Jason Richwine, Scientist?

“We destroy people with the inappropriate tools we use to study them” – Ray Birdwhistell

Jason Richwine has emerged to defend himself in a National Review editorial. As you might expect, Richwine contextualizes his dissertation as an exercise in scientific fortitude and paints himself as a heroic seeker of truth. For example, he sums up the past month this way:

The furor will soon pass. Mercifully, the media are starting to forget about me. But a certain amount of long-term damage to political discourse has been done. Every researcher who writes on public policy over the next few years will have a fresh and vivid memory of how easy it is to get in trouble with the media’s thought police, and how easy it is to become an instant pariah. Researchers will feel even more compelled to suppress unpopular evidence and arguments that should be part of an open discussion. This is certainly not the way science should be conducted, and it’s not the way our politics should be either.

That last sentence packs a wallop. Per Richwine, his persecution was due to political posturing by those who seek to block the truth about immigration, while his research was a heroic exercise in value-free science. Apparently at the Kennedy School, Max Weber is not on the reading list. Perhaps next year they can shoehorn him in between Murray and Herrnstein. Or, at the very least, screen the film version of Arrowsmith.

In any case, Richwine’s argument rests on his unexamined and mutable deployment of the category “hispanic.” Though often referring to it as a socially constructed ethnic category, Richwine never fails to deploy the category in his analysis, as biologically determined and determining. This sloppiness in Richwine’s use of his primary analytical term has not gone unnoticed.

There is a petition making the rounds, which opposes Richwine’s claims of  disinterest by arguing that Richwine’s dissertation is not science exactly because Richwine conflates his analytical categories in the interest of politics. They pull no punches:

Richwine’s dissertation is problematic for three reasons: 1) it is part of a tradition of scientific racism; 2) it is based on discredited ideas of intelligence testing; and 3) it relies on an unscientific relationship between racialized categories and genetic makeup. Ideas of racial inferiority have been used justify slavery, forced sterilizations, the Holocaust, and all forms of contemporary racism and sexism. These ideas have no place in 21st century social science because of their historical use to justify genocide and mass sterilization and their lack of scientific rigor.

Richwine makes a connection between the genetic makeup of Hispanics and their I.Q. However, there is no genetic basis for racialized differences. And, Hispanic is an ethnic category made up of people of every racialized category. A Hispanic is a person with roots in Latin America who lives in the United States. Their ancestry could include people from any continent. The claim that Hispanics share a genetic makeup that could differentiate them from white Americans is not debatable; it is untenable.

Further on they note:

As academics, we find it appalling that, in 2009, three professors at Harvard University were willing to guide and approve a dissertation in this academic tradition. There are three central problems with Richwine’s work that should not pass muster in any dissertation committee: 1) the argument that I.Q. scores are an indication of innate intelligence; and 2) the assertion that I.Q. is a genetic trait; and 3) the presumption that Hispanics, as a group, share a genetic makeup. All these ideas have been discredited and all are linked to an unfortunate history of scientific racism.

They end the letter with:

Dean Ellwood at Harvard Kennedy School takes the position that this dissertation is part of an academic debate. We are not against academic freedom. However, there is no academic debate on whether or not Hispanics as a group are less intelligent than native-born whites. There are debates on whether or not Hispanic is a pan-ethnic, ethnic, or racialized category. There are debates on how and whether or why we should measure intelligence. There are debates on the extent to which intelligence is a heritable trait. But, there are no debates on whether or not Latino immigrants have the intellectual caliber to be part of the United States. Those kinds of debates happen in nativist and white supremacist circles, which have no place in academia, which prizes arguments and debates based on valid constructs and scientific evidence.

One curious note about the letter (which is linked above as a Google Doc) is that it seems to have no author. The first time I saw the letter posted to a blog it read “we are a group of 76 scholars (and counting)”, the next time it read 287 scholars, then 1000 scholars and today it reads 1200 scholars.

“1 + 1”: More than an Equation

by Amina Tawasil

Schooling is supposed to either spark or augment IQ/cognitive ability which is then exhibited as ‘skills’. Thus, it only follows that schooling increases the chances of upward mobility for girls, women and people of color. And, for men and women in ‘small villages of ailing countries’, schooling is considered a pillar to a successful rural to urban labor migration. In short, schooling is supposed to guarantee financial security. If governments hold up the security and economic-progress end of the bargain, then its people are supposed to reap the benefits of having been schooled. It is as easy as 1+1 = 2.

These promises have the potential, though temporary, to deliver the rapture of the impossible made possible. The reality, of course, is much too complex. For instance in the United States, mainstream schooling is not only a space where a child is told that “1+1=2”, but also where a child puts into practice the idea that whoever gets to the correct answer “2” first is the winner (Pope 2003). Most importantly, it is a space where a child comes to find out that whoever certifies “2” as the correct answer matters.

Clearly, not everyone in school who wishes to can become a six year-old playwright. Not everyone can be on the robotics team. And much to one’s dismay, the smell of the strawberry-scented sticker teachers often give out eventually wear off. But, more importantly, not everyone buys into this set-up their entire lives, a point I will get back to later.

Let us first problematize the extraction of “1 + 1 = 2” from the world in which it is, to be or come about. What happens when how the worth of this equation is developed through social relations is ignored? When the race for first place becomes the focus of any sort of analysis, most of what takes place in life outside of that race is bound to be dismissed. Here is small scenario to draw out what I mean by that. A girl, at age six, decides to be a playwright for the moment by writing about how her neighborhood friends actually built a robot in their backyard out of paper clips and strawberry scented stickers. In the face of accomplishments by those who have been schooled according to standardized assessments of validating institutions, this playwright and her friends will go unnoticed or discounted as, “it is what children do” rather than what winners of math and science olympiads or the mini-Blackburn prize do.

Simply put, the worth of “1+1 is 2” (in this case, writing a play) is more than about solving the equation. It is also about who solved it first, about who said it was solved, and where it was solved. In this paradigm, it becomes clear that this race to first place via 1+1 is where ‘life’ takes place, and they must first accept this race as a fact in order to begin the work of winners. It follows though that the scale is always tilted, certainly not in favor of the silent majority of broken hearts whose names are never called to come up on stage to receive a prize.

If the scale is always tilted to favor the winning-few, how is it possible that 1) we can make positive assumptions about schooling as stated in the beginning of this post and 2) schooling is the only way to spark ‘intelligence’, to gain mobility, or to level the playing field?

This unequal distribution of prizes has, now more than ever, emerged as the crisis of higher education; student debt is crushing the American Dream, the pay off to an investment in schooling is now less available, and people with doctoral degrees are on food stamps. The race for first place in academia, case in point, is not all that it is cracked up to be with only 25% of faculty across the United States on tenure. The very system of socioeconomic relations in which schooling is situated has and continues to privilege a specific kind of finish-first-place education that guarantees losing for most of its participants. Thus, it almost seems absurd not to have expected this crisis knowing that the system was rigged from the very start- to have a few winners, it must spawn losers.

One of the consequences of privileging the rubric of the 1+1 race (a guaranteed way to throw segments of the population into snake-pits via student loans) as a way to measure success is the tendency to overlook the enabling parts of life. By praising ‘who is first’ and then focusing on ‘what went wrong with those who did not make it’, a great deal more about life (theirs, ours), which may provide clues on how to help them better change their conditions, is taken for granted.

So, I ask, how are grown men and women generally mending their broken hearts after what feels like an empty return on investment on their higher education? Not surprisingly, pretty much the same way a self-made six year-old playwright does- though a formidable task, by self-making with the help of friends who are also self-making.

An ethnography of these specifics which essentially informs the universals makes for an excellent field of research since a movement away from investing in the empty promises of vying for first place is well on its way. From creating handbooks for contingent faculty, to unionizing like CalFac and ChicagoCoCal, to informing of rights from the Adjunct Faculty Caucus of New Jersey City University (AFC-NJCU), to creating on-line Cognitariat, to providing databases of opportunities- Versatile PhD, to pooling in skills and talents to contribute and benefit from the needs of the local community SkillShare, the Brooklyn Institute of Social Research, The Public School, and so on, men and women are working together to create and foster cooperative action.

A wave of organized defiance is emerging against the very ideology of survival of the fittest as the only practice of guaranteed survival. Human beings do not have to be perpetual competitors in the struggle for existence. Like the six year-old neighborhood playwright, men and women intent on mutual aid are coming up with viable ways to both contribute to and benefit from ways of ‘knowing and learning’ of communities in order to provide safety nets for each other.

There is yet, and finally, a problem- the tendency to relegate these said initiatives as ‘substandard’ alternatives to solutions produced out of the actual race, simply because these alternatives are produced out of the inherent dysfunction of its losing participants. Why is this substandard-izing a problem? It closes all doors to appreciating the human genius, except for one- the narrow doggie door of the who, what, when of 1+1, which millions of people are expected to move through. Impossible and unacceptable.

Fortunately, this misplaced attitude, too, is changing. By coming up with sustainable alternatives, the assumption about education as only and about schooling is constantly re-examined. Is it not that most of what we actually come to find out takes place off stage, without winners or losers? By watching and becoming aware of the efforts men and women are making together, instead of blindly following the process of elimination, one may well begin to embrace the better approach- ‘making it’ involves the cultivation of social networks. To end;

  • The natural and social calamities pass away. Whole populations are periodically reduced to misery or starvation; the very springs of life are crushed out of millions of men, reduced to city pauperism; the understanding and the feelings of the millions are vitiated by teachings worked out in the interest of the few. All this is certainly a part of our existence. But the nucleus of mutual-support institutions, habits, and customs remains alive with the millions; it keeps them together; and they prefer to cling to their customs, beliefs, and traditions rather than to accept the teachings of a war of each against all, which are offered to them under the title of science, but are no science at all” (Kropotkin 1902).

Kropotkin, Petr

1902 Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

Pope, Denise

2003 Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Does PCA Have Politics?

This morning, armchair scientist and noted fan of this blog, Razib Khan, decided it would be prudent to write about race. It comes by way of Khan issuing a corrective, of sorts, to Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Coates article is wonderful. He takes a historical look at how race has been deployed over the last 150 years. Along the way, he makes all the good points that can be made with the census, and some others as well. It is a nice reminder that far from being fixed, race is a potently flexible concept which can and has been use to classify (or cluster) humans based on any number of arbitrary factors. That is, he gives the classically anthropological argument that arbitrary classifications are taken up as naturalized in the support of explicitly political designs.

Which brings me around to Khan.

After first giving a brief history of the world as told through the clustering of genes in patterns – a la Cavalli-Sforza – Khan turns to the power of his beloved PCA:

When you take multiple dimensions and transpose the data geometrically you quickly see population structure fall out of the data set.

As if by magic, unsullied by the subjective whims of human judgment, PCA objectively does the work of racial classification. Khan eventually draws the following conclusion about race:

So there you have it. An underlying biological reality which is a reflection of deep history. It may not be real or factual, but it is consistent and coherent. Then there are innate faculties which lead us toward categorization of humans into various kinds, for deeply adaptive purposes. Finally, there are historically contingent events which warp our perception of categories so as to fit into power relations in a straightforward sense.

And here I agree with Khan. What he does is neither real nor factual, but it is consistent and internally coherent. For Khan, race is a biological reality, but historically contingent events conspire to warp our perceptions of this uncomfortable fact.

Steve Hsu, for his part, offers this muddled attempt to use race as a fixed concept without coming off as using race as a fixed concept. Needless to say, it doesn’t add up:

Now plot the genome of each human as a point on our lattice. Not surprisingly, there are readily identifiable clusters of points, corresponding to traditional continental ethnic groups: Europeans, Africans, Asians, Native Americans, etc. (See, for example, Risch et al., Am. J. Hum. Genet. 76:268–275, 2005.) Of course, we can get into endless arguments about how we define European or Asian, and of course there is substructure within the clusters, but it is rather obvious that there are identifiable groupings, and as the Risch study shows, they correspond very well to self-identified notions of race. ….

This leads us to two very different possibilities in human genetic variation:

Hypothesis 1: (the PC mantra) The only group differences that exist between the clusters (races) are innocuous and superficial, for example related to skin color, hair color, body type, etc.
Hypothesis 2: (the dangerous one) Group differences exist which might affect important (let us say, deep rather than superficial) and measurable characteristics, such as cognitive abilities, personality, athletic prowess, etc. …

The predominant view among social scientists is that H1 is obviously correct and H2 obviously false. However, this is mainly wishful thinking. Official statements by the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association even endorse the view that race is not a valid biological concept, which is clearly incorrect.

As scientists, we don’t know whether H1 or H2 is correct, but given the revolution in biotechnology, we will eventually. Let me reiterate, before someone labels me a racist: we don’t know with high confidence whether H1 or H2 is correct.

Finally, it is important to note that group differences are statistical in nature and do not imply anything definitive about a particular individual. Rather than rely on the scientifically unsupported claim that we are all equal, it would be better to emphasize that we all have inalienable human rights regardless of our abilities or genetic makeup.

Hsu’s logic is wrong on several counts here. But, I will discuss the two points which are particularly glaring.

The first is simply the conflation of clustering imposed by PCA (which I will get to later) with the reified category race. He constantly confuses this issue. This is particularly evident when he chides the AAA for noting that race is not a valid biological concept and then points to evidence from PCA as evidence that race is a biological reality.

Second, his attempt to assert legal equality is belied by his other attempts to police access to public institutions based on IQ scores. Hsu’s conceptions of inalienable rights would appear to be taken directly from Plato’s Republic.   

Hsu is also wrong in implying that work on race within anthropology has been stagnate. In a recent (2009) paper titled “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality,” Gravlee puts forth a powerful and subtle account of how social inequalities become reified under the rubric race.

Of interest in the recent back and forth on this blog is Gravlee’s argument about the abuse of PCA in genetics:

Yet some researchers still defend race as a useful
framework for describing human genetic variation—and
for identifying genetic influences on racial differences in
disease (Risch et al., 2002; Gonzalez Burchard et al.,
2003; Bamshad et al., 2004). The defense of race relies
on two related lines of evidence: 1) studies of worldwide
genetic variation show that individuals from the same
continent reliably cluster together (Rosenberg et al.,
2002; Bamshad et al., 2003; Shriver et al., 2004;
Rosenberg et al., 2005), and 2) in the United States,
‘‘self-identified race/ethnicity’’ is a useful proxy for
genetic differentiation between groups that vary in conti-
nental ancestry (Tang et al., 2005)…..

First, the claim that recent genetic studies ‘‘have recapitulated the classical definition of races’’(Risch et al., 2002, p 3) misrepresents the purpose of cluster analysis, which is to detect pattern in a given dataset, not determine the essential number of subdivisions in our species. An example of this error is the common interpretation of Rosenberg et al. (2002) as evidence that humans are divided into five genetic clusters (e.g., Bamshad et al., 2004; Mountain and Risch, 2004; Leroi, 2005; Tang et al., 2005). Evidence that humans can be divided into five clusters does not mean they are naturally divided, as the classical definition of race would suggest. In fact, the number of clusters necessary to describe global genetic variation has been inconsistent; some studies report five (Rosenberg et al., 2002) and others seven (Corander et al., 2004; Li et al., 2008). Even when the number of clusters is consistent, their boundaries and composition are not [compare Corander et al., (2004) and Li et al., (2008)], and finer substructures are obscured.


Gravlee goes on to offer three further points of rebuttal, all equally powerful. But, Gravlee’s argument about clustering points us towards another classic anthropological point; drawing boundaries, whether through language or mathematics, is political work. Further, what Gravlee argues about PCA holds true of all statistical techniques.

A cursory glance at the historic malleability of racial categories from any census, or a look at Ta-Nehisi Coates article will demonstrate this point. Race is undeniably a social category that carries real consequences for those caught on the wrong side of the classificatory scheme. How one chooses to classify is a political act and no amount of technical mediation can change that.


Gravlee, Clarence C. 2009 How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139(1): 47–57.

The Political Economy of IQ, Or Tilting At Windmills with Steve Hsu (and Jason Richwine)

Steve Hsu has been on a tear lately. Giving talks about IQ, here and here, and partnering with BGI to sequence the genomes of “high cognition” individuals in a quest to solve the giant “problem” of IQ. This effort has hit Vice magazine, Slate, and, more recently, NPR. To give you the CliffsNotes version of Hsu’s argument: IQ is a quantitative trait, just like height and can therefore be selected for improvement.

If you don’t know Hsu, he is the vice president for graduate admissions and research at Michigan State University. He has input into the direction of MSU’s research efforts and whom MSU admits to its graduate programs. .

Obviously, Hsu isn’t the first to claim a method of ranking humans according to cognitive endowment, nor will he be the last. The first attempt was Spearman’s 1904 paper in which he noted a positive correlation in schoolchildren across seemingly unrelated subjects. He called this construction “General Intelligence.” Hsu’s attempt is one of the latest and in keeping with intellectual fashion, he has substituted “Genetic Architecture” and a series of quantitative trait loci for Spearman’s construction, but otherwise their respective projects follow the same intellectual current.

I will raise three lines of objection to Hsu’s claim to have found the “genetic architecture” of high IQ. The first objection is that the tests Hsu uses to determine IQ are culture bound. That is, they reward some types of test takers more than others. Second, Hsu’s model assumes that certain types of knowledge require more cognitive ability to master than other forms do. Third, Hsu falls victim to the utilitarian fallacy. I’ll briefly discuss the first two before turning to the third.

First, a well-worn criticism of Hsu’s work on the genetics of “higher cognition” is that the SAT, which he uses as a proxy for the g factor (see Gould for a thorough debunking) is slanted towards rewarding wealthy test takers. This is a well understood phenomena. The more money one’s parents make (or the more academic their jobs are!), the better one’s chances of succeeding on the SAT.

Hsu, for his part, has acknowledged the culture bound nature of his quest, but seems to believe he can get around the unfortunate fact of the SAT with a “culture-neutral” test, though he does not actually have any concrete plans to administer it and his work uses the SAT extensively. Unfortunately for Hsu, people who think in “culturally neutral” categories are about as common as Giants on the plains of La Mancha.


Second, in this paper, Hsu attempts to link certain majors (physics and mathematics) to “cognitive thresholds.” In doing so, he assumes a natural order of cognition running from fields requiring advanced mathematics to those do not. There is no need to do too much here work tying this up with Victorian conceptions of the savage and the civilized. Suffice to say there is a long body of work within anthropology (and cross-cultural psychology) which explodes this assumption. What is important is context. Some skills are more important, and hence likely to receive more development in certain contexts as opposed to others. Hsu is simply mistaking an epiphenomena of formal schooling in the early 21st century for an eternal human truth.

For example, in 1904, Spearman concluded that the most powerful correlation for “General Intelligence” was excellence in Classics, followed by Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination and French. Mathematics is on the list and and correlated positively, but the highest correlations were dominated by language. It is unsurprising that among English schoolchildren in the first half of the 20th century, language and music would be highly valued within formal schooling while among American college applicants in the early 21st century, mathematical ability would be highly valued.

In each case, the sample subjects are cultivating historically and socially contingent subjects taught within a powerfully hegemonic institution. What makes Spearman and Hsu irresponsible social scientists is i), their unreflective assumptions of these categories as eternal and unchanging and ii), their use of these categories to rank and sort humans in a manner that closes off their possible futures. In this way, both hew closely to deficit models of school failure.

Third, the utilitarian gambit is a staple of quantitative approaches to human action, and as with any mathematical model, must make some assumption about motivation as a start. Hsu simply assumes everyone who takes the test tries to get the best score. He uses the brute fact of admissions based on the SAT to model a market for IQ, which sorts test takers according to their potential with the underlying assumption that test takers do their best to gain high scores. Thus, a political economy is formed whereby high scoring test takers are slotted into the most competitive majors (Hsu thinks some majors require more cognitive ability than others) at the most competitive universities.

However, we know from a wide and deep body of literature within the Anthropology of Education that not all test takers apply themselves equally or are motivated to do well on tests they know are of little use to them. Hsu knows this as well, but he chooses to ignore it with his work on genetics and IQ. However, in an interview with Psychology Today, Hsu gave the following answer to a question about Richard Feyman’s allegedly low IQ score:

3.  Is it true Feynman’s IQ score was only 125?

Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability. Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton. It seems quite possible to me that Feynman’s cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided-his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities. I recall looking at excerpts from a notebook Feynman kept while an undergraduate. While the notes covered very advanced topics for an undergraduate-including general relativity and the Dirac equation-it also contained a number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.

How the world has changed since 1904!

Hsu is more than eager to judge you based on your SAT, ACT, GRE,  IQ, or Wonderlic score, but for his personal hero, an excuse must be made. And the excuse he makes for Feynman exposes the assumptions underlying his theory. Feynman, of course, is gambling that he can afford not to care about some things. But, he isn’t alone. Everyone gambles on what they can and cannot afford to care about.

One of Hsu’s examples of an acceptable SAT substitute is the Wonderlic. The Wonderlic is perhaps most famous for its use in the NFL scouting process. Morris Claiborne, a cornerback from LSU, infamously scored a 6 on the Wonderlic. What does he say about the IQ test?

“That test don’t tell me who I am and what time of guy I am and what kind of ability I have. That test can’t drop me.

“They say it’s an IQ test. I came to the combine for football. I looked at the test, and wasn’t any questions about football. I didn’t see no point in the test. I’m not in school anymore. I didn’t complete it. I only finished 15 or 18 questions.”

Claiborne was selected number 6 in the NFL draft and signed to a contract worth several million dollars. Obviously, Claiborne plays football and does not teach theoretical physics, but his comments are illuminating for a powerful reason.

Claiborne is just like Feynman in that he has the good sense to know what not to care about, and where to focus his attention. In fact, the logical justification Claiborne uses in blowing off the test and the logical justification Hsu uses in explaining away Feynman’s relatively low IQ score are almost identical.

Hsu on Feynman:

I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.

Claiborne on Claiborne:

I’m not in school anymore. I didn’t complete it.

What Feynman and Claiborne are doing is deeply playing with the boundaries of their respective fields. As Geertz observed in a Balinese cockpit deep play is two things. It is 1) instructive work and 2) metasocial commentary. That is, it is a set of instructions about how to do the thing we are now doing and what the consequences might be (or might not be) for doing it wrong.

Though these two examples are playful in the sense that the stakes are low and nothing much is to be lost or gained by a CB who refuses formal logic or a physicist who takes an eccentric approach to spelling, they both point to the metacognitive nature of intelligence and the difficulty of pinning down something like the “g-factor” without recourse to the messy details of context or taking into account the inevitability of self-reflection. Such as: Why am I writing this post?


I sat on this post for a long time. I thought perhaps it would be better to take another direction. But this morning’s news carried the tale of Jason Richwine and a reminder of why I might write about IQ and not something else. Richwine is the co-author of the Heritage Foundation’s new report on immigration and the author of a Harvard dissertation titled “IQ and Immigration Policy.” Here is the abstract:

The statistical construct known as IQ can reliably estimate general mental ability, or intelligence. The average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations. The consequences are a lack of socioeconomic assimilation among low-IQ immigrant groups, more underclass behavior, less social trust, and an increase in the proportion of unskilled workers in the American labor market. Selecting high-IQ immigrants would ameliorate these problems in the U.S., while at the same time benefiting smart potential immigrants who lack educational access in their home countries.

In a few days, I will set Richwine (and Hsu) in the context of the Culture of Poverty debates. Suffice to say, they offer nothing new to debates over IQ, or poverty or immigration. Their innovation lies in the naked, unreflective application of a naïve sociobiology to policy debates over access to democratic institutions – citizenship and public education.


Richwine is out at the Heritage Foundation. Meanwhile, Richwine’s advisor has been distancing himself at a rapid clip:

“I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc,” Borjas told me in an email. “In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I’ve long believed this, I don’t find the IQ academic work all that interesting. Economic outcomes and IQ are only weakly related, and IQ only measures one kind of ability. I’ve been lucky to have met many high-IQ people in academia who are total losers, and many smart, but not super-smart people, who are incredibly successful because of persistence, motivation, etc. So I just think that, on the whole, the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.”

Incidental Anthropology: American Parenting, Mendeley, and “Japan’s Modern Divide”

In this installment of the seriocomic series Incidental Anthropology, I bring you three more media stories which incidentally illustrate anthropological points. Given the recent back and forth on this blog over genetics, I highly recommend the first link.

1) Why are Americans so focused on how “cognitively advanced” their children are?

2) Some thoughts on Elsevier’s purchase of Mendeley and what this might mean for Open Access and academic publishing.

3) The complex career and photography of Hiroshi Hamaya with a view towards the relation of snow and spirit.

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 ethnography.com modulated through the US legal system. NPR has a nice overview here.

Incidental Anthropology: Infant Waste, Tourists, The Evolution of Imaginary Animals and More….

In this long overdue installment of Incidental Anthropology I bring you a few examples of anthropology interest incidentally found in the media.

First, the vexing question of how to handle to infant waste and some ingenious responses: here

Second, how have tourists in American National Parks changed over the last 30 years? Not much: here

Third, how do you test a method of building phylogenic trees without using actual organisms? With invented organisms called Caminalcules: here

Finally, Jeff Bezos has pulled an F-1 rocket engine from the sea floor. Is this an act of respect for the engineers who built the engines or an act of “gonzo space archeology?”  Discussed, here

The History of the World is But the Biography of Great Genes

– Thomas Carlyle, genetic Historian

Raymond Williams begins his introduction to Keywords by telling of his return to Cambridge following the end of World War II. He recounts meeting a friend he had known through various radical groups in the 1930’s. As they discussed their efforts to establish some continuity between the Cambridge they had known before the war and the Cambridge they were entering after the war, both Williams and his friend realized that much of the language they had had relied upon had shifted, and this shift had rendered much of their pre-war intellectual life unfamiliar.

This moment eventually sets Williams off to write Keywords. In the book, he focuses on a small number of words, which are common across several academic disciplines and in general use but whose meanings have evolved over the last few centuries as they have picked up specialized use and travelled into new contexts. As Williams notes:

One central feature of this area of interest was its vocabulary, which is significantly not the specialized vocabulary of a specialized discipline, though
it  often  overlaps  with  several  of  these,  but  a  general  vocabulary  ranging  from strong,  difficult  and  persuasive  words  in  everyday  usage  to  words  which,
beginning  in  particular  specialized  contexts,  have  become  quite  common  in descriptions of wider areas of thought and experience. This, significantly, is the
vocabulary  we  share  with  others,  often  imperfectly,  when  we  wish  to  discuss many of the central processes of our common fife.

Both the terms culture and genetics entered their respective disciplines and assumed specialized use in the same period of time, though the intervening years have pushed them far enough apart to set them in opposition to one another.

Culture is the original term Williams set out to trace, and it has the longest and most tortured history. This is no surprise and has been widely discussed, argued over, and generally made a point of contention within anthropology over the last hundred years.

However, the term genetic has an equally interesting history:


Genetic sometimes presents difficulties because it has two senses: a general  meaning, which has become relatively uncommon in English though it is  still  common,  for  example,  in  French,  and  a  specialized  meaning,  in  a
particular branch of science, which has become well known. Genetic is an  adjective from genesis, L, genesis, Gk – origin, creation, generation. It came  into English in eC19, at first with the sense of a reference to origins, as in Carlyle: ‘genetic Histories’ (1831). It still had this main sense of origin in  Darwin, where ‘genetic connection’ (1859) referred to a common origin of
species. But genetic carried also the sense of development, as in ‘genetic definitions’  (1837)  where  the  defined  subject  was  ‘considered  as  in  the  progress  to  be,  as  becoming’,  and  this  was  present  again  in  ‘the  genetic development of the parts of speech’ (1860). In 1897 genetics was defined in distinction from telics, to describe a process of development rather than a
fully developed or final state. Developments in eC20 biology showed the need for a new word. Bateson in 1905 referred to the ‘Study of Heredity’ and wrote: ‘no word in common use quite gives this meaning . . . and if it were desirable to coin one, “Genetics” might do’. From this use the now normal scientific description became established: ‘the physiology of heredity and
variation . . . genetics’ (Nature, 1906). But the older and more general sense of development was still active, as in ‘genetic psychology’ (1909), which we would now more often call developmental psychology, without reference to biological genetics. Moreover the earliest sense also survived, as in ‘genetic fallacy’ (1934) – the fallacy of explaining or discrediting something by reference to its original causes.

In normal English usage, genetic now refers to the facts of heredity and variation, in a biological context (genetic inheritance, genetic code, etc.). But in addition to the residual English uses genetic also often appears in
translations,  especially  from  French,  where  the  sense  is  normally  of formation  and  development.  Thus  genetic  structuralism  (Goldmann)  is  distinguished  from  other  forms  of  STRUCTURALISM  (q.v.)  by  its
emphasis  on  the  historical  (not  biological)  formation  and  development of structures (forms of consciousness). It is probable that in this translated use it  is  often  misunderstood,  or  becomes  loosely  associated  with  biological genetics.



You can see where development diverged from the term genetic and came to be related to a more static view of an adult organism. This is certainly the case in biology today where a field like population genetics neither has, nor for the bulk of work done in the discipline, needs a theory of development.

Development has a long and winding history in biology, as Gould outlined in his 1977 Ontogeny and Phylogeny. This book is indirectly responsible for fields like evo-devo and DST, both of which pose a serious challenge to work stemming from the modern synthesis like population genetics. As an aside, Gould’s book is worth the time to read if only for the first few chapters in which he demonstrates how recapitulation theory entered social theory in the 19th century and continued deep into the 20th.

One could argue what someone like Cavalli-Sforza (and much more so his followers) practice is exactly history in Carlyle’s sense of “genetic Histories.” Their aim, as with Carlyle, and Galton after him, is to discover human origins as traced through the history of great men, or in this case, great genes. In this way genetics, through population genetics, has again taken up a concern with the telic.

It is a nice piece of anthropology trivia that the Bateson referenced in the quote above is none other than Gregory Bateson’s father.

Attack of the Armchair Scientist

The reason I post about cultural anthropology now and then isn’t that I want to argue or discuss with cultural anthropologists. Rather, I want to aid in spreading the message the discipline should be extirpated from the academy, just as Creationists have been extirpated from biology – Razib Khan

There is a long history of work claiming the mantle of science, which seeks to push forward essentialist theories of racial disposition and intelligence. Historically, racialist theories were formed upon a population typology which could be ranked along some set of criteria. Currently you can find modern armchair scientists hard at work behind their keyboards using programs like ADMIXTURE to form up new population typologies, which can be ranked along some set of criteria. See this nice article in the Annals of Human Genetics for an overview of the latter in terms of the former.

It isn’t hard to conflate population with race if you try, so I will let Khan explain how it is done:

The problem here is the word “race.” It has a whole lot of baggage. So many biologists prudently shift to “population” or “ethnic group.” I don’t much care either way. Let’s just put the semantic sugar to the side.

What Khan dismisses as so much “semantic sugar” is a notoriously arbitrary category, which varies widely across historical periods and cultural settings. For example, during the US census in 1790, a person could assume one of the following classifications:

1) free White men 16 and over

2) free White males under 16

3) free White females

4) all other free persons

5) slaves

By 1890, these classifications had changed to:

1) black

2) mulatto

3) quadroon

4) octoroon

5) Chinese

6) Japanese

7) Indians

But, why should Khan care either way?

Khan hangs his hat on the tight fit between computational tools, big data sets and a tiny bit of mangled theory he borrows from population genetics. The last few years have seen an explosion of both freely available genetic data and computational tools for statistically examining that data. Essentially, this is big data for genomic information. And it is a powerful and useful tool in the right hands. The skill, as in all research, lies in knowing where that point is and in having the discipline not to pass it.

But, as Nassim Taleb cogently points out:

big data means anyone can find fake statistical relationships, since the spurious rises to the surface. This is because in large data sets, large deviations are vastly more attributable to variance (or noise) than to information (or signal). It’s a property of sampling: In real life there is no cherry-picking, but on the researcher’s computer, there is.

. . .

Another issue with big data is the distinction between real life and libraries. Because of excess data as compared to real signals, someone looking at history from the vantage point of a library will necessarily find many more spurious relationships than one who sees matters in the making; he will be duped by more epiphenomena.

My point here is that there is a difference of kind between the type of knowledge produced by “discovering” associations (note: not necessarily correlations) in big data sets and the type of knowledge produced in the field or laboratory. The shorthand for this difference has always been that correlation is not causation, but one should never forget the ramifications of mistaking the two can be stark.

This is related to Taleb’s other point, the difference between “matters in the making” and the library. Latour, in rephrasing Kaplan’s sentiment of 30 years prior, famously termed this disconnect the “Janus Face” of science. Going forward, either in the field or at the lab bench, science is an exercise in patience and frustration. You very quickly learn that nature is anything but uniform and smooth. As I mentioned in the first post, nature can be made uniform in a test tube and miracles can be performed, but only for short periods of time and at great effort.

However, for desk jockeys like Khan, who sit safely ensconced behind their keyboards where they face neither uncertainty nor doubt, the data they encounter has already been made uniform. Like all big data, processing genomic data for analysis requires taking a few analytic steps to cleanse the data prior to use. This paper gives a nice overview of the process and perils of cleaning data. But, just how often is the cleansing of data reported upon?

Back to Taleb:

And speaking of genetics, why haven’t we found much of significance in the dozen or so years since we’ve decoded the human genome?

Well, if I generate (by simulation) a set of 200 variables — completely random and totally unrelated to each other — with about 1,000 data points for each, then it would be near impossible not to find in it a certain number of “significant” correlations of sorts. But these correlations would be entirely spurious. And while there are techniques to control the cherry-picking (such as the Bonferroni adjustment), they don’t catch the culprits — much as regulation didn’t stop insiders from gaming the system. You can’t really police researchers, particularly when they are free agents toying with the large data available on the web.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a long history of armchair scientists like Razib Khan, Charles Murray, and Arthur Jensen attempting to extract answers from questions that population genetics cannot and will never be able to give meaningful answers to. It should come as no surprise that the answers they “discover”, as Taleb implies, never fail to reinforce their whiggish starting assumptions.

The question I am left with after this back and forth with Khan is: Why do the publishers of Discover (a magazine of science?) pay this guy to represent science to the the public?

A question for the publisher of Discover magazine. Do you consider this science?

Because of the occupational constraints of Ashkenazi Jews, and their narrow ecological niche as an non-agricultural minority, the development of a religious specialist class whose stock and trade was extensive commentary and interpretation of law is not entirely surprising. But it is also totally parasitic upon the genuine productivity of a society. The reality is that for a society to flourish you do not need thousands of ethical rules to follow. Like many investment bankers and “patent troll” attorneys the great rabbis of yore many have had fast processing units, but they did not utilize them toward productive ends.

Please note that the emphasis is Khan’s own.

Gene Promoters 2: The Wrath of Khan

In the Star Trek episode “Space Seed”, Khan was a genetically engineered human who, in the wake of the eugenic wars, was exiled to a distant planet. This Khan is a sensitive observer of the human condition, who at one point, asks Kirk if he has ever read Milton. Kirk, in turn, laments, “Yes, I understand.” Khan, of course, was a sensitive and wise commentator on the perils and potential of genetics.

There exists a second Khan, however, and his vengeful wrath has been visited upon me. This post concerns that second Khan who, unlike the first Khan, is neither sensitive nor wise. The first Khan expounds on the terrible responsibility his position has left him in. The second Khan expounds on dating and eugenics.  A few samples of this second Khan’s “science” in action follow. Excerpts taken from the links above:

Khan on dating:

A few points need to be made clear: males do not exhibit statistically significant racial preferences by and large. That’s somewhat shocking to me. I’m not surprised that older subjects have weaker biases, I suspect frankly they’re more realistic and don’t want to narrow their options anymore than they have to. Finally, I’m totally confused as to why hotties would be less race conscious; you would figure if hybrid vigor is real that the marginal returns would be greatest for the fuglies (specifically, assuming that fugitude correlates with individual mutational load and hybridization would be better at masking that load). But the most relevant demographic point is that these are Columbia University graduate students. In other words, a cognitively & socially elite sample.

This selection makes me smile a bit as I am a member of the “elite” population he is writing about. Which is a nice compliment, if a bit at odds with his contention that I am a “Left Creationist”, but then who I am I to judge?

I won’t say much here, except that the second Khan’s interpretation of the phenomena of dating among “elite” graduate student bears no resemblance to actual facts on the ground. Which, when it comes to his interpretations of human behavior is par for the course. This is actually one of his better efforts, much worse follows:

Khan on eugenics:

if homosexuality is predominantly biological, and if we could predict and “correct” (or abort) this likelihood at the fetal stage I have little doubt that the majority of parents would opt to prevent their child being homosexual. That being said, a minority would not, and I am willing to bet that a hard core of “naturalists,” generally conservative and motivated by deep religious beliefs, would avoid these screens on principle. Not only do I suspect that Down Syndrome children in the future will be born predominantly to religious and social conservatives, but I suspect that a disproportionate number of homosexuals might!

I’ll let this one speak for itself.

Yesterday I wrote a perfectly mild blog post which argued two obvious and non-controversial points. First, there is a gap between science as it is practiced and science as it is reconstructed in reports. Second, the gene is not a unitary monolith, but rather a mutable concept which has changed form over the last one hundred years. Further, there are disciplinary differences in representing the gene which inform the course of inquiry within those disciplines. In short, “gene” is a concept with multiple, overlapping meanings and deployments, mainly dependent upon disciplinary focus. Far from suggesting the gene is uninteresting, I suggested that it is far more complex and subtle than commonly given credit for in its unitary formulation. Within the various questions and currents of genetics are any number of fascinating and powerful questions to be asked.

Disciplines such evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, and to a lesser extent,  population genetics, I argued, rely on the conception of the gene put forth by Johannsen in 1909. Johannsen argued that the gene should be considered as a unit of transmission divorced from its chemical composition. The important intellectual move made by Johannsen was developing a concept that address the complex phenomena of transmission without connecting them to the elementary phenomena which are assumed to effect the actual transmitting. Hence, when the molecular program came in and effected the modern synthesis, it was very quickly realized that the molecular did not simplify and explain Johannsen’s concept, but rather added a layer of complexity. In the manner of all interesting science, it brought not answers, but new and sharper questions about the relation of elementary to complex phenomena.

Now, this should be no surprise to anyone with even cursory knowledge of the history of genetics, which Khan apparently lacks. The modern synthesis is built on the combination of two disparate conceptions of the gene. This is the import of the word synthesis in the phrase “the modern synthesis.”

The history of psychology makes an interesting comparison with the development of the gene concept. One hundred years ago Wundt and Kulpe had a sharp disagreement over the nature of psychology centered around the relation of the elementary phenomena studied by the experimental faction to the complex phenomena studied by Wundt’s faction. Both authored books titled Grundriss der Psychologie in the same year! But, I’ll write about psychology at a later date.

For next time I will dig deeper into the second Khan’s theory of eugenics (dating I’ll leave to someone else) and shake out the ideology from the science. We shall find how how much of the first Khan’s statement, “Improve a mechanical device and you may double productivity, but improve man and you gain a thousandfold”, exists in the second Khan’s science.