Pharyngula

The hbd delusion

A confession: I have long disliked Nicholas Wade’s science journalism. He has often written about biology in the NY Times, and every time he seems to make a botch of the reporting, because he actually doesn’t understand biology very well. For example, in his very last article for the NYT, he described some work that identified 12 genes found on the Y chromosome that are globally expressed — they aren’t just involved in testis development, for instance. This is no surprise. There are genes required for sperm differentiation found on autosomes, for instance, and the Y chromosome is not a gentleman’s club with “No Girls Allowed” tacked on the door. But Wade turned it into a phenomenon that explained the differences between men and women.

Differences between male and female tissues are often attributed to the powerful influence of sex hormones. But now that the 12 regulatory genes are known to be active throughout the body, there is clearly an intrinsic difference in male and female cells even before the sex hormones are brought into play.

I can sort of see his thinking: if there are genes that are found only on the Y chromosome that are expressed in all the cells of the body, then maybe they confer a non-sexual difference on only male behavior and physiology.

But that’s all nonsense. Those genes aren’t found only on the Y chromosome: they have homologs on the X chromosome. They aren’t “male” genes at all! As Sarah Richardson explains:

The 12 genes residing on the Y chromosome exist to ensure sexual similarity. The genes are “dosage-sensitive,” meaning that two copies are needed for them to function properly. We’ve long known that those 12 genes exist on X chromosomes. Females have the 12 genes active on both of their X chromosomes. If males, who have just one X, didn’t have them on the Y, they would not have a sufficient dosage of those genes. Now we know they do. Just like women.

You see what I mean? I’ve never trusted Wade’s science reporting, because it’s always been grossly wrong on the subjects I know well. I wouldn’t want Wade defending evolution education, either, especially since he argues for an evolutionary ladder. I’m not very interested in his ideas about the origin of life, which are rather bogus.

So you can imagine how I groaned when I heard that Wade was coming out with a new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Wade doesn’t understand genes, so now he’s going to misapply his incomprehension to a hot-button issue like race? Great. Expect all the ‘scientific racists’ to come out cheering. Steve Sailer, the racist ignoramus who likes to cloak himself in pseudoscience, considers it another shot in Wade’s long-running war with liberals. John Derbyshire, the guy who was too racist for the National Review because he wrote a grossly bigoted screed (published on the same site that published Sailer’s review!), who also serves up large dollops of sexism, thinks it is a significant step for race realism.

Oh, a hot tip: these new racists really hate being called racists, so they’ve been struggling for years to come up with a new label. “Scientific Racism” and “Academic Racism” didn’t test well; they’ve still got “racism” in the name. For a long time they called themselves “Race Realists”, which I always read as “really racist”. That’s gone by the wayside now, mostly. The term of art you’re looking for now is “Human Biodiversity”, or “hbd” for short. Notice — “race” isn’t in the label any more. But don’t be fooled, hbd really is just the slick new marketing term for modern racism.

A good (but too generous) review of Wade’s book by Andrew Gelman notes that racism never really seems to change — it’s just that the targets always shift to reflect current stereotypes.

I suspect that had this book been written 100 years ago, it would have featured strong views not on the genetic similarities but on the racial divides that explained the difference between the warlike Japanese and the decadent Chinese, as well as the differences between the German and French races. Nicholas Wade in 2014 includes Italy within the main European grouping, but the racial theorists of 100 years ago had strong opinions on the differences between northern and southern Europeans.

We don’t even have to go back a century — racial presuppositions have changed within my lifetime.

One of Wade’s key data points is the rapid economic growth of East Asia in the past half-century: “In the early 1950s Ghana and South Korea had similar economies and levels of gross national product per capita. Some 30 years later, South Korea had become the 14th largest economy in the world, exporting sophisticated manufactures. Ghana had stagnated.” Wade approvingly quotes political scientist Samuel Huntington’s statement, “South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values.” And Wade attributes these attitudes toward thrift, investment, etc., to the Koreans’ East Asian genes.

This all fits together and could well be true. But … what if Wade had been writing his book in 1954 rather than 2014? Would we still be hearing about the Korean values of thrift, organization, and discipline? A more logical position, given the economic history up to that time, would be to consider the poverty of East Asia to be never-changing, perhaps an inevitable result of their genes for conformity and the lack of useful evolution after thousands of years of relative peace. We might also be hearing a lot about Japan’s genetic exclusion from the rest of Asia, along with a patient explanation of why we should not expect China and Korea to attain any rapid economic success.

Isn’t that convenient? Somehow, the reality of race realists — excuse me, hbd proponents — always seems to mirror our prejudices. And most strangely, when asked for evidence, they always simply point to current trends or current sweeping characterizations of whole groups as supporting their contentions…never mind that we see rapid shifts in the overall behavior or status of those cultures that cannot be explained by genetics.

Noah Smith has an excellent explanation of the pseudo-scientific strategem of the hbd crowd. It’s all about overfitting.

Here’s how academic racism generally works. Suppose you see two groups that have an observable difference: for example, suppose you note that Hungary has a higher per capita income than Romania. Now you have a data point. To explain that data point, you come up with a theory: the Hungarian race is more industrious than the Romanian race. But suppose you notice that Romanians generally do better at gymnastics than Hungarians. To explain that second data point, you come up with a new piece of theory: The Romanian race must have some genes for gymnastics that the Hungarian race lacks.

You can keep doing this. Any time you see different average outcomes between two different groups, you can assume that there is a genetic basis for the difference. You can also tell "just-so stories" to back up each new assumption – for example, you might talk about how Hungarians are descended from steppe nomads who had to be industrious to survive, etc. etc. As new data arrive, you make more assumptions and more stories to explain them. Irish people used to be poor and are now rich? They must have been breeding for richness genes! Korea used to be poorer than Japan and is now just as rich? Their genes must be more suited to the modern economy! For every racial outcome, there is a just-so story about why it happened. Read an academic-racist blog, like Steve Sailer’s, and you will very quickly see that this kind of thinking is pervasive and rampant.

There’s just one little problem with this strategy. Each new assumption that you make adds a parameter to your model. You’re overfitting the data – building a theory that can explain everything but predict nothing. Another way to put this is that your model has a "K=N" problem – the number of parameters in your model is equal to the number of observations. If you use some sort of goodness-of-fit criterion that penalizes you for adding more parameters, you’ll find that your model is useless (no matter how true or false it happens to be!). This is one form of a more general scientific error known as "testing hypotheses suggested by the data", or "post-hoc reasoning". It’s a mistake that is by no means unique to academic racism, but instead is common in many scientific disciplines (cough cough, sociobiology, cough cough).

Wade continues in this fine tradition. I considered reading his book, just to tear it up, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort, from the reviews — it’s just another collection of anecdotes dressed up with Wade’s sloppy understanding of genes.

Comments

  1. […] By PZ Myers […]

  2. #2 Josh
    May 11, 2014

    Steven Pinker agrees with Wade that race is not a social construct, and that racial differences exist. Quote, “…[Wade}explodes race-is-only-a-social-construction myth.”

    Pinker, Sailer, Derbyshire and Cochran agree that Wade gets some stuff wrong and that a large part of his book is speculative. So your attack on Sailer, Derbyshire et al as unthinking ideologues is wrong. They are probably more nuanced than you are in your thinking.

  3. #3 Josh
    May 11, 2014

    As for Wade’s arguments in relation to the existence of race, they are sound.

    He cites the latest research, which shows that individuals cluster together in relation to their ancestry. What this means is that Asians cluster with Asian, Africans with Africans and Caucasians with Caucasians. If you increase the number of clusters (and genome data), then you get finer results — Arabs cluster with Arabs, Jews with Jews, Englishmen with Englishmen, and so on and on.

    He shows that 14% of the genome has been under selection in the past 30,000 years and that genes responsible for brain function are not exempt from selection.

    He points out that Jared Diamond’s refutation of race is absurd. He shows how Lewontin is wrong on two counts, and that even under Lewontin’s assumptions, racial differences could still exist.

    It’s possible to take an African-Ameican’s genome and assign each part of it to its ancestry, and thus we can say African-Americans are 22% Caucasian — but race does not exist, right?

    Wade’s book is troublesome for creationists such as yourself because it challenges your cherished dogma of racial equality.

  4. #4 Erik Weissengruber
    Toronto, Ontario
    May 11, 2014

    It this any different from the stuff P. Rushton was dishing out 20+ years ago? What is “new” in Wade’s argument? What different flavours of junk science are journalists and political scientists retailing? And can you give some idea of some of the misinterpretations of the experimental research of which Wade might be guilty.

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    May 11, 2014

    Race does not exist? Where have I ever argued that, you delusional crank?

  6. #6 ads
    May 11, 2014

    “It this any different from the stuff P. Rushton was dishing out 20+ years ago? ”

    Yes it’s very different due to advance in genetics. Twenty years ago it was possible to say ”all human groups are genetically identical, all differences are caused by cultural forces”. We now know that at least the first part of that statement is wrong.

  7. […] Meyers admits race is real but then goes off on some tangent about “hbd really is just the slick new marketing term for […]

  8. #9 Josh
    May 11, 2014

    Pz, if you believe in race, please inform your commenters of their ignorance over at ftb.

  9. […] – The hbd delusion from p.z. myers – “I considered reading his book, just to tear it up, but I don’t […]

  10. #11 candid_observer
    May 12, 2014

    1. PZ Myers believes race exists, presumably in the sense that there are population groups occupying continents which have evolved independently of each other.

    2. But if groups have evolved independently, then they have been subject to independent selection forces.

    3. It’s been well established that a number of cognitive and emotional traits are based on genes by twin studies, adoption studies, and now genomic studies on IQ (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3182557/)

    4. If all of the independent selection factors for each and every cognitive and emotional trait for each race was the same, it would be improbable to the point of a miracle.

    5. But PZ Myers believes that all races are the same on all cognitive and emotional traits.

    Ergo,

    PZ Myers believes in miracles.

  11. #12 Josh
    May 12, 2014

    “2. But if groups have evolved independently, then they have been subject to independent selection forces.”

    Your deduction is confirmed by empirical evidence. Wade cites a study that shows that different parts of the genome have been under selection in different races — just as one would expect if evolution were true.

  12. #13 cytochromeC
    May 12, 2014

    Well, it sure seems to be a meme protecting itself.
    On National Petroleum Radio, they could not even consider the argument and data.
    A very sensitive area in a politically correct world.
    I haven’t read the book, so I have no judgement at this time, but the reactions are classic– like you can’t name the deity, so you can’t examine it.

  13. #14 dan
    May 12, 2014

    PZ – I just wanted to say that I don’t like you. Thank you, that is all.

  14. #15 Jack Weinstein
    May 12, 2014

    PZ: “Race does not exist? Where have I ever argued that, you delusional crank?”

    PZ: “So, do I think there are races in biology as well as culture? No.”

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/04/22/that-question-of-race/

  15. #16 eah
    May 12, 2014

    There wasn’t really anything “racist” about the article that got John Derbyshire fired from NR. The gist of it was that, statistically, a White in the US is far more likely to be the victim of a serious, violent crime committed by a Black than the other way around. (In fact, some of the data re black criminality is startling — eg, black males between the age of, say, 17 and 45, are approx 5% of the population, but commit over 50% of all murders.) The media does not publish this info, and goes further by censoring race from crime stories, as well as basically ignoring black on white crime. Then anyone who does mention this data, or draws rational conclusions from it re the relative risks posed by different races, is attacked. So in general people are ignorant about, or downright afraid to know, these facts. So re “the talk”, and just looking at it rationally, ie based on the data, it makes more sense for white parents to warn their kids about Blacks than the other way around. That’s basically what he said.

    But all of that happened during the media-created hysteria around George Zimmerman, who in the end was not convicted of any crime. And we’re so beyond that now, right?

  16. #17 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    May 12, 2014

    Ah, the joys of having the same discussion in two places at once. *sigh*

    Pinker, Sailer, Derbyshire and Cochran agree that Wade gets some stuff wrong and that a large part of his book is speculative. So your attack on Sailer, Derbyshire et al as unthinking ideologues is wrong.

    That does not follow.

  17. #18 xaverius
    Granada
    May 12, 2014

    I’d much prefer it if you read it and made a critic comment/refutation in your blog, it’d be interesting to say the least. Please consider it.

  18. #19 monad
    May 12, 2014

    “2. But if groups have evolved independently, then they have been subject to independent selection forces.”

    That’s a pretty big “if”. There are a few isolated populations of humans, and notably the Native Americans were separated from the others for a long time. But otherwise most groups people think of as races have been constantly interchanging genes, as even a cursory look at history would show. What differences exist between them do so not as a consequence of isolation, but despite its absence.

    “The media does not publish this info, and goes further by censoring race from crime stories, as well as basically ignoring black on white crime.”

    Some citations are seriously needed for all these claims, because it sounds an awful lot like that’s complete nonsense.

  19. #20 candid_observer
    May 12, 2014

    “That’s a pretty big “if”. There are a few isolated populations of humans, and notably the Native Americans were separated from the others for a long time. But otherwise most groups people think of as races have been constantly interchanging genes, as even a cursory look at history would show.”

    How much opportunity did, say, the peoples in Europe have to exchange genes with those in SubSaharan Africa, or either with East Asians, before, say, the year 1000 AD?

    Even if there were a very rare occasion in which that exchange took place, there’s no reason to believe that any important genetic change between the populations would come about, particularly for genes of small individual effect — and virtually all of the genetic differences on cognitive and emotional traits are based on a multitude of genes of very small effect.

  20. #21 monad
    May 12, 2014

    Probably someone from England never bred directly with someone from China, but they both did with neighbors on a continuous basis, as well as with some people who moved far along trade or campaign routes.

    Between those, there was enough flow between Europe, the Middle East, the Steppe, and China on the one hand, and between them, North Africa, and various other African kingdoms on the other, that to describe them as reproductively isolated in a biological sense is to invent barriers that were never that much larger than the ones between one European village and another.

    As far as whether there was enough to create importance genetic change between the populations, I’m not saying there was. I’m saying there was enough that thinking the populations must have inevitably undergone separate selection based on reproductive isolation is very ahistorical.

    Or if I am generous, it’s at least at the point where if you want to claim a difference in selection pressures should have larger effects on gene frequencies than whatever percentage interbreeding, it’s something you would need to justify with numbers. What do you have?

  21. #22 candid_observer
    May 12, 2014

    monad,

    Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

    Look, it’s well known that whether there is an exchange of genes between populations related to traits that is of sufficient magnitude to affect important changes in the genetic distributions on those traits depends entirely on the magnitude of the effect of the genes and the strength of the selection factor on those traits. Look it up in any creditable text on population genetics.

    So even if on occasion someone of European extraction directly exchanged genes with someone of SubSaharan African extraction, or did so through a dozen levels of indirection via people in between the two races, it would do NOTHING to alter the overall genetic structure of the two populations with respect to the trait in question, IF that trait is massively polygenic and of small individual effect (as is IQ, for example) in its basis. This is particularly so when the differential selection factors on each population in their peculiar environments goes on as before.

    This is really all just math, practically speaking, as one can see derived and explained in any competent text on population genetics.

  22. #23 candid_observer
    May 12, 2014

    Monad,

    I suggest you read and try to understand, say, Introduction to Quantitative Genetics by Falconer and McKay before you shoot your mouth off on this subject again.

    If you display no understanding of the material, why should anyone pay you any heed?

  23. #24 monad
    May 13, 2014

    I’m aware the degree of such effects depends on math. That was my point: you declared lack of divergence would be a miracle, but didn’t give any. If you don’t give any substantiation, why am I going to trust the numbers work out just like you say when you’re making fun of an actual biologist?

  24. #25 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    May 13, 2014

    1. PZ Myers believes race exists, presumably in the sense that there are population groups occupying continents which have evolved independently of each other.

    I think your presumption is massively wrong, and he’s talking about the social construct. That’s because the people on different continents, however you want to define the continents, have not evolved independently of each other – before you even get to the fact that the genetic diversity outside of Africa is a fraction of the diversity in Africa, and that outside of Africa the diversity outside of India is a fraction of the diversity found in India.

    The variation is clinal. Go from Romania to Shandong and tell me where the line between “europid” and “mongolid” lies.

    The only human population that was isolated for a reasonably long time were the Tasmanians.

  25. #26 candid_observer
    May 13, 2014

    Monad,

    Let me address just the question of how fast IQ might increase.

    One of the more interesting exercises to be found in Falconer and Mackey’s Introduction to Quantitative Genetics is problem 20.2 (whose answer is found at the end the book).

    The exercise is based on data from a study of whites in Minnesota published in 1971. The question is, how much is IQ shifted per generation based on selection factors for IQ, where fitness is measured by family size?

    Certainly some rough estimates need to be introduced to address the issue. But the answer is an increase of app. 1 IQ point per generation.

    That’s very fast indeed. But it suggests how easy it would be for two populations to diverge on IQ over 200 generations — the length of time subSaharan Africans and Europeans have been separated.

  26. #27 candid_observer
    May 13, 2014

    David Marjanović,

    One can of course talk about the difference between populations within continents as being captured by “clines” — it really matters little to the truly significant point here: that the population group, or group, within subSaharan Africa was so far removed from the population or populations within Europe that they evolved independently, that is, subject to independent selection factors, and so that whatever extremely rare or limited exchange of genes that may have taken place between the two groups would have essentially no effect on most important traits (because, as I’ve pointed out, these traits are typically driven by massive numbers of genes of very small effect).

    Do you really dispute this?

    What this means, among other things, is that if we take a random person of European extraction, and a random person of SubSaharan African extraction, we will make very different predictions as to what measures they would exhibit on certain traits (on average, of course, since they are merely random members of their population groups).

    Do you dispute that?

  27. #28 cytochromeC
    May 14, 2014

    European Advantage?
    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/39604/title/An-Ancient-Evolutionary-Advantage-/

    Of course, this is just a Eurocentric, Raciest, Male, Science view of things – us post structuralists know everything is created from a pont of reference, and created from culture.

  28. #29 Erik Weissengruber
    May 14, 2014

    “Yes it’s very different due to advance in genetics.”

    What I meant was unqualified political scientists speculating on the evolutionary origin of the genetic determination of current physical features and behaviours. Speculations based on poorly constructed surveys with tiny sample sizes undertaken by the investigator himself. And then releasing the results at a press conference instead of going through peer review. And correlating a bunch of measurements without care for the procedures of meta-analysis or with some theory to justify extracting data gathered under different research protocols. And then throwing in some stuff about r/K selection strategies.

    In other words, fast-talking bullshit by the unqualified who happen to be able to do a little statistical number crunching.

    The skeptic community plays fast and loose when throwing around “postmodern” and “cultural studies” as cuss words. Business schools and political science teachers (ah, to have biopolitics taught by Tom Flanagan at the U of Calgary, what a rigorous enterprise that must be) ride on all kindsa dubious interpretations of the specialized sciences.

    When Lawrence Summers and graduates of the Kennedy School of Government claim scientific support for their policies but show no ability to critique the primary sources, relying instead on tendentious summaries by non-experts (yer Rushtons, Murrays, and Wades), well those who consider themselves “pro-science/anti-ideology” should look critically at those trying to include themselves in that club.

  29. #30 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    May 14, 2014

    and so that whatever extremely rare or limited exchange of genes that may have taken place between the two groups would have essentially no effect on most important traits (because, as I’ve pointed out, these traits are typically driven by massive numbers of genes of very small effect).

    Do you really dispute this?

    To an extent, yes. There’s a cline between Europeans and Africans, too. People in Rwanda are very dark, but many have European noses, and so it goes on till somewhere in northern Sudan you find you can’t draw a line. Without gene flow (including migrations), such clines would break down over time.

    You know, it’s rather funny that you keep talking about “essentially no effect” but haven’t presented any numbers whatsoever. And which traits are “important”?

    What this means, among other things, is that if we take a random person of European extraction, and a random person of SubSaharan African extraction, we will make very different predictions as to what measures they would exhibit on certain traits (on average, of course, since they are merely random members of their population groups).

    Do you dispute that?

    To an extent, yes, if only because the genetic diversity of Europeans is much smaller than that of Africans south of the Sahara.

    Of course, this is just a Eurocentric, Raciest, Male, Science view of things – us post structuralists know everything is created from a pont of reference, and created from culture.

    You are very confused. The article presents evidence for interbreeding between Neandertalers and the ancestors of “Europeans”, however defined – great, so what?

    And, come on, PZ is a biologist (and so am I).

  30. #31 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    May 14, 2014

    I recommend this open-access paper, particularly the section “Signals of admixture”.

  31. […] have been many good reviews of Nicholas Wade’s recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, but Allen Orr makes a […]

  32. #33 HBD vs DNA | Donal
    May 22, 2014

    […] few weeks ago I ran across a Science Blogs post, The HBD Delusion, in which it seems that people are clinging to the idea that race is an accurate reflection of […]

  33. #34 Alice Finkel
    http://alfin2500.blogspot.com
    May 23, 2014

    The key point is to keep people from reading Wade’s book and anything similar to it — including the science literature. As long as we can limit the reading material of the college educated masses to what is sanctioned by higher authority, dissent can be kept to a minimum.

  34. #35 dean
    May 23, 2014

    Way to miss (accidentally or intentionally I can’t tell) the point Alice.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.