Monday, October 22, 2007

Genetics and Racism

I think that this is a pretty nice summary of Watson's latest blunder. If you haven't already heard of it, well, you must have been under a rock.

James Watson made a few racist remarks, for whatever reason, and the backlash has been remarkable, swift, and decisive. Which is nice in some ways and not in others. The point, for me, is that Watson started from a scientifically relevant position - "there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically" - and applied it to a situation where it doesn't necessarily belong - basically, black people are stupid.

Personally, I think that it's entirely possible Dr. Watson made an honest blunder, or just got carried away or wanted to piss people off to sell more copies of his new book or something. As the article says, he has marketed himself as a trouble-child, so it's a lot to expect for him to toe the party line, no matter what party line that happens to be. (There's no such thing as bad publicity). And besides, in most circles it is well known that Dr. Watson is off his rocker (although not as much as some others, like Craig Vetner) and while brilliant scientifically, not someone to go to for advice that doesn't relate to molecular biology. (That puzzled me; many of the questions at his book signing at the U of C were not related to molecular biology. Part of me asks, what do I care what Watson's views are on religion or politics or... although his comments on religion were certainly hilarious. He's a good scientist, and I care about his views on scientific issues.) In any case, what bothers me more, to a certain extent, is the reaction that those comments have received.

First off is the feigning shock, the outrage and the revulsion, to the point that he's been suspended from his job and had interviews canceled. As I said, Watson has been marketing himself as someone who makes politically incorrect remarks since his first book, and the fact that anyone is particularly surprised that James Watson said something that was outrageous, politically incorrect, and just downright ridiculous is somewhat troubling. In the scheme of things, this ranks right up there with making all girls pretty, aborting homosexual babies, and saying that black people have bigger sex drives. It's stupid, it's prejudicial, and it's pure James Watson. That anyone should be surprised by it shows something about us that isn't necessarily a good thing; our ability to turn a blind eye and actually forget about the idiocies and unpleasant elements of our public figures. James Watson has always made this sort of absurd, bigoted remark. He has also always been a good scientist. Why should we think that anything has changed?

That was, again, my first reaction, and it has remained pretty much unchanged since I heard about his comments a week ago. What is new, however, is something that was only brought to light by the comments at the bottom of the blog post I linked to. I understand the impulse to defend what could be potentially valid remarks from a perceived over-political-correctness that makes much political discourse in this country utterly meaningless. However, some people go too far. Ignoring the one comment that seemed to tie Watson's lack of tact or forethought to the moral bankruptcy of the scientific establishment, slavery to abortion, and the second coming of Christ (more on that later, or rather, not), many of the comments seemed to be taking "Watson's side" on the issue - advocating to a larger or smaller degree the genetic basis for an IQ difference between blacks & whites, Americans & Africans. There are several problems with this, large and small. First, that I do not believe there is a significant genetic difference between blacks and whites, Americans and Africans and especially not one that would lead to a consistent and statistically significant difference in intelligence between those groups. Second, I think that people overuse genetics at the expense of environment and epigenetics. Third, people downplay the extent to which de juro or overt racism in our country and in the world has been replaced by a subtle, pervasive, and condescending sort of racism and sexism. Fourth, measures like IQ tests are inherently inaccurate. Finally, how can we say that Africans are genetically bad at governing themselves peacefully when there are obvious examples to the contrary?

If I talked about all of that, I would be here all night. I'm just going to cover the first part for now: my strong belief that there is no reason to assume that a genetic difference between populations causes the perceived intelligence gap.

I'm going to start from a few assumptions, which I'll probably dismantle in later posts (or not if I get distracted). Basically, what is the most valid I can make this argument that there is a genetic basis? I'll assume, to start with, that IQ tests give an accurate picture of intelligence. I'll also assume that there is a proven, significant correlation between how well your parents and relatives do on an IQ test and how well you do on an IQ test. That still doesn't prove to me that ability on an IQ test is necessarily genetic.

I'll give a few counter-examples. I doubt that anyone would argue (except perhaps Dr. Watson?) that religious belief is genetic. (Not even just belief in God, here, although that works too, but specific denomination and religion). However, the single greatest determining factor in someone's religion is the religion of their parents. Here it seems obvious that children who are raised in the faith, taught the faith from a young age, and (to an atheist's eyes) indoctrinated are more likely to profess that faith when they grow up. It has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with environment; parents raise their children in the church and that experience of growing up in the church makes devout people out of their children.

You can even consider a species of nesting parasites (birds who insert their eggs into the nests of other birds). These birds develop the call of the birds whose nest they were hatched in. In fact, I believe that if you move the egg, the bird develops a different call. And the call determines mating patterns later in life - so it is not purely incidental. Here, where the bird grows up is a bigger deal for who its mate will be and what it will be like as an adult than its necessary genetic makeup.

Finally, it is (perhaps) a little known fact that the smartest children are not born to the smartest parents. Even given a correlation between IQ of parents and IQ of children, if Einstein and Marie Curie had children it is by no means necessarily true or even likely that their child would be particularly good at physics. In fact, the best determinant of childhood success in school appears to be the number of books in a house, which, like religion, is not genetic.

Given all of that, the question that I pose myself is: is it likely that environmental factors in a child's life could lead to the phenotype that we see, namely, a significant difference in IQ test-taking ability between Africans and Americans? And I am forced to answer that yes, it is very likely that environmental factors in a child's life could lead to that phenotype. Compared to the availability of books in middle class white neighborhoods, the number of books in most places in Africa is pitifully small. That alone would explain a significant difference between the populations.

So it seems obvious to me that even given a significant, apparently heritable difference in IQ between populations, there is no reason to believe that this difference is genetic and no reason to believe that any baby born in a remote village in Africa might not do very well on an IQ test were he or she raised from birth in a house with a lot of books and parents who read regularly.

Next up: Overuse of Genetics and the expense of more interesting subfields.


Duff said...

I am curious as to the "Overuse of Genetics" will be.

I always find it interesting that there are very good and precise tests available to establish a trait as inheritable or genetic. Namely, fix all environmental factors and perform multiple breedings of individuals both with the trait and without over several generations and watch how the trait in succeeding generations expresses itself, and how the trait is statistically linked to the parent's possession of the trait.

Now to perform this sort of experiment would be both impossible (due to time lapse between generations) and unethical (due to fixing environmental factors and potentially incestuous crossings one may wish to investigate) to perform with humans. Yet outside of the context of such experiments, inheritability does not have a precise scientific sense.

I suppose the only other method to determine genetic basis of a trait would be the disabling of the specific genes one thinks are responsible, and seeing how the creature develops under this restricted genome. Again this would be unethical in humans.

I find it odd (as a scientist) and not odd (due to the political or ideological considerations that come into play) that people, even other scientists, will forget that outside the context of such experiments, inheritability can only be taken colloquially. this is not to denigrate colloquial usage, it serves its purpose.

In the end, it is important, I guess, to remember that a term or idea in science is only meaningful by one of two ways: 1) defined by a procedure and outcome of a controlled experiment or observation, or 2) Defined by a mathematical formalism. Or some combination of those two.

Elizabeth said...

I agree with what you've said. I mean, we can easily test if something is controlled by a gene in mice, because we can control all the other variables. But you just can't pull culture out of the equation for people.

I think that Watson believes there's some genetic basis for culture; or rather, that an aptitude or tendency towards certain culturally approved behaviors could be genetically encoded. Basically, that if a culture values educability, (which is what I'll insist on calling the ability to do well in school and on IQ tests), and people who are more educable therefore are more successful, desirable as mates, and have more children, then if educability has any genetic factor (which perhaps it does, such as the lack of ADD?) then it, as a trait, will be selected for. But that is, of course, a huge oversimplification of what is in the end a very complicated situation in which any given gene is probably the least factor contributing to the final phenotype.

Ethan Stanislawski said...

It looks like the media craziness over racism has reached the realms of science. James Watson is suffering from the same fate as Don Imus and Michael Richards. It doesn't matter that he has a history of saying crazy things, what matters is that it's something for us to talk about on blogs and the like.