Gene Promoters 3: Tony Strikes Back

Ok, I think I will jump into Michael’s stream.  I have a problem with the reductionism of geneticists, evolutionary psychologists, socio-biology, etc., too.  And I’m also annoyed when such types go beyond their data, and start making generalizations that would be better addressed with the nuanced data ethnographer-types generate.   Notably such data often cannot be “seen” from the spread sheets and certainly not from the bench of a genetics lab.  I have written the editors of PLoS Biology (2005) and BMC Genetics (2013) respectively about such problems with respect to the Mla Bri of Thailand, a group which a long-time colleague and friend knows well.  My comments were received well by both editors, and are now attached to the articles here, and here.  Note: I’m also vain enough to put these two comments on my c.v., and if I were up for tenure, would be sure to highlight them!


My point is that Anthropology instead of always playing defense on the blogs, is probably better served by doing what they do best, i.e. interrogate and synthesize complex data about human groups.  There are outlets for your insights; contact editors in the big-time science journals particularly if someone working from a lab bench is making over-generalizations about a group you know well.  I think anthropologists will sometimes be pleasantly surprised, as I was. And particularly, don’t be shy about treading on others’ “territory;” your four-field background means that you bridge gaps in ways other cannot (or when they try, they miss the nuance).  Anthropology should not be so shy about treading on others’ territory—after all the biologists (and many others) are not so shy about treading on anthropology’s territory.


In other words, call the socio-biologists, evolutionary psychologists and others on the over-generalizations, reductionism, and (need I say it) methodological positivism when necessary.  It is what you do best, don’t be shy (but also get a thick skin!).


BTW, this post is in part my response to Razib Khan’s analysis of Southeast Asian migration data from the lab bench.  Unlike the critiques I posted above, he clearly states the fact that he is working from a lab bench, genes and culture are not the same thing, and that there are problems with how the Thai and Cambodian data were collected.  Good for him on this one.

I still wish though that Razib would acknowledge that just maybe the world indeed better off with cultural anthropology, than without.

11 thoughts on “Gene Promoters 3: Tony Strikes Back

  1. also, your co-blogger is eliciting a lot of amused and eye rolling emails from my geneticist friends, who have apparently encountered his ilk in inter-disciplinary contexts. i guess he’s not a special snowflake. glad i don’t get out of the office much.

  2. Glad to hear that you made it from the computer all the way to the lab. Next stop, a 9 nine month fellowship doing ethnography in an African village? You might have a look at Nigel Barley’s “The Innocent Anthropologist” as preparation.

  3. I think Michael can handle the amused eye rolling from your geneticist friends. He’s getting plenty of “attaboys” from his anthro friends, who send emails complaining about the geneticists. So everything evens out in the end.

    I still think the most productive way to nail you guys is via the comment sections in refereed journals like BMC Genetics, and PLoS Biology. It will keep the geneticists much more careful in what they submit and how they generalize.

  4. It will keep the geneticists much more careful in what they submit and how they generalize.

    i agree this is a problem, and i’ve talked about it too. genetics papers which make historical or anthropological inferences would benefit from referees with the appropriate background.

    He’s getting plenty of “attaboys” from his anthro friends

    i’m sure. we’re just perpetuating stereotypes. as i told you on my blog even my readers who sympathize with the project of cultural anthropology normally were aghast at how ignorant he is about genetics.

  5. Blogs have their place, and peer review has its place.

    Broadened peer review from both ends would probably raise the quality of what gets published, and avoid guys like me getting their comments posted.

  6. re: blogs. this conflict i’m having with your co-blogger has an air of incommensurability to me. i don’t even recognize what he’s talking about re: genetics. i know many geneticists feel the same way. and i’m sure to him it all makes internal coherent sense, as it does to his fellow travelers. so this is not something that is going to be hashed out in a scholarly setting, it’s basically reduced down to a *culture war*. our fundamental narratives are different. there’s simply no way to establish common ground with someone who would label the concept of the gene as ‘rhetoric.’

    in contrast, some of the stuff you’re talking about re: thailand, are specific factual details and contexts. that’s something that one is able to hash out, and frankly, the mistakes that geneticists make in this area are clear and distinct, and due to ignorance, rather than a fundamental problem with the premises of the field.

  7. @razib

    This is neither a culture war nor is it something that is beyond resolution or common ground.

    I made a specific reference to Johannsen’s (1909) conception of the gene as an abstract unit. As you apparently do not know, Johannsen posited the gene, the genotype and the phenotype as abstract entities divorced from any material grounding.

    You, in turn, took this as a statement about some timeless universal gene which does not, nor has ever existed. If science begins with a definition of terms, then you fail from the start.

  8. Michael:
    This may not be a culture war, but it is certainly about the different sub-cultures of anthropology and genetics!

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