Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Friday, April 19, 2002

Derek Lowe and Charles Murtaugh have mentioned a blogger who goes by the pseudonym Godless Capitalist, who hides behind a fake name because he fears persecution. The reason, he says, is because he wants to write about the "obvious" differences between races and genders, and the consequences of this "obvious" situation (is the sarcasm in those quotes "obvious" enough?). Anyway, he (I assume its a he, but of course, it could be a woman, and there is no obvious reason for it not to be) claims to be a geneticist, and sites the heresies of several geneticists from the liberte, egalite, fraternite dogma, including The (infamous)Bell Curve by Murray and Herrnstein, who, incidentally, I don't believe were geneticists at all. In any event, I knew when I heard this that there was a big flaw in his argument, but I had to search the literature for five whole minutes to find it!! This guy, to be blunt, can't be much of a geneticist. The article, a commentary from Science is linked here, and is free to everyone. I didn't cite primary sources, because most of them are subscription based and/or inaccessible by virtue of impenetrable prose. Most of the data is based on mitochondrial DNA, which is not acted upon by natural selection for the most part, and is also only inherited through the maternal line. It therefore gives a pretty good window into the genetic drift over time, and acts as an "evolutionary clock", telling us when populations diverged by the diversity in their mitochondrial DNA.

The relevant information, synthesized for your reading enjoyment, is this; most mitochondrial DNA variation between human beings can be traced to that within a population, rather than between populations. What does this mean? It means that if you sample a large population on any given continent, most (~85%, according to the paper) of the variation will be represented. This can be directly translated into an estimate of when, in the evolutionary time scale of man, these populations diverged from one another, and it implies that all of humanity was interbreeding for a lot longer than it was geographically isolated (the modern era of transcontinental travel simply hasn't existed for long enough to be a factor in this analysis). This holds up for autosomal loci as well (all the chromosomes except the sex chromosomes X and Y), but the Y chromosome has a different pattern, reflecting the notion, interestingly, that females migrate more than males (that is, males in different populations are more isolated from one another reproductively, and females can go between tribes or groups more easily). Here is the "nut graf" (I love using that cool journalism lingo-ed.

More than 80% of genetic variation is between individuals of the same population, even in small or isolated populations (Fig. 1). Most human genetic variation antedates the migration of modern humans out of Africa (5, 19, 20). The possibility that human history has been characterized by genetically relatively homogeneous groups ("races"), distinguished by major biological differences, is not consistent with genetic evidence.

That should be enough to satisfy most readers, but many will suggest, I suppose, that "Godless Capitalist" may still be able to claim that he is not talking about overall genetic differences, but just the ones that count, i.e. intelligence (usually measured by the simpleminded IQ test, or even worse, by the SAT). I would encourage him and anyone else to read Steven Jay Gould's greatest work (IMHO, of course) The Mismeasure of Man, which delves in great historical detail on the incredible hubris and idiocy that engendered the IQ test, and goes into detail discussing the fallacy of g, the psychometric intelligence factor. "Godless Capitalist" can tilt at windmills all he or she (or them) wants, but the scientific method will win out, and the usefulness of race as a scientific principle (and it never had much) will disappear entirely. Sadly, the sociological issue of race, politics, and hate probably will not.