Max Weber, Cavalli-Sforza, Ethnicity, and Population Genetics

Ok, below is a complicate and attenuated definition of ethnicity by the classical sociologist Max Weber.  Variations of this definition are found in many anthropology and sociological textbooks, though he is by far not the only source of wisdom.  But be aware that as with most classical literature, it is often difficult to read.  But for the purposes of this discussion with Population geneticists, I want to highlight Weber’s emphasis in beliefs about heredity and blood relationships in determining endogamy and exogamy.  All ethnic groups encourage the youth to have babies with people who are “like us,” however defined.  The result indeed is that in a rough way, genes are inherited within “ethnic groups,” or at least there are belief systems indicating that this happens.  I wrote about this a bit earlier at here.  Note, this version is suitable for use with undergrads—it is easier to read than what follows.

Anyway, I like the broad brush analysis of blood alleles, and glotto-chronology that people like Cavalli-Sforza use to map deep history and very general relationships (OK I know that glotto-chronology is also known for its limitiations).  This is the only effective way of studying such migrations, given the paucity of archaeological and historical data.  Ok, so fine.

But we know a lot more from the studies of people like Weber (and his successors) about the overwhelming role that ideology, inequality, racism, etc. play in structuring mating habits.  A sampling of Max Weber’s thoughts appears below in all its complexity.  My question for the people following in Cavalli-Sforza’s tradition like Razib Khan is, how would you go about including such “variables” as Weber describes in mathematical models?  My feeling is that given the inherently fluid nature of such definitions, and the compromises necessary to simplify research questions so that they fit into something that is “countable,” are a step too far.  And as a result, you get the reactions of myself, and most social scientists that we should not depend too much on such quantitative data which inherently simplifies social complexity—ethnographic data is at least as important.

Anyway: Here is Weber’s description/definition of ethnicity.  Links to the original articles are below.  There version here is a translation I participated in, and appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Classical Sociology in 2010.

“When the most extreme consequences of stratification are pressed, the Stand evolves into a closed ‘caste’. That means, apart from the conventions and legal guarantees, rituals develop guaranteeing Stände-related distinctions. This is achieved by restricting any physical contact of members of higher castes with members of castes regarded as “lower,” and protects the higher caste …Therefore, the individual castes partly develop distinctive cults and gods.

As a result of these consequences, the Stände-related stratification only then lead to the development of castes where underlying differences can be found which are held to be “ethnic”. Particularly the “caste” is the normal form of Gemeinschaft communities which are the precursors of the Gesellschaft type-societies created who live along the lines of “ethnicity,” and therefore believe in blood relationship, and restrict both exogamous marriage and social intercourse. These aspects can be found among pariah peoples around the world….

Ethnic and caste segregation also differ regarding their effects. Ethnic coexistence, which implies mutual rejection and disdain, also permits any ethnic community to value its personal honor as the highest. However, caste stratification is accompanied by a ‘vertical social gradation’, and acknowledges a socially accepted higher “honor” to the benefiting privileged castes and Stände. This is typically explained by arguing that ethnic differences were transformed into differences of “function” within a politicized Gesellschaft-like social order (warrior, priest, and craftsmen who are politically important for war, and building trades, and so on). Even the most despised pariah people somehow cultivate what is peculiar to them, in the same manner that ethnic and ‘Stände’-related communities do. They especially continue to cultivate the belief in their own unique “honor” (as do the Jews).

However, Stände which are both despised and negatively privileged show a specific deviation regarding the “sense of dignity” …But to understand this, it is necessary to focus on the position of the privileged. Their “sense of dignity” is the subjective precipitation in social honor and of conventional demands which a positively privileged “Stand” requires for the deportment of its members. As a result, it can be said that the positively privileged ‘Stände’ sense of dignity, naturally relies on its “who they are”, they do not rely on transcending values, but they refer to their own “beauty and excellence”. Their kingdom is “of this world”, and they live for the present and justify their privilege by referring to a glorious past.

Naturally the negatively privileged status group can only draw its sense of dignity by referring to a future which lies beyond the present, and is temporal or transcendent. In other words, this sense of dignity is nourished from the belief in a providential “mission”, or a specific honor before God as the “chosen people”. Therefore, the idea arises that “the last will be the first” beyond this life, or that in the present life a messiah will arrive who will shine a light upon the honor of the pariah people (Jews) or ‘Stand’, which has before been concealed from the world. These simple facts are the source of a pariah ‘Stände’s’ character of religiosity. …

This is to say that the ethnic origin of Stände formation is by no means a normal phenomenon. On the contrary, since objective “racial differences” are not based on every subjective “ethnic” mutual feeling, a racialized justification for ‘Stände’-related stratification is ultimately tested with concrete individual cases. Quite frequently, the ‘Stand’ itself creates ‘pure-breds’ [or stereotypes] which are an anthropological type. The Stand functions on a highly exclusive manner and is based on a selection of individuals who are personally qualified for membership (e.g. the Knighthood), based on their martial, physical, and psychological eligibility.

So, from a practical point of view, the stratification by Stände goes hand in hand with a monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities, in a manner which we have come to know as typical. Besides the specific honor of Stand, which always bases itself upon distance and exclusiveness, there are all sorts of material monopolies”


Thank you for reading this far!  It is work to read this far.  (Now those of you who are mathematically inclined know how we feel when we deal with your elegant mathematical formulations!)  Anyway, if you want to read more, please look at the entire translation of Weber’s work at the Journal of Classical Sociology (2010), as well as our commentary, which is also there.  In my view, a meeting of minds between the population geneticists, and the sociologists/anthropologists would be useful for understanding such matters.  I’m just not sure how it is going to happen.


An afterthought and a comment for Razib Khan:

Razib Khan over on one of Michael Scroggins posts linked two blogs of his from Discover Magazine.  I read them, and appreciated that he was careful in his discussion of race, even though he did not cite the relevant anthropologists or sociologists (Note to Razib: Need Weber in there, or perhaps Cornell and Hartmann’s textbook Ethnicity and Race).  I believe he even used the term “social construction” at one point, which hearkens back to the work of Weber and others.

Razib continues

“the biology is more interesting than the sociology, which can be decomposed pretty easily.”


Ok I will let him have his own opinion on what is “more interesting,” but I look forward to his deconstruction of a classical text like Weber, or even a more contemporary approach like Cornell and Hartmann.  Weber of course is difficult to read, but generations of sociology undergrads have somehow gotten through.  Cornell and Harmann though is well-written and hardl

84 thoughts on “Max Weber, Cavalli-Sforza, Ethnicity, and Population Genetics

  1. your characterization of cavalli-sforza is mildly outdated. for human genetics (what became genomics) it is very outdated. he continued his active career deep into the 2000s. i will reference a 2006 interview re: race by me:

    7) Question #3 hinted at the powerful social impact your work has had in reshaping how we view the natural history of our species. One of the most contentious issues of the 20th, and no doubt of the unfolding 21st century, is that of race. In 1972 Richard Lewontin offered his famous observation that 85% of the variation across human populations was within populations and 15% was between them. Regardless of whether this level of substructure is of note of not, your own work on migrations, admixtures and waves of advance depicts patterns of demographic and genetic interconnectedness, and so refutes typological conceptions of race. Nevertheless, recently A.W.F. Edwards, a fellow student of R.A. Fisher, has argued that Richard Lewontin’s argument neglects the importance of differences of correlation structure across the genome between populations and focuses on variance only across a single locus. Edwards’ argument about the informativeness of correlation structure, and therefore the statistical salience of between-population differences, was echoed by Richard Dawkins in his most recent book. Considering the social import of the question of interpopulational differences as well as the esoteric nature of the mathematical arguments, what do you believe the “take home” message of this should be for the general public?

    Edwards and Lewontin are both right. Lewontin said that the between populations fraction of variance is very small in humans, and this is true, as it should be on the basis of present knowledge from archeology and genetics alike, that the human species is very young. It has in fact been shown later that it is one of the smallest among mammals. Lewontin probably hoped, for political reasons, that it is TRIVIALLY small, and he has never shown to my knowledge any interest for evolutionary trees, at least of humans, so he did not care about their reconstruction. In essence, Edwards has objected that it is NOT trivially small, because it is enough for reconstructing the tree of human evolution, as we did, and he is obviously right.

  2. as for all the webber stuff, most of it is irrelevant, and more a historical phenomenon of scientification and colonialism. the modern races which jump out of any trivially easy clustering method are consequences of history and geographic separation. in pre-modern societies there was generally not an ideology of race as we understand it because people were not biologically separate races. so the conflict between 13th century christian germans and 13th century pagan balts is redolent of all the racial conflicts (down to extermination) of the past few centuries, the genetic distinction here is small (though again, not trivial for the purposes of phylogeny; give me 50,000 random markers and it is easy to distinguish germans and lithuanians, i know because have both in my data set).

    to make the math super easy, take two populations. A and B. all you need to prevent genetic divergence is 1 migrant per generation. this is why adjacent populations rarely diverge much, even if they have ideologies and mythos of separation and distinction (e.g., the rurikids who founded russia’s first historical dynasty were notionally norse, but their Y haplotype is clearly finnic).

    OTOH, the rate of migration between africans, and europeans, does seem to have been less than 1 per generation for many generations. same with europeans and australian aborigines, and even aborigines and papuans (who seem to have diverged 10,000 years ago).

    the algebra is not elegant, but trivial.

  3. in any case, i am quite well informed on the social construction of race. i’ve read plenty of books on it, and i’m a ‘person of color’ who grew up in a united states where the normative expectation was that you were black or white, and i wasn’t. it isn’t that hard, it’s intelligible human psychology.

    OTOH, the biological aspect is more tricky, and can confound intuitions. so that’s why that’s interesting. e.g., melanesians exhibit much more distance from africans than, say, iranians do, from africans. like good science it is non-obvious (at least to early european taxonomists) and robust to method and data set.

  4. also, some of your colleagues continue with the conceit that i’m a naive philistine with unreconstructed positivist stances in regards to science. i’m not. and unlike most ‘science studies’ types i’ve long had passions outside natural science. e.g., byzantine history

    i am relatively innocent of post-structualism, etc., consciously so. but that shouldn’t imply that i have a thin grasp of historical or ethnographic *facts*

  5. I have no trouble getting undergrads today to relate to Weber’s description of Ethnic groups.

    Thanks for the quote from Cavalli-Sforza, but not sure why it is relevant for understanding who mates with who in modern times. Variation is more than genetic, especially in the wealthy societies of today, where “Staende” group and regroup with respect to economic advantages as Weber points out.

    I’m not sure what you’ve read on race and ethnicity–but I do recommend Cornell and Hartmann.

    Time for bed. I’ll get back to your other comments later.

  6. P.S. sometime in the next year, you should read Weber carefully, even it is to “know your enemy.” (Ok, enemy is the wrong word). Just as you don’t take seriously those of us who write about ethnicity and race without having read in Population Genetics, we find it difficult to take seriously someone who hasn’t read Weber, DuBois, and others on race.

  7. where “Staende” group and regroup with respect to economic advantages as Weber points out.

    it some cases yes, in others know. one has to do more than assert, one has to genetically test relatedness (now trivial). so, some indian castes are genetically distinct, with distinctiveness that almost certainly dates back 1,000-2,000 years. others are not distinct. this is not assertion or speculation, this is a wealth of literature on this.

    i’ve read plenty of weber on religion and economics (i’m skeptical of his model, though appreciate the attempts). i don’t anticipate taking time out to read his or dubois opinions’ on race. as you have inferred their ideas are to a great extent baked into the standard narrative which college students receive. additionally, when it comes to history i am more a whig than i am when it comes to religion and philosophy (or what is philosophy today). i think modern historians and social scientists actually know more empirically about the past and the present, so i focus on them.

  8. “But we know a lot more from the studies of people like Weber (and his successors) about the overwhelming role that ideology, inequality, racism, etc. play in structuring mating habits.”

    This is a great point. Humans are not mice. They regulate mating, and hence the assumption of a panmictic population that Cavalli et al. have always entertained is unlikely to be applicable to human populations. One rare piece of mathematics offered in this context (by an anthropologist and a geneticist) can be found here. Notably, Levi-Strauss and others (myself included) have long been arguing that human populations have experienced the relaxation of a social-selective constraint on mating (from symmetrical prescriptive alliance through asymmetrical prescriptive alliance to random mating with limited incest prohibitions. This has implications for those “trees” that Cavalli was planting and watering all his life. In reality, the history of human populations is that of genetic admixture (from intratribal to continental levels), not divergence. (Even the often heard claim that African populations are most diverse is outdated by 500 years, as the colonization of the Americas made the New World the most diverse continent, and it’s most diverse because of recent admixture, not because of a longer history of genetic divergence.) Cavalli, of course, did not study anthropology (and assumed that humans are just like mice), hence, contrary to what Razib Khan is preaching, it’s “scientists” who haven’t caught up with anthropologists, not so much the other way around.

  9. @razib
    “the modern races which jump out of any trivially easy clustering method are consequences of history and geographic separation. in pre-modern societies there was generally not an ideology of race as we understand it because people were not biologically separate races. so the conflict between 13th century christian germans and 13th century pagan balts is redolent of all the racial conflicts (down to extermination) of the past few centuries, the genetic distinction here is small (though again, not trivial for the purposes of phylogeny; give me 50,000 random markers and it is easy to distinguish germans and lithuanians, i know because have both in my data set).”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be equating cultural categories which describe the differences between groups, and genetic distinctions between those groups. So, the lack of an understanding of biological difference between Balts and Germans reflects their genetic closeness. Do you see them as being the same?

  10. @ German

    Your point can also form the basis of a more general critique. Humans don’t just regulate mating, though that is an ideal example. Humans regulate their entire range of action from thought to reproduction (read this to mean from cognitive science through economics and genetics) through socially and historically situated categories.

    Mice are good to think with… up to a point.

  11. @Razib. Some Indian castes, demonstrate genetic isolation, but so what? I assume that this results in beliefs about segregation, such as Weber wrote about. For that matter Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland have little genetic differences. But it is their fighting of the last decades which is truly interesting. This can also be explained by Weber, which is why his approach is more robust than that of Population Genetics for these situations. To paraphrase Michael: Genes are good think with…up to a point.

    As for your excitement about the recent expansion of data available to biologists, the same can be said about sociology, with the US census data that Michael cites being one really good example. But as Michael also notes, that august institution has yet to agree on a definition of that presumably essentialist category “race,” which changes slightly every ten years, but a great deal over a century. Again this phenomenon, with its richness of data, is more interesting from Weber’s viewpoint, than from that of Population Genetics which deals with genetic alleles well, but ignores major shifts in the things it is “counting”.

  12. Tony, for the purposes of quantitative genomics, none of that matters one whit.

    Because the human race is not in a state of panmixis, and because the geographic distribution of polymorphisms covaries with other statistical differences, even those responsible for trivial phenotypic markers such as skin and eye color, you may as well expect from theory that no _two_ ethnic groups, tribes, or continents wide races may be identical in composition, however such distinctions may be engineered through social artifice. And observation coincides perfectly with our expectations. Neither Koreans and Japanese, nor Belgians and Swedes, nor Hutu and Tutsi, nor “black” and “white” Americans are identical in the statistical distribution of their alleles.

    Under certain circumstances, such differences may be trivial – yet in others, they may decide the fate of entire civilizations. One cannot understand the European colonization of the Americas without first acknowledging the power of the major histocompatibility complex.

    (By the way, considering the history of demographic change in Ireland, you are probably wrong about your Catholics and Protestants. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but similar assertions about Christians and Muslims in Lebanon fall apart under closer scrutiny.)

  13. @Sam: “One cannot understand the European colonization of the Americas without first acknowledging the power of the major histocompatibility complex.”

    What is “major histocompatibility complex?” Is this the immunity advantages that Europeans brought from the Europeans to the Americas? But this is mainly a result of acquired immunities acquired after the domestication of animals, and only tangentially inherited genetic differences.

    What is “panmixis?” I don’t know the meaning of this word.

    I don’t know specifically about Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. But the fact of the matter is that religion is a social construct which indeed sometimes has consequences for whom you mate with (see Weber above). But the actual resulting phenotypic differences that might result have little consequences for behavior, which are developed in the context of the group relations that Weber describes above.

  14. One need not raise the grim specter of reification when contesting the notion of hereditary distinctiveness between human populations divided by the ephemeral margins of language, culture, or geographic distance. Nor is it germane to posit that folk taxonomies of race constitute some unchanging, ethereal Platonic “essence” that persists outside the domains of history or immaterial culture.

    That being said, it matters not whether ethnic or tribal distinctions were founded yesterday, today, or tomorrow. It matters not if they were constructed for the advancement of European imperialist designs. Neither does it matter if they are drawn with an arbitrary brush, as a child’s finger running aimlessly through the sand, or if they are as ephemeral as the will o’ the wisp.

    Take the heterogeneous swarm that is humanity, and select any_two_ parameters – nose breath and skin color, geographic distance and hair width, insulin resistance and height, etc. and you will have succeeded in creating genotypically dissimilar “races”. Whether or not such differences are meaningful is a test of your statistical competence.

  15. “But the actual resulting phenotypic differences might result have little consequences for behavior, which are developed in the context of the group relations that Weber describes above.”

    You’re right. But what would Europe look like today were it not for a little mutation responsible for lactase persistence? :-)

    That’s just the most robust story on the table. There may be countless others.

    By the way, we’ve known for quite some time now that not all human populations share the same alleles responsible for higher cognition in common. I can name some examples, if you’d like. Some of them appear to be the product of selection during _recent_ historical times.

    As for what such differences actually do, your guess is about as good as mine. But if you were to assert by fiat that they had no significant implications for human history or culture (Btw , more than a few social scientists have proposed outlawing such research altogether) – well, there’s a chance that you might be wrong.

    Your skepticism is well warranted, especially in light of some of the human atrocities that have been committed in the pursuit of hereditary differences, but like it or not, the genomic revolution is upon us, and the persistent question that nags the better informed among us will not be resolved for quite some time.

    And if you wish to get a word in edgewise, it would be helpful to understand just what it is your enemies are talking about!

  16. Definitely agree on the last sentence, though the word “enemy” seems a bit harsh. “Alternative views” is nicer. But what this exchange over the last week or two has illustrated is that both Anthopoogists/Sociologists and Geneticists use different vocabularies and assumptions. And they tend to stereotype each other.

    Getting up to speed on another discipline though is hard work–I’ve had one experience in the Philosophy of Science with an article on mirror neurons. It took about four years of back and forth with many editors and anonymous referees to get the article from “you don’t know what you are talking about so are wrong,” to “you understand mirror neurons, but you are just flat out wrong!”

    As to your comment about the lactase mutation in Europe, yes Europe would have been quite different without it. But Europe would have been different without the prior presence of Neandertal, the Roman Empire, and the Thirty Years War, too. Or for that matter the Enlightenment, the discovery of the Americas, or the colonization of India and the East Indies. Or, or, or…It’s tough to reduce the human story to a single factor.

  17. I’ve no doubt I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong – so here goes. I’ve been following these posts for a while now and can’t find what’s so contentious. I’m a cultural (interested in cognition) anthropologist who knows nothing about population genetics, but the claims don’t seem all that complicated. Essentially, genetic differences are patterned and have a non-zero influence. (Even a small difference can have great consequences when dealing in large numbers -the bread and butter of casinos). Is the counter argument (a) that there must -a priori- be no genetic influence on culture or behavior, or (b) that genetic differences aren’t patterned? These both seem obviously false in light of the fact that one gene associated with long term memory, for just one example, varies systematically across populations and is heritable. Is the counterargument that this must have zero impact on cultural development or behavior? I’m not hearing any determinism or denial of cultural influence in the pop/gen argument. I also don’t need to understand quantitative genetics in order to understand the argument. I’m fully aware that genes and culture interact. So why is pop genetics treated as though it isn’t just another valuable tool that could productively complement cultural anthropology? Please let me know what I’m missing.

  18. “Definitely agree on last sentence, though the word “enemy” seems a bit harsh.”

    I’m afraid that anybody who advocates the “extirpation” of you and colleagues from the academy would probably wear that title as a badge of honor.

    Razib is probably not alone in that regard. And yes, he ought to apologize, although you would probably have better luck extracting a written confession from a sea urchin. (If you ask me, he was probably born that way.)

  19. I’m not hearing any determinism or denial of cultural influence in the pop/gen argument.

    Because you haven’t been listening long enough.

    Sadly, this is part of the problem that Scroggins and Waters are going to keep running into when trying to educate people who are neutral to this debate. The scientific racism crowd realizes that to say they believe in genetic determinism will get scorn heaped onto them, so they claim that they fully appreciate the role of cultural influence. However, after saying that, they will promptly proceed to try to shoot down or minimize any argument that tries to show evidence of how cultural influence plays a role. Thus, over time you see that for all the lip service they pay to appreciating both genetic and cultural influence, it’s really not true. They are for all intents and purposes believers in genetic determinism. A neutral casual observer though, only seeing a few of their arguments isn’t likely to grasp that, just like one has to read their work over time to start seeing the racism. They’re too smart to just lay all the racism out there in one shot because they’d get automatically dismissed. It’s the same reason why they have to pretend they’re not genetic determinists, because if they laid that out there up front they’d get dismissed out of hand.

    Another popular thing they do in addition to pretending to respect the interplay between gene cultures while actually just being genetic determinists is to pretend their opponents are cultural determinists, gene denialists,”blank slaters” or “liberal creationists” or whatever other strawman works.

    The casual newcomer to the debate has to peel back so many layers of intellectual dishonesty and misrepresentations before even engaging the argument that I think this endeavor is doomed before it even begins. One would have to first go through all the posts and statements to establish the racism and genetic determinism, which one only really starts to gleam from cumulative reading of their body of work, and not from just a couple of their posts or comments.

  20. @KbH: I agree with your last sentence.

    The question for me though, is whether Population Genetics can use Cultural Anthropology as a complement. So far the answer seems to be that ethnographic description and social theory will be less important as more and more genes are identified, and better mathematical models refined. This is what I don’t buy.

    Certainly though, genes have had a broad brush effect on human history, with the capacity to digest milk being one of them.

    I think that Razib’s posts about race which I linked to are fine, though they could perhaps be tweaked a bit for my taste. But that is neither here nor there. I would though like to see Pop Genetics integrate the finer points of social theory–I think it would enrich both fields. But first we probably need to develop a common vocabulary.

  21. “I’m not hearing any determinism or denial of cultural influence in the pop/gen argument.”

    Whatever it is they do, genes are only probability, not destiny. Probably speaking.

  22. @Lurker2, that’s a beautiful conspiracy theory you have concocted there.

    I’d ask for specific examples, but I am beginning to doubt you could even compile enough grist for an effective smear campaign. Judging from the way the academy has distorted the opinions of even arch-hereditarians such as Arthur Jensen (who, by the way, was misguided on quite a few issues), I reckon you couldn’t.

  23. @Sam,

    “Whatever it is they do, genes are only probability, not destiny. Probably speaking.”

    This makes complete sense and is (obviously) not at all deterministic.


    “But first we probably need to develop a common vocabulary.”


  24. @ Sam

    Having certain genetic markers is one thing, but having the context in which meaning can adhere to them is quite another.

    Your example of “higher cognition” illustrates this perfectly (as does race). You simply cannot reason from elementary phenomena like genetic markers to a complex phenomena like “higher cognition” without presupposing you know what counts as “higher cognition” in the first place – that is, how “higher cognition” develops within an individual organism and in the individual’s social situation that allows an individuals “higher cognition” to be displayed. When is “higher cognition?”

    And because “higher cognition” (like race) varies spatially and historically it requires either ethnographic or historical work (or both) to establish what counts as “higher cognition.” Without that you have exactly nothing of consequence.

    There is a very deep literature about situated cognition running from Vygotsky forward to Jean Lave in psychology. It is also the basic argument Boas used in his debate with Mason, and informed the first generation of American anthropologists. William James and Dewey helped ground it philosophically in the early 20th century. And you can find this same theme in the broadsides Gould leveled at genetic approaches to biology which discount the importance of the organism, and hence the development of the organism with an environment, which is also undergoing development.

    The difference here is between a biology taking the organism (and its social setting or environment) as the unit of analysis and one taking the gene, or more often a sub-part of the gene, as the unit of analysis.

    I am very tempted to agree with your point about Khan being genetically determined to hurl invectives at anyone who disagrees with him.

    But, I think his style fits a relatively new cultural phenomena – the internet flame war. A hundred or so years ago, in Germany, this would be settled with a duel. He may be genetically determined to hurl invectives, but how one can disagree is a complex phenomena which varies across space and time.

    Overall, though, this conversation is moving towards a more productive direction. I mean it is probably moving that way, not that it is destined to:)

    @ Tony

    Good call on developing a common vocabulary. Maybe something like Williams’ Keywords is in order?

  25. Michael: Fully agreed on the cognition point. I don’t know why it is so difficult to convince people that “intelligence” is culture specific.

    I like your references to classical works like Vygotsky, et al. Such references inform the overall direction of thought, and point out to the fluid nature of definitions. But it also makes things more difficult to evaluate across time using computer modeling which assumes static definitions of social phenomenon. Even writers as early as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about how counting inherently simplifies complex phenomena.

  26. Michael,

    Situated Cognition Theory does not preclude innate capacities at all. (Long term memory, attention capacity, dispositions, working memory, verbal recall, semantic processing, etc.) These cognitive capacities may correlate with genes. Of course context matters, but I don’t think anyone is disagreeing with that. Cognition is situated, but the context is materially constrained – some of those constraints are genetic.

  27. But isn’t cognition dependent on the pre-existing categories of culture? Sure there may be “innate” capacity, but this is only given meaning in the context of culture. One culture’s “appropriate” attention span, is another culture’s version of ADHD!

  28. “Humans don’t just regulate mating, though that is an ideal example. Humans regulate their entire range of action from thought to reproduction (read this to mean from cognitive science through economics and genetics) through socially and historically situated categories.”

    Yes. Mating patterns are an ideal way to test whether genetics has made genuine progress by ignoring the anthropological tradition of kinship studies, or it’s indeed anthropology that needs to catch up with genetics because “sociocultural norms” are just icing on the cake. Human origins research has a lot to offer by way of resolving the anthropology-science debate. My out-of-America theory, which weighs anthropological and linguistic data as equally important to archaeological and genetic data and is just as testable as any other scientific theory, suggests that genetics (=science) has gone astray by excluding anthropology and the scientific potential that it has always carried with it.

    The situation gets more complex if we recall that anthropology itself has largely abandoned kinship studies as part of its ongoing self-flagellation. This makes Razib Khan’s attacks on anthropology even more misguided. John Hawks doesn’t get it either, although he’s trained.

  29. @ KbH

    As a practical matter, I think you and I are actually very close. In the same neighborhood at the least.

    It doesn’t preclude innate type of things, but the question has to be: Of what importance are they in this situation at this time? And that question has to be prior.

  30. After 29 comments to this thread, I am still waiting on Razib’s “easy” deconstruction of Weber’s definition of ethnicity and race.

    To be fair, I haven’t completely “deconstructed” the definitions of the gene offered by Population Genetics (though Michael had a go at it!). But, I do not think such a deconstruction would be easy!

  31. Razib,
    You said: “…to make the math super easy, take two populations. A and B. all you need to prevent genetic divergence is 1 migrant per generation.”

    I was under the impression that the rate of divergence depends on the mutation rate and the relative, not absolute, migration rate. see: Jost, L. O. U. (2008). GST and its relatives do not measure differentiation. Point 3 at the end.

  32. @Tony,
    Situated cognition suggests that categories (in terms of subjective regard) are made anew, in situ – they aren’t pre-existing. This is the difference between Bourdieu and Garfinkel- SC as it’s used by Suchman or evident in Latour and Sperber, for example, is closer to Tarde than Durkheim. It’s no doubt informed by pre-existing practices, but only insofar as they are reconstructed and performed on the spot. This is why Sperber’s is better than Dawkin’s theory.

    Also, I’m not making a normative claim about attention, for example, or asking how a given culture values attention span, but I’m talking about actual attention, which can be measured. Culture may inhibit or promote its expression, but doesn’t comprise it.

    Speaking of situated cognition, take Keller and Keller’s work on blacksmithing. Some properties are bounded prior to interaction with culture, like metallic alloys- the alloy doesn’t determine the practice, but it most certainly constrains it. Cognition is no different. There are upper and lower limits and variation in between. If there is even a slight patterned variation, it could have large effects at the population scale. So in the case of attention span, a culture may emerge along with some genetic predisposition- cultural forms might mitigate a short attention span or accommodate a long one. I suppose you could argue that at some point the culture selects for the attention span consonant with established forms, but at this point it doesn’t matter much, the predisposition is still evident in genes. You might have a percentage of the population that doesn’t fit and must work harder in practically managing cultural norms, or you may have some subset that acts strategically (think Malinowski or Bourdieu) but in either case, when you look at population scale, you’re looking at probabilities. What’s the likelihood that an entire population maintains (or can sustain) improbable cultural forms?

    The problem I see is that the importance may not be relevant until you get to the population scale. Just like casino odds – in any given game, the house advantage doesn’t mean much in each game but means a lot when looking at 100,000 games. To me this entire debate is about which level of abstraction you chose and what question you are trying to answer.

  33. @KbH: Thanks for the references. Lots of what you write here makes sense to me, particularly about the nature of cognition and its limits (reminds a bit of that heretic Gould’s book on the nature of deviation, Full House, too).

    I think one of the keys is in the point you direct at Michael. Statistics and probability are a great tool when dealing with a large n. But they are not so great when dealing with small n. In my view the Population geneticists do fine with large abstractions in the manner Cavalli-Sforza does, and Razib writes about. The problems come when they take these abstractions and apply it to a single small group, particularly one for which higher quality qualitative data is available.

  34. @razib “to make the math super easy, take two populations. A and B. all you need to prevent genetic divergence is 1 migrant per generation. this is why adjacent populations rarely diverge much, even if they have ideologies and mythos of separation and distinction (e.g., the rurikids who founded russia’s first historical dynasty were notionally norse, but their Y haplotype is clearly finnic).”

    The point is not to “make the math super easy,” but to get understanding of the people who founded Russia’s first dynasty. As you point out, the genetics help (and so do the statistics, presumably), but this is not the only source of wisdom.

  35. @KbH. Also, thanks for note on “situated cognition.” I’ve read a bit about this, and hope to return to it in the future, mostly from the perspective of Durkheim, Goffman, Mead, and Bourdieu–i.e. not so directly. Your references will be useful to me when I get back to the subject.

  36. I’m still trying to figure out how intelligence is ” culturally dependent.” If you’re saying a behavior described as “primitive” in a western culture is actually “intelligent” in another culture you’re not being a cultural relativist. You’re actually refusing to accept the western definition of intelligence entirely! you’re not even living up to your own definition of cultural relativity.

  37. I used farming as an example. Farming is fundamental to surviving in the world for most people until very recently. A good farmer can look at the clouds, soil, plants, animals, etc. and see things that I do not. WIthin farming communities, of course, there are people who are better at farming than others–in that context they are masters of what is “intelligent” in that society, even though they will not do too well on a i.q. test of abstract reasoning.

    You are right that I am refusing to agree that western definitions of intelligence are universal. On the other hand, I recommend that examinations like the SAT or GRE do have some predictive power for how well an individual will do in the undergraduate and graduate curricula of the United States. However, the high school student who gets a 1600 on the SAT will not do very well on the subsistence farm I mentioned above–in fact he might get a Darwin award if no one agrees to put him/her on some type of “welfare” scheme.

  38. @dad,

    I don’t want to speak for anyone, so take this as my thought only. The notion of culturally dependent intelligence seems like a misnomer. A better concept is culturally specified expertise- which could be cognitive.

    An example would be differences in spatial reasoning based on linguistic framing such that one culture may typically refer to spatial positions in terms of cardinal directions while another culture typically refers to spatial position relative to the speaker. The ability in spatial reasoning corresponds to particular modes- so despite a lack of skill in quickly recalling spatial position in one mode, there may be highly developed expertise in the other. (Levinson has done a lot of work- empirical testing- in this area, though I may be butchering it.)

    In any case – I think the idea is that intelligence is conceived of as skill such that memory, for example, is to some extent developed. The course of the development is cultural. I think this is partly true, though I also think there are innate boundaries and capacities. One may have an upper and lower limit based on their physical composition (genes) and then culture may inhibit or encourage the development within those bounds.

  39. so you only accept the definition of intelligence from the primitive culture? (that’s assuming that they would agree that being a good farmer is what defines being smart and their culture.) also, on a world scale, what is the point of dividing up different cultures if you’re not willing to divide up different races? Wouldn’t we all be 1 world culture and 1 world human race? also, there is no scientific definition of a species. Is there any point in having an endangered species act? are all species exactly the same intelligence as well?

  40. No, I said that definitions of “intelligence” are culture specific, and therefore culturally defined (and also reflect culturally derived values, for that matter). I am ok with using the SAT in college admissions to US colleges for which it was designed. It would be a silly idea though to administer the SAT in a farming community where cognitive skills are defined differently.

    Every culture has variation, some of which is genetically derived, as KbH describes above. However, the tests used to measure these skills are cultural artifacts, and care should be used when using them cross-culturally, and even intra-culturally.

  41. Dad, I have yet to see you make one intelligent contribution to this thread.

    I’ll have more to say about psychometrics later, but I’m a bit short on time, and it is cumbersome typing on a smartphone.

  42. technically though if you don’t accept the definition of primitive from Western culture you don’t accept any part of our definition of intelligence. see what I mean? you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  43. Sam, does this mean you don’t like me? I haven’t read any of your stuff but all those big words make u seem like a real scientist! I look forward to you regurgitating more stuff written by actual smart people to make you seem like you are smart. excellent posturing

  44. Tony,

    You juxtapose Weber’s view with the sociobiological one. Yet they are not incompatible. See, for example: Cochran et al.’s Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence. Or John Glad’s Jewish Eugenics. Generally, as noted, behavioral differences within populations are moderately to highly genetically conditioned. When you socially construct groups in the manner Weber notes, “based on a selection of individuals who are personally qualified for membership (e.g. the Knighthood), based on their martial, physical, and psychological eligibility”, you inevitably get genetically stratified populations. Applied to “class”, this gives one Herrnstein’s Syllogism.

  45. “also, on a world scale, what is the point of dividing up different cultures if you’re not willing to divide up different races?”

    Modern conceptions of race are derived from pseudoscientific ideas about there being different categories of humans. That is different from a modern genetics understanding, which looks at the degrees of relatedness of different populations. Those are two fundamentally different ways of looking at genetic variation. One is a measure of relatedness between two socially and/or geographically separate groups of people amidst a continuum of variation, and the other poses socially and/or geographically separate groups of people as being manifestations of distinct racial essences.

    Of course, the people who would be categorized as belonging to the same race are genetically more related to each other by some ways of measurement than they are to other groups. So, what’s the problem of a geneticist using racial categories to discuss groups which are more internally related to each other?

    The big problem is that when scientists use the word race it reinforces popular understandings of race as being scientifically valid. But popular understandings of racial difference are never reducible to simple genetic similarity – they always involve a moral and mental dimension that are not present in a spreadsheet which analyzes admixture. So, why retrofit a pseudoscientific concept for use as an analytic category within science? Especially when the pseudoscientific meaning is so pervasive that it can easily lead to misunderstanding, such as when Khan states that there are “biologically separate races”.

    When culture is used effectively within anthropology it doesn’t describe cultures as static, monolithic and uniform. That is, you can only talk about American culture in a very broad and general sense, individuals within America do not share the same beliefs, practices and social institutions as each other. Good anthropology tend not to use culture as a distinct thing, but to describe practices, beliefs and institutions as cultural to discuss the extent to which what people do is colored by shared sentiments, practices, symbols, meanings, etc..

    Just because they are both categories used to explain human difference doesn’t mean they are equivalent to each other, or that they are used in the same way.

  46. @dad
    If that’s directed at me, why don’t you give a succinct explanation of where I’m wrong?

  47. I don’t think that article proves what you think it does. Human genetic variation is not evenly distributed across geographically and socially distinct populations. That is different than saying that racial categories have a genetic basis. What I’m disputing is not the uneven distribution, but the idea that categories exist on the genetic level, or that those categories are best described by the word “race”.

    That can be best refuted by a geneticist who wrote:

    “Here’s an important issue I want to reemphasize: the different methods of extracting out useful patterns give somewhat different results, and these results themselves are to a great extent human constructions which map only approximately onto the shape of reality. Measures of “genetic distance” are really just useful reifications and their biological reality as the differences amongst billions of base pairs is a somewhat different thing. This is why it is difficult to be more than trivial sometimes when it comes to what the “bottom line” on these studies are; the bottom lines represent human attempts to generate intuitive categories and representations on natural processes which are in some ways deeply alien to us.”

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