Friday, May 30, 2014

Hyman Minsky, Charles Darwin, and descent into the cover of minutiae

The financial crisis was basically not predicted by our leading lights in the academic and intellectual economics community.  They had their very technical theories about how markets work, and how people behave economically--the rational, coolly calculating Homo economicus.  They had their 19th century and even earlier theoretical heroes, who are always cited.  There were somewhat differing schools of thought, but in fact they were, so to speak, more like different classrooms in the same building. Even with these differences, but they were alike in one thing: they were basically all wrong!  The wildly unstable speculation that led to the disaster of the 2000's was a policy result of this universal body of trusted advisors, Those Who Knew.

Well, not entirely.  There was a curmudgeonly economist named Hyman Minsky (1919-1996).  We're not economists and have only learned about him second-hand, after the fact, when what he said before the fact was born out by the facts.  A source we recently listened to was the BBC Radio program called Analysis (listen to or download the March 24 program).
Minsky; Levy Economics Institute

While fancy economists were building their mathematical 'models' of economic behavior, which were very intricate and detailed, ordinary people and the bankers who misled them were venturing hither and thither for the quick kills.  Minsky, basically out of the mainstream, was warning in less technical but actually far more relevant and correct ways that stability builds instability. As the Levy Economics Institute described his ideas in brief,
Minsky held that, over a prolonged period of prosperity, investors take on more and more risk, until lending exceeds what borrowers can pay off from their incoming revenues. When overindebted investors are forced to sell even their less-speculative positions to make good on their loans, markets spiral lower and create a severe demand for cash—an event that has come to be known as a "Minsky moment."
In the recent crisis, confidence in quick-profit investments was so great that people became careless and built their hopes and McMansions of sand. When what amounted to a grand, expanding Ponzi scheme finally collapsed, disaster struck for many (except those who could use the legal system to basically buy their way out of going to jail).

Minsky was just independent-thinking enough to be definitely out of what policy and university circles generally tolerate, and had died before the 2008 crash so he never saw his ideas vindicated.  They were subsequently adopted with post hoc enthusiasm, of course, by the very same prophets whose wisdom had led us to what actually happened (that is they didn't lose their university, bank, or think-tank jobs). Minsky is now apparently appearing with some prominence in new editions of economics textbooks (the idea of publishing books is perhaps a sign of total professional shamelessness, but that's another story).

On the radio discussion, the point was made that the Professionals, those Who Know have become ever more enamored of computer modeling, mathematical theory, simulations, and all the paraphernalia of technical 'science'.  In our highly risk-averse, technophilic, bureaucratized world, this passes for wisdom rather than soft-headed mainly verbal arguments (like Minsky's).  If you want to be published, get tenure or reach the next step on the think-tank or Wall Street status ladder, you better be very technical, and do things very narrowly and with elegant mathematics.  That that doesn't work, and it's known that it doesn't work, doesn't seem to matter ("well, it will work this time!").

This is a characteristic of our culture in our scientific age.  Reduction to technicality is what our institutions, reporters, governments, funders, advisors, and the like admire.  And that viewpoint has its tentacles elsewhere, too.

The same in evolution and genetics.
Like 19th century economists, Charles Darwin gave biologists their version of the truth.  It was a very broad theory, based on the traits of organisms.  This was what counted, not the underlying biological mechanism of the traits.  The argument was conceptual, with an implied quantitative basis.  Darwin actually viewed it as a mathematical theory much as Newton's theory of universal gravitation, but the mathematical details were unimportant.

Many scientists want to formalize such theory to give it support and the elegance of mathematics, but in fact, Darwin's own idea about the underlying basis ('gemmules' and 'pangenesis') was basically wrong.  Evolutionary theory proceeded well without any such basis and, indeed, today most biologists don't know or understand the mathematical claimant for the theory (called population genetics).

What the last 50 years have done is to attempt to reduce evolution to molecular and mathematical precision.  In particular, as genomic technologies have themselves evolved as dramatically as anything that ever happened to life, there has been a love-affair, or infatuation, with technology as if it were answering the basic questions about life.  Genetics does, indeed, illuminate many fundamentals about some aspects of life, but as we and many others have written extensively, it does not provide the global or precise kind of prediction that physics-envy would suggest.  Still, despite many facts being ignored or dismissed, such as the often poor predictive power from genotype to trait, contrary to the unstated causal assumption of genes as the fundamental 'instructions' of life, an enormous superstructure based on molecular and computer technology is being built on countless studies of minute details. Again, what we are seeing is reduction to technicality.

Hiding behind minutiae
Both areas shared the same sort of retreat to the depths of minutiae to establish their apparent profundity of understanding, wisdom, and influence.   Over-arching larger-scale understanding, rather unrelated to much of the minutiae, gets no attention: it's not technical and hence not glamorous enough. It sounds deeply important and so both the professions themselves and those who report their activities to the general public, and those who provide the funds for these activities, are impressed, buffaloed, intimidated, or otherwise persuaded.  But the diving into technical minutiae is a kind of bathos, that often does not seem to be much constrained by, or basically just bypasses, what we know and may even be obvious (as in economics).

These are just two areas in which one can draw some parallels.  They are undoubtedly widespread across many areas of our society, in science, semi-science, the arts and so on.  It does seem to be true that every culture has its traits, or themes, or belief systems.  In ours, it's a belief in technology and in particular computing technology.   Technology changes our lives, mainly for the better. But that it can solve many technical problems does not mean it leads to greater understanding.  Mathematics, despite Galileo's claim that it's the language with which God wrote the universe, is fantastically useful and precise when you can write equations whose assumptions are sufficiently accurate for your needs.  It can lead to outcomes that can be tested specifically.

But if the number and sorts of assumptions and structures (e.g., equations) that are constructed yield exact outcomes, those outcomes really are nothing more than the rewording of the assumptions.  That is, the deductions are contained within the assumptions and structures one choose to begin with.  There is no guarantee that the deductions represent the real world, unless the assumptions do.  Indeed, inaccuracies in assumptions and choice of structures can easily lead to unconstrained inaccuracies in the deductions, relative to the actual world.  The appearance of elegance and insight can be illusory even in theory.  (We might note here that the current kerfuffle over attempts to reinstate scientific racism also exemplify this kind of selective invocation of technical details or methods, while ignoring of more general countervailing facts that are well-known or obvious.)

This formal testability of mathematical predictions is often equated to--or confused with--proof of the assumptions on which it is based.  But they are assumptions, and if they are inaccurate your results will be precisely inaccurate.  Even matching predictions under such circumstances can, but need not, imply underlying truth.  This assumed to be causal can be correlated with what's truly causal, for example.

Further, when mathematical models and theories are thought to be precisely true--that is, assumed to be so--results from actual studies will rarely match predictions perfectly.  There will be human measurement and other technical errors, for example.  So how do we deal with these?  We use statistical or other sorts of tests, to judge whether the results match the predictions.  As we've written about before, we must rely on subjectively chosen tests of adequacy, like statistical significance level.  Superficial aspects of truth may pass such tests in a convincing way, but that doesn't mean the deeper, broader truths are being understood.

Worse than assuming that deviation of results from predictions are just technical errors, is the natural tendency to design studies and interpret results, in obliviousness to or willing ignoring of countervailing knowledge or facts. We do this all the time in science, even though we shouldn't.  Economists pretended everyone was a rational, perceptive value-calculating machine, when it was manifestly obvious that we are not.  Evolutionary geneticists assume Nature is a perfect screening machine, when it manifestly is not.

Verbal arguments can be global and true, but are not so easy to turn into specific predictions, hence their lower status than high-level technology. But ultimately science rests on verbal--conceptual--understanding.  Clearly in both economics and genetics (and who knows how many other fields?), we are in love with technology and use it for many reasons, delving deeper than our actual understanding allows.  Often that will generate findings or surprising facts that stimulate broader thinking, but just as often even scientists, enmeshed in the daily routine (rut?) of our careers,  have a hard time telling the difference.

We're human and we need our self-respect, sense of importance, salaries and retirement benefits, ego-stroking, and just plain sense that we are doing something of value and importance to our fellow humans.  We are all vulnerable to overlooking or circumventing deeper truths by hiding in minutiae that masquerade as truth, in order to attain those needs.  It happens all the time.  Usually, it doesn't matter very much.  But when misplaced claims of insight are uttered too charismatically, intercalate into too many societal vested interests, or are taken too seriously, then society can be in for a very rough ride to pay for its credulousness.  None of this is new, but if we are creatures who learn from experience, why don't we, or can't we, learn from our long history?

We are products of our culture.  One law of Nature may be that we cannot over-ride that law.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Genes in translation

Years ago, Ken was in Italy and feeling cocky about his command of the language.  He intended to order still, not sparkling, water at a restaurant, so he asked for "Acqua non gazzini," so certain that he'd guessed the word-ending correctly that he was surprised when the waiter laughed, and then so did his friends.  It was a minor error (it's gasata, the past participle), his meaning easily discernible and he got his water, but still, he had mutated the word enough for it to be noticeable.

When I was a kid, we had many foreign exchange students at our house.  Among many memorable, novel English constructions and miscomprehensions that happened around our kitchen table was this one:  The young Honduran student staying with us at the time told my father that she was going to see a movie with a friend.  I don't remember what the movie was, but I do remember my dad teasing her, telling her that it was a movie full of sex and violence, and that it was his job to warn her.  When she came home, he asked how she'd like the film.  She said she was perplexed, in fact.  "I saw the sex, but I didn't see any violins."  

The list of interlingual malapropisms is long, and indeed possibilities endless.  Many are humorous, but some so wrong that the meaning is entirely lost in the uttering.  I was prompted to think about this by a review in a recent New Yorker by Adam Gopnik ("Word Magic: How much really gets lost in translation?").  He opens the piece with an Italian malapropism of his own -- he thought he had ordered little wild strawberries for dessert (fragoline) one night, so was surprised when the waiter brought him a plate of green beans (fagiolini). This has become a favorite family story.  

Gopnik's piece is about languages and translation, as he reviews "what may be the weirdest book the twenty first century has so far produced: 'Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon,'" a hefty book originally in French, but now in English, and much altered from the original.  
It is in part an anti-English protest, taking arms against the imperializing spread of our era's, well, lingua franca--which has now been offered in English, so that everyone can understand it.  The book's presupposition is that there are significant, namable, untranslatable differences between tongues so that, say, "history" in English, histoire in French, and Geshichte in German have very different boundaries that we need to grasp if we are to understand the texts in which the words occur.  
Indeed, histoire in French has an added meaning that 'history' in English doesn't have, including 'history' in the English sense, and 'story'.  Gopnik unleashes a wonderful word that describes words that have multiple meanings in translation -- the Greek word logos, e.g., is a fine example of 'polysemy', with its twenty-three different meanings in English, including 'the word'.  Of course, it's not just in translation that we find polysemy.  Many words serve multiple purposes in any single language too -- in English we've got the many meanings of 'duck' or 'chuck' or 'bust', e.g.

Gopnik is not a fan of the dictionary editor's idea that some words are not translatable, have meaning  so specific in a given language that much is lost in translation.  Contrary to the American linguist Benjamin Whorf, who, early in the 20th century, devised the theory of linguistic relativism, the idea that the language we speak constrains and shapes our thoughts, Gopnik believes that anything can be said in any language, even if it takes more than a single word.

Genes are translated too
Ok, now let's translate all this to genetics -- of course you knew that's where I was headed. Genetics, too, is building its own hefty dictionaries of gene function.  Genes, too, have malapropisms that are noticeable but don't do any damage, just as they have mutations that completely change the meaning.  Many genes have multiple functions, or are pleiotropic, the genetic equivalent of polysemy.  And, as with words, a gene's function is determined by context -- the type of cell it's being expressed in, or what else is going on at the time, developmentally or in response to environmental influences or in neighboring cells or tissues.

But, less prosaically I think, an analogous difference of view to that between language relativists -- or determinists -- and language non-determinists is telling, the dictionaries of genetic function being interpreted in different ways.  Language determines and constrains what we think, Whorf believed, but this view is dated, and most linguists now would argue for a greatly tempered relativism (despite the fact that Jorge Luis Borges once said that he loved writing in English because there's no word for 'wistful' in Spanish), saying that language may have some influence on how and what we think, but isn't overly deterministic.

Similarly, while genes 'for' traits or diseases are still reported all the time, surely the number of human geneticists who would admit to looking for 'the' gene for their favorite trait has diminished, most acknowledging that things are more complex than even they had thought in previous decades.

But, word that there's no gene for wistfulness hasn't spread far and wide outside the field, so we've got political scientists and economists and psychologists and anthropologists and epidemiologists looking for genes to explain their favorite traits.  Linguistic determinism is an arcane theory, with little impact or potential impact on society.  Malapropisms of genetic determinism are another story.

And what about the meaning of the words we use in the field?  There is no consistent definition of 'gene', even in the technical sense.  Just like 'evolution' -- or 'logos' or 'histoire' -- different people utter the word with different things in mind.  Often, probing will show that they weren't very clear even in their own minds about the boundaries and range of the meaning.  Is 'gene' a metaphor for a trait, a protein-coding region of DNA, a protein-coding region including its flanking regulatory DNA, a functional unit visible to natural selection, a single nucleotide that may or may not have a function (and what is a 'function'?).  When we discuss areas that matter, in which there are strong disagreements, semantics can be an important part of the issues at stake.  Often the meaning of the word affects study design, choice of what to study, and explanation of what is found.

It's enough to make one feel wistful for simpler times.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Art photography, and the Darwinian explanation for Vivian Maier

We've just seen the wonderful new (2013)  film, "Finding Vivian Maier," about a street photographer whose art was completely unknown while she was alive, but her sweeping body of work is now coming into its own, 5 years after her death.  Maier was a nanny for families largely in Chicago, had connections to a remote village in France, and was an enigmatic, sometimes troubling or troubled person.  The film is a beautiful, moving, disturbing, evocative and we recommend it highly.

Besides her fascinating personal story, her previously essentially unknown massive trove of photographs, most never developed until recently, are stunning; well-framed, with a brilliant use of light and contrast, her ability to capture a moment, a fleeting second, in evidence photo after photo after photo.

Self-portraits from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer photographs by Vivian Maier, edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.

The artistic part of all this story is certainly interesting and provocative in its own right.  But, as scientists, we find ourselves returning time and again to a nagging question.  Most of Maier's work is in black-and-white.  For some reason, it seems, black-and-white photographs are much more able to instantly evoke strong emotion, to bring us to tears, than are color photos.  Perhaps it's that color distracts the eye, while stripping the picture of color allows our eye to zero in on its emotional pith.  

And we think we know why.  It comes down to biology and natural selection.

We have different cells in our retinas for color and black-and-white.  The much more abundant 'cone cells' receive the broader spectrum of light that we interpret as color, while 'rod cells' receive black and white.

Rod and cone cells; via Encyclopedia of Science

Cone cells just don't work well in the absence of light, or of bright light -- that's why the night is predominantly black and white to us, when rod cells are doing the light reception, and our brains are primarily getting black and white signals.  

And when do scary things happen to us?  The predator approaches our campfire at night, when we're equipped to see only its frightening outline, but that's enough to set adrenaline coursing through our veins, sending us scurrying for a blazing piece of wood to scare off the predator, or to run in the opposite direction.

Our cone cells, on the other hand, allow us to see anything, from the cute to the mundane -- babies or kittens, a beautiful flower or landscape (deceptively beautiful, granted, as it hides the predator by day), the curious berry we've never seen before, or the hearth as we cook the daily meal.  The breadth of things we see in color, via our cone cells, elicits a panoply of emotion, while rod cells are obviously more immediately connected to our fight-or-flight response in a scary world.   

Not only can we thus explain the emotional pull of black-and-white, but in the interest of a genetic evolutionary explanation for everything, we can also explain why Maier was able to evoke these emotions.  She clearly personally had the genes 'for' spookily captivating photography (how those genes evolved before the Rolleiflex camera was developed is probably explained on some blog we're not aware of).

Artists might object to biologizing this, and attribute her skill to just that, skill.  But the deeper, primal, emotional pull of this work is, ironically, something we owe to wolves or the brigands of history.

Finding Natural Selection.  Piece of cake.

A few days after this was posted, I received an email from the editor of Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, published by powerHouse Books, who was alerted to the post by Google Alerts.  He sent me a number of photos from the book, with permission to post them here.  Thanks very much, Declan Taintor.

From Vivian Maier: Street Photographer photographs by Vivian Maier, edited by John Maloof, published by powerHouse Books.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

More on 'racial' variation....

Holly's recent post on race, Wade's book, and HBDers identified some of the core issues that separate many anthropologists from their often openly or eagerly racist colleagues.  Some differences are scientific, but others really are emotional differences about sociopolitical views, whether or not that's actually stated or even understood.  This is so contentious, and indeed has been since Darwin himself if not, in pre-evolutionary terms, for the entire history of human societies, that measured discussion is rare. People take positions and, in their righteousness, suspect (or worse) anyone who might challenge their faith.  Even scientists are, after all, people.

Of course we know from clear, recent (as well as deep) history what can happen with explicit or covert racist views of human variation and evolution -- that was one motivation for our recent post on Mussolini, science and race.  Policy can use the scientific rationale to treat all members of a labeled race as if they were equally defective or superior, even if some weak caveats are added that this is only an approximation of average differences between groups.  Based on categorical thinking, policy decisions can allocate resources to enhance what is judged by the supposed experts to be superior so we can help Nature's own evolutionary path, or to deprive members of the inferior group.  Depriving need not be so draconian as some lethal episodes in race history, because we could simply deprive a group, as a whole, of resources such as investment in education.  Many, even some commenting on or about posts here, have made such statements.  This is part of the historical reality of these race-based ideas, and those making the assertions know this very well, or should.

One might agree that different categories of people, as s/he constructs them, inevitably have statistically different traits on average.  This is almost inevitably the case, and the differences will include genomic effects.  But why not make policy based on individual traits rather than on a group basis?  Many arguments-of-convenience are standard: it's a waste of money to invest in inner city schools because, even if some of the kids have above average IQ most won't, etc.; or don't give aid to Africa because they inherently cannot measure up to our standards.

Even accepting standard geographic categories as the definition of 'race', such as European, Asian, African, it is obvious that there is large overlap between the groups in most of the kinds of traits being discussed (like mate choice, sexual behavior, criminality, IQ, athletic ability....), which means, for example, that many members of the inferior group score higher or behave like members of the supposed superior group, and vice versa.  So from a social policy point of view, unless the one defining categories just wants reasons to keep resources in his/her category, individual based policy would seem to be far more equitable (if one believes in being equitable).  Even diseases with a genetic basis that may be group specific (until recent admixture) are far from present in every member of the affected group, and again, determining on an individual basis who's got the relevant allele is much more sensible than assuming it on the basis of membership in a group.

There are problems here even in legitimate disease-related contexts, and they merit quiet, measured attention which they don't usually get.  Many racist or commercial expedients seek to milk categories for drug sales, and others for sociopolitical reasons deny the levels of variation that we know exist.  For example, we can't just identify individuals with a given genetic risk variant without taking their geographic ancestry into account when making medical diagnoses or treatments.  The same genetic variant may be more common in one population, say, Europeans, than in another such as Africans.  But the variant often if not usually turns out to have different average effects on the individual that are origin-specific.  This can have to do with cultural differences in life-history exposures, which are often very hard to tease out, but can also have to do with polygenic background differences related to variants in the genome that are not measured but are different in different populations.

Such issues are real and important and have to do with whether medical practice should view people in terms of 'race'--even in a benign world where it was recognized by everyone that this is only a substitute for geographic origin (and takes admixture into account somehow).  If we could stop Pharmas from trying to use categories to cash in on putative 'race' differences in drug efficacy, and so on, and if we could disengage from the strident Darwinism that is prevalent in discussions of racial variation and its inherency and value, we might actually be able to address very important and scientifically legitimate issues.  But we can't really do that amidst the invective in today's arena.

The realities of human genomic variation, and the reasons
The obvious fact is that the presence and frequency of genetic variants, genomewide, vary over geographical space in ways related to population history: the flow of variation by mating patterns of many generations, geographic barriers affecting migration and mating patterns (mountains, rivers, seas), physical and ecological conditions, climate, and so on.  This is obvious and has been known long before we had any genetics to invoke.

Roughly speaking, the farther apart your ancestors the more different you'll be across the genome.  This means that if you sample from distant areas, you can easily conclude that the people are distinctly different--indeed, statistically, this is true even if based on variants that are shared among the groups but have different group-specific frequencies.  But this does not point to categorical differences, only to quantitative statistical ones.  Even within each group, there is about as much overall variation as between them, a point long known, current Lewontin-bashing notwithstanding.

Analyzing data from discrete, widely separated samples automatically treats, statistically,  the populations as categorical units.  This obviously can lead to what appears to be categorical variation among human populations (we talked about this a few days ago here).  But this is an  illusion of grouping decisions and statistical analysis of the geographic pattern of variation need not use such meat-axe approaches because there are statistical methods that more realistically depict the actual more continuously distributed pattern of variation (and this, of course, is rapidly being modified by large-scale, long-range migration---such as by anyone living in North America rather than in Asia, Africa or Europe as our ancestors did).

These considerations are neither racist nor politically correct, and relate directly to Holly's point about species designations, a subject typically of heated controversy when it has nothing to do with the emotionally loaded subject of modern humans.

Given this variation, across the genome, one has to expect some of it to reflect local adaptations, and some to have serious effects on the individual.  Much gene-specific disease susceptibility is found only, or more frequently, in one population compared to others.

The opposition to 'political correctness' that is manifest so typically if not in rabid self-satisfied proclamations by those advocating a strongly deterministic view of our species and its genomic evolution is, no matter if it's denied, essentially a confusion of two agendas.  One is the reality that some political-correctness denies or minimizes aspects of reality or the nature of causation in humans;  the other agenda is a very clear and cogent societal problem of class and other discriminatory distinctions in the quality of life in complex societies.  In fact, it is ironically the social politics, and not the technical science, that largely underlies much of the heat in the 'discussion' of this subject.

We could, of course, have an honest political discussion of whether it's OK for some groups to be allowed to have a disproportionate fraction of the material and cultural wealth and deprive other groups, or whether we should be more egalitarian.  If you agree on how to define the groups, this can be at least a fair discussion.  Arch capitalists argue that inequality is a good thing, though usually they don't couch this in racial terms.  Elitists have a right to view elitism as good, but this is a subjective value judgment and not something that can be justified on genomic or evolutionary grounds.  Why, for example, is depriving someone of his or her access to food or education justified just because the person isn't as good as the professor is, at calculus?   Even if that is based on a genetic difference, why does it suggest that one person can decide how many resources the other has?  We are, after all, here as human individuals, and our genomes are the result of a shared history of evolution.  How can one person declare the inherent worth of another, and on what kinds of legitimate scientific grounds--other than his/her personal, and hence subjective, opinion?  Or are you just defending power and privilege that you happen to enjoy?  Or are you denigrating differences because you want to gain power that you don't now have?

We'd be a lot better off, we think, if these distinct, scientific and societal, areas of discussion or disagreement were kept separate and treated on their own merits.  But that doesn't seem to be in the cards at present.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Adaptive inverse slavery in human evolution: a new evolutionary paradigm

History is generally written by the winners. The social and academic elite, the winners, have written evolutionary theory as well.  Here we rewrite evolutionary theory from the point of view of the lower classes, and turn the idea of evolutionary success, properly, on its head.  This also raises the point that plausibility isn't the same as proof.
The air is spinning with fervor over various treatments of human genetic variation that seem to serve as closet cover for classical racism.  A coterie of investigators, some of them even willing to be publicly identified, is looking under every bed, so to speak, not for Commies but for traits that vary among humans because they are assumed to be the result of specific natural selection (and the bedroom is more than a metaphoric element of the traits chosen to study).

Here, we’ll look at human evolution in a way that takes very seriously their idea that essentially all our traits, or at least all traits about which a good story can be fed to the news media, are primarily chiseled into our genomes. Behavior is, of course, the ultimately juicy realm for such searches.  How can one not look at such traits with a modern scientific eye?  Here, we'll see the implications of this strong selectionist view: they’re very surprising, and form an entirely new theory of human evolution.  But first, some background.

Prologue to our new theory
The underlying axiom (that is, an assumption, or unquestioned belief) is that since we are the product of evolution, any of our traits must have been molded by natural selection specifically to make it like it is, or else it wouldn't be here.  And since selection only fosters genes, what is here is here because it's genetic.  The fact that culture can over-ride many traits, especially behavioral ones, is not of consequence if you accept this axiom, because an axiom is taken as true and universal.  It's not to be questioned any more than, say, the Resurrection or Genesis.

One major belief is that humans occur in distinct groups; we've got bananas, that is humans, and they're bunched into distinct groups (no, please!, don't over interpret 'banana' in this evolutionary discussion!).  You can call these bunches by their historic name, 'races', or you can use euphemisms to cover your political tracts (if that is relevant here) and say 'geographic' or 'ethnic' groups.  You may even note some small-print disclaimers from those who choose to say 'race', such as that the proponents of this view are not 'racist', or that, yes, the groups blur at their edges, but never mind those details. The discrete-category view is more convenient for the objectives of analysis which minimizes overlap because overlap gets in the way of tidy explanations by requiring nuances, caveats, and undermining assertions too subtle enough for reporters to understand.

There are many banana traits that this cadre of investigators work on.  No main point is lost here, however, if we just generalize and say that they rarely involve boring traits like, say, ankle width or relative length of ring fingers or the number of intestinal villi.  Mostly, investigators entice attention to their wisdom by stressing socially important (that is, divisive) traits like sexual behavior, intelligence, sociopathy, drug abuse, resemblance to Playboy bunnies, and so on.  The analysts in this arena and the news media seem to be concerned with who's good and beneficial to society, and who drags it (that is, us) down with their inferiority--or whose sexual appetites we need fear (or envy).

None of this is new.  Though probably widely written about by many others throughout history, we can start symbolically with Plato, whose Republic dealt with the obvious problem that society's finest specimens (that is, men!) are sent off to fight the Persians or Spartans, where these Adonises are often killed, depriving society and the next generation of their inherent, superior worth.  Of course many others, including Darwin, worried greatly about this problem.  These issues were a centerpiece of what was beneficently called racial 'hygiene' in the first half of the 20th century, emanating out of England, traveling to the US and even Asia, and of course being adopted enthusiastically in Germany.  They noted, for example, that genetically unworthy perverts, psychotics (and Jews and Gypsies), stayed home, draining society's wealth (and bedding its women) while the real manly men spilled their guts at Passchendaele.

The perceived problem was real.  History shows that the great hordes of people avoid making solid contributions to society, sow crime, disease, immorality, harmful antisocial behavior and so on, undermining society’s best.  In its most benign form this realization of our species' problem and how to fix it, was called eugenics, a purportedly sincere attempt to use the new tools of science, to read Nature’s mind and foster the traits she favored, gently helping the superior to reproduce while encouraging the inferiors to keep their pants on.

The idea was simple and has immediate appeal.  If we can see what’s good and makes us more adaptive in the Darwinian sense, and if it’s genetic (and, under the working axiom, it must be genetic), then why not help those with good genotypes and, well, you know what else in regard to the others.   

Of course, there is the problem of identifying what’s “good”, and therein lies the rub.  Usually, and historically, the definitions have been made by the scholars in the elite parts of society.  They naturally tend to assume they and their peers reflect the ‘good’, and it is equally natural to denigrate the smelly masses of the hoi polloi as the less-good.  “If”, a professor or journalist might think, “everyone was like me” society would be so much better off.  Of course, little thought is given to what a society in which everyone was an Einstein or Michael Jordan or Beethoven would actually be like, but we’ll pass on that question.

The standard fear, and a very natural one it is, on the part of the quality elite is that they will be overwhelmed by their inferiors, who greatly outnumber them.  Unfortunately, not only do the inferiors hugely outnumber their superiors, but they reproduce like bunnies, eat up resources--those of the elite, not their own since they have little--yielding nothing good to show for it, and might even cause risk (theft, disease, and even….gulp….rape) to their superiors.  That is the often-unstated judgment lying behind eugenic thinking.

In many posts on our blog, we have tried to combat this kind of reflexively-deterministic thinking, because we’ve felt it is both scientifically naive, and awful for society.  It can get out of hand.  For example, the Islamic world was the most advanced for centuries relative to the rest of Europe, but now the Islamic world is treated as nearly subhuman in their lowly lifestyles and wanton (crusade-like) killing.  Similarly among the Europeans, often touted as the world's superiors, the Romans were superior relative to the barbarians in the north before the Legions were overwhelmed by pure Nordic legions wearing Viking helmets. These exemplify the changeability of position even over short time periods, which we think should be at least a bit worrying if one actually wants to take a scientific perspective and assert inherent genetically based group value differences. That's in part because these switches of fortune occurred far too rapidly to have a genomic explanation.

Still, the working assumption, again rarely actually stated, is that social discrimination that keeps the inferiors in their place is fully justified on evolutionary grounds.  In one way or another, this has been a prevailing view, as we’ve said, since the beginning of recorded history. What religions justified before, Darwin did in modern terms.  In fact, the idea of slavery was entirely consistent with this viewpoint—as long as the those in bondage stayed that way, and didn’t get uppity, they were like cattle and not really a threat to the good sort of humans.

But we’ve been thinking about all of this, in evolutionary terms and the selective axiom, and it suddenly dawned on us that in a profound and fundamental way, we and our intellectual ancestors in Darwinian biology, have had it wrong—indeed, have had it exactly reversed.  To correct that error, we think that an entirely new theory—a true paradigm shift—is in order and, indeed, is hardly even disputable.

A paradigm shifting new theory, modestly proposed
In fact, this new theory is an evolutionary valid inverse of the ages-old justification for slavery and other forms of bondage.  We still agree that societal inequality is a fundamental part of evolution and indeed, as before, is a good thing that has led to our globally overwhelmingly successful species.  Forget the Occupy movement and their groans about the unfair 1%.  Instead, it is that very 1% kind of figure that reveals the previously mistaken truth.  Social inequality is at the very foundation of human evolution….but in a way you never realized!

As scholars from time immemorial have observed, society is awash in reeking huddled masses. The intellectuals have better houses and cars, it’s true, and they enjoy quality wine rather than Thunderbird, and reading the NY Times to learn what is presented as the Truth.  The 1%ers enjoy softer jobs for more money, and make laws that allow them to gain their way into an ever-increasingly disproportionate share of the available wealth without it being called 'cheating' (which is defined as a welfare-collector's offense).  Their kids have a chance to get into the fabled halls of learning, so as to stay in their inherited social class; but since that’s expensive, and indeed rather a nuisance, they don’t have too many of children, and they wait to conceive them until they can start putting away those tuition funds.

Meanwhile the poor, miasmatic masses have less wealth, more unpleasant jobs (if any), and less savory diversions to while away the time…so they spend their lives, early and often, doing the bunny thing. As a result, of our species' billions, the vast majority increase faster than you can believe.  But how can they do that if they are inferior, as they so manifestly are, to the better sort of people?

Evolution is drunk.  Evolution has found a wickedly clever ruse: the lower classes are not inferior after all. Instead, they have corralled and enslaved the upper classes.  By various demonically indirect means, the upper classes are kept to small minimal numbers relative to the lower classes, so that they (the uppers) can devise things like industrial agriculture, vaccination, welfare programs and the like to nurture the lower, more reproductively successful classes.

How the lower classes managed to enhance their Darwinian fitness by enslaving a small group of upper classes who have lower fitness, and have done this for millennia, is quite remarkable. 

One might expect that since all behavior is genetically driven, the upper class genes would have been out-reproduced and made extinct long ago.  So the evolutionary determinist, needing an adaptive explanation to suit his axiom, might say this was a balanced polymorphism: genotypes for those who produce the resources are kept around, but at very low frequency, relative to genotypes generating the successful masses.  In this very implicit and indirect manner, like aphids farmed by ants, or ants zombified by fungi, the elites are the slaves of the main denizens of the human hives. And, remarkably, as educated as they are, the snoots don't even realize it--so, naturally, they don't rebel!

Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses, a tool imposed on them by the outnumbered elites to keep them in their place.  In reality, wealth is the opiate of the elite.  There’s nothing like a Lexus, an opera (or Fox News) to pacify an investment banker.  And gated communities? The psychiatrists and lawyers who live in them fancy that these are to keep the stinking riff-raff out, but really it’s the other way round: it’s a very clever fear tactic generated by the proverbial huddled to keep the ivory folks penned in and away from the tawnier, more evolutionarily successful women.  Stupefying delusions of luxury keep the low-reproductive servant class in their safely restricted neighborhoods, an evolutionary finesse long ago imposed on them by the teeming and, even if grimier and ill-colored, rutting masses.

But this kind of evolutionary balance is hard to maintain given the persistently delayed and reluctant reproduction among the elites. They should always be at risk of extinction by simply spending resources on privilege rather than progeny. From a neo-eugnic point of view, now that we at last really understand evolutionary determination (the axiom we've referred to), we can see that the human species no longer needs this awkward balance: it's hard to maintain, and dangerous to the evolutionarily successful genotypes, because the elites often try to sneak out of their cages in the dark of night, into the realm of their superiors, to buy the occasional reproductive favors, which pollute the recipients' superior gene pool.  Clearly our species would be much better off if we simply used robotic technology to set up the world as an automated feeding ground for the masses, and eliminated the elites who, after all, just exhaust resources (like grassland, that could feed favelas by the thousands, to produce their fancy T-bone dinners, or fuel their Beemers and yachts) while contributing only feebly to the overall human patrimony. 

A modern eugenic policy, fully informed by rigorous genomics as those in the benighted 20th century were not, and truly based on the selectionist evolutionary axiom, should use what science has now, finally, discovered, and employ that technology to foster what Nature herself manifestly has always favored.  We know very well which races are the ones cleverly deluded into thinking of themselves as superior, which enabled them (us) to be led into serfdom by their more numerous masters. We in the decision-making positions behind our ivory towered isolation, in our rarefied numbers, should overlook the unsavory color, vulgar language, carnality, criminality, and stench of the masses and treat them for what they are:  Nature’s choice.

This may be an inverse realization relative to the theory you've heard about but remember the Darwinian axiom: the one principle is that they who reproduce most are the 'best' in evolution's eyes. There is no obligation to like them.  They need not be intelligent or even healthy.  But they are the evolutionary successes, empirically and theoretically.

This inverse truth may seem strange but it is in fact not surprising that even staunch Darwinians have had things 180 degrees wrong for more than a century.  They believe in their science, but it is only natural that they have seen the world filtered from their professorial on-campus perspective, and their being treated as knowing elites has flattered whatever they said, no matter how wrong.  Indeed, this longstanding error shows how subjective even science can be!

Yes, they're right: human behavior is all genetic and if their axiomatic genetic determinism is correct, we know very well how it works and what to do to help enhance Nature’s manifest choice.  The dream of the 19th and 20th century eugenicists and race hygienists, to use science to take over the chores that evolution has shown us, can now be realized, but in the proper rather than a dated and incorrect direction.  And in this electronic automated age, we no longer need the smug parasites, the small fringe of wealthy serfs, to make this happen.  We can eliminate the upper classes.  But this is evolution, not social science, so this should not be done by redistribution of resources! Instead, in the benign spirit of the original eugenic movement, the upper classes who should now understand this can help us improve our species voluntarily by refusing to reproduce.  

Or, other measures could be taken…..

Friday, May 23, 2014

Challenges to reflex darwinian explanation...are they conveniently overlooked?

Darwin loosed much upon the world, with his systematic documentation of the idea that life evolved as an historical process of divergence from a common ancestral source, and that complex traits could arise by differential survival of inherited factors that construct organisms' traits.

No current explanation competes with this one.  Its realization had tremendous explanatory power.  It also had tremendous power to affect human society, and not always for the good.  It became an ideology: not only were some traits the result of natural selection, but essentially all were.  Natural selection was seen as a ubiquitous, highly focused and precise 'force'.  That led to the idea of value judgments: that we as intelligent products of this process could now help it along, by assessing what selection has liked or what was 'better' and say thus that such traits should be favored, by our giving the law of Nature a helping hand.

There are all sorts of logical problems with such reasoning, but it led people seen as authorities to define what was good and bad in this context and to make policy assertions about society in that context.  The eugenic era (the word basically meaning to help) led to many presumptuous abuses based on this sort of thinking that we know what Nature wants or what would be biologically better for our species.  The idea seems OK in principle, but we know that it led to awful abuses, and after the lessons learned by the Nazi policies based on rationales using academic advice of this sort, there was a revulsion against such genetic determinism.  It  may have gone too far in the denial direction, but it was based on an understanding of how an ideology can go terribly sour.

But now it's creeping back on little cat feet.  What is essentially strongly genetic determinism, driven by new genomic technologies, has led to a fervent belief that, so to speak, everything is determined by our genes.  A trait is explained by finding the selective factors responsible for it--that is, for finding those genetic variants (or assuming their existence) that lead to the most successful individuals.  It's an ideology, we would say, because it is too unquestioned, and there are many instances where we think that can be seen.

We discussed aspects of the relevance of this problem to issues of human race and racial variation on May 19.  That had to do with the dystopic uses of darwinian determinism.  But here are a couple of examples that show the issue in a different way.

Playboy bunny bodies and the Darwinian drool
There all sorts of theories about the traits involved in mate choice. It's a very sexy topic, so naturally it attracts a lot of 'scientific' interest.  It is all about sexual selection, an idea Darwin carefully documented from his point of view (mainly in non-humans).  But how deep is the thinking?

Lots of studies now and in the past have looked at purportedly representative samples of our species (that is, local middle-class 20 year-old college students) to see what gets them, er, excited.  How the face looks, the timbre of the voice, where the curvey parts or beefy muscles are. 

Mate choice would seem like the sincerest compliment, so close to evolutionary fitness (that is, reproductive success) that it can be a very strong molder of a healthy, hale, 'fit' and advancing species.  If you don't get chosen, well, bye-bye babies!  So one would expect that our ancestors had pretty much wrung all the variation out of such traits over the millions of years of our ancestry as humans.

We once heard a speaker, a licensed academic, say that the human ideal was the Playboy bunny type (this was, you'll have guessed, a male analyst).  This seems rather like the kind of assertion that is so wrong as to be laughable on the face of it.  After so many years of bunny behavior, at the heart of strong natural selection, we should all look like Hefner's dreams!  But any visit to a local mall or anywhere people gather shows how ineffective, that is, untrue, this assertion about sexual selection must be.  Not only are we not all like Playboy bunnies, but we're not even close.  Yet these aberrantly shaped people are having children!  Indeed, the actual rarity of this supposed Darwinian ideal is why there can be bunnies!

Still, pat selectionist explanations have such apparent appeal that this problem seems so easy to overlook.  And a story in the May 18 NY Times Weekly Review section reports a study that shows even more directly than a simple observation of human variation in the supposedly sexy traits, that these physical attractants, the immediate cues that a Darwinian viewpoint would argue are the flags of fitness, are not what has drawn people together who actually marry and stay (and have children) together.  Instead, those immediate sexy lures pale relative to compatible modes of interaction--getting along, shared interests, and so on. These traits are largely culture-specific, not driven by a  narrow set of highly adapted and selected genotypes. 

But, does a story that give any pause at all to the advocates of adaptive determinism via mate choice? 

There is a huge wealth of anthropologically well-known reasons why not all human males choose bunnies as mates (or, to be fair, bunnies choose football players), and why the widely asserted ideas of a prescriptively genetic basis for mate choice simply don't work.  The evidence against narrowly Darwinian accounts of human mating patterns is simply overwhelming, and yet somehow it seems very easy to conveniently ignore if you just don't want to see it.

The persistent sickness of the (ugh!) lower classes
We routinely see stories warning of the devastating potential of some current or impending epidemic of infectious disease among the poor people in the world.  We know that now and historically, the wealthy were spared much of the carnage of past epidemics.  They live in cleaner environments, are less crowded, with better nutrition, medical care, and the ability to get out of town when the epidemic comes.  The poor, well, since time immemorial they have been documented to suffer the mass deaths of plagues.

The evolutionary dynamics of infectious disease are widely studied, and again there are all sorts of very sophisticated selection-adaptation arguments for how the pathogen and the host (that is, people) co-evolve.  A massive epidemic leads to the survival of resistant people, just as massive use of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria.  This is classic Darwinian selection and adaptation. 

But why, then, is it still the case that the poor are so vulnerable?  Given the heavy selective whammo of the long history of plagues, or cholera, or whatever, with some among the poor surviving while cart-loads of their peers ended up in pauper's graves, why aren't the poor as hardy as Superman?  Shouldn't we expect the rich to be the feeble, wobbly ones who are most delicately vulnerable, and doesn't what we actually see raise questions about how cogent are our models?

Of course, if you're a committed adaptationist, you can always make sure that the facts can be fitted to the narrow Darwinian view, by post-hoc arguments, selective use of data, and other tactics to defend a belief system against contrary facts.

We see the same sort of thing today more generally, in which assumed genetic causation of a tractably simple kind is at the core of much of the biomedical belief system.  Beliefs are treated as axioms--assumed truths--rather than ideas to be tested.  Once that's done, every fact is fitted to the assumption.  Studies generally are not designed to falsify our notions, as we self-flatteringly so often proclaim, but are in most ways designed to prove what we want to prove.

This message is not anti-Darwinian
We write often on this general problem.  But we are not at all anti-Darwinian.  Darwin's insight that life has evolved its diversity from a common simple origin through strictly historical processes was transformational.  Organized traits exist and must be explained in light of these facts.  The issue for us, as exemplified by the above examples is not whether sexual selection or infectious disease dynamics are potentially important, nor whether genomic variation related to individuals' traits or evolutionary process take place.  The issue is the tendency of the strength of commitment to lead investigators to force pat explanations onto a world that isn't so pat.

In principle, the questions could be posed in perhaps a more productive, less ideological way.  We do, after all, have shapely bodies, different color hair and eyes, curvy organs and protuberances, and so on. Epidemics surely affect those most susceptible who are exposed.  If these traits are not involved in fitness, then why do we have them?  This is a legitimate question, actually a lot more interesting and deserving of more serious consideration than the simple declarative explanations. 

Likewise there is the important issue of what studies to believe and what ones to dismiss.  That the Times reports a study saying that sexual body traits don't actually determine mate patterns may or may not be a good study, just as claims of Playboy mate choice may be based on weak evidence.  The issue is one of a more dispassionate evaluation of evidence and a more assumption-neutral way of designing studies.

When science is really making advances, you start to see committed devotees of some theory begin to accept that it may not be so after all.  But, the way humans cling to beliefs, even in science as in other belief-based areas, don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

George Armelagos: a sad passing

One of the finest biological anthropologists of a generation has died. George Armelagos was well-loved for the man he was, and for his contributions to the field, and he will be greatly missed by both students and professional Anthropologists alike. His impact was far and wide.

From Anne: I had several classes with George when I was an anthropology undergrad at UMass years ago, and I remember him with great respect and fondness. I took his honors Medical Anthropology class one semester, and wrote a term paper that, as it turned out, he always remembered. Every time I saw him in years to come, including just last year, he would mention that paper. Fortunately he had liked it, or, clearly, I would never have lived it down! This kind of personal touch is just one small indication of what a thoughtful, kind man George was. But he was also very funny. He was born in Michigan, but he said he moved away because he had heard that most people die within 20 miles of home.

From Ken: Big George (and he was big in size as well as reputation) had a dry sense of humor and an impish smile as he pulled your leg, until you finally realized you'd been had. One day, at some anthropology meetings, I came into the hotel breakfast room and saw George sitting at the counter. In his usual friendly way he beckoned me to join him, which I was glad to do. However, I wasn’t really very hungry, because I had to give my meetings paper in a couple of hours and at that stage in my career I was very nervous before any such on-stage event. One might say as an understatement that breakfast was the last thing on my mind; coffee, yes, food, no! George probably knew I was in a tense state. But I tried to live normally even under those conditions. So I sidled up to the counter and ordered some java and perhaps toast. We chatted briefly and then I asked George what he was up to that day. With his usual deadpan, he said “Oh, I have to give a paper in about half an hour.” I asked him what his paper was about, since I hadn’t looked at the book of abstracts. “Oh,” he said, “it’s some important research that I’ve just done and will be presenting.”

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve discovered some important demographic phenomena….” and he went on in great detail to explain, point by point, exactly what I was going to present a few time-slots after his! My stomach jumped a few horrible times…until his account was so specific to my own upcoming one that even I realized that George had read my abstract and was having me on. All in very good sprits, of course.

That was George!

George and his colleagues at UMass made for one of the country's leading bioanthropology programs, a status they maintained for many years until George defected for some strange reason to Emory University in Georgia. George's work covered many areas, largely involving human osteology and what could be inferred from it about the style of life of the people represented, and he studied many areas of the world.

George was a terrific spokesperson for the profession, at national meetings and of course in his published work. He represented a high standard of scientific curiosity as well as of productivity. He was good with his graduate students, who have occupied prominent places in universities after they left his tutelage.

These are our personal reminiscences, but a long-time friend of George's, and of ours, Alan Swedlund, has co-written, along with Alan Goodman and Peter Brown, a press release about George's life, and has kindly let us repost it here:

Appropriately, George with a student (Emory press release, 2010)

George J. Armelagos

A wide network of friends and family mourn the death of Professor George J. Armelagos. He was one of his generation’s most celebrated anthropologists. Armelagos made many significant and pioneering contributions to anthropology and the intersection of human biology, archaeology, and culture.

George Armelagos was born in Detroit on May 22, 1936. He died peacefully at home in Atlanta on May 15, 2014, only one week after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He is survived by brothers, Nick and James Armelagos of Detroit, as well as numerous family, friends, former students, and colleagues throughout the world.

Armelagos received a B.A. with honors from the University of Michigan in 1958 and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado in 1968. He was a professor at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) from 1968-1989, and was instrumental in shaping the newly developed Ph.D. program after he arrived. He taught at the University of Florida for three years, then went to Emory University in 1993 as the Goodrich C. White distinguished professor of Anthropology. He served as chair of that Department from 2003 to 2009, and continued to teach, mentor and publish until his death.

His contributions to the field of Anthropology were immense, particularly in the bio-cultural approach to the discipline. He pioneered the field of paleopathology, the analysis of skeletal remains to reconstruct how cultural changes lead to changing patterns of disease and nutrition in ancient populations. His contributions included a new understanding of the biological consequences of early agriculture and the evolutionary history of infectious diseases like syphilis. From early in his career he wrote courageously about the myth of “race” as a biological concept, and the reality of racism as a social fact that affects health. He had a lifetime interest in food and nutrition. In addition to writing about food, he was a master chef who relished sharing food and conversation with his numerous students and friends. Armelagos was a prolific researcher and author, often collaborating with his students and colleagues. He published thirteen books and monographs and well over 250 journal articles.

He was awarded the highest honors for his scholarship and service to Anthropology, including the Viking Medal from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Charles Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement to Biological Anthropology from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association. He received many awards from UMass and Emory. At UMass he was recognized with the Distinguished Teacher Award and was a Chancellor’s Medalist. Most importantly, George was a much beloved teacher and friend to thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of graduate students. He was cherished for his intellect, generosity, encouragement, humility, and humor.

A private internment service will be held near St Catherine’s Island, Georgia. In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to the Armelagos Lecture Fund, or the Armelagos-Swedlund Scholarship Fund c/o James Mallet, , 40 Campus Center Way, University of Massachusetts, Amherst 01003.  Also, George very generously provided in his will for Armelagos Lecture Funds at the University of Colorado, and Emory University.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fiddling with genes while Rome burns

By Anne Buchanan and Dan Parker

There's a new paper in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases ("The Gulf Coast: A New American Underbelly of Tropical Diseases and Poverty", Hotez et al.), describing the increasing prevalence of infectious tropical diseases among poor people living on the US Gulf Coast, an area of the United States ripe for the spread of diseases that have until recently only been found in tropical countries.  It is ripe for such diseases because much of the region has a subtropical climate and several potential insect vectors of infectious disease.  For much of recent history though, there has been very little insect-borne infectious disease in this area, although such diseases were once highly prevalent.

And, a paper in Science last week ("Crippling Virus Set to Conquer Western Hemisphere", Enserink) tells of the spread of a currently emerging infectious disease, chikungunya, which is communicated by the Aedes aegypti mosquito (also a vector of dengue fever) which is found throughout much of the world.  The virus has made its way to the Caribbean and thus is expected to soon be found from the southern US to southern Latin America.

The World Health Organization identifies 17 "neglected tropical diseases".  We neglect neglected diseases at our peril.  Or, not specifically our peril -- the peril primarily of poor people.  Extreme poverty and a warm, tropical climate are the two most potent forces promoting the endemicity of neglected tropical diseases in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Now, these same forces are also widely prevalent in the five states of the US Gulf Coast—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Poverty is rampant: ten million Gulf Coast residents currently live below the US poverty line, with Mississippi topping the list of all states in terms of percentage of people who live in poverty (22%). Texas alone has almost five million poor people. Tropical diseases such as dengue, malaria, typhus, cholera, yellow fever, chagas disease and others once found in the US but eradicated with economic development, are neglected by global health organizations and Big Pharma because poor countries and poor people can't afford the drugs to treat them. Pharmaceuticals are corporations and therefore have little incentive to develop such drugs.

More than a billion people around the world suffer from one or more neglected tropical diseases.  PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases describes these diseases this way:
The NTDs are defined as a group of poverty-promoting chronic infectious diseases, which primarily occur in rural areas and poor urban areas of low-income and middle-income countries. They are poverty-promoting because of their impact on child health and development, pregnancy, and worker productivity, as well as their stigmatizing feature.
Chikungunya is spreading rapidly in the Caribbean.

Island hopping. 
Chikungunya, whose main vector is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is spreading fast in the Caribbean. Science.

The virus can cause rashes, fever, and intense, sometimes lasting joint pain.  Infected people sometimes arrive at health centers with their arms locked in flexion from the pain in their elbows and other joints.  Millions will likely get sick with this disease.

The virus has been spreading through Africa and India for about a decade, and a recent genetic variant allows it to be spread by a second vector, A. albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, which has expanded its territory greatly in the last three decades, including through southern Europe.  While mosquitoes bite rich and poor alike,  and in theory everyone in areas where the tiger mosquito or A. aegypti are abundant is at risk of chikungunya, in practice mosquitoes are more likely to breed in areas with standing or stagnant water, in old tires, along streets with no rainwater drainage, or areas with no mosquito control, so it's likely that this disease will disproportionately affect poor people wherever it spreads.

And certainly along the US Gulf Coast it's the poor who are at increased risk of the diseases that are now increasing in prevalence there; dengue fever has been in Texas for at least 10 years, and was identified in Houston and South Texas in 2013, with the poorest communities most affected.  Typhus, encephalitis, trichomoniasis, Chagas disease, helminthic infections, and diseases that have been rare or absent for decades have also been documented in Texas, primarily in African American and Hispanic communities. Many of these diseases are especially high risk for pregnant woman and infants.  And, diagnosis and treatment is often lacking, and local physicians not knowledgeable about the diseases.

The social and economic impact of these diseases on the southern US could be significant.  Perhaps given that they are now so close to home, they will begin to attract research dollars and interest - already a National School of Tropical Medicine has been established at Baylor College of Medicine in Waco, Texas. After a rather hubristic few decades or so when we in the West believed we had conquered infectious diseases, the HIV/AIDS epidemic woke us to the fact that infectious diseases aren't going to go away.  Increasing antibiotic resistance and the fact that, with global travel, many diseases can spread almost instantaneously -- MERS, for example, has now been diagnosed in three people in the US, including one infected here rather than in the Middle East -- neglected diseases should no longer suffer such neglect.  Will this happen?  Is the new school at Baylor an aberration?  If the diseases continue to primarily affect the poor, it's hard to be optimistic.  Developing vaccines is costly and Big Pharma prefers investing in drugs that people take for the long haul -- statins, Viagra, blood pressure meds -- rather than drugs to treat infectious diseases in the short term.

For that matter, the big research dollars go to sequencing viruses and parasites, generally neglecting the social aspects (like poverty) that lead to these conditions, even while we all acknowledge the strong links between poverty and tropical diseases.  Given the increasing spread of infectious diseases in a warming climate, it may well turn out to have been pretty foolish to have spent billions of dollars on genetics research at the expense of infectious diseases.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Science and faith and Mussolini

By Anne Buchanan and Ken Weiss

We were in Italy for the last few weeks.  One of the things we did while there was to spend a few days at a lovely agriturismo in Tuscan.  On one of our walks, to the small village of Lucignano d'Asso, we came across this old barn still sporting a legend from the days of Mussolini.  
"La scienza, la volontà, la fede, possono attenuare gli effetti delle forze non benefiche della nature." (Science, will, faith, can attenuate the effects of the non-beneficial forces of nature.)

This is a statement of faith; with science, faith, and the will to do so, we will conquer nature.  This was part of the modernist time in history (we may still be in it), in which the idea of determined rationalism can improve our lot, as a replacement for blind religious-type faith.

Also part of that, and in line with Hitler, Mussolini was a believer in racial supremacy, of Italians and the Aryan 'race'.  This was more stridently evil at that time and place, but indeed in post-Darwinian science more generally, the belief was (is) that our essence (and our value) was built into our genes.  Society, being modern and hence rationale, could use science to alter nature at will, to make life better (at least, for the alterers in power).  This belief was held even though specific genes were not even identifiable at the time.  

A document reported to have been written by the Ministry of Popular Culture under precise instructions from Mussolini, and signed by 180 prominent scientists, called 'The Manifesto of Racist Scientists' ('Manifesto degli Scienziati Razzisti'), was published in the Giornale d'Italia on 14 July 1938.  Briefly, its 10 points were these (the full document, in Italian and English, is here):
1. Human races exist. This is obvious simply by observation. Racial characteristics are inherited, but the existence of races doesn't necessarily imply the superiority of any.

2. There exist large races (white or black) and small races ( i.e. Nordic or Mediterranean). Biologically, the smaller groups constitute the real races; this is just obvious. 
3. The concept of race is a purely biological concept. The Italians are different from the French, the Germans, the Turks, the Greeks, etc., not only because each has a different language and a different history, but because of different racial constitutions of these people. 
4. The majority of the population of contemporary Italy is Aryan in origin and its civilization is Aryan. 
5. The influx of huge masses of men in historical times is a legend. For the most part, the racial composition of today is what it has been for thousands of years.

6. There exists by now a pure "Italian race”, based on the ancient purity of Italian blood. 
7. It is time that the Italians proclaim themselves frankly racist.  The question of racism in Italy ought to be treated from a purely biological point of view, without philosophic or religious intentions.  This implies a great responsibility on the part of Italians.

8. It is necessary to make a clear distinction between the European (Western) Mediterranean races on one side and the Eastern [Mediterranean] and Africans, and Semitic and North African on the other. That is, Italians aren't African.
9. Jews do not belong to the Italian race and represent the only race that has never assimilated.

10. The purely European character of the Italians ought not to be altered in any way.
This was the foundation for the race laws that were enacted over the next five years in Italy, including stripping Jews of Italian citizenship and from positions in the government and many other professions, prohibiting Jews from employing Aryans, and so forth.  Italy had never been particularly anti-Semitic before this, but during World War II 10,000 Italy sent Jews to Auschwitz, 8,000 of whom were killed.  Mussolini was said to have boasted to his mistress in 1938, with respect to the notion that he learned his racism from Hitler, that he was a racist even before Hitler was born (odd that though, since he was only 6 years older than Hitler).
"I have been a racist since 1921. I don't know how they can think I'm imitating Hitler," Mussolini is quoted as boasting in August 1938. "We must give Italians a sense of race."
The idea was, of course, that some people are better than others.  The 'others' included those with inherent diseases that made them a burden on the better parts of society, or whose genes made them undesirable, such as by making them criminals, prostitutes, druggies, and so on -- as opposed to noble officials in our societies.  But it was not just the odd psychotic or gypsy here and there who were the burden, it was the societal load of the inferior groups, that is, less desirable races.

The classificatory approach:  truth, approximation, or illusion?
The expression of such beliefs was strident at the time, but the tenor is eerily current.  The idea (belief, fact -- even the choice of word here belies ideological underpinnings) that we can delimit races with genetics, that races are biologically definable categories, is very much with us again: it is again tolerable, if not in some quarters downright fashionable, to make such assertions.  It's even entrenched in the way that many apply the statistical methods that human geneticists often use to classify populations.  When a computer program (e.g., STRUCTURE) tells us there are 5 human races, why shouldn't we believe it?

Ken and Jeff Long wrote about this in a paper in Genome Research in 2009 ("Non-Darwinian estimation: My ancestors, my genes' ancestors").  The idea -- and it goes back very clearly to the eugenics era -- is that there are specific categories of humans (call them 'races' or, if you want to be politically correct, call them 'geographic populations') that exist, such that everyone is either a member of such a category or has admixed ancestry among them.  Ken has written several other papers on this subject (e.g., 'Racing around, getting nowhere', Evol. Anthropol., 14: 165, 2005).

The point in essence is that these admixture-based approaches assume 'pure' populations to actually exist now, or in the recent enough past.  The methods themselves can find such categories, and essentially define them in a statistical way.  That is, the methods can 'find' such groups even if they don't exist historically; this is an important point.

The authors of STRUCTURE and similar programs do not use them for racist purposes and include all the requisite disclaimers; but the use by many prominent investigators, and their interpretation by those for whom it is convenient, is as we discuss in this post.

It is obvious even to the most racist racist that not everybody in a given race is identical (despite the common unstated implication that they all may have some group-specific value, such as being more intelligent, athletic, musical, etc. than some other group).  But if a group is sealed off from other groups, and its members mate at random within the group, even if the very same variants are found, but at different frequencies, in other groups, the genetic profile (the frequency of variants at a set of measured genes, or in the whole genomes) of the group can be characterized statistically.  Then, if members of different groups move somewhere and mate, their offspring will be statistically seen to be a genetic mix, an admixture, of the two parental groups.

Leaving aside the technical details, if you take some samples from different places in the world and assume this admixture scenario, then your statistical program can find the parental and admixed groups, and estimate each person's admixture percentages.  But this will happen even if there are not and never were distinct sealed-off groups; that is, the analysis takes your assumptions and gives you a best answer to the nature of the groups.

Genomes are connected by history, so of course you are like your parents, and someone from another continent will resemble his/her parents (here we assume no long-range migration).  Extending this over history and space, you expect to find genomic differences across the continents.  But human history is such that populations have not generally been isolated so that they reflect the assumptions of admixture analysis, except in the very approximate way that your analysis simply reflects the differences that gradually accumulate with geographic distance.  People differ everywhere, and the differences are everywhere in the genome.  But our species is not evolved as packages sealed from other packages.

This is easy to see by computer simulation.  If you assume no packaging into discrete categories in the actual historical generation of human variation, but analyze samples of populations assuming that they do represent discrete populations and their admixed progeny, the analysis will give you an answer that is strictly the product of your assumptions and contrary to the actual history.  Ken and Brian Lambert showed this in a recent article ('What type of person are you? Old-fashioned thinking even in modern science', Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology).  

This reflects the problem with racial thinking that looks for differences (and, so often, differences in traits with societal value, like intelligence or criminality or political leanings).  Of course, because we evolved across wide time and space ranges, it is comparably wrong to assume or assert that there are no important geographically distributed differences.  Unfortunately, people looking at this subject take polarized stances about it.

Perhaps we will opine on the subject of race itself in some future posts, in a way that lays out the issues rather than taking a political stance (or using selective citation to take a non-PC racist view to get attention or sell books).  Part of the problem with the discussion of 'race' and many similar kinds of subjects that science can address in principle is that we become polarized, taking emotionally held belief systems that may (as in the case of 'race') take on and reflect inherently social or political positions.  The truth of climate change, or of evolution are other such areas. This is different from arguments among scientists about such detached subjects as the existence of life-bearing planets, or the evolution of 5-toed animals from earlier precursors. There can be strongly held debates about these things, but societal politics are not at issue.

Science as a way of knowing, but only one way of thinking
There is a very fine book by John Moore called Science as a Way of Knowing (Harvard Press, 1993), written by biologists who wanted to teach teachers how to teach what science is, by taking the evolution of biology from its classical origins to the present (of the 1990s).  The books is now a bit dated, but still it uses biology to lay out the way of thinking that is science, not as a way to the one and only truth, but as a method of approach to thinking about Nature.

The belief that if science says it, it must be true didn't disappear with the end of fascism, of course. For many, science has taken over from philosophy and religion as the source of truth in a material world.  Beliefs such as that with science we can avoid the disastrous effects of climate change or over-population or food insecurity or the end of fossil fuels, or that science will soon keep us alive for hundreds of years if not forever, are widespread.  They are based on assumptions about the nature of truth, about causation, and so on, but just as much about who is accepted as the authority figure when dealing with human problems.

As our son-in-law -- an Italian musician, philosopher, and historian -- said one day, as we were discussing these issues, "The biggest taboo is the absurd, because science has made it so."  Those of us who don't find our truths in religion tend to believe that science can and will make sense of the universe, from the subatomic to the cosmological.  And we assume that objectivity is possible and that there are singular objective truths to be discovered, that the cosmos is unitary in its material causation.

The cosmos could be unitary but even if it is, we forget that what we as humans take from science is based to a great extent on what we put in -- our assumptions, beliefs, chosen methods and ways of approach, and the questions we ask and how we frame them.  These are often very largely subjective rather than objective aspects of science.  Historians of science have clearly shown this to be true, regardless of the degree to which the underlying assumptions about the cosmos are correct.  We come to science with assumptions about how the world is -- the sun revolves around the earth, we can understand diseases by understanding single genes, or ideas about how humans should be classified -- and our assumptions define and color our results.