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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Meet Joe Science

The flap in the last couple of weeks over Jared Diamond’s publicity for his book, The World Until Yesterday, and Napoleon Chagnon’s publicity for his book, Noble Savages needs a little context, which happens to be a specialty of anthropology.

Anthropology is coming off of a year that was described in the leading science journal in these here United States as an annus horribilis.   And you know damn well, that when Americans resort to Latin to describe something, it’s got to be pretty bad.  Of course in the background we have the perpetual war against the creationists and the racists, both of whom see anthropology as their enemy. 

So we elect a President whose mother was an anthropologist, and you think that might bode well for the public appreciation of our field.  But we get Florida governor Rick Scott, upset by his daughter’s choice of a major, declaring it to be not the kind of major we want in Florida.  And shortly thereafter, the big business publications – Kiplinger and Forbes – publicly branded it as the worst major.  It seems almost as if the Republicans had declared war on anthropology, along with the creationists and the racists.

Then we have the one-two punch from the guys claiming to be Joe Science.  Jared Diamond pretends to be an anthropologist, but does things that no competent anthropologist would do, and interprets other peoples as no competent anthropologist does.  That is to say, he soft-pedals the historical context of other cultures, and imagines them to be stand-ins for his own ancestors.  He tells Stephen Colbert that we don’t call New Guineans “primitive” because it’s politically incorrect, apparently unaware that we don’t call them “primitive” because the term connotes a false, ancestral relationship between “them” and “us”.

Napoleon Chagnon is a sadder story, because he is not a pseudo-anthropologist, but an incompetent anthropologist.  Let me be clear about my use of the word “incompetent”.  His methods for collecting, analyzing and interpreting his data are outside the range of acceptable anthropological practices.  Yes, he saw the Yanomamo doing nasty things.  But when he concluded from his observations that the Yanomamo are innately and primordially “fierce”  he lost his anthropological credibility, because he had not demonstrated any such thing.   He has a right to his views, as creationists and racists have a right to theirs, but the evidence does not support the conclusion, which makes it scientifically incompetent.

And so, after the New York Times runs a puff piece on Chagnon in the Magazine, and a critical review of his book simultaneously in the Book Review section, it seems as though the best we can hope for is a draw.  But wait!  Into the fray comes their distinguished science reporter Nicholas Wade, with a second puff piece on Chagnon.

WTF?  His work isn’t that important to anthropology, except as a methodological counter-example.  Why is it so important to the Times?

Again, some context,  Nicholas Wade once co-wrote a good book on scientific fraud.  Judging from his work since then, I am inclined to attribute its meritorious aspects to his co-author.   More recently, Wade has been pushing genetic determinism as hard as he can from his pulpit at the Times.  And you know who his antagonists are going to be. 

Wade’s 2007 book,  Before the Dawn, was marketed as a celebration of anthropological genetics.  Except that anthropological genetics means something different to anthropological geneticists than it does to Wade.   To anthropological geneticists, it means the mutual illumination of genetics and anthropology, often using the technology of the former to study questions framed by the latter.  To Nicholas Wade, however, it means that the Chinese excel at ping-pong because of their genes for it (p. 197).

The book was reviewed in the leading science journals by leading anthropological geneticists.  The reviewers in Nature found it to be a work of social darwinism (that phrase is not bandied about as a compliment these days).  Rebecca Cann in Science had this to say:

As a graduate student … I often wished that there were science writers energized to follow the new insights from geneticists as closely and rapidly as others reported interpretations of fragmentary fossils. Well, be careful what you wish for.

And she continued,

The book also reveals some unpleasant truths about science writing that currently passes for objective and informed. Only smugness that one’s sources must be correct because they represent a scientific elite group having new and exclusive truths about human evolution makes it possible to write, in 2006, sentences such as “The Australian and New Guinean branch [of our phylogenetic tree] soon settled into a time warp of perpetual stagnation."

In other words, the 19th century idea that in looking at other people we are seeing our ancestors, against the modern anthropological view that we are seeing people with other histories, is what unites Chagnon’s, Diamond’s, and Wade’s books.  It is a false and outmoded ideology, one that knowledgeable scholars – or, for the sake of argument, “scientists” -  have rejected.

Nicholas Wade, however,  is undeterred.  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."  In other words, he wants to return to the pre-modern era of anthropology, before E. B. Tylor separated “culture” from “race” or “nature” – because what we think is cultural is really better studied by geneticists.  That was actually a “pro-science” stance a century ago, but it is by no stretch of the imagination “pro-science” today.  It is decidedly anti-science.  It fact it sounds almost as if he is beginning to believe his own bullshit.

So, let’s see what he has to say about Napoleon Chagnon this week, throwing the weight of his reputation in the New York Times around, to balance their recent Chagnon pieces as 2-1 against anthropology. 

He starts off, “What were our early ancestors really like…?” – a good question, but one to which Napoleon Chagnon’s work is irrelevant.   Bad start, though, because it means that even now, neither Chagnon nor Wade apparently understands what the Yanomamo actually tell us about anything.

“One of Dr. Chagnon’s discoveries was that warriors who had killed a man in battle sired three times more children than men who had not killed.”  Not exactly a discovery, though; more of an assertion, which was published in Science, and shown convincingly to be based on a misinterpretation of the data. Chagnon’s interpretation is that his data have no historical context, and are simply the Yanomamo doing what is natural – not only for them, but for us as well.  Brian Ferguson’s interpretation is universally taken to be more insightful then Chagnon’s, because it incorporates politics and history.  But neither of the pieces puffing up Chagnon, and publicizing his hatred of his colleagues, even acknowledges the existence of alternative interpretations of Chagnon’s work.  The problem, simply put, is that Chagnon's statistics were rubbish, because he neglected to include the children of killers who had themselves been killed.

Chagnon's figures on reproductive success did not include dead unokai. The obvious question, in Ferguson's view, was whether the greater reproductive success of unokai was offset by higher mortality. Responding in American Ethnologist, Chagnon calculated the same figures without the headmen and came up with a correlation similar to, although smaller than, his previous figure. 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's second objection. “But from what I know,” he says, “it looks as though [Ferguson's] hypothesis doesn't hold up.”

Here is a translation into scientific terms.  Chagnon's apparent statistical conclusion linking killers and babies is bogus because of a flaw in the data, which means that it is invalid to derive the conclusion that Chagnon derived.  The best he can do is claim impressionistically that he hopes Ferguson is wrong.  But that defeats the purpose of pretending to be a scientist and doing statistics in the first place.

So now, the best Wade can come up with is to repeat Chagnon’s claim that he represents science against “the ideology of his fellow anthropologists.  The general bias in anthropological theory draws heavily from Marxism, Dr. Chagnon writes.”  Kind of makes it sound as if he’s got a list of names that he wants to give to Senator McCarthy.  Damn commies.  (See my previous post for the commies.)  The point is that if the ostensible statistical relationships are mirages, then the only people they are going to be able to convince are other cult members.  But science is supposed to be able to convince skeptics, not other cult members.

And finally, explains Wade, the entire field of anthropology is like, totally anti-science, even the American Anthropological Association.  “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.”

Sure sounds like the American Anthropological Association is indelibly anti-science.   Actually, though, that  "distaste for science" is very delible.   How delible is it?  Well actually, that change (to remove the word “science” as a way to emphasize that anthropology incorporates both scientific and humanistic study, and thus is not limited by the scope of science) was suggested by a committee, and was rejected by the membership of the AAA.  Wade is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Instrumentally, perniciously, and anti-intellectually.

So on one side you’ve got the creationists, racists, genetic determinists, the Republican governor of Florida, Jared Diamond, and Napoleon Chagnon – and on the other side, you’ve got normative anthropology, and the mother of the President.  Which side are you on?


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Diamonds and clubs

               Things have been building up, haven’t they? 

               There’s Jared Diamond, dressed like Santa Claus, pushing his new book, telling Stephen Colbert that the people in Papua New Guinea wouldn’t know what to do with an electric can opener, because they don’t have cans.  What a card.  Never mind that he’s being sued by a guy from there who made the mistake of once speaking to him, so that Diamond could casually accuse him of murder in the pages of The New Yorker.  Or that his last book, Collapse, was critically examined by archaeologists who actually work on the collapse of civilization, and found that his grand scheme for understanding it was useless, and had a conference and published a book about it. (Diamond responded by shitting on their book in the pages of Nature, and neglecting to acknowledge the conflict of interests.) 

               Diamond’s problem is not that he is a dummy, which he manifestly is not.  It’s that he has realized that the things he is an expert in are boring, and so he writes about interesting things that he is not an expert in.  That can sometimes work.  It certainly has worked for his bank account.  But he can’t figure out why he hasn’t been acclaimed King of Anthropology by the people doing the work that interests him, and everybody else in the field of anthropology.

               The reason is a simple one.  With depth of knowledge comes the ability to read critically.  My first run-in with him was about 20 years ago, when he was hawking some research that I happened to know far too much about, in particular that it wasn’t so much wrong as fraudulent.  We exchanged letters in Nature as the data falsification came to be exposed, but he nevertheless made the fraudulent work the centerpiece of his science bestseller, The Third Chimpanzee.

               That convinced me that Diamond is an anti-intellectual, that he thinks he knows more than the experts.  Where have we heard that before?  Well, from the creationists.  From the climate-change deniers.  In fact, back in the early 1960s, segregationists were saying in the pages of Science that blacks had not produced any good culture or civilization, in spite of what cultural anthropologists were saying, and various psychologists and biologists added their sober opinions on both sides of the issue.  It took the New School anthropologist Stanley Diamond (presumably no relation) to make what should have been an obvious point.  Why should anybody give a shit what psychologists or geneticists think about culture or civilization?  They are dilettantes in that area.

The expert most qualified to speak in this matter is the competent cultural anthropologist, precisely because [they deal] with the origin and growth of cultural behavior and with the cultural interaction of human groups. Once this plain fact is accepted in the scientific community at large – and it is high time that it was – geneticists and other biological specialists will no longer have to waste their time on this unrewarding problem ...
But anthropology holds a special place among anti-intellectuals, because it  has been from its very inception, “a reformer’s science”.   That is the concluding thought of effectively the first book on the subject, E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture.  Nevertheless, a century or so later, the segregationists had developed a unique anti-intellectual slander against anthropology, which they inherited in some measure from the eugenicists decades earlier. 

               I suspect the eugenicists picked it up from an ever earlier source, the neuroanatomist Grafton Elliot Smith, whose politics weren’t all that bad, but who had an axe to grind against cultural anthropology.  You see, Smith believed that “civilization” began in one place, Egypt, and was borrowed or stolen or otherwise adopted elsewhere by imitators and derivatives.  Because he was a respected biologist, his ideas got aired, and because they were false and stupid, they were rejected.  That didn’t stop him, though, because he knew that, as a real scientist, he was smarter than the so-called experts, who had a different view, “put forth ex cathedra by the majority of modern anthropologists”.

               Somehow, there is just something wrong with them dang anthropology perfessers. 

               The eugenicists picked up this thread, and wove it into the beginnings of a conspiracy theory – Franz Boas had come out against their applied genetics program, and it must have been because of his closed-mindedness, those Hebrews being a stiff-necked race, by their own admission.

               But it was the segregationists who took that thread and spun it into a suit – a white one, with a matching hood.  The psychologist Henry Garrett, geneticist Ruggles Gates, and their mouthpiece, writer/businessman Carleton Putnam revealed that anthropology had come under the influence of a cabal of Jews and communists, all dovetailing in the person of Franz Boas.  It was the commie-Jew-anthropologists who had made the discourse of human diversity political, when it should be dispassionate and apolitical.  The scientific segregationists were well financed, from the same funding source as Arthur Jensen, Philippe Rushton, and Thomas Bouchard – the Pioneer Fund.   And if you could be objective and scientific about human diversity, you would see the world as they do, ... and reject the civil rights movement.

               The idea that anthropology is hidebound in a leftist anti-science conspiracy resurfaced in 2000 in a book called “Taboo” by a writer named Jon Entine.  I crossed swords with him after he asked for my comments on his book manuscript and didn’t like the comments I gave him.

               And that brings us to this Sunday’s New York Times. 

               A journalist named Emily Eakin writes a puff piece on Napoleon Chagnon, whose memoir is being published soon.  Chagnon is renowned in anthropology as the counter-example of good fieldwork.  This is the anthropologist who worked with the Yanomamo, got them angry at one another (by broadly violating their taboos about names of dead relatives in order to collect his genealogical information), armed them (with machetes), and then reified the ensuing violence in his monograph “The Fierce People” – removing history, politics, and his own field methods from his analysis of their violence.  It was a great undergraduate read, but it isn’t taken very seriously as scholarship.  Why?  Because he removed history, politics, and his own field methods from his analysis of their violence.  

               Like some other fuzzy thinkers in the late 1970s, Chagnon believed the voice of Darwin had spoken to him, and adopted the tenet that only by studying ants could we become better ant-hropologists , and followed E. O. Wilson in trying to reinvent anthropology based on the idea that to do human science properly, you must begin by pretending we aren’t human.

               Well, that was a long time ago, and since then, the worst elements of sociobiology have metastasized into evolutionary psychology.  Evolutionary psychology is a brilliant coinage, because you don’t need to know much about either psychology or evolution to practice it, which makes evolutionary psychology particularly attractive to morons.   But in order to do evolutionary psychology, which has no discernible scholarly standards, you have to begin first by dismissing the field that studies the actual evolution and diversity of humans and their lifeways, namely anthropology.  And you do that by the exceedingly judicious citation of things that you agree with, and consequently wish were true.

               First, Napoleon Chagnon showed that the Yanomamo are inherently violent, and they stand as synecdoche for all human societies, especially ancient ones.  But what about the scholarly literature that showed how terribly flawed Chagnon’s analysis was?  Ignore it, or blame it on the commies and Jews who control anthropology.

               Second, Margaret Mead was bamboozled, and everything she ever said and did is wrong, as that fine objective  scholar Derek Freeman showed.  Not true either.  The remaining tatters of that argument are disproved by Paul Shankman in the latest issue of Current Anthropology.

               And third, anthropologists think there are no human races, because they are fluffy liberals, led by the geneticist Richard Lewontin (and don’t ask about his politics or ancestry)!  Actually, Lewontin’s famous 1972 paper on “the apportionment of human diversity” came after well over two decades of biological anthropologists (i.e., from the sciencey end of anthropology) coming to empirically reject the idea that race is a basic biological structure of the human species, while nevertheless studying the actual patterns of human biological diversity.  As far as I can tell, the idea that anthropologists believe everyone is the same goes back to a throwaway line in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”:

     I was a student in the Department of Anthropology.  At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody.  They may be teaching that still.
     Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting.

Probably not a good idea to take that passage at face value.  Vonnegut did do graduate work at the University of Chicago in anthropology, but most of the book takes place on the planet Tralfamadore.  It’s not really an autobiography.

               And as you can tell if you’ve read this far, anthropologists do think some people are ridiculous, bad and disgusting.  Top of the list: people who degrade science by using it rhetorically to naturalize social inequality.

               Some respectable scholars, like Johan Bolhuis and Kate Clancy, have recently tried to talk some sense into evolutionary psychologists, by suggesting ways to make the field more rigorous.  But I don’t think the evolutionary psychologists are listening.   The New York Times sought a soundbite from that great anthropologist Steven Pinker, who obliged: “Pinker said that he was troubled by the notion that social scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects because it could be exploited by others.”

               So here is my point to the evolutionary psychologists and race reifiers.   This is bio-politics.  What is “sociobiology” for ants is “sociopoliticobiology” for people.  And you had better smarten up, because if you are repeating anthropological arguments made first by Nazis and segregationists, then you are indeed political, and you are politically bad - in addition to being anti-science.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Rootin', Tootin' Blog Post

The newest issue of the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology contains some provocative material (including my own article, “Why Be Against Darwin? Creationism, Racism and the Roots of Anthropology”), but one other article in particular is provoking this rant – “Two Faces of Earnest A. Hooton” by Eugene Giles.1

Giles’s ambition here is to clear the air about Hooton, who was a leading public intellectual at Harvard during his term there (1913-1954), and trained the first generation of “modern” (i.e., post-WWII) biological anthropologists.  Hooton was also the leading scientific authority on race in the US, and a long-term advocate of the science of eugenics (along with nearly all the other natural scientists in the US), and Giles sets himself the task of defending Hooton from the charges of being a racist and a eugenicist.

Was Hooton a racist?  Well, obviously that’s a term that doesn’t translate well across the generations.   Giles correctly notes that Hooton was the mentor of an African American M.A. student, Caroline Bond Day, and had a good relationship with both Howard University and the NAACP.  But first things first.  Who says Hooton was a racist (whatever that term might mean, applied retrospectively to someone who indeed worked with Franz Boas against Nazi anthropology)?  Giles blames the American Anthropological Association’s “Race: Are We So Different?” website.

Opening of "Race: Are We So Different?"
at the Discovery Place in Charlotte, last year. 

Disclaimer: I had nothing whatsoever to do with that website, or the traveling museum exhibit (although I have no idea why Peggy Overbey didn’t invite me into it). I do like it, though. I was quoted in it, and attended its opening in Charlotte, and did a public radio show to promote it.

Giles does catch some inaccuracies, to be sure, but they are fleas on a big dog.  In the first place, there is no definitive work on Hooton, and those of us with historical interests have been waiting for many years for Giles himself to provide it.  Perhaps if he had done so, the AAA exhibit would have been able to get their facts straighter.

Washburn blowing out the candles
on his birthday cake for the last time.
But more significantly, the AAA Race website certainly was not the ultimate source of the accusation that Hooton was a racist.  His former student (and AAA President in 1962-3), Sherwood Washburn, had been saying that for half a century.  By the time I met Washburn, just a few years before his death, if I mentioned Hooton, Sherry would say, “He was a racist, you know”.  

There are two things that come through clearly about Hooton.  First, he did not take himself all that seriously.  And second, his views evolved.   Consequently, although it may be tempting to try and find a “real” Hooton behind all the verbiage and sometimes the outward silliness, that is probably an essentialist fallacy.  My reading of his work is that although his ideas about the meaning of race evolved – I allow students to compare his 1926 and 1936 papers on race in Science, in the latter of which he is desperately trying to differentiate his good American racial anthropology from bad German racial anthropology2,3 – he consistently maintained an anachronistic view that there was a direct and deterministic relationship between how you looked and how you thought.  This is what united Hooton’s interests in race, criminal anthropology, eugenics, and constitutional anthropology; and what his later students rejected after World War II.

I think that, like a lot of Americans, Hooton took a swing to the right after World War II.  In the case of the “constitutional anthropology” of William H. Sheldon, which asserted a direct connection between body build and personality, Hooton should have been smart enough to see through it, like his later students, but couldn’t; and he was actually hurt when it got back to him that he was being called a fascist.  Washburn, with whom he was still on good terms,  wrote him quite poignantly, “To put the matter bluntly, none of your pupils think that you are at all a fascist.  But, anyone reading Sheldon’s last book, taking the last 100 pages for what they say, and then hearing that you believe in Sheldon’s system, might call you a fascist with some justification.  What we need is the separation of the sane study of body-build from Sheldon’s system.”4

But Hooton was also genteel and non-confrontational, preferring to criticize someone behind their back rather than to their face.  Madison Grant’s 1916 The Passing of the Great Race was a bestselling classic of scientific racism, called “my bible” by Hitler, and invoked at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence that the Germans accused of war crimes had been inspired by American ideas; but Hooton, like many scientists, served under Grant in the American Eugenics Society.  In 1918, Hooton writes a little throwaway line in the context of a review of a different book in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “Only the Prussians and Madison Grant now believe that the Nordics are a race of supermen and archangels.”5  Cute, huh?  But he never uses his stature as a Harvard expert on race to challenge Madison Grant.  And when Grant sends him a copy of his 1933 book, The Conquest of A Continent (i.e., more of same), Hooton writes him back politely after reading only the first chapter, “I don’t expect that I shall agree with you at every point, but you are probably aware that I have a basic sympathy for you in your opposition to the flooding of this country with alien scum.”6

Of course, he is referring to my grandparents there.  So fuck him.

After Grant’s death, Hooton had some race-nerd fun at his expense:
Madison Grant had a vivid personality and a long head, but, as I remember him, rather a swarthy complexion.  I was curious about his conception of Nordicism; so I tackled him on the subject of my own racial type.  I said, “Mr. Grant, I have a round head with a cephalic index of 85, brown hair, mixed eyes, a moon face and a blobby nose – all these attractive features going with a muddy complexion.  How would you classify me as to race?  I should call myself a mixed Alpine.”  He asked, “Are you not of purely British ancestry?”  I replied, “Yes, my father is an Englishman and my mother is a Scotch Canadian.”  He said, “Then, damn it, you’re a Nordic.”  That is the only occasion when I have been so classified.7
(I published that last bit in my Current Anthropology paper earlier this year.)8

Anyway, when it came to eugenics, Hooton’s views were not very nuanced, but he believed that all races had comparable proportions of the unfit, and they should all be extirpated.  It took him till 1936 to resign from the Advisory Board of the American Eugenics Society, and even then, he kept up his membership.  The American Eugenics Society lost most of its members by 1933, with the Great Depression and the accession of the Nazis.  Even its Secretary-Treasurer, Leon Whitney, had to quit in 1932 because they couldn’t afford to pay him (Whitney went on to become an authority on animal breeding) – but it limped along, with stalwarts like Hooton. 

21 Feb 1937
21 March 1937
So, yes, Hooton was a eugenicist, and to his discredit, he continued to be one long after it fell out of fashion in the scientific community.  In 1937, Hooton gave a talk at the Harvard Club in Kansas City, which made the front page of The New York Times.  He called for a biological purge upon the unfit. Oh, sure, he was just being a wry wag, wishing he were James Thurber, but this was 1937 already, and the Nuremberg Laws were already on the books.  You think Hooton read the newspapers?  A month later, the Times got a hold of that elderly cultural anthropologist from Columbia, Franz Boas – with whom Hooton had a respectful relationship – to slap him down.

(And yet, the Times also covered Hooton’s 1944 NAACP address, with the headline, “Dr. Hooton Assails Racial Prejudice.”  As I say, he was complicated.)

I think it was my old professor, Hermann Bleibtreu, who first showed me Hooton’s illustration of the Jewish face.9  No, that definitely hasn’t aged well.  In fact it is so bizarre that it's hard to believe he intended for it to be taken completely seriously.  As Hooton wrote a few pages later, "Without going into excessive detail, these are then my impressions of the cause of the physical distinctiveness of many Jewish individuals.  I may be wrong.  This subject has not been completely or scientifically explored, and I am recording impressions rather than the results of detailed surveys."  (Washburn was also quick to identify Hooton as an anti-Semite, but Hooton’s first student was Harry Shapiro, later a long-time curator at the AMNH.  I once heard a story that Hooton brought Shapiro to the notoriously anti-Semitic Galton Society in New York, to educate them as to what a “good Jew” was.)

Hooton’s  doggerel in “Subverse” is far more horridly sexist than racist.  But he clearly aspired to be the Dorothy Parker of old-school physical anthropology:

The Bushman’s stature is not great,
His jaw is quite prognathous;
Within his yellow, wool-starred pate
His skull is not capacious.
His seamed membranous lips are thick;
His molars are protrusive;
He sprays his words with dental click,
His speech is most effusive.
He squints with epicanthous eye
Across a nose prodigious;
He likes his ostrich-eggs quite high,
His women steatopygeous.

That’s better than I could do, and it’s a guilty pleasure of mine, even if there are some errors of physical anthropology in there.  But as long as we’re on the subject, Hooton was definitely not in Ogden Nash’s league – here is Ogden Nash on anthropology:

Why does the Pygmy
Indulge in polygmy?
His tribal dogma
Frowns on monogma.
Monogma's a stigma
For any Pygma.
If he sticks to monogmy
A Pygmy's a hogmy.

Anyway, back to Hooton.  His ideas about race, and about human biology generally, certainly weren’t the worst ones around at the time, but that’s faint praise.  I think my biggest problem with Hooton, since it’s hard to know exactly what he did believe at any point in time, is that he did not use his position as an authority to confront and repudiate the worst elements of racial science in America. He went after the Germans, which was safe, and although he tried to differentiate his racial science from theirs, he ultimately was not very successful, because his physical anthropology was in fact only subtly different from theirs. 

Sherry Washburn once told me a story about the time he first met Theodosius Dobzhansky, both of whom were on the faculty at Columbia.  Washburn visited  Doby, who eyed him warily, and asked, “So you were a student of Hooton’s?  So what exactly does he mean by “racial type”?  I just don’t understand it .”  And Sherry replied, “I have no idea, and I think neither does he.”  At which point Doby shook his hand, and they became fast friends.

(Probably bullshit, of  course, but Sherry did tell it to me.)

I think Giles’s main mistake was in trying to defend Hooton rather than trying to complexify him.  And there is a certain irony in Giles going after the AAA’s race website, rather than real source of the harsh judgment of Hooton, which was from Sherry Washburn.  Washburn got on quite badly with Hooton’s first two students, Harry Shapiro and Carleton Coon, both of whom were fiercely loyal to Hooton.  Shapiro was cold to Washburn when he taught at Columbia Medical School, and was studying the growth of rat skulls.  Coon was giving clandestine assistance to the segregationists, and was a target of Washburn’s 1962 AAA Presidential address,10 which consigned racial anthropology to the dustbin of history, as Washburn had been arguing for a decade.  (In fact, Washburn also recalled Dobzhansky, at the time a member of the American Anthropological Association, rushing up to be the first to shake his hand after the address.)

That was the point of Washburn’s famous, paradigmatic paper on “The New Physical Anthropology” (1951).11  I’m sure you can guess who embodied the old.

  1. Giles, E. (2012) Two faces of Earnest A. Hooton.  Yearbook of Physical Anthropology (Supplement of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology), 149, Supplement 55:105-113.
  2. Hooton, E. A. (1926) Methods of racial analysis.  Science, 63:75-81.
  3. Hooton, E. A. (1936) Plain statements about race.  Science, 83:511-513.
  4. Washburn to Hooton, 20 August 1951, Earnest A. Hooton papers, Harvard University.
  5. Hooton, E. A. (1918) American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1: 365.
  6. Hooton to Madison Grant, 3 November 1933, Earnest A. Hooton Papers, Harvard University.
  7. Hooton, E. A. (1940) Why Men Behave like Apes and Vice Versa.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  8. Marks, J. (2012) The origins of anthropological genetics.  Current Anthropology, 53:S161-S172.
  9. Hooton, E. A. (1939) Twilight of Man.  New York: Putnam.  (plate opposite p. 236).
  10. Washburn, S. L. (1963) The study of race.  American Anthropologist, 65:521-531.
  11. Washburn, S. L. (1951) The new physical anthropology.  Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II, 13:298-304.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bad Anthro Theatre

I haven’t really reviewed a movie since my days in graduate school at the Arizona Daily Wildcat, but I watched a really bizarre and horrid one the other night that kind of begs to be belittled.
               It’s called “Alleged” – and it’s unclear just what the title actually refers to, because it’s about the famous “Monkey Trial” in which John T. Scopes was charged with, and convicted of, the crime of teaching evolution in Dayton,Tennessee in 1925.  Nobody ever said he was innocent during the trial; his defense was basically about the badness of the law.
               This weird movie purports to be the “real” story of the Scopes Trial, unlike the classic play and movie “Inherit the Wind,” which contains numerous errors.  Well let’s start right there.  “Inherit the Wind” contains no errors at all, because it is a work of fiction, a “roman-a-clef”.  There is no John Scopes, there is Bertram Cates; there is no Clarence Darrow, only Henry Drummond, no William Jennings Brian, only Matthew Harrison Brady; and no H. L. Mencken, only E. K. Hornbeck.  Further, it is about the McCarthy era, not the Roaring Twenties.  Sure it takes place in the Roaring Twenties, but the play was about the political suppression of ideas, which was the issue in the 1950s, when it opened.
               “Alleged,” however, self-consciously asserts its verisimilitude, even going so far as to use the real names of the famous principals, as it butchers the very reality it claims to imitate.  The movie takes place in a preternaturally clean rural Southern town, free of class prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan, much less the fire-and-brimstone caterwauling  of the age. 
               The movie then integrates a eugenics sub-plot to tie evolution to eugenics.  Now this is something I am a bit sympathetic to, since I’ve written about it over the last few years.  There’s only two problems with this plot contrivance.  First, eugenics didn’t actually come up at the trial.  And second, the people the movie demonizes – Darrow and Mencken – are the ones who actually wrote eloquently against eugenics (shortly after the trial ended).  In Mencken’s literary magazine, The American Mercury, Darrow called the eugenicists “irresponsible fanatics”.  In the Baltimore Sun, Mencken  called eugenics “mainly blather”. 
               William Jennings Bryan was very much the pacifist and isolationist, and was ahead of his day in his views on equality and his views again social Darwinism.  But he didn’t write specifically against eugenics.  Darrow and Mencken did. 

               In fact, Darrow published his critique of eugenics in H. L. Mencken’s literary magazine, The American Mercury.   When the very first biologist to make a public critique of eugenics comes forward, it is H. L. Mencken’s friend, the Johns Hopkins geneticist Raymond Pearl.  And he publishes as well in The American Mercury, and it is so newsworthy that it gets picked up by the wire services and makes headlines all across America.  Story goes that it even cost Pearl an offer of a professorship at Harvard.   The point is that, far from being the eugenicist that the film depicts, it is hard not to see Mencken’s hand all over the mobilization of American opinion against eugenics.
               What little there is of the famous cross-examination of Bryan by Darrow – the climax of “Inherit the Wind” – is actually condensed into a single minute of this ridiculous movie.  This Bryan (played by former Senator Fred Thompson) is serene, thoughtful, and implacable for his minute of cross-examination.  The event actually took place on July 20, 1925, on a Monday after most of the journalists (including Mencken) had left town.  Serene, thoughtful, implacable.  This movie’s cross-examination gives us no glimpse of whatever inspired The New York Times to include in their next day’s Page One headline, “Angered, He Shouts That He Is Fighting for God against America’s Greatest Atheist”.
               What’s even weirder is that this film plays around with the actual court testimony just as egregiously as “Inherit the Wind” did, except that his film claims not to be doing so, which means that it is more of a lie than “Inherit the Wind” could possibly be.   For example, when William Jennings Bryan  volunteers that he believes that the “days” of creation may have been indefinitely long periods of time (he wasn’t tricked into it, as “Inherit the Wind” implies), this movie has Darrow respond “You do not!”
               The truth is much more interesting.  Darrow was surprised to learn that Bryan accepted the age of the earth, but would certainly not accuse Bryan of perjuring himself by lying about his beliefs under oath.  But District Attorney Tom Stewart immediately realized Bryan’s answer was a big problem, and interrupted.

STEWART: I want to interpose another objection. What is the purpose of this examination?
               But he was too late.  Bryan was already orating.

BRYAN: The purpose is to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world shall know that these gentlemen have no other purpose than ridiculing every Christian who believes in the Bible.
               But Darrow hardly ever let an adversary have the last word.

DARROW: We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it, and that is all.
               So Bryan continued speechifying.

BRYAN: I am simply trying to protect the Word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States. I want the papers to know I am not afraid to get on the stand in front of him and let him do his worst. I want the world to know that agnosticism is trying to force agnosticism on our colleges and on our schools, and the people of Tennessee will not permit that to be done.
               Cue the applause.  The day ended about a half-hour-later, and not at all serenely, as this movie suggests.  In fact, “Inherit the Wind” captures the chaos a lot better.  Here is how the day ended, not at all suggested in Senator Fred Thompson’s portrayal.

BRYAN: Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his questions. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world. I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee to slur at it, and, while it require time, I am willing to take it.
DARROW: I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes!
JUDGE RAULSTON: Court is adjourned until nine o'clock tomorrow morning.
               I thought it was pretty weird also when Darrow reviews human evolution privately with his scientists and reduces the fossil evidence to Java Man, Nebraska Man, and “Boxhole Man”.  I think the screenwriters probably meant “Boxgrove”.  You’d think the scientists would have been even passingly familiar with “Neanderthal Man” and “Piltdown Man” (both of which were indeed known at the time, although the latter turned out to be unreal, like the Paluxy River footprints that prove humans lived with dinosaurs). 
               Nebraska Man is interesting, because it does represent an egregious example of scientific overreach.  By 1927 it was understood to be a peccary.   Isolated, worn teeth are sometimes not as clearly diagnostic as we might like, but it certainly wasn’t something solid enough to bludgeon the creationists with, and often quite snarkily.  Historian Constance Areson Clark discusses this in her very interesting recent book, “God or Gorilla”.
              The plot of “Alleged” is actually a clumsy, vapid romance between a budding newsman and his budding girlfriend, set against the backdrop of the trial.  The newsman has no family except a dead father, and the girlfriend has a black half-sister, which isn’t at all scandalous in clean, rural 1925 Tennessee.
               The real problem is the idea that a counter-lie must be put out there to offset a prior lie, in this case,  the filmmakers’ perception of “Inherit the Wind”.  This is, I think, related to the stupid creationist idea that there are exactly two sides to any story: the scientific and the Biblical.  And since it is a zero-sum game, anything bad for science must ipso facto be good for the Bible.  So making Mencken look bad must make Jesus look good. 
               The biggest lie of all, however, is actually in the credits.  After placing the story in the backdrop of “actual” events and “real” personages, in order to claim a degree of verisimilitude that they don’t actually deserve, the producers actually show the standard disclaimer.

Paradoxically, that is probably the truest thing about the movie.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Gorilla my dreams, I adore you

What to do about geneticists?  On one hand, they are so smart that we should accept whatever they say, no matter how absurd, inaccurate, or even racist it may be.  (See Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn).[1]   On the other hand, they’re ignorant and arrogant assholes and they should be thrown in jail (See Trofim Lysenko).[2]  There has got to be a middle ground.

The gorilla genome is now out, and when combined with human, chimpanzee, and orangutan, it allows us to do a phylogenetic comparison.[3]  We have known since the 1980s that human-chimp-gorilla genetically is a very close call, with DNA tending to place humans and chimps a little closer, but only with a lot of discordance or statistical noise.  (That is in fact exactly what the ill-fated DNA hybridization showed, although it was infamously misrepresented.)  When the mtDNA data first came out [4] they linked human to chimp pairwise, but only if you ignored the fact that over half of the phylogenetically informative DNA sites did not in fact show it to be human-chimp.   Those data showed it to be chimp-gorilla and human-gorilla.  The only way to extract human-chimp from those data was to treat the question like a Republican primary, where whoever gets the plurality of the votes wins the state.  So human-chimp was Mitt Romney, winning the nomination, but with barely 45% of the phylogenetically informative sites.

It then becomes a trivial task to explain away the discordant data, that is to say, the 55% of your data that you have decided is giving you the “wrong” answers.   You say it is “incomplete lineage sorting” or the result of ancestral polymorphisms, which have segregated into descendant taxa in a pattern different from the sequence of speciation.  Geneticists illustrate this with images that always seem to remind me of maps of the London Underground, with chimpanzees being Bakerloo and humans Victoria Station.

But I digress. It might also be parallel mutation or even backcrossing.  The problem, though, is that you have a lot of  homoplasy, and one of the assumptions of cladistic/phylogenetic analysis is that homoplasy (i.e., observed as discordance) is very, very low compared to synapomorphy (i.e., the shared derived characters that you think are tracking the actual branching history of the species).

This is the equivalent of simply choosing the most parsimonious solution to the phylogenetic problem.  Most of the data that give a pairwise resolution give this pairwise resolution, therefore it must be the right one.  But there is an inherent contradiction in this logic.  You are choosing the most parsimonious solution in a system that is not obviously very parsimonious.  In other words, if you are willing to accept the possibility that 55% of your phylogenetically informative sites are homoplasies (that is to say, are giving you the “wrong” answer), then how can you reject the idea that 70% of your sites might be giving you the “wrong” answer?  I talked about this many years ago in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.[5] 

The model that fits the data best is not a model of two successive bifurcations, but what we called at the time a “trichotomy” and now would call “reticulate” or even “rhizotic” evolution.[6] [7]

The geneticists working on this problem have been hampered by the cladistic necessity of regarding speciation as events, rather than as processes – when their ape data are showing speciation as processes, not as events.  The new paper on the gorilla genome says that 30% of their phylogenetically informative sites are discordant.  This is how the new paper imagines the genomic relationships of humans, chimps, and gorillas – as indicating two temporally isolated speciation “events” and whatever the hell is going on in the middle there.

The creationists jumped all over this inconsistency, and it really is just the result of sloppy thinking by the scientists.

In trying to plug the genomic data into sequential speciation events, we are committing the square-peg-round-hole fallacy. There are historical and ideological reasons for depicting it as two successive, temporally distinct “events,” but that certainly misrepresents the evidence, and most likely misrepresents the biological history.  One of the most bizarre illustrations was in a recent introductory textbook, which showed this to students:

It’s trying to say that there were two speciation events, 7 mya and 6 mya, but has located the 7 mya event incorrectly.  If you look at the scale, you’ll see that it’s actually drawn at 8 million, to put a separation between them that shouldn’t be there.  The same text draws it this way a bit later. with very little (vertical) time separating the two “events” at 7-8 mya and 5-7 mya, but a lot of (horizontal) space.  That ought to learn ‘em!

Obviously, that’s not the text I use. 

The new paper on the gorilla genome, I might add, sets the “speciation events” at 6.0 and 3.7 mya.  The 3.7 mya date for the divergence of human and chimpanzee is simply, to the extent that anything can be falsified in the fossil record, false - although it is oddly congruent with some of Vince Sarich and Allan Wilson’s early writings on the subject in the 1960s.[8]  The (myriad) authors of the new paper go on to argue that they can juggle some of the parameters in their computer program to make the dates come out to about 6 and 10 million years ago – as if that is supposed to give us confidence!

For the Alternative Introduction, I drew this figure to illustrate the problem.

Rather than prurient talk about cross-species buggery on the part of early hominids, how about speciation here as a temporal process, and populations through time as anastemosing capillary systems (Earnest Hooton’s metaphor, expressing the same point as rhizomatic and reticulate evolution).  It is also noteworthy that we tend to model and depict the gene pools of all three species as equivalent, when we’ve known for years that chimps and gorillas, even as relict populations, have gene pools that are considerably more extensive than that of our own species.  That is to say, Homo sapiens is relatively depauperate in genetic diversity.  The only study to try and incorporate that information into a phylogenetic analysis, many years ago, found that it completely obscured the phylogenetic “signal” and that it was therefore a fool’s errand to try and extract two successive bifurcations from a genomic analysis of human, chimpanzee, and gorilla.[9] 

Interestingly, the new paper actually did look at diversity in gorilla genomes, but didn’t incorporate that into their phylogenetic analysis.  Bottom line:  Human evolution is probably more interesting than the geneticists realize.

[1] Wade N. 2006. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. New York: Penguin.

[2] Medvedev Z, and Lerner I. 1969. The Rise and Fall of TD Lysenko. New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] Scally A, Dutheil JY, Hillier LW, Jordan GE, Goodhead I, Herrero J, Hobolth A, Lappalainen T, Mailund T, Marques-Bonet T et al. . 2012. Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence. Nature 483(7388):169-175.

[4] Horai S, Satta Y, Hayasaka K, Kondo R, Inoue T, Ishida T, Hayashi S, and Takahata N. 1992. Man's place in hominoidea revealed by mitochondrial DNA genealogy. Journal of Molecular Evolution 35(1):32-43.

[5] Marks J. 1994. Blood will tell (won't it?)? A century of molecular discourse in anthropological systematics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 94:59-79.

[6] Marks J. 1995. Learning to live with a trichotomy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 98:211-213.

[7] Arnold M. 2009. Reticulate Evolution and Humans: Origins and Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] Sarich VM. 1968. The origin of the hominids: An immunological approach. In: Washburn SL, and Jay PC, editors. Perspectives on Human Evolution I. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. p 94-121.

[9] Ruano G, Rogers, Jeffrey A., Ferguson-Smith, Anne C., Kidd, Kenneth K. 1992. DNA sequence polymorphism within hominoid species exceeds the number of phylogenetically informative characters for a HOX2 locus Molecular Biology and Evolution 9(4):575-586.