Saturday, March 9, 2013

Genetics as political ideology

I just finished writing a brief essay  for the journal Sociology, for a retrospective on an important book, Dot Nelkin and Susan Lindee’s (1995) The DNA Mystique: The Gene as Cultural Icon.  It actually had a major intellectual impact on me, when I reviewed it for the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1995.

Susan  Lindee in 1999 with me and my Caipirinha 
Nelkin and Lindee’s book was a wonderful cultural analysis that showed how embedded scientific discourses about heredity are in cultural or folk discourses about heredity.  And those cultural discourses are invariably political.  After all, ancestry only came to be important in the first place because of the need to divide great-grandpa’s stuff among his heirs.  They show that these are political discourses about hierarchy, worth, and inequality, and scientific claims are easily framed to be hung in the gallery of pseudo-scientific justifications for hereditary aristocracies.

By implication, then, the only way to understand claims about human genetics is to understand that they are never value-neutral, and are invariably politically valent.  This means that scientists ought to be just as accountable to justify the deducible political implications of their work as they are to justify the data collection and statistics.  Nelkin and Lindee stop short of saying this, but I think it as the only way to make sense of the situation. 

It has seemed to me for a longtime that the most horrible question that geneticists can ask themselves is not ”Did I do the right statistical test?” but a far darker question, the question that goes “Gee, what is it about me that the Nazis like so much?”

In other words, at some point, since this science is so politicized, the scientist can’t afford to be naive about its bio-political nature.  You see science, and especially human biology, is particularly suitable to be used by people with, for the sake of argument, evil intentions – by which I mean increasing the amount of misery in the world, reinforcing social, political, and economic  inequalities, causing harm without benefit.  That science should not be done.  It violates the basic charter that we, the civilized people of the world, made with Francis Bacon in the earth 17th century.  “Your project sounds good, for it promises to improve our lives.”  But science that makes people’s lives worse?  "Let’s pass on that."

For all intents and purposes, that charter was reinforced with the development of bioethics in the late 20th century.  That is to say, we are all for the progress of science, but when science butts up against human rights, human rights wins, hands down.  We needed to codify that point, because for most of the 20th century, the scientific question of “What can I do?” was often difficult to differentiate from the moral and practical question “What can I get away with?”

I think what often gets lost, and perhaps even deliberately obscured, is the political stakes involved in naturalizing human cultural history.  People have been asking about the sources of large scale social inequality for around 10,000 years; that is to say, since the beginning of large-scale social inequality.  The Bible isn’t very helpful here.  Is says God favors some kings, and curses other kings, but doesn’t actually say why there are kings at all.  Most of the time, it just takes kings for granted, except for one passage in First Samuel, Chapter 8,  in which the Tribe asks the judge for a king, and the judge tries to talk them out of it, by explaining why kings suck.  But otherwise, hereditary monarchies are taken to be part of the natural way of things.

By the 19th century, as the long-standing hereditary aristocracies were being threatened by democracy and new wealth, there were two opposing theories  for the origin of those hereditary aristocracies.  Why aren’t you king?  Well, accident of birth; you’d be a good king, you just unluckily came from ancestors who had been historically victims of economic and political injustices.  Here you explain the observation of social inequality by the inference of historical injustice.  The solution is to work for social justice.  Science has no role; we haven’t even mentioned science.

Second theory: Civilization depends on the aristocratic classes.  They have founded every civilization everywhere, which eventually collapsed when their blood was diluted.  They are thus constitutionally better than the lower and upwardly-mobile classes, and to get rid of them would foretell the doom of civilization.  Here the same observation (social inequality) is not caused by injustice, but by the facts of natural difference.  All we need to do is to identify the nature of those gifts.  Here social justice is not desirable, for the very need for it is denied; and science may have a role, in convincing us that the secret to aristocratic success is in the shape of their head, or the number of answers they can get right on a standardized test, or their DNA sequence.

That’s the back story.  That’s why Nelkin and Lindee saw the gene as a bio-political element, a “cultural icon” back in 1995.   The point is that we now know about “genetic essentialism” – also Nelkin and Lindee’s phrase – as an outmoded ideology, and with a history of bad political baggage, to boot.  Can we not reject it on that basis, as one rejects creationism in science?

I think scientists ought to be expected to articulate and explain the politics in their research, and not be permitted to pretend that their work is value neutral, and that ethics, morals, values, and politics is somebody else’s problem.

Here are my guidelines for reviewers of papers in human behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology:

Does the paper adequately assess its possible political implications?

What stand does the paper take on those political implications?

After all, in any inter-disciplinary research, you can't pay attention to only one of the relevant intellectual domains.  All you’d have to do is broaden the “Conflicts of Interest” statement to include political conflicts of interests, which, if you’re submitting a paper that has political implications, might be a reasonable expectation.  I can imagine that had they answered the questions, there would be far less uncritical derivative citations of Derek Freeman’s attack on Margaret Mead, Richard Jantz’s attack on Franz Boas, and Ralph Holloway’s scurrilous attack on Stephen Jay Gould.  Sure, the lunatics would still cite them, but they’d be self-identified, and uncredible in the community of scholars.

This is political and has always been.  The people who are the most political tend to be the ones claiming self-consciously to be the most scientific, and tend to be the ones whose science stands up the worst.  That's another reason to study history.  It’s time to stop allowing people to pretend that this science isn’t political, and claiming the higher scientific ground for their thinly cloaked politicized science; they are entitled only to the lower scholarly ground and the lower moral ground.  That’s is not where science belongs.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Times, it is Outragin’

We’ve never settled the question of just what science in anthropology actually is.  I don’t think anybody is against it, but the problem is that the people who have always claimed most self-consciously to speak for it have an absolutely awful track record.

We can start with Ernst Haeckel, great German biologist.  Haeckel had such a hard-on for Darwin that he believed Darwinism would produce ‘‘an important and fruitful reform of anthropology. From this new theory of man, there will be developed a new philosophy, not like most of the airy systems of metaphysical speculation hitherto prevalent, but one founded upon the solid ground of comparative zoology.’’

Problem was that Haeckel’s Darwinism incorporated the idea that life progressed from amoebas to the Nordic military state, and he saw other human populations as different species, occupying places at varying distances from the apes.  In a nutshell, Haeckel’s “solid ground” eventually produced the worst anthropology our science has ever known.  Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz camp doctor, was an MD/PhD.  His doctorate was in scientific anthropology.

Yes, mistakes were made in the name of scientific anthropology.  People were objectified, robbed of their humanity, because anthropologists wanted to be scientists, like biologists.  The problem is that biologists have an advantage, in that they have established an intellectual distance between themselves and the things they study – subject/object, scientist/fruitfly.  But anthropologists don’t study things, they study people (or animals very much like people).

To regard people as if they were not people is objectification.  It is repugnant in modern cultural life, and it is a false proposition as science, because, in a nutshell, people really are people.  So, as a scientist working on people, you have three choices.  Either you can pretend that they’re not people (evil), or you can pretend that you are not a person (stupid), or you can acknowledge that the classic subject/object distinction that is fundamental to classical science simply breaks down here.  That is eventually what Martin Arrowsmith realized (medical researcher, not an anthropologist, but the point holds) in the famous 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  You can’t pretend you are not human, and you can’t pretend they are not human, but somehow you still have to do your scientific work as rigorously as possible, confronting the culture in your science as fairly as possible.  This science is reflexive.

By breaking down the subject/object distinction, this science assumes a position not only in the natural universe but in the moral universe as well.  Its founder, the Quaker Oxford professor E. B. Tylor, wrote at the end of Primitive Culture (1871) that this is “a reformer’s science.”  Its statements have political valence, and to say that they don’t is itself a statement of political valence.  

Mistakes were made.  Franz Boas made them, trying to be scientific about the New York Eskimos around 1900.   The eugenicists made them, the scientific racists made them.  We all make them.  The point about science is that it progresses on the basis of previous mistakes.  But you don’t get to make the same mistakes over and over in science; you only get to make new and creative mistakes. 

That’s the problem with the newest flareup about science in anthropology and the Yanomamo.  Mistakes were made.  We’ve learned from them and we’ve moved on.  So why haven’t Napoleon Chagnon and The New York Times?  Why are they frozen in ideas about anthropological science from the 1970s?  Why does Napoleon Chagnon compare himself to Indiana Jones, in the very first paragraph of Emily Eakin’s New York Times article?  Does he not realize that it’s not a compliment in this day and age?  Indiana Jones was a looter, and archaeologists vigorously protested the representation of their field in the first movie. 

Why does Nicholas Wade say, lauding Chagnon, that the Yanomamo live “in a state of nature”?  Twice?  Using steel axes and practicing horticulture is not a state of nature.  (Hugh Gusterson of George Mason University pointed this out in a letter.)  They are cultural, very cultural, as cultural as you and me. 

Remember, though, that Nicholas Wade is on record as an anthropology-denier.  In an interview with the Anthropology News in 2007, he told them , "Anyone who’s interested in cultural anthropology should escape as quickly as they can from their cultural anthropology department and go and learn some genetics, which will be the foundation of cultural anthropology in the future."

The first thing about being a scientist is to get your facts straight.  The imaginary “man” who lived in a “state of nature” was a common enough theme in the French Enlightenment, but it was recognized as a pre-modern myth by the turn of the twentieth century.  All cultures are cultural.  All groups of people regulate social interactions, communicate symbolically, cook, prettify themselves, and transform intrinsically useless natural objects into useful cultural ones.  (As Jane Goodall showed decades ago, even chimps do a little of that.) 

And people have been doing those things since before they were people.  All living people are in a state of nature/culture.  Nobody is in a state of nature.  In fact we don’t even know what such a state of pure nature would be like, because it contains an inherent contradiction – trying to imagine people who aren’t people.

There are all kinds of issues entangled in the Yanomamo business: research ethics; a bizarre book published in 2000, abstracted first in The New Yorker, called Darkness in El Dorado; sociobiology; the intersection of science and political ideology; and the welfare of indigenous peoples.  I am going to focus on two issues: first, the claim that empirically Napoleon Chagnon linked murder with reproductive success among the Yanomamo, and that the linkage is generalizable; and second, that the claim was rejected by the anthropological community for ideological reasons, involving the rejection of science itself.  The New York Times has articulated these claims uncritically several times in the last few weeks; but both are false, and the second one in particular is pernicious.

Can we generalize from Napoleon Chagnon’s demonstration that murder and babies are correlated?

Second part first.  What would it mean if Yanomamo murderers outbred non-murderers?  Well, if you believe that this is a bi-allelic system, then the Yanomamo murderer alleles would quickly swamp out the non-murderer alleles.  But of course only a fucking idiot would believe that.  If you believe that the genetic differences between murderers and non-murderers are random, then the Yanomamo might have a trivial bit of transient microevolutionary things going on.  But if the reproductive bias isn’t consistent over generations, it would have no significant microevolutionary effect at all. 

Yet obviously we are not talking about multi-generational data here, simply a snapshot of one point in time.  So even on its best day, these data could not testify to the microevolutionary activity of selection.  It could simply be a blip in Yanomamo demography.

And can we actually say with certainty that the relationship between killers and babies held for those people at that time?  In the journal American Ethologist in 1989, Brian Ferguson pointed out that Chagnon’s data are incomplete, because he did not present data on the reproduction of killers who had themselves been killed.   This is important to someone who thinks deeply about evolution, because killing is risky, and if the reproductive bias is offset by a mortality bias, then there would be no net evolutionary effect.   Chagnon was not able to present these data, but waved his hands when a journalist for Science magazine wrote it up over a decade ago

But, Chagnon told Science, he “didn't record at the time the status of unokai men who were killed,” which is necessary to respond to Ferguson .... “But from what I know,” he says, “it looks as though [Ferguson's] hypothesis doesn't hold up.”

No, Chagnon is the one with a hypothesis, and his data are statistically inadequate to either confirm or deny it.  Moreover, when Nicholas Wade writes, “Dr. Chagnon said he was familiar with those criticisms but called them invalid and said none had been published in a peer-reviewed journal”  he puts an unchallenged falsehood in Chagnon’s mouth in support of this poor scientific reasoning.

Further, from an analysis of the data Chagnon presented, Douglas Fry was able to find an apparent 10-year average difference between the killers and the non-killers.  Of course the older sample are going to have more children than the younger sample, duh.  If Chagnon didn’t control for age, then any reproductive contrast between killers and non-killers is meaningless.  As Miklikowska and Fry document in a recent article, all Chagnon could do was deny that it was true, but he never produced the data to show it.  In science, if you make a claim, you have to demonstrate its validity and do the proper controls.  Or else shut up.  Really.

That’s not an extravagant demand; it is an expectation.  Back when I was a post-doc in molecular genetics in the 1980s, and we were studying the best-known part of the human genome at the time, the hemoglobin genes, we claimed to have found a hitherto unknown hemoglobin gene.  It was a pretty bold claim.  And by golly, we had to produce all of our evidence and show that we had done all the proper controls, and that our conclusion was the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the data, before Nature would publish it.  If Napoleon Chagnon wants to be judged by the standards of good science, those are the standards his claim has to face; and it fails miserably.

Now the first part.  What on earth is the basis for thinking that any pattern found among the Yanomamo a generation ago, unless you are yourself a Yanomamo, can be reasonably understood as a surrogate for your own ancestors?  In order to generalize like that, you would have to cast the Yanomamo adrift from global geopolitics, pretend that that they are ahistorical, and use these modern South American horticulturalists as metaphorical stand-ins for Upper Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.  In short, that would be a pre-modern and incompetent form of anthropological reasoning.

Nicholas Wade, a tireless supporter of Chagnon’s in The New York Times, explains that “he seemed to be saying that aggression was rewarded and could be inherited.”  Saying that is permissible, but deriving it from this dataset is incompetent.   Elsewhere Chagnon’s work has been brandished not so much as Wade sees it, supporting genetic diversity (killers versus non-killers), but in support of genetic uniformity (the Yanomamo represent an “acting out” of the basic human nature that we all share).  But if human biology is a constant, then it is not explanatory.  You can’t use a constant to explain a variable in science.  Why would the Yanomamo be acting it out and not the Danes?  Could  it be for historical and political reasons?

There may certainly be generalizations to be made about the common form of social life of early people from the ethnographic observation of contemporary hunter-gatherers, but those generalizations are very broad and non-specific, because they have to incorporate the particular histories and local ecologies of the people being studied.  After all, people act not simply as humans, but as humans of a particular time and place and life experiences (we tend to call that culture).  Consequently, we are far more circumspect today about de-historicizing the !Kung San (everybody’s favorite hunter-gatherers, in southern Africa) than we were a few decades ago.  And that is why we understand the Yanomamo and what they do as products of history and politics, because there certainly is a lot of history and politics going on to affect their behavior.  Anyone who wants to argue that the behavior they observe in anybody has no historical origin or political context, but is a dislocated manifestation of an uncultural human nature, will not be taken seriously by a community of scholars of human behavior, unless they can really unambiguously prove their point.

To recap:
  • ·       Chagnon’s data do not warrant the conclusion that Yanomamo killers statistically out-bred non-killers.
  • ·       If a statistical relationship were there, as a synchronic datum it would not warrant the conclusion that it is of evolutionary relevance in Yanomamo society.
  • ·       If it were of evolutionary relevance in Yanomamo society, it would not warrant the conclusion that it is applicable to early Holocene societies of Asians, Africans, Europeans, Oceanics, North Americans, or other South Americans.
  • ·       Consequently, anyone who argues from Chagnon’s data to early Holocene human societies is not showing evidence of intellectual competence in this area.

Was Chagnon’s work rejected out of an anti-science ideological bias in anthropology?

Are you fucking kidding me?  Say that out loud and hear how stupid it sounds.

Nicholas Wade explains it to us.  “In 2010 the A.A.A. voted to strip the word ‘science’ from its long-range mission plan and focus instead on ‘public understanding.’  Its distaste for science and its attack on Dr. Chagnon are now an indelible part of its record.”  That is pretty much true, except for the omission of one word:  “not”.  The AAA voted not to strip the word “science” from its long range plan.  Yes, it was suggested (to emphasize the breadth of the scope of anthropology beyond the boundaries of science and encompassing the humanities as well); yes, it was put to a vote (because there was some feeling that it was a bad idea); and yes, it was voted down.   That’s quite a slander against anthropology from The New York Times

In fact, the suggestion that anthropology is under a delusional cloud is one that we are more accustomed to hearing from creationists and other anti-intellectuals.  For example, that’s not the first time those charges have appeared in print in The New York TimesIn a letter they published on October 24, 1962, two segregationists wrote that the “race-equality dogma” was part of a “socialistic ideology” promoted by a “cult” of anthropologists.   Except that the “cult” was actually the mainstream science of anthropology, and that claim was a highly political and anti-intellectual dissimulation.  It still is.

There has been an ideological war going on for a long time, between anthropological science and sociobiology-cum-evolutionary-psychology.  The problem is that anthropology has let the other side speak, largely unchallenged, on behalf of science.  So The New York Times tells us,

In his view, evolution and sociobiology, ...  it made perfect sense that the struggle among the Yanomamö, and probably among all human societies at such a stage in their history, was for reproductive advantage.

That’s an interesting ideological position, but it isn’t supported empirically, it ignores historical and political causes, and it no more represents evolutionary science than social darwinism or eugenics did.  We have been here before; douchebags are always recruiting Darwin to their stupid views about human society.  Frances Galton did; Ernst Haeckel did; Charles Davenport did; Georges Vacher de Lapouge did; Robert Ardrey did; the late Phil Rushton did; and Steven Pinker still does.

It’s not that the opposition is against Darwinism; it’s that Darwinism is compatible with many understandings of human social behavior, including normative anthropology.  Nicholas Wade scowls at Marshall Sahlins, who recently resigned from the National Academy of Sciences partly over Chagnon’s election, by explaining that Sahlins opposes sociobiology, which Wade defines as “the idea that human social behavior is shaped by evolution and culture.” 

Actually (as pointed out to me by Seth Dobson from Dartmouth), that’s not sociobiology, that’s anthropology!  How could you possibly beat up Sahlins as a denier of evolution and culture when he actually once co-edited a book called Evolution and Culture?

Here’s something Wade actually gets right:  The two men have been at odds for decades over the validity of sociobiology”.  But nobody –  not even sociobiologists – still believe what they were saying back in the late 1970s, when they initially chose to position themselves against anthropology.  Richard Dawkins casually explained at the end of The Selfish Gene that human behavior was not bound by the dictates of genetic maximization principles because the spread of imaginary cultural “memes” could  oppose and overwhelm the imaginary genetic propensities he had been writing about.   Various second-wave sociobiologists have picked up on that, but the theory that humans maximize their memetic fitness is essentially a cultural alternative to the idea that humans maximize their genetic fitness.  Which means that you can’t assume humans are maximizing their genetic fitness, which means that the central tenet of sociobiology – that an “evolutionary” explanation of human behavior begins with the assumption that human behavior is intended to maximize genetic fitness – is wrong.  E. O. Wilson now believes in group selection.  And as Sahlins pointed out years ago, in order for kin selection to explain human behavior, human societies would have to define kin in approximately the same way that nature does – and they don’t. 

[Of that book, The Use and Abuse of Biology, Chagnon says, “he had published his Use and Abuse of Biology in 1976, which should have made clear to the members of the NAS how antiscientific Sahlins was."  A clearer-headed thinker might imagine that distinguishing use from abuse is crucial to science, and that the reluctance or inability to distinguish between them might reasonably constitute the opposite of a good science education.]

It’s not that anthropology is against evolution, it’s that anthropology is against the perversion of evolution in support of idiosyncratic social theories, which recurs every generation.  Here is Franz Boas, over a century ago, reflecting on the influence of Darwinism on first-generation anthropology of the 19th century:

All sciences were equally guilty of premature theories of evolution based on observed homologies and supposed similarities. The theories had to be revised again and again, as the slow progress of empirical knowledge of the data of evolution proved their fallacy.

And this was before the eugenicists, much less the sociobiologists.  And before you call Boas anti-science, let me remind you that he was a President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science  in 1931-1932.  There he is now, accepting the  presidency of the AAAS from his predecessor, the geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, who worked in the same building at Columbia as Boas for many years.  Morgan never called Boas anti-science; the eugenicists did. 
The other anthropologist who presided over the AAAS in the 20th century is also the other one that sociobiologists try to discredit: Margaret Mead.  [That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?  The two anthropologists whom sociobiologists are most keen to discredit as being anti-science, were both Presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.]  After her death she was hounded by a sociobiologist nutter named Derek Freeman.  Freeman believed that Margaret Mead’s 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, was false, for she had been hoaxed, which in turn undermined all of the rest of her life’s work and indeed all 20th century anthropology, and thus proved sociobiology to be right.  The sociobiologists regularly cite that, including the entire stream of illogical consequences, quite uncritically.  In fact, even Emily Eakin repeated it in The New York Times in her story on Chagnon.

In 1983, the New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman delivered a major blow when he published “Margaret Mead and Samoa,” charging that Mead had been duped by informants in her pioneering ethnography, “Coming of Age in Samoa.”

Only problem is that Freeman’s charges have been scrutinized very, very carefully and comprehensively shown to be false.  Even Freeman’s “smoking gun” – the eyewitness testimony of Fa’apua’a saying she lied to Margaret Mead, has now been shown to be complete rubbish.  Alice Dreger, a supporter of Chagnon, acknowledges the sociobiological slander against Mead in her blog.

Actually The New York Times has repeated Derek Freeman’s charges over a half-dozen times since 1983, most recently (before Eakin’s article on Chagnon) in Freeman’s 2001 obituary.  The only time they’ve told readers that his charges were, as far as anybody could tell, total bullshit – was in a letter published in response to the Freeman obit, by the  AAA President, Louise Lamphere.  She summarized tersely and politely:  “Most serious scholarship casts grave doubt on his data and theory.”

And yet, zombie Freeman is allowed to rise again in this article, in defense of Napoleon Chagnon, without any qualification whatsoever?  That might be a clue that this is a rhetorical and ideological battle, not an empirical scientific one.  Emily Eakin serves as a mouthpiece for Napoleon Chagnon without even acknowledging the problems with his work.  Nicholas Wade weighs in twice in the space of two weeks on Chagnon’s behalf, and discredits the science of anthropology.  As I noted in my last entry, his relevant book was judged to be social Darwinism by reviewers in Nature; I think he’s got a horse in this race.

To recap:

·     Science, evolution, and anthropology are all on the same side.  The other side is where the anti-intellectuals and ideologues are, and have always been, the ones who either don’t understand evolution themselves, or are knowingly misrepresenting its implications to the public.  As I said, that is a recurrent theme in the history of this intellectual engagement.

·     In fact, I’ll revise that thought: Science, evolution, anthropology, and history are all on the same side.

For The New York Times to promote Chagnon’s anti-intellectual nonsense unchallenged, as if it represented evolution, much less science, is a terrible, terrible mistake.  And for them to allow Nicholas Wade to conduct his intellectual war against the science of anthropology in their pages is outrageous.