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.

46 thoughts on “Gene Promoters 2: The Wrath of Khan

  1. if a bit at odds with his contention that I am a “Left Creationist”

    lenin was elite. what does being elite have with being right?

  2. it’s interesting that you use definitions from a century ago as that is about where your understanding of genetics still is. you are saying that you want more Down syndrome babies??
    if you had a true understanding of heredity and behavior genetics you would understand that people are born with certain potentials. wanting the best of those potentials to propagate is not a bad thing. instead you live right up to the stereotype and call him a Nazi and a racist.
    hey you should make sure that you update Wikipedia with all of your theories about genetics! be sure to email every geneticist you know to update them on all of your ideas.

  3. Dad,
    If you had an understanding of anthropology, you might have an understanding that while people are indeed born with “potentials,” how they are given meaning is a social construction. And the meaning given to such characteristics is what makes anthropology interesting.

    What is more interesting, the canvas, or the picture of Mona LIsa painted on the canvas?

    I also find it interesting that Michael uses definitions of genes from a century ago. It shows how meaning changes, or as he puts it “In short, ‘gene’ is a concept with multiple, overlapping meanings and deployments, mainly dependent upon disciplinary focus.”

    I don’t see where MIchael used the word “Nazi,” or “racist” in this blog posting. Am I missing something?

  4. I also find it interesting that Michael uses definitions of genes from a century ago. It shows who meaning changes, of as he puts it “In short, ‘gene’ is a concept with multiple, overlapping meanings and deployments, mainly dependent upon disciplinary focus.”

    in the generality the distinction between various concepts of the ‘gene’ is a fertile literature within philosophy of biology, and confronts geneticists in their day to day interactions with their colleagues (e.g., a pop geneticist has a different idea in mind than a molecular geneticist). the problem that the geneticists have when reading your co-bloggers’ ruminations is that they don’t have much connection to real genetics as practiced by geneticists, and various assertions indicate a lack of familiarity with the field whereof he speaks. IOW, his *specific* assertions are just confused or wrong.

  5. LOL. I took Genetics in 1978 or so, and they talked about gene promoters even then. The connection didn’t occur to me until you just posted the link.

    It seems that there is a lot of mixed jargon between modern genetics and anthropology which contributes to the confusion.

  6. The title of your post was “An Anthropologist Explains THE Gene!” where “gene” was used in the singular. Now you admit that there are multiple, shifting and overlapping definitions which require some translation work when moving across fields. Thank you for conceding the point.

    But, let me point out that exactly like “gene” the term “genetics” has multiple overlapping meanings which have shifted over time. Further, there is no discipline known as “real genetics” and the term “geneticist” is a catch all which describes any number of disciplinary orientations and job descriptions. The objection that I have no familiarity with “the field whereof” I speak is particularly hollow when you have named no known field of inquiry!

    I hate to break this to you, but computationally pouring over extant data doesn’t necessarily make you a biologist. And a little precision in the use of terms wouldn’t hurt either.

  7. The title Gene Promoter was an intentional pun because promoters regulate gene expression. I thought it was funny….

  8. MIchael, I think that they did indeed laugh at your pun over in the Genetics Department.

  9. The objection that I have no familiarity with “the field whereof” I speak is particularly hollow when you have named no known field of inquiry!

    what are you talking about? i keep my academic life separate from my blog life, but it is entirely findable. i’m a graduate student studying pop gen and phylogenetics. and my twitter feed is followed by a shit load of geneticists, so presumably they think i know a little about genetics.

    anyway, stop being obtuse. everyone knows the what-is-a-gene controversy. i’m just saying you made a total confused hash of it. and the geneticists i know in my daily life totally agree.

  10. @razib

    Note, “real genetics practiced by geneticists” is not a disciplinary statement, it is an article of religious faith structurally equivalent to writing “true religion practiced by the faithful.”

    Today everybody knows the “what-is-a-gene controversy?” What a change from yesterday when you wrote that I was a “Leftist Creationist” for suggesting such a thing.

    I have no interest in your academic life; your blog speaks for itself.

    Also, I am not being obtuse. I am being precise with the terms I use. That, you see, is how you handle slippery concepts, or in this case slippery rhetors.

  11. for the 1000th time, the issue isn’t the ‘controversy.’ the issue is that you don’t know what you’re talking about in regards to it. that’s obvious to people educated in genetics. as i am. as many of my readers are (being geneticists).

  12. Tony, yes and you guys constantly underestimate the power that genes have. a Border Collie is a Border Collie pretty much no matter where it’s raised. unless you beat your dog it’s going to act the way it was bred to act. most people have 0 awareness of this and unfortunately anthropologists are no different.
    what you all should take away from this is that you are all still behind the times. you are all acting like blank slaters

  13. @dad

    Every time I have seen a Border Collie do something magical it was in the presence of a human and some sheep. And then, to display the magic, the Border Collie had to engage in a three way conversation between human, dog and sheep in order to figure out where the human wanted the sheep to go and how the sheep were resisting direction. What I saw required interspecies communication within a context formed by the interactions of human, dog and sheep. I would even go as far as to say that the context they created together allowed the Border Collies genetics an arena in which to shine through. But, I have never seen a lone Border Collie herd imaginary sheep without a human director.

    Perhaps your Border Collie herds imaginary sheep?

  14. and how well would a bulldog or a Pekingese do in that herding context? for them to perform equally as well as the Collie you would definitely need some imaginary sheep.

  15. ah I think I just understood your viewpoint very clearly. you believe that all other dog breeds have exactly the same potential intelligence of a border collie but just not in the same context?

  16. It’s morning in Germany, so I can jump back in. Someone somewhere on these posts wrote about the “two cultures” of genetics and anthropology. I think we are getting a good example of this here in this discussion.

    There are really indeed different assumptions (epistemologies) about how the world works in the two different disciplines. We validate our epistemologies by talking to others who share our perspectives, and can move forward with that group of people. But in doing so, others who are no longer part of our discussion are left behind. That is what *culture* is–and why definitions are important.

    I like Dad’s example of dog breeds and border collies (and Michael’s responses). There are indeed genetic variations between dog breeds (which are created by humans). I’m not sure how this applies to humans though, who have never been bred to such an extent, and have relatively minor genetic variations between sub-populations, but a great deal of cultural variation. As I recall, Jonathan Marks in “What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee” writes about this point.

  17. 98% the same and yet totally different:) we were never bred but we did evolve in different locations over thousands of years. and there are definitely differences between races of humans: lactose tolerance, skin eye and hair color, intelligence, the way we look, immunity, resistance to malaria, height, ear wax type, sweat glands, hair follicle size, etc. There is a reason why mixed race people find it almost impossible to get a bone marrow donor. if there were not these differences in humans there would be no human family tree. this would ultimately mean that I would be as related to your dad as you are.

  18. Dad,
    I think the anthropologists would agree with you on your list of things that are genetically transmitted, except for “intelligence,” which is a quality that emerges out of a specific cultural milieu, and not genes.

    What anthropologists find interesting about your list, though, is not the fact that there are phenotypic differences, but that in different times and places human groups ascribe meaning to things like skin color, height, etc. This in turn has biological consequences for who will mate with who.

    I get it that geneticists find the biological mechanisms/consequences of inheritance more interesting, and this has important consequences for understanding things like immunity, resistance to malaria, etc. Also for the medical improvements that have emerged from the genetic revolution of the second half of the 20th century. But there are also limits to this, and Michael’s goal is to highlight this.

  19. @dad

    Nobody is saying there are no differences. What I am saying is that the differences are more important within particular contexts and not so important within others. If you do not have to drink milk, then lactose toleration isn’t necessarily important. Just because something can be measured does not automatically make it important – you need something more for that. And I would say, you need something prior to the marker in order to make it meaningful.

    The other thing that is notable by its absence here is a theory of development. To return to the Border Collie example, it is one thing for a puppy to be capable of herding sheep at a high level, but quite another to develop that puppy into an adult Border Collie who can herd at a high level. In order for the puppy to become the adult herder it must undergo a long cycle of development. Some of this is genetic (but not biogentic law) and some of it requires instructional effort from humans, sheep, other dogs, and I would go so far as to say material artifacts like fences, whistles and pens.

  20. Tony, idk it seems weird that evolution would account for everything except for the brain. Kind of suspicious, no?
    Michael, yes it is up to the environment to fulfill that genetic potential. but there is still a limit. a child must have enough food to attain its potential height but, at a certain point, it will stop growing. same with running – I can grow up practicing the 100 yard dash is much as I want but it’s not going get me into the Olympics. there is only 1 white person who has ever broken the 10 second barrier for the 100 yard dash. see what I’m getting at? and the differences do matter. IQ is a highly heritable trait. it’s not like current third world countries were being oppressed before we even discovered them, they were already that way when we got there.

  21. @dad

    IQ isn’t a trait. There is no, nor can there ever be, a genetic marker for general intelligence. IQ is one thing, and that is a mark left by the application of statistical tools.

  22. So everyone has the exact same potential intelligence? George W. Bush could’ve been as smart Stephen Hawking and both have the same potential as a person with down syndrome? And it’s ok for Texas to execute said person with DS if they murder someone?
    You might want to read the wiki on IQ, heritability, and psychometrics. your views would be considered wrong even by other left wing people.

  23. Dad,
    Another good read on IQ is Stephen Jay Gould “The Mismeaure of Man.”

    Some type of cognitive abilities may indeed be heritable. But these are only measurable in the context of culture, starting with the fact that your IQ test must be in one language, and not all the others.

    In the case of the US, the SAT/IQ tests tend to be on language/vocabulary, and abstract thinking which the upper middle and upper class are really good at. Use of such exams tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies used to reproduce the existing social order which is often rooted in race and other heritable characteristics (this is Gould’s point).

    (Gould’s book has of course been critiqued in negative ways, just like Diamond, Pinker, etc. So the critique by itself is not enough for it to be ignored.)


  24. I hate to break it to you but Steven Gould was kind of a fraud. And the “culture” excuse has more than been accounted for by using math or purely symbols as an IQ test. trust me, psychometricians have tested this in 1,000,000 different ways. moreover, you still get variation within the lower class so the “class” excuse doesn’t work either. sometimes the truth hurts, you should just embrace it. if you watch the Silver Fox experiment you can get a sense of how weak environment affects can really be.

  25. Dad,
    Fraud is an easy term to use. As I recall with Gould, the problem is with his analysis of cranial measurements, which is one part of his book. I like his chapter on Factor Analysis, too.

    Anthropologists have also “exposed” the socio-biologists and Evolutionary Psychologists as “frauds” for various transgressions. Doesn’t mean that their work does not have merit in other respects, though–although I confess to being very skeptical about the overall approach.

    In the next day or two, I will propose a list of social science books I would use in a graduate seminar “Thoughts about Human Genetics.” that both Anthropology and Genetics students would be open to. Sorry, but Gould will be on the list. So will Jonathan Marks, and Daniel Golden’s book on elite university admissions policies.

    I hope that you and Razib will come in to add what you think I’m leaving off of the list. I will make a separate posting to do this, though.


    PS. In what universe is “purely symbols” and “math” the only measure of “intelligence,” and how are such symbols and math expressed without language?

  26. Since @razib put a stake in the ground around population genetics I will start working this angle.

    Gould has a theory of development, which population genetics lacks. Actually, that isn’t quite fair. Population genetics doesn’t lack a theory of development, rather it implicitly assumes a variant of recapitulation theory which accounts for the movement from embryo to adult. In order to work across population you have to assume they are a uniform substrate, thus a nuanced theory of individual development is a serious problem for population genetics. Hence, population genetic’s uncomfortable relation with both Gould’s work on development and the molecular definition of the gene. Both of them are challenges to the basic assumptions of the discipline by positing a subtle range of important individual differences. Boas’ work on cranial measurement is important for exactly the same reason.

    Gould’s point about cranial measuring in the Mismeasure of Man is a logical argument about using morphology to determine “criminal types.” He quotes Boas in support on page 108 of Mismeasure (and then again on page 200 in support of a critique of Army mental tests). The point is part of a larger argument related to a critique of population thinking. He isn’t wrong about cranial measurements, he is quite correct.

  27. OK I’ll bite:
    I’m a population geneticist and I don’t know what Michael is
    talking about here with
    “implicitly assumes a variant of recapitulation theory”

    I’m interested in
    1) Genomic differences between populations (both in humans and other species)
    2) Genomic associations with traits.
    3) Human genetic history.

    I don’t see that any of this has much to do with development from the embryo.

    Nick Patterson

  28. @ Nick

    It depends on what kind of conclusions you are drawing about the populations and whether those populations are human or not. For some conclusions you don’t need a theory of development, embryonic or otherwise, but to draw some other conclusions you need a theory of development from embryo to adult and a theory of institutional development. What you need depends on the question you pose and the conclusions you draw.

    My problem with Khan is that he is moving from elementary phenomena, such as parts of genes, to complex historically and culturally contingent phenomena, such as “race” and “intelligence”, and then making simplistic comparisons and generalizations by assuming that both the elementary phenomena (SNPs, etc) and the historically contingent phenomena (race and intelligence) have the same temporal and logical status. They do not. These are different kinds of data which require different kinds of treatment.

    While it is the case that a person’s genetic code is a stable property of that person, it is not the case that “race” and “intelligence” are stable properties. Those categories, in particular, are notoriously malleable across social settings and, further, are mediated by institutions – see the census document I linked to for a good example of how “race” has changed in the US over the last 200 years.

    To make the claims Khan makes about “race” and “intelligence” he needs both a theory of individual development and a theory of institutional development. If he wanted to compare two populations, he would have to tell us how people come to be “intelligent” in the two populations as well as describe how institutions (formal schooling for example) come to classify people as “intelligent” in each place. Then he needs to tell us how this classification has changed over time and what the implications are. This is common sense in cultural anthropology.

    Not only has he not done any of this, but he seems to think it is an absurd thing to do. My problem with Khan is simply that he is writing checks his data and theory cannot possibly cash.

    I doubt he is doing population genetics many favors, either….

  29. Well your entry (34) doesn’t mention Razib but
    certainly read to me as a critique of
    population genetics as a discipline.

    I think my work is quite mainstream in the
    pop. gen. field and a theory of recapitulation
    is essentially irrelevant to me, as indeed is the
    process of moving from embryo to adult.
    .. and I don’t find Gould’s work or the
    “molecular definition of the gene” at all
    uncomfortable. Why do you think I might?

    I agree with you that “intelligence”
    as such is not a trait, but really this is not
    controversial in the field.

  30. @ Nick

    I had been pushing Khan to move from his slippery posts about “real genetics” to a concrete discipline so I could start working over his assumptions, and when he did (14) it was population genetics he claimed as a field. That is why I qualified my statement (34) with …”since Razib Khan has put a stake in the ground around population genetics.” My comments here really refer to “Khan’s population genetics.” At various times he has allied himself with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, so at the time it was a bit uncertain which way he would go.

    I know, and most anthropologists do as well, that the mainstream of population genetics does not believe “intelligence” is a trait. Nor, does anyone believe that Khan represents the mainstream of population genetics or is doing cutting edge research in the field. He is essentially cherry picking existing studies to recalculate (and I would guess his field is not human populations) and using them to draw suspect conclusions about “intelligence” and “race.”

    But, I would argue that Khan’s take on race and intelligence, via his use (maybe appropriation is a better word?)of population genetics, does imply a theory of recapitulation because of the claims he makes about the relation of elementary phenomena to complex phenomena.

    But, having said that, I do apologize that my remarks were sloppy enough to be taken as a more general critique.

  31. ***IQ isn’t a trait. There is no, nor can there ever be, a genetic marker for general intelligence. IQ is one thing, and that is a mark left by the application of statistical tools. ***

    g is highly heritable and effect of individual genes is mostly linear: many genes, each of small effect. (Additive heritability
    about .6; broad sense heritability about .8; similar to height.

    See Steve Hsu’s presentation regarding the BGI cognitive genomics project.

  32. I commented on Hsu’s blog on another thread. Can’t for the life of me figure out how the biochemistry of the gene(s) effects the size of one’s bank account, the accumulation of houses, etc. Sure rich people tend to marry other rich people, but again this is a social phenomenon, not genetic.

  33. *** Can’t for the life of me figure out how the biochemistry of the gene(s) effects the size of one’s bank account, the accumulation of houses, etc.***

    @ Tony,

    Well, you don’t find too many dogs with large bank accounts so genes presumably have something to do with it :D

    In terms of g, it is linked to a number of life outcomes but the main predictor is in terms of academic success. Hsu discusses it further here.

  34. @J Steinberg: I have no doubt that this model has some predictive ability in societies which measure “success” by academic achievement. But not all societies measure “success” by cognitive ability, even genetic success. For example, people (like me) who cannot farm with a hoe, would quickly win a Darwin Award for “low i.q.” if we were left along in a modern African village, while the farmers who know the land would be attending my funeral!

    Good point about the poor dogs’ bank accounts! Though didn’t Leona Helmsley’s dog inherit a good portion of her bank account? But that’s probably an outlier :)

  35. ***But not all societies measure “success” by cognitive ability, even genetic success. For example, people (like me) who cannot farm with a hoe, would quickly win a Darwin Award for “low i.q.” if we were left along in a modern African village, while the farmers who know the land would be attending my funeral!***

    True and of course different types of cognitive skills may be favored in different environments or cultures. For example, Australian Aborigines do particularly well on tests of visual memory.

    “Clive Harper, a professor of pathology in Sydney, may have discovered evidence that it is more than just a theoretical possibility. He found that the visual cortex – the part of the brain used in processing and interpreting visual information – was about 25 per cent larger in aborigines than in Caucasians.”

Comments are closed.