking.  First, I associated Holloway with Rushton, not with Jensen.  Rushton and Jensen are indeed associated any number of ways, and they co-wrote a particularly horrid review article in 2005, but Holloway is inventing the Jensen connection, or confusing me with Loring Brace (I’m the one without the ponytail).  Second, since I simply named  Holloway as a defender of Rushton, the only way that Holloway can say I outed him as a racist is if he equates Rushton’s work with racism.  That’s his inference.  (Of course, I’m willing to accept the possibility that the shoe might fit...)  And third, I clearly used the word “outed” in relation to the Pioneer Fund, not to Holloway as a racist.

[Rushton, J. P., and A. Jensen. 2005. Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 11 (2):235-294.]

There isn’t even that much there to misquote, but he sure managed to.  Unfuckingbelievable, Wilbur.
The really amazing thing is that I wrote that Anthropology News piece pre-tenure.  Looking back, I probably said a lot of things without tenure that a smarter person would have waited until having tenure to say.


No guns or smoke.  Holloway made six mistakes in his single sentence about me in the Annual Review of Anthropology in 2008.  Measuring brains must be real easy compared to that.  It’s possible that he has rethought Rushton over the last decade or so; I certainly hope so.  The Gould-Morton business was mildly interesting when it came out in Current Anthropology in 1988. ]


  1. Wait, so Holloway's "defense" of Rushton was two sentences in an internet chat and included the phrase, "I disagree with his theories"? Very small gun, hardly any smoke.

    Perhaps this is what you're really bothered about?

  2. "Old fart memoirs" (to use your term) frequently confuse the details, and it doesn't seem like any of the errors were much to your disadvantage.

    As opposed to, say, labelling someone as a "defender" of Rushton based on almost nothing - "I disagree with his theories" reads pretty clear to me.

    The 1988 Current Anthro paper was a piece of crap, which is why it got ignored. Different story this time.

  3. I enjoyed reading this a lot. It really is incredible how many little dung beetles are working to build a pile large enough to continue to support scientific racism.

  4. Actually, Jensen's work stands up pretty well. One thing that impresses me is that Jensen is interested in empirical data and not ideology. Some others could learn from him (hint hint).

  5. Thank you for this post. The pseudo-scientific racist hordes have been emboldened by recent events in Ferguson, and they seem to think the Rushton article is the 'objective' declaration of intelligence differences between races. It's good to know more about the character behind the writing.