Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Rootin', Tootin' Blog Post


The newest issue of the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology contains some provocative material (including my own article, “Why Be Against Darwin? Creationism, Racism and the Roots of Anthropology”), but one other article in particular is provoking this rant – “Two Faces of Earnest A. Hooton” by Eugene Giles.1

Giles’s ambition here is to clear the air about Hooton, who was a leading public intellectual at Harvard during his term there (1913-1954), and trained the first generation of “modern” (i.e., post-WWII) biological anthropologists.  Hooton was also the leading scientific authority on race in the US, and a long-term advocate of the science of eugenics (along with nearly all the other natural scientists in the US), and Giles sets himself the task of defending Hooton from the charges of being a racist and a eugenicist.

Was Hooton a racist?  Well, obviously that’s a term that doesn’t translate well across the generations.   Giles correctly notes that Hooton was the mentor of an African American M.A. student, Caroline Bond Day, and had a good relationship with both Howard University and the NAACP.  But first things first.  Who says Hooton was a racist (whatever that term might mean, applied retrospectively to someone who indeed worked with Franz Boas against Nazi anthropology)?  Giles blames the American Anthropological Association’s “Race: Are We So Different?” website.


Opening of "Race: Are We So Different?"
at the Discovery Place in Charlotte, last year. 

Disclaimer: I had nothing whatsoever to do with that website, or the traveling museum exhibit (although I have no idea why Peggy Overbey didn’t invite me into it). I do like it, though. I was quoted in it, and attended its opening in Charlotte, and did a public radio show to promote it.


Giles does catch some inaccuracies, to be sure, but they are fleas on a big dog.  In the first place, there is no definitive work on Hooton, and those of us with historical interests have been waiting for many years for Giles himself to provide it.  Perhaps if he had done so, the AAA exhibit would have been able to get their facts straighter.

Washburn blowing out the candles
on his birthday cake for the last time.
But more significantly, the AAA Race website certainly was not the ultimate source of the accusation that Hooton was a racist.  His former student (and AAA President in 1962-3), Sherwood Washburn, had been saying that for half a century.  By the time I met Washburn, just a few years before his death, if I mentioned Hooton, Sherry would say, “He was a racist, you know”.  

There are two things that come through clearly about Hooton.  First, he did not take himself all that seriously.  And second, his views evolved.   Consequently, although it may be tempting to try and find a “real” Hooton behind all the verbiage and sometimes the outward silliness, that is probably an essentialist fallacy.  My reading of his work is that although his ideas about the meaning of race evolved – I allow students to compare his 1926 and 1936 papers on race in Science, in the latter of which he is desperately trying to differentiate his good American racial anthropology from bad German racial anthropology2,3 – he consistently maintained an anachronistic view that there was a direct and deterministic relationship between how you looked and how you thought.  This is what united Hooton’s interests in race, criminal anthropology, eugenics, and constitutional anthropology; and what his later students rejected after World War II.

I think that, like a lot of Americans, Hooton took a swing to the right after World War II.  In the case of the “constitutional anthropology” of William H. Sheldon, which asserted a direct connection between body build and personality, Hooton should have been smart enough to see through it, like his later students, but couldn’t; and he was actually hurt when it got back to him that he was being called a fascist.  Washburn, with whom he was still on good terms,  wrote him quite poignantly, “To put the matter bluntly, none of your pupils think that you are at all a fascist.  But, anyone reading Sheldon’s last book, taking the last 100 pages for what they say, and then hearing that you believe in Sheldon’s system, might call you a fascist with some justification.  What we need is the separation of the sane study of body-build from Sheldon’s system.”4

But Hooton was also genteel and non-confrontational, preferring to criticize someone behind their back rather than to their face.  Madison Grant’s 1916 The Passing of the Great Race was a bestselling classic of scientific racism, called “my bible” by Hitler, and invoked at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence that the Germans accused of war crimes had been inspired by American ideas; but Hooton, like many scientists, served under Grant in the American Eugenics Society.  In 1918, Hooton writes a little throwaway line in the context of a review of a different book in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “Only the Prussians and Madison Grant now believe that the Nordics are a race of supermen and archangels.”5  Cute, huh?  But he never uses his stature as a Harvard expert on race to challenge Madison Grant.  And when Grant sends him a copy of his 1933 book, The Conquest of A Continent (i.e., more of same), Hooton writes him back politely after reading only the first chapter, “I don’t expect that I shall agree with you at every point, but you are probably aware that I have a basic sympathy for you in your opposition to the flooding of this country with alien scum.”6

Of course, he is referring to my grandparents there.  So fuck him.

After Grant’s death, Hooton had some race-nerd fun at his expense:
Madison Grant had a vivid personality and a long head, but, as I remember him, rather a swarthy complexion.  I was curious about his conception of Nordicism; so I tackled him on the subject of my own racial type.  I said, “Mr. Grant, I have a round head with a cephalic index of 85, brown hair, mixed eyes, a moon face and a blobby nose – all these attractive features going with a muddy complexion.  How would you classify me as to race?  I should call myself a mixed Alpine.”  He asked, “Are you not of purely British ancestry?”  I replied, “Yes, my father is an Englishman and my mother is a Scotch Canadian.”  He said, “Then, damn it, you’re a Nordic.”  That is the only occasion when I have been so classified.7
(I published that last bit in my Current Anthropology paper earlier this year.)8

Anyway, when it came to eugenics, Hooton’s views were not very nuanced, but he believed that all races had comparable proportions of the unfit, and they should all be extirpated.  It took him till 1936 to resign from the Advisory Board of the American Eugenics Society, and even then, he kept up his membership.  The American Eugenics Society lost most of its members by 1933, with the Great Depression and the accession of the Nazis.  Even its Secretary-Treasurer, Leon Whitney, had to quit in 1932 because they couldn’t afford to pay him (Whitney went on to become an authority on animal breeding) – but it limped along, with stalwarts like Hooton. 

21 Feb 1937
21 March 1937
So, yes, Hooton was a eugenicist, and to his discredit, he continued to be one long after it fell out of fashion in the scientific community.  In 1937, Hooton gave a talk at the Harvard Club in Kansas City, which made the front page of The New York Times.  He called for a biological purge upon the unfit. Oh, sure, he was just being a wry wag, wishing he were James Thurber, but this was 1937 already, and the Nuremberg Laws were already on the books.  You think Hooton read the newspapers?  A month later, the Times got a hold of that elderly cultural anthropologist from Columbia, Franz Boas – with whom Hooton had a respectful relationship – to slap him down.

(And yet, the Times also covered Hooton’s 1944 NAACP address, with the headline, “Dr. Hooton Assails Racial Prejudice.”  As I say, he was complicated.)

I think it was my old professor, Hermann Bleibtreu, who first showed me Hooton’s illustration of the Jewish face.9  No, that definitely hasn’t aged well.  In fact it is so bizarre that it's hard to believe he intended for it to be taken completely seriously.  As Hooton wrote a few pages later, "Without going into excessive detail, these are then my impressions of the cause of the physical distinctiveness of many Jewish individuals.  I may be wrong.  This subject has not been completely or scientifically explored, and I am recording impressions rather than the results of detailed surveys."  (Washburn was also quick to identify Hooton as an anti-Semite, but Hooton’s first student was Harry Shapiro, later a long-time curator at the AMNH.  I once heard a story that Hooton brought Shapiro to the notoriously anti-Semitic Galton Society in New York, to educate them as to what a “good Jew” was.)

Hooton’s  doggerel in “Subverse” is far more horridly sexist than racist.  But he clearly aspired to be the Dorothy Parker of old-school physical anthropology:

The Bushman’s stature is not great,
His jaw is quite prognathous;
Within his yellow, wool-starred pate
His skull is not capacious.
His seamed membranous lips are thick;
His molars are protrusive;
He sprays his words with dental click,
His speech is most effusive.
He squints with epicanthous eye
Across a nose prodigious;
He likes his ostrich-eggs quite high,
His women steatopygeous.



That’s better than I could do, and it’s a guilty pleasure of mine, even if there are some errors of physical anthropology in there.  But as long as we’re on the subject, Hooton was definitely not in Ogden Nash’s league – here is Ogden Nash on anthropology:

Why does the Pygmy
Indulge in polygmy?
His tribal dogma
Frowns on monogma.
Monogma's a stigma
For any Pygma.
If he sticks to monogmy
A Pygmy's a hogmy.

Anyway, back to Hooton.  His ideas about race, and about human biology generally, certainly weren’t the worst ones around at the time, but that’s faint praise.  I think my biggest problem with Hooton, since it’s hard to know exactly what he did believe at any point in time, is that he did not use his position as an authority to confront and repudiate the worst elements of racial science in America. He went after the Germans, which was safe, and although he tried to differentiate his racial science from theirs, he ultimately was not very successful, because his physical anthropology was in fact only subtly different from theirs. 

Sherry Washburn once told me a story about the time he first met Theodosius Dobzhansky, both of whom were on the faculty at Columbia.  Washburn visited  Doby, who eyed him warily, and asked, “So you were a student of Hooton’s?  So what exactly does he mean by “racial type”?  I just don’t understand it .”  And Sherry replied, “I have no idea, and I think neither does he.”  At which point Doby shook his hand, and they became fast friends.

(Probably bullshit, of  course, but Sherry did tell it to me.)

I think Giles’s main mistake was in trying to defend Hooton rather than trying to complexify him.  And there is a certain irony in Giles going after the AAA’s race website, rather than real source of the harsh judgment of Hooton, which was from Sherry Washburn.  Washburn got on quite badly with Hooton’s first two students, Harry Shapiro and Carleton Coon, both of whom were fiercely loyal to Hooton.  Shapiro was cold to Washburn when he taught at Columbia Medical School, and was studying the growth of rat skulls.  Coon was giving clandestine assistance to the segregationists, and was a target of Washburn’s 1962 AAA Presidential address,10 which consigned racial anthropology to the dustbin of history, as Washburn had been arguing for a decade.  (In fact, Washburn also recalled Dobzhansky, at the time a member of the American Anthropological Association, rushing up to be the first to shake his hand after the address.)

That was the point of Washburn’s famous, paradigmatic paper on “The New Physical Anthropology” (1951).11  I’m sure you can guess who embodied the old.

References
  1. Giles, E. (2012) Two faces of Earnest A. Hooton.  Yearbook of Physical Anthropology (Supplement of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology), 149, Supplement 55:105-113.
  2. Hooton, E. A. (1926) Methods of racial analysis.  Science, 63:75-81.
  3. Hooton, E. A. (1936) Plain statements about race.  Science, 83:511-513.
  4. Washburn to Hooton, 20 August 1951, Earnest A. Hooton papers, Harvard University.
  5. Hooton, E. A. (1918) American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1: 365.
  6. Hooton to Madison Grant, 3 November 1933, Earnest A. Hooton Papers, Harvard University.
  7. Hooton, E. A. (1940) Why Men Behave like Apes and Vice Versa.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  8. Marks, J. (2012) The origins of anthropological genetics.  Current Anthropology, 53:S161-S172.
  9. Hooton, E. A. (1939) Twilight of Man.  New York: Putnam.  (plate opposite p. 236).
  10. Washburn, S. L. (1963) The study of race.  American Anthropologist, 65:521-531.
  11. Washburn, S. L. (1951) The new physical anthropology.  Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II, 13:298-304.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Bad Anthro Theatre


I haven’t really reviewed a movie since my days in graduate school at the Arizona Daily Wildcat, but I watched a really bizarre and horrid one the other night that kind of begs to be belittled.
               It’s called “Alleged” – and it’s unclear just what the title actually refers to, because it’s about the famous “Monkey Trial” in which John T. Scopes was charged with, and convicted of, the crime of teaching evolution in Dayton,Tennessee in 1925.  Nobody ever said he was innocent during the trial; his defense was basically about the badness of the law.
               This weird movie purports to be the “real” story of the Scopes Trial, unlike the classic play and movie “Inherit the Wind,” which contains numerous errors.  Well let’s start right there.  “Inherit the Wind” contains no errors at all, because it is a work of fiction, a “roman-a-clef”.  There is no John Scopes, there is Bertram Cates; there is no Clarence Darrow, only Henry Drummond, no William Jennings Brian, only Matthew Harrison Brady; and no H. L. Mencken, only E. K. Hornbeck.  Further, it is about the McCarthy era, not the Roaring Twenties.  Sure it takes place in the Roaring Twenties, but the play was about the political suppression of ideas, which was the issue in the 1950s, when it opened.
               “Alleged,” however, self-consciously asserts its verisimilitude, even going so far as to use the real names of the famous principals, as it butchers the very reality it claims to imitate.  The movie takes place in a preternaturally clean rural Southern town, free of class prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan, much less the fire-and-brimstone caterwauling  of the age. 
               The movie then integrates a eugenics sub-plot to tie evolution to eugenics.  Now this is something I am a bit sympathetic to, since I’ve written about it over the last few years.  There’s only two problems with this plot contrivance.  First, eugenics didn’t actually come up at the trial.  And second, the people the movie demonizes – Darrow and Mencken – are the ones who actually wrote eloquently against eugenics (shortly after the trial ended).  In Mencken’s literary magazine, The American Mercury, Darrow called the eugenicists “irresponsible fanatics”.  In the Baltimore Sun, Mencken  called eugenics “mainly blather”. 
               William Jennings Bryan was very much the pacifist and isolationist, and was ahead of his day in his views on equality and his views again social Darwinism.  But he didn’t write specifically against eugenics.  Darrow and Mencken did. 

               In fact, Darrow published his critique of eugenics in H. L. Mencken’s literary magazine, The American Mercury.   When the very first biologist to make a public critique of eugenics comes forward, it is H. L. Mencken’s friend, the Johns Hopkins geneticist Raymond Pearl.  And he publishes as well in The American Mercury, and it is so newsworthy that it gets picked up by the wire services and makes headlines all across America.  Story goes that it even cost Pearl an offer of a professorship at Harvard.   The point is that, far from being the eugenicist that the film depicts, it is hard not to see Mencken’s hand all over the mobilization of American opinion against eugenics.
               What little there is of the famous cross-examination of Bryan by Darrow – the climax of “Inherit the Wind” – is actually condensed into a single minute of this ridiculous movie.  This Bryan (played by former Senator Fred Thompson) is serene, thoughtful, and implacable for his minute of cross-examination.  The event actually took place on July 20, 1925, on a Monday after most of the journalists (including Mencken) had left town.  Serene, thoughtful, implacable.  This movie’s cross-examination gives us no glimpse of whatever inspired The New York Times to include in their next day’s Page One headline, “Angered, He Shouts That He Is Fighting for God against America’s Greatest Atheist”.
               What’s even weirder is that this film plays around with the actual court testimony just as egregiously as “Inherit the Wind” did, except that his film claims not to be doing so, which means that it is more of a lie than “Inherit the Wind” could possibly be.   For example, when William Jennings Bryan  volunteers that he believes that the “days” of creation may have been indefinitely long periods of time (he wasn’t tricked into it, as “Inherit the Wind” implies), this movie has Darrow respond “You do not!”
               The truth is much more interesting.  Darrow was surprised to learn that Bryan accepted the age of the earth, but would certainly not accuse Bryan of perjuring himself by lying about his beliefs under oath.  But District Attorney Tom Stewart immediately realized Bryan’s answer was a big problem, and interrupted.

STEWART: I want to interpose another objection. What is the purpose of this examination?
               But he was too late.  Bryan was already orating.

BRYAN: The purpose is to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world shall know that these gentlemen have no other purpose than ridiculing every Christian who believes in the Bible.
               But Darrow hardly ever let an adversary have the last word.

DARROW: We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it, and that is all.
               So Bryan continued speechifying.

BRYAN: I am simply trying to protect the Word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States. I want the papers to know I am not afraid to get on the stand in front of him and let him do his worst. I want the world to know that agnosticism is trying to force agnosticism on our colleges and on our schools, and the people of Tennessee will not permit that to be done.
               Cue the applause.  The day ended about a half-hour-later, and not at all serenely, as this movie suggests.  In fact, “Inherit the Wind” captures the chaos a lot better.  Here is how the day ended, not at all suggested in Senator Fred Thompson’s portrayal.

BRYAN: Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his questions. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world. I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee to slur at it, and, while it require time, I am willing to take it.
DARROW: I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes!
JUDGE RAULSTON: Court is adjourned until nine o'clock tomorrow morning.
               I thought it was pretty weird also when Darrow reviews human evolution privately with his scientists and reduces the fossil evidence to Java Man, Nebraska Man, and “Boxhole Man”.  I think the screenwriters probably meant “Boxgrove”.  You’d think the scientists would have been even passingly familiar with “Neanderthal Man” and “Piltdown Man” (both of which were indeed known at the time, although the latter turned out to be unreal, like the Paluxy River footprints that prove humans lived with dinosaurs). 
               Nebraska Man is interesting, because it does represent an egregious example of scientific overreach.  By 1927 it was understood to be a peccary.   Isolated, worn teeth are sometimes not as clearly diagnostic as we might like, but it certainly wasn’t something solid enough to bludgeon the creationists with, and often quite snarkily.  Historian Constance Areson Clark discusses this in her very interesting recent book, “God or Gorilla”.
              The plot of “Alleged” is actually a clumsy, vapid romance between a budding newsman and his budding girlfriend, set against the backdrop of the trial.  The newsman has no family except a dead father, and the girlfriend has a black half-sister, which isn’t at all scandalous in clean, rural 1925 Tennessee.
               The real problem is the idea that a counter-lie must be put out there to offset a prior lie, in this case,  the filmmakers’ perception of “Inherit the Wind”.  This is, I think, related to the stupid creationist idea that there are exactly two sides to any story: the scientific and the Biblical.  And since it is a zero-sum game, anything bad for science must ipso facto be good for the Bible.  So making Mencken look bad must make Jesus look good. 
               The biggest lie of all, however, is actually in the credits.  After placing the story in the backdrop of “actual” events and “real” personages, in order to claim a degree of verisimilitude that they don’t actually deserve, the producers actually show the standard disclaimer.


Paradoxically, that is probably the truest thing about the movie.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Gorilla my dreams, I adore you

What to do about geneticists?  On one hand, they are so smart that we should accept whatever they say, no matter how absurd, inaccurate, or even racist it may be.  (See Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn).[1]   On the other hand, they’re ignorant and arrogant assholes and they should be thrown in jail (See Trofim Lysenko).[2]  There has got to be a middle ground.

The gorilla genome is now out, and when combined with human, chimpanzee, and orangutan, it allows us to do a phylogenetic comparison.[3]  We have known since the 1980s that human-chimp-gorilla genetically is a very close call, with DNA tending to place humans and chimps a little closer, but only with a lot of discordance or statistical noise.  (That is in fact exactly what the ill-fated DNA hybridization showed, although it was infamously misrepresented.)  When the mtDNA data first came out [4] they linked human to chimp pairwise, but only if you ignored the fact that over half of the phylogenetically informative DNA sites did not in fact show it to be human-chimp.   Those data showed it to be chimp-gorilla and human-gorilla.  The only way to extract human-chimp from those data was to treat the question like a Republican primary, where whoever gets the plurality of the votes wins the state.  So human-chimp was Mitt Romney, winning the nomination, but with barely 45% of the phylogenetically informative sites.

It then becomes a trivial task to explain away the discordant data, that is to say, the 55% of your data that you have decided is giving you the “wrong” answers.   You say it is “incomplete lineage sorting” or the result of ancestral polymorphisms, which have segregated into descendant taxa in a pattern different from the sequence of speciation.  Geneticists illustrate this with images that always seem to remind me of maps of the London Underground, with chimpanzees being Bakerloo and humans Victoria Station.


But I digress. It might also be parallel mutation or even backcrossing.  The problem, though, is that you have a lot of  homoplasy, and one of the assumptions of cladistic/phylogenetic analysis is that homoplasy (i.e., observed as discordance) is very, very low compared to synapomorphy (i.e., the shared derived characters that you think are tracking the actual branching history of the species).

This is the equivalent of simply choosing the most parsimonious solution to the phylogenetic problem.  Most of the data that give a pairwise resolution give this pairwise resolution, therefore it must be the right one.  But there is an inherent contradiction in this logic.  You are choosing the most parsimonious solution in a system that is not obviously very parsimonious.  In other words, if you are willing to accept the possibility that 55% of your phylogenetically informative sites are homoplasies (that is to say, are giving you the “wrong” answer), then how can you reject the idea that 70% of your sites might be giving you the “wrong” answer?  I talked about this many years ago in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.[5] 

The model that fits the data best is not a model of two successive bifurcations, but what we called at the time a “trichotomy” and now would call “reticulate” or even “rhizotic” evolution.[6] [7]

The geneticists working on this problem have been hampered by the cladistic necessity of regarding speciation as events, rather than as processes – when their ape data are showing speciation as processes, not as events.  The new paper on the gorilla genome says that 30% of their phylogenetically informative sites are discordant.  This is how the new paper imagines the genomic relationships of humans, chimps, and gorillas – as indicating two temporally isolated speciation “events” and whatever the hell is going on in the middle there.



The creationists jumped all over this inconsistency, and it really is just the result of sloppy thinking by the scientists.


In trying to plug the genomic data into sequential speciation events, we are committing the square-peg-round-hole fallacy. There are historical and ideological reasons for depicting it as two successive, temporally distinct “events,” but that certainly misrepresents the evidence, and most likely misrepresents the biological history.  One of the most bizarre illustrations was in a recent introductory textbook, which showed this to students:


It’s trying to say that there were two speciation events, 7 mya and 6 mya, but has located the 7 mya event incorrectly.  If you look at the scale, you’ll see that it’s actually drawn at 8 million, to put a separation between them that shouldn’t be there.  The same text draws it this way a bit later. with very little (vertical) time separating the two “events” at 7-8 mya and 5-7 mya, but a lot of (horizontal) space.  That ought to learn ‘em!

Obviously, that’s not the text I use. 

The new paper on the gorilla genome, I might add, sets the “speciation events” at 6.0 and 3.7 mya.  The 3.7 mya date for the divergence of human and chimpanzee is simply, to the extent that anything can be falsified in the fossil record, false - although it is oddly congruent with some of Vince Sarich and Allan Wilson’s early writings on the subject in the 1960s.[8]  The (myriad) authors of the new paper go on to argue that they can juggle some of the parameters in their computer program to make the dates come out to about 6 and 10 million years ago – as if that is supposed to give us confidence!

For the Alternative Introduction, I drew this figure to illustrate the problem.


Rather than prurient talk about cross-species buggery on the part of early hominids, how about speciation here as a temporal process, and populations through time as anastemosing capillary systems (Earnest Hooton’s metaphor, expressing the same point as rhizomatic and reticulate evolution).  It is also noteworthy that we tend to model and depict the gene pools of all three species as equivalent, when we’ve known for years that chimps and gorillas, even as relict populations, have gene pools that are considerably more extensive than that of our own species.  That is to say, Homo sapiens is relatively depauperate in genetic diversity.  The only study to try and incorporate that information into a phylogenetic analysis, many years ago, found that it completely obscured the phylogenetic “signal” and that it was therefore a fool’s errand to try and extract two successive bifurcations from a genomic analysis of human, chimpanzee, and gorilla.[9] 

Interestingly, the new paper actually did look at diversity in gorilla genomes, but didn’t incorporate that into their phylogenetic analysis.  Bottom line:  Human evolution is probably more interesting than the geneticists realize.



[1] Wade N. 2006. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. New York: Penguin.

[2] Medvedev Z, and Lerner I. 1969. The Rise and Fall of TD Lysenko. New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] Scally A, Dutheil JY, Hillier LW, Jordan GE, Goodhead I, Herrero J, Hobolth A, Lappalainen T, Mailund T, Marques-Bonet T et al. . 2012. Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence. Nature 483(7388):169-175.

[4] Horai S, Satta Y, Hayasaka K, Kondo R, Inoue T, Ishida T, Hayashi S, and Takahata N. 1992. Man's place in hominoidea revealed by mitochondrial DNA genealogy. Journal of Molecular Evolution 35(1):32-43.

[5] Marks J. 1994. Blood will tell (won't it?)? A century of molecular discourse in anthropological systematics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 94:59-79.

[6] Marks J. 1995. Learning to live with a trichotomy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 98:211-213.

[7] Arnold M. 2009. Reticulate Evolution and Humans: Origins and Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] Sarich VM. 1968. The origin of the hominids: An immunological approach. In: Washburn SL, and Jay PC, editors. Perspectives on Human Evolution I. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. p 94-121.

[9] Ruano G, Rogers, Jeffrey A., Ferguson-Smith, Anne C., Kidd, Kenneth K. 1992. DNA sequence polymorphism within hominoid species exceeds the number of phylogenetically informative characters for a HOX2 locus Molecular Biology and Evolution 9(4):575-586.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A rant on race and genetics

I have really had it with anti-intellectualism masquerading as biological science.  What really set me off is a blog post by the distinguished evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/). 

               Unlike the great fruitfly geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who was a member of various anthropological associations and had personal and professional relationships with anthropologists who worked on human diversity (notably Sherry Washburn, Ashley Montagu, and Margaret Mead) – and even let his daughter marry one, archaeologist Michael Coe  – Coyne writes in abject ignorance of anthropology.  Freed from the constrains of actual knowledge, then, Coyne is able to present his own commonsensical views as if they were based on science. 

               He quotes historian of biology Jan Sapp, reviewing two new books on the subject which both come to the same conclusion – that human races are biocultural constructs, not natural facts – and dismisses the conclusion of the books and the reviewer: “Well, if that’s the consensus, I am an outlier.”   

               The irony is that Coyne is not self-aware enough to appreciate that that is precisely parallel to the position of the creationists.   His idea of race is the existence of between-group variation in the human species, and the discovery that groups of people are different from one another.  Anthropologists have been studying the nature of that difference for around a century and a half, but Coyne isn’t interested in what they’ve learned.  Since there exist “morphologically different groups of people who live in different areas” then there are, ipso facto, human races, regardless of what anthropologists think they have learned about the subject.

               Of course the discovery that people in different places are different is a trivial one.  At issue is the pattern of those differences and its relation to the classification of the human species.  To equate the existence of between-group variation to the existence of human races  is to miss the point of race entirely.  Race is not difference; race is meaningful difference.  It’s the “meaningful” that takes the question of human races out of the geneticist’s domain and places it into the anthropologist’s domain (which is where it has always been – although occasionally opposed by reactionary geneticists like Charles Davenport and Ruggles Gates, whom Coyne would do well to read).  At issue is the (cultural) decision about how much difference and what kinds of difference “count” in deciding that this kind of a person is categorically different from that kind of a person.  The merest familiarity with the modern literature on race would have made that clear to Coyne.  Coyne echoes right-wing ignoramuses with the sentiment that “the subject of human races, or even the idea that they exist, has become taboo.”  Jon Entine made the same claim in his stupid 2000 book on the imaginary genetic superiority of black athletes; and the segregationists made the same argument in the early 1960s. 

               But of course, race is only taboo in the same sense that creationism has become taboo, as being a false theory about  the world, from which scholars have moved on.  In fact, Coyne’s anti-intellectualism here is the equivalent of the creationist’s claim that “We obviously did not evolve from apes, since apes still exist”.  It reveals such an abject ignorance of the topic that all you can do is suggest a return to kindergarten.

               Coyne’s post, as it turns out, was inspired by a review (in American Scientist by Jan Sapp) of two books on race.  He explains, “I haven’t talked much about Sapp’s review, as I find it tendentious; nor have I read the books he’s reviewing.”  The books he’s reviewing are: 
Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan.

               I haven’t read that one, but I can vouch that many of the contributors – including Troy Duster, Duana Fullwiley, Jonathan Kahn, Joe Graves, and Pilar Ossorio - have written insightfully and at considerable length on the subject, and know a heck of a lot more about it than Jerry Coyne does.  

               The other book is called Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth and is actually by a biological anthropologist and an evolutionary geneticist – Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle.  If Coyne ever gets around to handling a copy of the book that inspired the review that inspired his ignorant blog post, he’ll discover that the jacket blurb says,

a prominent anthropologist and a prominent evolutionary geneticist have teamed up to give us a powerful scientific critique of the commonsensical idea of race.  Distinguished scholars and skilled communicators, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle show clearly how “race” simply cannot be used as a synonym for “human biological diversity”.  In the age of genomics, this partnership of intellectual specialties is particularly valuable, and the result is a splendid testament to the merits of trans-disciplinary collaborations.

The good news is that there are evolutionary geneticists like Rob DeSalle out there.  But the scholarly boat seems to have sailed away without Jerry Coyne on board.   Ironically, the last time I gave a talk at the University of Chicago, about three years ago, it was on this very subject.  My title was, “Some More Things I’m Pissed Off About”.  Coyne wasn’t in attendance. 

               And yes, I wrote that blurb.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ten points for evolutionary psychology (but not a touchdown and a field goal)

1.  There is no Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness.  “Pleistocene Africa” covers a lot of time and turf.[i]

2.  The Descent of Man is Darwin’s worst book, full of sexist Victorian claptrap. Even William Jennings Bryan knew that.[ii] 

3.  What 1000 male college students in Texas think about women cannot be extrapolated to the minds of the entire human species.  Nor can they be extrapolated to the minds of australopithecines, in spite of the obvious joke.

4.  Homology is a Darwinian relationship, the result of common descent; analogy is a literary device, the application of metaphor.  Humans have slavery; ants have “slavery”.   Humans rape; ducks "rape”.  Humans wage war; chimpanzees “wage war”.[iii]   

5.  Life evolves; culture “evolves”.[iv]  Even Herbert Spencer knew that.

6.  Homologous does not mean “the same as”.   A sparrow’s wing is homologous to your arm, but it can flap it and fly away and you can’t.  A chimp’s foot is adapted for grasping;  a human’s foot is adapted for weight-bearing.  Their brains are adapted to different functions as well.

7.  Whether or not chimpanzees are cultural, they are doing things quite differently than humans are, so you still have to come up with a different descriptor for human behavior: like “euculture” or “accumulated culture”.[v]  It’s the same distinction, and we’ve already made it. 

8.  A non-cultural chimpanzee is a chimpanzee; a non-cultural human is a corpse.

9.  There is no human nature independent of human culture.[vi]

10.  Hunter-gatherers are no more human than the rest of us, your ancestors did not live in the Kalahari desert, and the Yanomamo aren’t hunter-gatherers.


And one more for good measure:  Reading a book by Steven Pinker does not make you an expert on human evolution.


[i] Irons, W.  1998.  "Adaptively Relevant Environments Versus the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness."  In Evolutionary Anthropology.  6:194-204.

[ii] “Darwin explains that man’s mind became superior to woman’s because, among our brute ancestors, the males fought for the females and thus strengthened their minds.  If he had lived until now, he would not have felt it necessary to make so ridiculous an explanation, because woman’s mind is not now believed to be inferior to man’s”  (Bryan W. J. 1922. God and evolution. The New York Times, 26 February.).

[iii] Simon, M. A.  1978.  "Sociobiology: the Aesop's fables of science."  In The Sciences.  18:18-21.

[iv] Fracchia, J. and Lewontin, R. C.  1999.  "Does culture evolve?"  In History and Theory.  38:52-78.

[v] Wilson, E. O. and Lumsden, C. J.  1981.  Genes, mind and culture: the coevolutionary process.  Harvard University Press.  Mesoudi, A.  2011.  Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences.  University of Chicago Press.

[vi] See Clifford Geertz’s 1966 essay “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man” reprinted in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).  More recently, Keller, E. F.  2010.  The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture.  Duke University Press.  And nicely reviewed by Jason Antrosio 
www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology/human-nature/