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.