The Case of Myriad Genetics

As Tony pointed out, the back and forth on this blog over population genetics has produced some smoke, some heat and some insights into what a gene might be and how much it can say about the everyday lives of human beings. 

Today the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in the case of Association for Molecular Pathology vs. Myriad Genetics. At stake are some the same questions we have been debating at modulated through the US legal system. NPR has a nice overview here.

Another Round of Cultural Anthropology and Population Genetics?

Last month, there was a spirited exchange on and Razib Khan’s Gene Expressions blog “Against the Cultural Anthropologists” about the relationship between cultural anthropology and population genetics.  The “conversation” started with the assertion by Razib that basically, the cultural anthropologists are a bunch of post-modern political malcontents who do nothing productive, and are anti-scientific.  A cultural anthropologist at, Michael Scroggins, responded by kindly pointing out that population genetics is a cover for “hippie bashers” who do not really understand what it means to use “the gene” as a basic unit of analysis.  Helpfully, a number of evolutionary psychologists jumped into the fray to point out that since geneticists do math, and cultural anthropologists do not, we in the social sciences have lower IQs and therefore our poor little genes are doomed to Darwinian extinction.


Thankfully, after the adrenaline charges of such ripostes, we (or I) found that the individuals involved had similar habits of arguing with evidence, theory, and references to founding principles.  It just so happens that all these of these (evidence, theory, and founding principles) are indeed different in the two fields. These are some of the differences I took away from the 100+ comments that poured into the comments sections at both the and Gene Expressions blogs:


Cultural Anthropology Population Genetics
1) Likes Qualitative Description Likes Statistics and quantification
2) Likes Steven Jay Gould Not sure that Steven Jay Gould is relevant to this discussion—and he made a couple of mistakes anyway
3) Believes that cognitive abilities are a social construction Believes that cognitive abilities can in part be explained by genetic inheritance
4) Believes that statistics are often misused in a way that reifies ethnic distinctions Basic principles involve references to Population Genetics texts which describe how to create more precise models based on latest gene sequencing techniques
5) Basic principles involve a reference to Boas, Weber, Durkheim, and Malinowski Really like the work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza
6) Who is Cavalli-Sforza? Who cares about Boas, Weber, or Malinowski—they’re long dead and out of date—we are about the future.  Durkheim is about religion, and that’s not scientific.  He’s also dead.
7) Statistics don’t work because there is no such thing as a single fixed “ethnic” or “racial” characteristic.  Ever more precision in such circumstances is something of a fool’s errand. Statistics are a fantastic tool, particularly as the number of genes (and there variants) are identified, and the collection of data improves.  This will inevitably lead to greater validity and reliability in the models.
8) Gene flow is a product of culture—you do not generally make a baby with someone who is not from your own culture/class/status group.  So models without that assume random mating aren’t very useful. Gene flow can be evaluated independently from culture/class/status group.  So who cares about cultural anthropological variables?
9) No such simple category as a Nacirema which can be represented in a blood sample A Nacirema is a Nacirema is a Nacirema


Then there were the posters who wrote in the traditions of Evolutionary Psychology, and pointed to studies correlating economic success, genetic fitness, and the heritability of cognitive abilities as measured by various intelligence tests.  These people also didn’t like Steven Jay Gould and tended to correlate the wealth and longevity of societies/individuals wit good genes, and economic success.  These posters tended to have more in common with the Population Genetics folk, but I sense that they were in fact a third view.


Anyway, this set me to wondering what it would take to convince someone like the posters Razib, dad, or the others that Population Genetics should pay more attention to cultural anthropology? I am still convinced that their population models would be strengthened if they were to take into account the nature of inequality (ethnic, racial, class, gender) which does indeed structure who mates with who (a fact self-evident to any junior high school boy or girl).   It could also perhaps be quantified in a positivistic fashion, but then I am concerned that some precision begins to be lost, since by categorizing anything, you tend to lose some proportion of the nuance that in fact, cultural anthropology is quite good at.


As for the posters coming from Evolutionary Psychology, I do still have a really tough time understanding how “intelligence” is not inherently a cultural product. Sure some individuals have better “cognitive abilities” than others, but cognitive abilities are always created relative to pre-existing cultural values.  One cultures “success strategy” is another culture’s irrelevancy.  This applied even to math problems used trans-nationally.  My attitude comes from my experiences with African villagers who were much more capable at navigating their environment than I was.  This applied to cognitive skills like judging the weather, crops, wildfires, wildlife, and navigation by hillshapes—all complex activities which I’m not good at, and are not measured by a pencil and paper i.q. test about math or language. I just can’t imagine how a Harvard student who is a MENSA member and has 1600 SAT scores and a 150 i.q could do those things—though perhaps they maybe some of these really smart people might convince me otherwise.


But then what next?

As an academic, I have started to think about what it would take to write an academic article (not a blog) which would be acceptable to peer reviewers in all three fields.  Frankly, the thought of this exhausts me because it implies a lit review of cultural anthropology, population genetics, and evolutionary psychology.  This implies lots and lots of reading which I have not done yet.


I actually wrote such an “inter-disciplinary” article between 2007 and 2013 about mirror neurons which made reference to the fields of social psychology, neural sciences, and philosophy of mind.  My article tried to explain to neural scientists studying mirror neurons why their articles would be enriched by an understanding of one hundred years of study by sociologists of the “Looking Glass Self.”  Believe, me the scientists didn’t want to hear what I had to say, and the rejections from anonymous reviewers of the article were nasty, demeaning, and contemptuous in ways much worse than anything Razib said about cultural anthropology.  After all Razib only said cultural anthropologists should be kicked out of the academy and go work for Cultural Survival.  Big deal.


Having said that, I still am tempted to begin such an article, even though it sounds exhausting at this point.  I would need to read much more about Population Genetics, including some of the references Razib posted.  Also some of the critiques of Gould.  I hate to say it, but I also need to get a firmer grip on what the Evolutionary Psychologists have to say about the nature of intelligence.


Anyway, I guess in a backhand way, this blog is a thank you to Michael, Razib, dad, justaguy, Chuck, German, Sam, KbH and the others who posted in February and March on half a dozen different posts at both Gene Expressions, and  You have given me much to think about in the future.  Blogging fast and furious as we did has an important place to play in academia, as does the slow nasty conservative business of peer-reviewed research.  Indeed, I believe that such blogging will in the long run make the more careful and slow business of peer review stronger, particularly when it facilitates such truly-interdisciplinary efforts.

A Review of the Jared Diamond Reviews

Jared Diamond has created a lot of heat in the anthropological blogosphere in the last few months.  So much heat in fact, that Rex at Savage Minds is now in a position to write a “review of the reviews” in an April 2013 post here.   Quite and achievement for a 512 page book published on December 31, 2012!  When do reviewers have time to read such a book, and also come up with a thoughtful review?

I still haven’t read Diamond’s new book (though I have read most of his earlier books), so won’t comment on the book itself.  However, I have read a number of the reviews, and think that Rex’s viewpoint on that subject is well-worth following up on, as he frames the argument about Diamond’s book as that between the traditionalist (Boasian) school of anthropology, and the more recent activist school which sees anthropology as a field which give voices to the disadvantaged.  He points out that both approaches are guilty of excesses and omissions.  In doing so, Rex comes down on the side of the slower less emotional and “scientific” Boasian school.

I suspect in the long run Rex’s view will prevail as the heat of the publisher’s promotions, and the emotional reaction of Diamond’s self-described opponents shifts to the next controversy. As for the book itself, I guess its success will depend on whether it stands the test of time, which will be determined more like whether people like me read it sometime in the next decade or not.  In the meantime, we have a review of the reviews such as Rex writes, or for that matter the reviews themselves.