Looking at the World Through a Genetic Lens

Steve Pittelli

Steve Pittelli

Steve Pittelli is a retired psychiatrist. You can find him on Twitter and his own blog Unwashed Genes.

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100 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    Good stuff. Working in mental health i’ve always been frustrated by people that want to simply ascribe illnesses to genes. A lot of that has been parents wanting to assuage their very normal and understandable , though irrational, feelings of guilt at having a child who is suffering. Genes give an easy explanation that takes it off the parents. Unfortunately the parents behavior often is part of why the child has a mental illness and they need to face that whether the illness is somewhat influenced by genes or not.

    Everything is related to our genes. And there is a whole lot of other stuff, like how those genes are expressed, that is up to us.Report

  2. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    In the same way that superstition and fllimflammery have persisted despite the modern technology of the internet and education, the idea of a natural aristocracy has persisted.

    If anything can be fairly said to be written in our genes, it is our desire to discover in the natural world our own superiority!

    In addition to the lack of understanding of genetics, the genetic IQ proponents almost always fail to understand intelligence as well. Intelligence, or problem solving ability, tends to be treated as some mysterious woo that turbocharges all human endeavors.

    What never seems to occur to people like Murray and his followers is the utter lack of any historical evidence that group level intelligence produces group level outcomes.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    China is already CRISPR editing humans.

    If what you’re saying is true, we don’t have to worry about them figuring out ways to make people smarter or less likely to develop inefficient traits that ableist people consider defective.

    Which is a relief.Report

  4. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    1. No one who knows what they’re talking about is actually saying “it’s all in your genes”. What the twin studies actually say is that in general, psychological traits bear a 50-0-50 attribution between heredity, shared environment, and non-shared environment. It’s not either/or but both/and.

    2. Given the existence of genetic abnormalities that cause cognitive deficits (e.g., Down’s Syndrome) it seems bizarre to claim that there isn’t any link between heredity and intelligence. How that manifests along the general distribution is still more speculative.

    3. Charles Murray is a hack. The social construct of race is, at best, only loosely correlated to actual genotype variations, and then only demonstrably connected to variations in superficial characteristics such as skin tone. There’s no particular scientific reason to believe that those variations have any influence on intelligence.

    On the other end of equation Murray et al spend a great deal of time arguing for the existence of g, a generalized attribute of intelligence which is measured by IQ tests. I would argue that this is an instance of the streetlight fallacy, of looking at traits that are easily measured simply because you can measure them. Can an IQ test measure creativity, for instance? Can it identify a brilliant artist or musician? More generally, people have strengths and weaknesses in disparate cognitive areas and it seems as classic a case of apples/oranges to try to compress that down to a single number.

    So Murray is trying to relate an attribute that is poorly understood as a dependent variable of a characteristic which doesn’t really meaningfully exist. But of course he has no ulterior motive [sarcasm off].

    In summary, the problem isn’t in the actual science of genetic influences on psychological traits as much as the terrible interpretations and extrapolations put on that by people outside the field.Report

    • Well, if you dismiss people in the field who make such claims, then you have a point and certainly one could argue that Murray is not a fair representative, but Robert Plomin makes similar proclamations in his new book (“Blueprint”), or do you dismiss him as well? I think I was clear in the piece that I am not talking about obvious genetic mutations, so as to your point:
      “How that manifests along the general distribution is still more speculative,”
      That’s not far off of what I said. Speculation is not scientific evidence, and some of that speculation relies on assumptions and biases of those doing the speculating. My overall point is that nothing is settled or proven related genetics and mental traits.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar says:

        TBH, I don’t know who Robert Plomin is and I haven’t read his book so I neither accept nor dismiss him.

        What I’m rejecting is the blank slate hypothesis as being just as erroneous as pure genetic determinism and I believe the scientific literature backs me up on that. Again, both/and, not either/or. And rejection of group level differences, at least along the lines of conventionally understood racial categories which have no scientific basis, doesn’t necessarily entail rejection of innate differences at the individual level as a product of heredity. Smarter parents really do seem to have smarter kids on average. There’s a lot of regression to the mean and such, but that’s still pretty obviously true on average.

        And it’s asking to much at this stage to demand a full accounting of exactly which genes have exactly what effect and an explication of the precise bio/neuro-chemical pathways and such to make the observation that there does indeed appear to be a there there.Report

        • I have been making this same argument for over 20 years and it is always “too early” and the answer will be coming “shortly”. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t argue blank slate or genetic determinism or something else. I argue that we don’t know. The current research has not gotten us any closer. You are under the assumption that it eventually will. I can’t disprove that, obviously. Plomin is well known in the field and generally respected by behavioral geneticists (for reasons that aren’t clear to me). There is a link to my own critique of his book at my website.Report

          • Avatar Road Scholar says:

            Well, the tools are better now. Genetic sequencing is a hell of a lot faster and cheaper than it was even ten years ago so there’s that. I think the larger challenge is linking the high-level psychological traits to some sort of emergent properties of lower-level traits in combination and then showing the hereditary influence on those lower level traits. I don’t want to offend, but it looks to me like the science of psychology is still infested with its version of wee humonculi, phlogistin, and alchemy.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I always feel like this is like saying that strength doesn’t exist.

      “What do you mean by strength? Lifting heavy things? Running quickly? Being able to run for a long time? Nobody ever defines anything! And most people can carry things or run. Therefore strength is a meaningless category.”

      Strength does exist. It’s a thing.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        There is a wee bit of difference in the strength of people based on a few environmental factors. Those will tell you a lot more about a person strength then their genes even given that some people have natural gifts.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          People argue against the existence of IQ, though. Not whether IQ has a hereditary component (which, of course, it does). Not whether IQ has a genetic component (which is a complete and total minefield and even a willingness to discuss it is a bad idea).

          IQ will, necessarily, lead to Wrongthink.

          But arguing that it can’t be measured is a crock. Of course it can.Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            Of course it can be measured. We just aren’t really sure what it is nor does it describe many aspects of who we are and who we can be. But yeah we can measure it. That really isn’t the issue though.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              If you can’t define it, you can’t measure it.

              An unwillingness to define it is interesting. If I wanted to define strength, I could. If I wanted to define dexterity, I could. If I wanted to define even charisma, I could.

              It’s weird how when we get to intelligence, we get all philosophical in defense of not knowing stuff.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                I could define strength in a handful of ways. I could find pro’s who have defined it a dozen ways. There are many things that go into whatever strength is. A heck of a lot of them are behavioral and environmental. It’s certainly possible to measure something you can’t define well. There have been many measures of intelligence in the past. They may have been measuring some of the same things or capturing part of the one True Intelligence. But they sure had a bunch of measures and definitions.

                IQ is certainly predictive of success but that may very well be simply due to it measures what leads to success, not that captures some true underlying intelligence Whatever intelligence is, it is likely far more complex then can be measured in one simple number. And that number influenced by many things.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                But they sure had a bunch of measures and definitions.

                This is not the same thing as not being able to measure or define something.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                But there is disagreement of which definition is best. And even then if that definition gets at some underlying factor or is just the label we are putting on a concept we don’t’ understand.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                But there is disagreement of which definition is best.

                Okay. Sure.

                But that’s a *COMPLETELY* different argument than the one that says that it’s too fuzzy to be able to discuss properly.

                “if that definition gets at some underlying factor or is just the label we are putting on a concept we don’t’ understand”

                Is this one of those things analogous to saying that we don’t understand strength if we don’t understand the Krebs Cycle?Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Sure we can discuss IQ. It would help to know something about testing and the theory of measurements in social sciences. But what is the point? IQ has a use and it’s misused and misunderstood by people to make racism sound sciency. IQ is a tool used for determinations for special education needs. What is the purpose of discussing it though? Where is it supposed to go?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                What is the purpose of discussing it though?

                Is it something that can be increased? Are there ways to make children smarter? (Also important: are there things that make children dumber and thus ought to be avoided?)

                Where is it supposed to go?

                Given the various engineering problems we have, I’d prefer to have smarter engineers working on them.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                There is a long debate about the use of standardized testing in education. We got plenty of tests for that. We are also back to there are many environmental influences on IQ or whatever tests we talk about.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Is the argument “if it’s measurable, then we’d measure it, and then the government would eff everything up? Better to pretend it’s not measurable… nay, better to pretend it doesn’t even exist!”

                For what it’s worth, I pretty much agree with that argument.

                (But I do think that if certain types of parenting can help kids get get smarter those types of parenting should be embraced, and if other certain types of parenting contribute to dumbitude, then those other certain types should be eschewed.)Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                um…whatever….The concept of parenting well is generally agreed upon so high fives for that. The generic and off the point “the gov is the bad” is on brand. Now just go tell the HBD dipsticks to shove their use of IQ up their respective orifices.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                You’re the one who brought up the debate over the use of standardized tests in education, Greg. I was running with that.

                The HBD dipsticks are, indeed, messing it up for everybody.

                It’s just too bad that the Chinese are pouring billions into CRISPR for no good benefit. That’s money that could pay for health care.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                IQ is predictive of what sort of success?

                Does it predict success at playing football?
                Dancing? Woodworking? Music? Politics? Leadership?

                I think this is why the subject of IQ is so fraught, because its easily assumed to be the Secret Magick that explains human achievement.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Success == Placement in the iterated positional goods game

                So if you’re in the upper quartile of IQ, you’re likely to be higher in the quartiles related to income, education, and whatnot.

                If you want to argue that you know a smart person who is poor and got crappy grades and you also know a dumb person who worked really hard and got good grades and is rich now, then I’d give you a short speech about ableism but then nod and say that I know those people too and agree that it is not determinative.

                But the argument isn’t that it’s determinative.

                (I’d also wonder at the definitions of “dumb” and “smart” that you’re using in your examples of the people you’re using. Someone who was “dumb” in the Westchester School System is *NOT* the same kinda “dumb” that you find in schools where 96% of the students aren’t proficient in English or math.)Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                IQ is, as i remember, is predictive of educational success. Educational success is correlated with income and professional attainment. Are they a million other things to be good at in life. Well yeah. That is part of the problem with using IQ, there are things it doesn’t measure. Even though IQ is predictive of educational success it may be just measuring the things we like to teach and what our culture values.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Right, a modern industrialized society prizes abstract problem solving ability, both on IQ tests and standardized educational tests.

                Nothing wrong with that!

                But in the general conversation people tend to have, IQ becomes overly prized, taking a far more important position of importance than it really warrants.

                I mean, think of the lifeboat scenarios that college philosophy classes like to give out.

                If someone were to assert that they flipped a coin between Einstein and Elvis Presley, it would most often be regarded as a mark of a philistine, because it’s just self evident that a genius physicist is more important than a musical genius.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter says:

                Intelligence is our equiv of the Peacock’s tail. Whatever species we were before this selected on it, and now you need it to manage the social situation and/or society we’ve created.

                So we have deep desire to value intellect, just as a Peacock has a deep desire to prove it’s tail fancier.

                Even with your example you’re showcasing two different types of intellect. If we’re having a lifeboat discussion then either Elvis or Einstein are fine choices. But old drunk fried Elvis the day before he died was presumably a lot less valuable to society than a high school student and I suspect most people would still pick the King.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Elvis had more meat on his bones so he might have some advantages on a life boat.

                IQ is better then myers briggs kind of crap. But it isn’t proof of racial superiority or any of that shite.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter says:

                Racial Superiority? Probably not. Everyone is related to everyone.

                Cultural Superiority? Now we get into uncomfortable territory.

                I’ll assume we all have the same genes at some very high level. The next question is how to turn them on. Different cultures have different approaches, solutions, and it’s hardly unthinkable that some are better at making kids smarter. (I’ll assume here that “smarter” is the same as “superior”… and that “culture” didn’t just get so squishy to be meaningless).

                If your culture is pumping your water in lead pipes, then your kids will have more problems statistically and reduced IQ is on that list. If Mom and Dad are married and cooperate in raising a kid, then Mom has more time to devote to the kid and probably that interaction is a good thing. Reading to a small child does good things for them, I don’t recall off hand how good those things are.

                A fuller understanding of what makes us smarter (i.e. what turns on what genes) will have lots of interesting evaluations. Some of them will be painful.Report

              • Avatar George Turner says:

                What about between Newton and Shakespeare?

                The smart answer is Shakespeare. Some of Newton’s contemporaries or scientists shortly after him would’ve come up with his laws of gravity, local motion, and his work on optics. But nobody else was ever going to produce Hamlet or King Lear.Report

            • Avatar Dark Matter says:

              The issue is that it needs to be measured in a way that proves me and mine superior, and others inferior, and that result will be used to justify various policy stances which help me and mine.

              That’s the political problem, and I don’t see how we get away from it.

              And having said that, I think we don’t have a choice but to think about this, evaluate it, and research it. We’re not that far from having the ability to tamper with our genes. We’re not even far from having EVERYONE have the ability to do so.

              Less than 70 years after the Wright brothers did their thing we put a man on the moon. That Chinese baby was the first, before she’s dead we’ll have the technology in the hands of much more than half the population.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar says:

        Sure, but there’s different kinds of strength is what I’m saying. Compare a Usain Bolt to an Olympic level marathon runner. They’re both “fast” in their own way but neither is going to win medals in the other’s race. You can trace this back to slow-twitch vs. fast-twitch muscles and differences in their respective metabolisms and such.

        When I was a kid I was quick, like best in my small school at the short races 100m as well as stuff like high jump. But I couldn’t run anything longer than a 200m for shit. I would just completely run out of gas around the 300m mark. My track coach stuck me in the 400m just to have someone in there once at a meet and it was pathetic; I could barely make it around that last lap.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Of course there are different kinds of strength.

          But strength exists. And if you want to get into the weeds, you can define all kinds of different strengths and different ways to measure them.

          And different amounts of strength in different areas are good markers for whether someone will be successful at certain skills (that is to say, without a sufficient amount of strength, you’re definitely *NOT* going to succeed at certain things).Report

      • , in the minds of the IQ uber alles crowd, is the predictor of educational and career success. Its physical equivalent isn’t strength (Joe Montana had a so-so arm; second baseman are quick and agile, not particularly strong; Steph Curry is easy for bigger players to knock down), but athletic ability in general. Imagine trying to model that in one dimension.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Imagine trying to model that in one dimension.

          I imagine that they’d use a term like “athelete”?

          And then we’d have arguments over whether the term should apply to F-1 racers, bass fishermen, or bowlers.

          I imagine.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter says:

          The IQ test isn’t a one dimensional model (I took one 32 years ago) it’s an average of 10(?) different measurements. Some of the tests were really darn universal if memory serves, raw symbol manipulation without any words.

          Most people end up with something like the same score across the board so your average has some useful meaning. There are exceptions, if your high score is absurdly higher than your low you can have extreme strengths and weaknesses.

          My expectation is that in any money sport every player would have a seriously high general athletic ability AND they would also have sport specific advantages.

          Having said that, the reason we don’t do measure this is because it’s not especially useful. You put people on the field and see what they can do, i.e. measure performance directly.Report

  5. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a story outlining the author’s fears of genetic research, which was error-ridden to an absurd degree. Many of the errors were removed, but the article retained the narrative and made exaggerated claims about genetic research in order to create a strawman. This points to the advantages internet writing possesses over older methods — the hyperlink gives the reader the opportunity to check for themselves what is being said.

    Science will move on in any event, learning more and anybody following genetic research at all realizes that most of it is engaged in testing pre-existing hypothesis. There is little new, though the notion that something is in the genes does tend to challenge people’s sense of identity, which can be as disorienting as the claims that man descended from apes. What would people think?Report

  6. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    “The science is clear, that higher IQ people perform better than everyone else. Therefore IQ tests are important.”
    “Why bother with IQ tests?”
    “Well, because otherwise how could we tell who has higher IQ?”Report

    • Avatar Road Scholar says:

      If you sit a physicist down and demand that the tell you what time is, not what it does, or how we experience it, but what it is, the best answer that they can really give you is that “time is what we measure with a clock.” I think there’s an analogy there with intelligence. Psychologists have devised these tests to measure various cognitive abilities and over time these have been standardized to the “IQ test”. So now, this fuzzy, abstract, quality in humans that, at best, is a kind of know-it-when-I-see-it sort of thing has been defined as whatever the hell it is we’re measuring with this IQ test.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

        Probably so, but even more, even if we accepted the idea that IQ= “problem solving”, the questions is, how does this affect outcomes?

        The general assumption floating around the Bell Curve world is that intelligence is like horsepower to a car, that is, the more of it you have, the faster and better you will be.

        But where would we see evidence of this? Has there ever been an actual outcome where intelligence is the driving variable in outcomes, as opposed to merely one of many variables?

        Speaking of strength, its interesting to note that from a Darwinian standpoint, physical strength has an optimum range, beyond which it doesn’t deliver any benefit.

        You know how comic books always portray primitive men as insanely muscular? Yet in actuality, indigenous people are almost always just rather ordinary in stature. Because large muscle mass consumes a crapload of calories, and unless your survival depends on “lifting heavy things” having a large muscle mass will likely lead to your death of starvation.

        The same thing goes for height, speed, agility, sociability, and all other human attributes. They all have cost/benefit aspects, and optimum ranges.

        So why wouldn’t we expect intelligence to be the same? That it delivers benefits, but only within certain ranges above which becomes a detriment?Report

  7. Avatar greginak says:

    Off topic but i have a strong genetic feeling that Virginia will have an opening for a new gov soon. Ralph, death (well political death) wants to play chess with you.Report

  8. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    These studies purport to show that twins often have similar characteristics, which it is presumed are related to their identical genes.

    Describing it like this makes it sound stupid and obviously wrong, and it’s not. The way twin studies work is by comparing sets of identical twins to sets of same-sex fraternal twins. Because fraternal twins share the same home environment, but have only 50% of genes in common, while identical twins have share the same home environment and are (very nearly) 100% genetically identical, this allows researchers to estimate how much of the variation in a trait is attributable to genetic variation, how much to shared environment, and how much to non-shared environment.

    So if the IQs of identical twin pairs are correlated at 0.85, and the IQs of fraternal twin pairs are correlated at 0.45, we can infer from this that roughly 80% (2 * (85 – 45)) of the observed variation in IQ in the sample is due to genetic variation, 5% (85 – 80) to shared environment, and 15% (the remainder) to non-shared environment.

    Note that non-shared environment is basically a catch-all for stuff that causes differences between identical twins, including things like de novo mutations, measurement error, viral infections, etc.

    Why polygenic scores from GWAS explain only a fraction of heritability shown by twin studies is an interesting question, and to the best of my knowledge still an open one. It’s possible that the largest GWAS simply still don’t have enough data to build accurate polygenic models, but it’s also possible that there are important non-linear effects in the way genes work together in highly polygenic traits, or it could be something else altogether. These types of studies are still in their infancy, though, and as we throw more data and computing power at them and continue to refine the techniques, it’s likely that the models the generate will improve substantially.

    books like Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve” which suggests racial disparities in IQ

    Racial disparities in IQ are one of the most robust findings in social science, showing up consistently on every test of cognitive ability. A legitimate test of cognitive ability, with general predictive validity, that does not show a racial gap is the Holy Grail, but nobody has ever found one.

    In stating that a black-white IQ gap on the order of 10-15 points exists in the US population, Murray and Herrnstein were merely stating the consensus view. The controversial claim they made was that the balance of the evidence suggests that the majority of the gap is due to genetics. This is debatable, but claims that it’s obviously wrong are pure political correctness in the most literal sense of the term, i.e. the “correctness” of a claim being decided on the basis of political considerations rather than on the weight of the evidence.

    It’s worth noting that there’s also a 10-15 point gap between white gentiles and Ashkenazi Jews, with Ashkenazim in the lead. Those who would insist that the black-white IQ gap is obviously due to racism or poverty or what-have-you have their work cut out for them trying to explain the Ashkenazi IQ advantage, because there’s no fishing way that gentile whites are oppressed enough or Ashkenazim privileged enough to explain that kind of gap. And once you’ve conceded the point that it’s possible for the distribution of genetic cognitive potential to differ substantially between ethnic groups, it’s back on the table as a possible explanation for the black-white gap.

    It’s a really, really bad idea to premise opposition to racism on the dubious assumption that, by some amazing coincidence, the genetic potential for cognitive ability is distributed precisely equally among all ethnic groups. A far better approach is to emphasize that a) at an individual level, race is a very poor proxy for IQ due to large areas of overlap between the racial distributions, and b) people with low IQs are not actually subhuman and shouldn’t be treated as such.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

      But this illustrates my point, that IQ is assumed to be a meaningful measure of human ability.
      Yet there isn’t any real world evidence of this.

      Taking all these statistics entirely at face value, do Ashkenazi perform better than Africans?
      Well, it would be easy to summon up a bunch of statistics about college graduation rates, and levels of professional credentials.

      But see, that isn’t how science works. Science only works when the results are replicable, where past outcomes are explained and future outcomes predicted.

      Over the sweep of human history, have Ashkenazi consistently outperformed Africans?
      No, actually.

      Up until around the 15th century or so, the living standards and development of the European tribes were not much different than the African people.

      So what happened? Did they drink smart water or something?

      And further-
      At various periods of human history, the “most advanced” civilization on earth could be located in various places such as China, India, South America or Persia.
      All these civilizations achieved spectacular things, then faded or collapsed.

      Again, What happened? Did the IQ fairy travel around the globe gifting different peoples at different times?

      How does IQ explain any of these things? Its value as an explanatory variable for outcomes seems to be entirely nonexistent.Report

    • Avatar Swami says:

      Great comment, BB,

      I do need to push back on this though….

      “The controversial claim they made was that the balance of the evidence suggests that the majority of the gap is due to genetics.”

      Here is what they actually wrote:

      “If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate.”

      The Wikipedia article below goes into depth on the various issues, including an answer to the question of what are the economic and social correlates to IQ (divorce rate, unemployment, incarceration, etc).


      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Huh. That was not my recollection, but it’s been a very long time since I read it, and I lost track of my copy in a move. Thanks for the correction. This makes the histrionic response and decades-long smear campaign even more disgusting.Report

  9. I really liked this post, but I’d like to interrogate one of your parting claims a little more (bolded added by me):

    Lastly, I take issue with what I think is a conscious intent behind endlessly conducting these genetic studies in order to foster a framework in which genes are presumed to be driving our behavior, as if this explanation is a human need.

    I don’t doubt that there’s the “conscious intent” you describe. But I also believe it’s not only that “intent” per se that drives these genetic studies. I suspect it’s also systems of career advancement that require research to be done and that make the type of genetic studies you describe a ready-made way to do that research.

    I realize you’re not specifically stating otherwise. I’m just making this comment as an “both…and” statement and not necessarily to contradict your point. And again, I really liked your post.Report

    • Thanks, and I definitely agree. I was more focused on the mindset and why I have been taking this on, but certainly there is a lot of money behind these studies, and a lot of opportunities for career advancement in a publish or perish world. Sometimes it is hard to separate out these things, since people tend to gravitate to where the money is, so to speak, and lose their incentive to question the premise. I have the luxury of being retired and lacking a direct incentive.Report

  10. Avatar Les Cargill says:

    I won’t attempt to reproduce any of this here, but Stanford University has graciously put 25 lectures of Robert Sapolsky’s Human Behavioral Biology course on YouTube.

    If anything, environment is of increasing importance by the lights of that course. DNA is very far from determinist and moving away from it.Report

  11. Avatar Dark Matter says:

    Chip Daniels:
    So why wouldn’t we expect intelligence to be the same? That it delivers benefits, but only within certain ranges above which becomes a detriment?

    We should expect exactly that, in that environment.

    However the world has gotten more complex, less violent, and muscles count for less while intelligence more. Worse, there are now lots and LOTS of jobs which assume a higher than normal level of intelligence.Report

  12. Avatar Dark Matter says:

    Chip Daniels:
    At various periods of human history, the “most advanced” civilization on earth could be located in various places such as China, India, South America or Persia.
    All these civilizations achieved spectacular things, then faded or collapsed.

    During the revolutionary war, 90% of jobs were agricultural. Having a genius shoveling shit or milking cows is unlikely to result in vast increases of productivity and he’s NEVER going to be promoted King.

    Put differently, those civilizations didn’t believe in open opportunity (like teaching everyone to read) and did poor jobs of filtering+using their populations’ intelligence. The King was most likely the son of the previous king, and if he was dim it might be a good thing for his advisors.

    The world is extremely different now, we now have vast professions which can’t be done by dimwits. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are policed by Mother Nature and her laws of Physics/Math. Below a certain level of skill/intelligence, certain things just can’t happen.

    Pick a yard stick for evaluating countries, say GDP per person. Sort every country on the planet. What do the top 30 countries look like, what do the bottom 30 countries look like in terms of IQ?. My expectation is the top averages an STD above the bottom.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

      Where does China circa 2019 fall on that scale, and where does China circa 1968 place?

      Why are the genetic twins of North and South Korea so different?

      And this idea that we live in a world where intelligence counts for a lot more seems intuitively reasonable.except on closer inspection it isn’t.

      Pre-industrial people weren’t stupid, despite what Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee might have imagined.

      Even illiterate people did amazingly clever things. Farming, hunting, building and healing require intelligence, even more so than today because they lacked the easy technology.
      I mentioned the comic book portrayal of primitive people, like they were massively brawny men who wrestled with alligators or grizzly bears.

      Except they didn’t!
      Primitive people have no more muscle power than you or I.

      For example, Native Americans lived for tens of thousands of years hunting bison without the use of horses or guns. They didn’t run as fast as the buffalo, and weren’t nearly as strong.
      Instead they used clever strategies and intimate knowledge of bison biology and behavior. They used every bit as much intelligence and coordinated behavior as any modern software company.

      Part of the problem is that we tend to think that physical traits and mental traits are disconnected. Like, a football player uses very little mental skill, and an engineer uses very little physical.

      But our brains and opposable thumbs didn’t develop coincidentally, they depend on each other. Our bodies are the data collection devices which our brain needs in order to make sense of things. Think of where the phrase “Eureka” comes from, or Robert Pirsig’s observations about the connection between craft and intuition.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter says:

        Chip Daniels:
        Where does China circa 2019 fall on that scale, and where does China circa 1968 place?

        China 1968 would be in the bottom 30. In 2019 it might break the top 30 but it depends on what metric we use. Another example would be Germany in 1946 vs 50 years later. Another anonymous point would be Saudi Arabia with its economy not needing smart people doing jobs only smart people can do.

        However you don’t disprove a graph by pointing to anonymous points. Worse, these anonymous points are well understood exceptions. Socialism or National Socialism burning down the economy is best understood as a problem with Socialism.

        Much worse, I don’t know of any anonymous points the other direction. With what we have on the table, there’s room for this divergence of outcomes to be historical accidents plus culture. One Wakanda would shift the entire discussion from “maybe genetics” to “absolutely culture/history”, but we’ve yet to see that.

        Chip Daniels:
        Instead they used clever strategies and intimate knowledge of bison biology and behavior. They used every bit as much intelligence and coordinated behavior as any modern software company.

        Organized hunting’s IQ threshold is so low wild dogs do it without any human involvement. Normal human intelligence is GROTESQUELY too much for this.

        If hunting were the driving force for human intelligence then we wouldn’t be anywhere close to this smart… just like if a peacock only used its tail for flight it’d be a lot shorter. The primary function of human intelligence is to navigate human society.

        After a trait gets involved in mate determination it becomes the subject of an arms race. What we consider “normal” intelligence is the result of ours.Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

          But they aren’t anomalous points.

          At one point in history, Persia was the most developed nation, at another point it was near the bottom; At one point the English were barbaric savages, another point they ruled the world. Virtually every society at one point in history could have claimed to be in the top tier, and also at the bottom.

          Is there any evidence, any at all, that can demonstrate a recurring pattern of societal level IQ and societal level performance?Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      This is exactly how to misuse IQ. We don’t have universal IQ tests that can compare every country in world. Even if we did that just testing IQ and plotting next to GDP would tell us nothing. Cripies how many other variables are there that could affect that graph. There are things we couldn’t even measure like the history of a place or it’s climate and how it’s changed. I can bet the avg IQ in Syria right now is likely less then many other developed places and genetics would have nothing to do with it.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter says:

        I can bet the avg IQ in Syria right now is likely less then many other developed places and genetics would have nothing to do with it.

        You’re making the “environment” argument. You can throw onto that list of problems malaria, various wars, various experiments with socialism, colonialism, slavery, and so forth. That’s fine, it makes intuitive sense… but it’s not clear these are worse than Hitler taking over, setting up death camps, and then the entire country being bombed into a parking lot. Multiple countries went through that and bounced back.

        Maybe culture does the heavy lifting in explaining why one country shrugs off this sort of thing after a generation or three and others do not. Maybe IQ is a measurement of culture or it’s the result of various good things rather than their cause.

        But if culture is doing the heavy lifting then it’s not clear why post WW2’s Japanese Peasants with their Emperor cult were culturally more equipped to deal with high technology than others.

        The part I dislike, strongly, about the “it’s genetics” argument is it’s close to a handwave/magic wand, and it’s been used for various things in the past which have been then disproven later. On the other hand it’s simple, fits if we squint at things, and we have the holy grail part which was referenced earlier.Report

  13. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “The Map is not The Territory.”Report

  14. Avatar Dark Matter says:

    Chip Daniels: Is there any evidence, any at all, that can demonstrate a recurring pattern of societal level IQ and societal level performance?

    Very true, there isn’t a pattern if we pull in many centuries of data.

    So in a world where power means your ability to field large numbers of men who can swing a sword, slight differences in the general intelligence of your population has very little effect.

    However we currently live in a world where what counts is the ability to field large numbers of people who can manage/develop extremely complex technologies. That’s a significant difference from history, and it may be having effects.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

      That’s a significant difference from history

      Why should we think so?

      Consider this. At this moment, there are plenty of people around the world living premodern lives, hunting and farming just as their ancestors have done for millennia.

      And often, some of these people migrate to modern cities, where they adapt and blend in splendidly.
      Meaning, it would be trivially easy to find a brilliant electrical engineer in China, Vietnam, or India who grew up in a village that lacked electricity.

      If this person is equipped with the intelligence to “manage/develop extremely complex technologies”, isn’t it reasonable to assume his brother back in the village does also?

      Why should we think that premodern people didn’t use the same analytic and problem solving skills we do?Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter says:

        Chip Daniels: Why should we think that premodern people didn’t use the same analytic and problem solving skills we do?

        The real question is why should we think those analytic and problem solving skills had a massive impact on premodern society’s economy and/or ability to wage war? I.e. how do you build an empire based on being smarter without modern technology?

        You’re a very smart hunter gatherer with great analytic skills facing the Iron Legion of Rome. The Roman troops are known for their skill at following orders without question. They function as a unit where every one of them does as he’s ordered at that time.

        The History channel talks about them on occasion and they were grim. I don’t see ANY reason why a Roman grunt should be smarter than average, and there’s good reasons why he shouldn’t be. The Romans were the superpower of their day and they didn’t use tactics which took advantage of individual intelligence and free thinking, just the opposite.

        Now the general can benefit a lot from intelligence, but that’s one guy. The smart free thinkers are the ones he’s here to kill in the name of empire.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter says:

        If this person is equipped with the intelligence to “manage/develop extremely complex technologies”, isn’t it reasonable to assume his brother back in the village does also?

        I may have misunderstood what you meant.

        Is it possible his brother can master complex stuff? Of course it is.

        Is it possible that everyone in the village can? No.

        “Complex stuff” is NOT “driving a car” or pushing a button or pulling a trigger. Building those things starts to get interesting, modern tech is way past that now.

        Stupid people make terrible engineers and mother nature has no mercy. For that matter even average people aren’t smart enough to build certain common technologies.

        I’ve tutored Freshman software and it’s grim because software is extremely intolerant of mistakes, and nothing works until everything works.

        “If carpenters built buildings the way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

          I don’t know why coding is somehow more challenging mentally than basketweaving or woodworking.

          One of the things modern tools have done is allow us the luxury of being disconnected from our hands. Like, a modern carpenter can build a chair while hardly even touching the wood.
          But handcrafts or physical activities like hunting require a tremendous amount of cognitive ability.

          It isn’t amazing that Chartes was built, but that it was built with simple hand tools. Most modern people are defeated by an Ikea end table.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            I feel like being abused today…

            Chartres wasn’t built by a random mob of French peasants. It was funded by one of the richest entities in the world, built by skilled craftsmen and artisans, using the best tools available at the time. At the top of the pyramid of skills were a relative handful of people who could hold enough of the pieces in their head at once to say how it was all supposed to fit together. They had the advantage that they could do drawings and models.

            Consider the real-time flight software for the F-35. It is funded by one of the richest entities in the world, built by skilled craftsmen, using the best tools available. At the top of the pyramid of skills are a relative handful of people who can hold enough of the pieces in their head at once to say how it’s all supposed to fit together. Building a “model” where they can observe the negative-feedback flight control software making 500 decisions per second is almost as big an undertaking as the flight software itself.

            The complexity of what we can build is fundamentally limited by how many pieces a small group of people can hold in their head at once. People who can hold lots of pieces in their head at once are rare. Be it building a cathedral, or a large real-time software package.

            I personally find it very frustrating that I can’t hold as many pieces in my head as I used to be able to, but can remember being able to hold more.Report

            • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

              I think that’s a good way to put it, that we can only process so much information at a time.

              A primitive person, IMO, could process information no less than we could, but most of that processing power went into things we no longer need to do, like “How to build a fire” or “How to kill a buffalo”.

              Instead of cogitating over “why won’t this code display the text like it should?” the primitive basketweaver had to analyze why the reeds aren’t bending the way they should, then form a hypothesis as to maybe they need to be wetted, then test the hypothesis, and so on.

              We dismiss it as simple, only because we live in a world where all that work was done for us already.Report

            • Avatar Dark Matter says:

              Michael Cain: People who can hold lots of pieces in their head at once are rare. Be it building a cathedral, or a large real-time software package.

              That. That exactly.

              When we talk about IQ and Standard Deviation we really talking about “how rare” are these people who can hold lots of pieces in their head.

              When we say “this field is hard” what we mean is “the basic, basic entry into this field requires someone who can use their head for X”.Report

          • Avatar Dark Matter says:

            But handcrafts or physical activities like hunting require a tremendous amount of cognitive ability.

            Wild dogs do hunting and my middle school children have done handcrafts.

            If I could turn wild dogs and middle school children into talented engineers I wouldn’t be going to mass recruitment events trying to find people who can do the job. BTW that’s exactly what I’m going to do tomorrow. The work is hard, it’s hard to find people who can do it, I’ll talk to 30-50 people tomorrow and I’ll count the day a success if I find one.

            I don’t know why coding is somehow more challenging mentally than basketweaving or woodworking.

            Since you don’t understand it, it must be easy.

            The answer is it’s hard because math has correct answers and everything else is incorrect. It’s hard because you need to hold so much in your head. BTW coding isn’t the worst, I’d rate chemical engineering as significantly harder, ditto many of the other fields. Woodworking is NOT challenging by engineering standards and a bad woodworker is able to produce “something” rather than “nothing”.

            Here are the program requirements for getting an undergrad degree in electrical engineering. I’m pretty sure not only are my middle schoolers not up for these classes but no middle schoolers are.

            Go to stackoverflow.com and check out what the basic “idiot” questions look like for some of the hard sciences.

            Or better yet, go watch a youtube video or three on what Einstein’s theory was trying to describe and his thinking on how he got it. That sort of thing is not easy, even only just trying to follow it after the fact with knowing what the answers are. Very few people on the planet could do what he did.

            All fields are not Einstein, but they’re also not woodworking either.

            And to be very clear I’m not claiming the woodworkers of old were more or less smart than our people today, I’m claiming that woodworking the skill isn’t as intellectually challenging in terms of percentage of the population who can do it.Report

            • Avatar Michael Cain says:

              I’m a systems and applied math guy with a low taste for real-time programming (and before age began catching up with me, was damned good at it). From time to time the systems part of it brushed up against a chemical engineering problem. I stand in a bit of awe at just how much most of the people who can finish a chemical engineering degree can hold in their head in “working storage” at once.Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              Well peoples going back 10000 years have been making large complex stone structures out of really big frickin rocks. There are many examples for cultures all over the world of various kinds of giant impressive rock things. Lot’s of advanced planning, large group coordination, communication and construction skills were needed.

              Also developing agriculture, herding, hunting, animal husbandry and gathering and all the tools that go along with it are a pretty complex set of skills. Or we could take something like the immense open water navigation skills of ancient Polynesians. There is no reason to think they were any more or less intelligent then any other peoples but they developed an advanced skill set. You wouldn’t really look at modern Pacific islanders and their various GDP’s saying they must be brilliant. Yet they did develop an impressive set of skills.Report

            • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

              So then why the fixation with national-level IQ, as if it means anything?

              We’ve agreed that there isn’t any historical connection between intelligence and national outcomes, and there isn’t any connection between a society that makes computers and one that herds cows, and their respective IQ levels.

              Societal-level IQ doesn’t seem to have any connection to anything meaningful.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter says:

                We’ve agreed that there isn’t any historical connection between intelligence and national outcomes, and there isn’t any connection between a society that makes computers and one that herds cows, and their respective IQ levels.


                Societal-level IQ doesn’t seem to have any connection to anything meaningful.

                Not until the last 50(ish) years, maybe more recently.

                The US has about 1.6 million engineers, and about 4.5 million software people (total of 6 million). Various online sources estimate software’s average IQ at 115 (I’m shocked it’s that low), and engineering above that, perhaps 130.

                So back of the envelope, software requires +1 STD above median IQ and Engineering in general requires +2. Ergo 15% of the population, at most, can do software; and 2.5% can do engineering (those add to 15% because they overlap).

                That sounds like a lot, we have 325 million people, but the normal exclusions (age, interest, education, disability, doing something else) we have 150 working people, maybe 22 million even have the potential and it’s HARD to get that 22 million into those 6 million jobs (other industries like smart people) but we manage.

                At the end of this we have 6 digits worth of unfilled engineering jobs, sources disagree but 300k to 840k.

                However that +1 and +2 STD aren’t relative numbers, they’re absolute. If the smartest guy in the room is dumber than mother nature, mother nature will still have no mercy and no sympathy. Drop the standard IQ of the general population by two standard deviations and we’re looking at +3 and +4 STD.

                Do that to the United States and multiple industries fall apart, they can’t exist. It becomes impossible to have anything which relies on engineers or software development. How much of our economy depends on this? How much of our military development? Engineering also creates the basic infrastructure that civilization uses to uplift itself, water systems, dams, power grids, all of those sorts of things.

                Without that we don’t have modern civilization as we know it.

                So we’re now in a time period where this matters one heck of a lot. A country with smarter people can put together infrastructure and industries which massively expand it’s GDP, so they can go from herding cows to building computers in a generation or so. A country with a lower percentage of smarter people can’t.

                So we had all better darn well hope those lower IQ test scores coming out of some places are environment and/or culture, because if it’s genetics then there are absurdly serious problems which are also intractable.

                Now the (hopeful) counter argument for this line of thought is building a computer industry (or just being exposed to computers) increases IQ. The good news is the entire world will be exposed to smart phones within decades if they aren’t already. So in theory everyone is exposed to symbols and such at a young age, and it all evens out.

                So… maybe maybe maybe we’ll have an answer to all this within my lifespan. Maybe it will even be an answer we like. If the underlying truth is something we don’t like then it will probably continue to be unresolved.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                So we had all better darn well hope those lower IQ test scores coming out of some places are environment and/or culture, because if it’s genetics then there are absurdly serious problems which are also intractable.

                You realize where the world’s best engineers are coming out of, right? Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. All places which were derided as hopelessly primitive and backward until very recently.

                And while it seems intuitively true that a society’s success depends on engineering, consider actual empirical evidence of history.

                The Romans for example were spectacular engineers.
                So how did they come to be conquered by people who lacked even the written word?
                Even as Augustulus was packing his bags to abdicate, there were plenty of very smart Romans walking around.

                Having IQ, and being able to make good use of it, are two entirely different things.

                We don’t know what the future holds, but the evidence that IQ is somehow going to be the driving variable is just not there.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                Arguably, for the last 5,000 years, increased standard of living has generally correlated with a society finding engineers and funding them adequately. Engineers used broadly*, and the positive feedback loop of engineering and population a given. Widely-used contemporary IQ tests correlate with… identifying potential engineers. I refuse to go anywhere close to the question of whether it’s enough to find engineers, or if we should be trying to breed them.

                Unconstrained, engineers are also really good at ignoring things that should have been considered.

                * Better weapons. Better crop yields. Better buildings. Sewers. Etc.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              “math has correct answers and everything else is incorrect”


              the essence of engineering is determining whether the correct answer that the math gave you means anything in the situation at hand

              you need intelligence for that but it ain’t the math-doing sort

              like, remember that joke about the chalk mark?Report

    • It’s clear from relative GDP that all of the smart Koreans wound up in the South.Report

  15. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Murray and the HBD crowd are extrapolating from the almost certainly correct hypothesis that if g, a general intelligence attribute, exists then g = f(genes, environment). The problem is that race, as conventionally understood, is an incredibly poor proxy for delineating genetically distinct subgroups. Ethnicity is a little better, but only a little unless you’re talking about a well-defined and imsular group with very little outside “contamination”. Such groups are few and far between.

    The peoples of Africa are the most genetically diverse population on the planet. The heritage of African Americans draws from any number of partially diatinct subgroups of that population with a couple of centuries of subsequent mixing. Even better, the average AA has about 40% European blood, not to mention contributions from Hispanic and Native American groups. Pretty much the opposite of a distinct genetic subgroup. The only thing you can really say about African Americans genetically speaking is that they all possess one or more of the gene variants responsible for darker skin tone.

    You don’t have to be racist to propound a flawed scientific argument (although it helps) and pointing out those flaws needn’t be rooted in “political correctness”, just logic.Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter says:

      the average AA has about 40% European blood…

      So… pick a random African and we can expect 4 of 10 of his ancestors to be from Europe? That seems absurdly high, only 8.9% of South Africans are White.

      Africans are very diverse with many subgroups, asserting 40% of African genetics are from Europeans implies European is the largest group from a genetic standpoint.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar says:

        AA == African-Americans, you know, like your fellow countrymen referred to by yourself in this statement: In stating that a black-white IQ gap on the order of 10-15 points exists in the US population, Murray and Herrnstein were merely stating the consensus view.”Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter says:

          Fair enough.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter says:

          So… my next question for Google was whether or not your AA fact actually supported or subtracted from the genetic point of view. This wasn’t what I wanted but I’ll post it anyway.

          Around the world, the average IQ for East Asians centers around 106; that for Whites, about 100; and that for Blacks, about 85 in the United States and 70 in sub-Saharan Africa.


          • Avatar Maribou says:

            @dark-matter Please please please please read the revised and expanded 1996 edition of Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. In full. And think it over extensively. And follow it up by reading things that cite it and things which it cites, as they interest you. Before you keep embarrassing yourself on this topic.

            Your own intellect and what I’ve seen of your intentions are too good to be distracted by such a weak indicator of intellect – let *alone* the genetic component of intellect, but just of intellect in general – as the IQ test (or rather, any of the extant IQ tests, there are many, which all suck in different ways, especially when used in ways such as the quote you pulled above).

            Right now your comments sound like you’re part of an IQ cargo cult. And I know you can do a lot better than that.Report

            • Avatar Maribou says:

              PS @steve-pitelli I must say, I think it rather unfair of you to say “scientists” thus-and-such all through your essay, when there are as many Steven J. Goulds (may he rest in peace) as there are James Watsons (pah) in the history of 20th century biology.* If anything, both biology and the affiliated social sciences show a very strong trend of becoming *less* tied to swooning disproportionately over the impact of genes, not more, which is rather remarkable when you consider how their funding works.

              Scientists are as mixed and as contrary a bag as any other group of humans, and it’s unhealthy to think of them as some unitary enemy of reasonableness. Or unitary champion of it for that matter – but you don’t seem in much danger of the latter error.Report

              • Hello Maribu,
                I see your point, but if you’ve ever tried to distill a complicated topic into a short essay, then you know that it is difficult not to generalize. I also spend a bit of time “battling” scientists in this field, so maybe my perspective is a bit biased. That said, there are a lot less Stephen J. Goulds (RIP) than there should be. My larger point is that it is, in fact, presented as established science. Most people (scientists and otherwise) are under the impression that genes have been found for various mental disorders. Perhaps that is because the media also generalizes (and sensationalizes), but you rarely hear dissenting information, which is what I was trying to do here.Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:

                @steve-pitelli I would argue that part of the reason that you rarely hear dissenting information is that when scientists in the fields in question dissent (which they do about half of the time or more in this case, not *rarely*, including folks who are way over to the woowoo side of “blank slate”), they are ignored and/or misquoted.

                Conceding the label “scientist” to mean only those scientists you disagree with is giving them a win I suggest you may be better off not giving them.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “Scientists are as mixed and as contrary a bag as any other group of humans, and it’s unhealthy to think of them as some unitary enemy of reasonableness. Or unitary champion of it for that matter…”

                Except for when there’s a need for an Overwhelming Global Consensus about Global Climate Change, of course.Report

              • Avatar Marianne Aldrich says:

                @density-duck Like most things, if you scratch the surface of “mostly agree on obvious fact”, you’ll find no consensus among scientists on What Must Be Done about climate change. (Or if there’s even any point to doing something vs whether we’re all already fucked.)Report

            • Avatar JoeSal says:

              @ Maribou
              Just for clarity, which claims did Dark Matter make that you are finding objection, and why?Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                That IQ is useful as a rational measure of anything when not applied to white Republican males.Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:

                @densityduck As usual, you misapprehend me sir. I don’t think it’s useful as a rational measure of anything when applied to white Republican males, either.

                Snarking aside, you are smart enough to know that’s not what I said. I don’t think it’s useful as a rational measure of intellect or the things people use intellect as a shibboleth for. There are some things it tracks accurately with – it’s internally consistent – I just don’t think it’s particularly interesting or wise to value those things, nor that they can be equated with intellect in any accurate way. I also think we way overvalue those things already.

                And you could possibly also stand to read Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, not that it’s the latest, cutting-edge thought on the subject, but I do believe it’s the most approachable for folks who are predisposed to doubt the obvious.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                You’ve, ah, said that I was wrong and then agreed with what I said, so.Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:

                “useful as a rational measure of anything”

                “rationally measures anything that is useful or valuable”

                These two sentences do not actually mean the same thing.

                It can be useful to measure things that are not themselves useful or valuable.

                Plus I was mostly irritated at the “white republican men” thing, which is neither here nor there in my opinions of the issue. And which I *do* think you are smart enough to grasp is neither here nor there in my opinions of the issue.Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:

                phrases, not sentences, obviously.

                see how riled up you got me?

                if you were trolling, congratulations.Report

            • Avatar George Turner says:

              Does the 1996 edition correct Gould’s errors on skull sizes and his errors about what Morton had found? It turns out that if Morton’s measurements had any bias, it was the opposite of what Gould claimed, and it was Gould who was playing fast and loose with the numbers to unfairly demonize him, an example of letting blatant bias get in the way of science, the very thing Gould was warning about. (Discovery article)

              I loved the book when I first read it in high school (I read all of Gould’s books), so I was shocked to find out that it was Gould who was spinning falsehoods and misrepresenting the record to support his beliefs and paint good scientists as racists, including what Gould was writing about g and IQ.

              The Wiki on “The Mismeasure of Man” is pretty vicious, with terms like “scholarly malfeasance”.

              All this of course left me pretty bummed, because Gould was my favorite author growing up.Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:


                I’m glad you linked me to this; I learned a bunch of things from looking into it more deeply.

                As you should know since you read the article, the 1996 revision does correct some of the errors and acknowledge that Gould was in the same boat he is criticizing. Gould having made errors in one part of a very complex argument, due to his own biases, does not invalidate his argument – it just makes him himself an example of it in that one area. Something he knew, and poked fun at himself about, in later works. If you think he wouldn’t be grateful for the later research to have come out, you’re being way too quick to jump from adulation to excoriation without any room for error in the middle. The rest of the book has, unsurprisingly, stood the test of time.

                As for your spin on the rest of this, most particularly that Morton wasn’t affected by racist bias, I think the *actual* PLOS article from 2018 that the Wiki page references rather poorly is relevant: https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2007008 It both corrects Gould, contextualizes the magnitude of his error (relatively small in the context of the book-length popular work, large if his overall work was cranial studies, embarrassing but scientifically very common …), and explains that the size of the skulls tells us nothing, zero, nada about a genetic tie to intelligence or the lack thereof by comparing Morton’s ever so popular at the time claims with completely opposite contemporary claims based on the same facts that were glossed over and ignored because they weren’t racist enough to suit the prevailing mood of science at that time.

                And of course the Wiki page is full of indignant scholars indignantly accusing Gould of the worst possible crimes and misdemeanors, that’s what the criticism section for game-changing works – works that make the field work harder going forward – is *for*. You’ll note that with the exception of the skull size issue, the criticisms quoted consist of complaint / fussing / puffery about how TERRIBLE purportedly-important person X thinks the book is (a form of authority argument), rather than actual takedowns of arguments. A common Wikipedia flaw. And a common Maribou flaw, for that matter, but I have other things to do, so I point, and suggest reading a work and all the things that the work sparks interest in, rather than fighting through the substance of arguments other people are already having more eloquently than I can. For anything other than the simplest questions of definition, or celebrity gossip, I recommend treating Wikipedia as the same sort of thing – a spur to reading the most solid or central or readable research on a subject at book and article lengths – rather than as an authority in itself.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter says:

                Size mattering seems like a silly argument. It’s what you pull out when the evidence is thin. Orcas have a massively larger-than-us brain. I assume they’re not alone in that respect.

                I’m more sympathetic to gestation arguments but even that fails against the “so what” counter argument.

                Does the effect exist or not? If it is proven, then we can worry about “how/why”. Science is willing to rewrite laws of physic/biology/whatever in the face of one fact, however first you need that fact.Report

              • Avatar Maribou says:

                @dark-matter I agree completely that size mattering is a silly argument. Gould’s frustration at the seriousness with which size was then being treated, a la Morton and following into even the late 70s and early 80s, is, I reckon, part of what gave him the bias that led to his own mismeasurements, because it’s such a damn stupid argument in the first place.

                Now if you could just see that *IQ* is a form of a “size matters” argument, we’d be on the same page.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        There is a difference between “African-American” and “African”.

        Specifically, “African-Americans” who descended from ancestors who were slaves are likely to have ancestors who were white slave-owners (or whites adjacent to the owners).Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      First, I appreciate your willingness to engage the actual argument instead of straight-up denying that IQ is meaningful or that it can’t possibly be correlated with race. Thanks for being cool. That said, I don’t find this convincing. In particular, I don’t see how this is actually a problem for the genetic hypothesis:

      The problem is that race, as conventionally understood, is an incredibly poor proxy for delineating genetically distinct subgroups.

      For one, aside from recent immigrants, the African-American population is overwhelmingly descended from slaves taken from a handful of relatively closely related populations in Africa, and thus are much less genetically diverse than the population of Africa as a whole. The distantly related populations originating in Eastern and Southern Africa are almost entirely absent from AA ancestry. Furthermore, the distinct African American population groups have been intermarrying for centuries at this point. The primary source of genetic diversity in the AA population is degree of European ancestry, rather than the particular mix of African ancestry.

      All that aside, it doesn’t really matter. There’s no reason, in theory, why the AA population in the US couldn’t consist of ten distinct genetic populations, and still exhibit the same IQ gap for purely genetic reasons. That’s how averages work. You have one population with an average of 80, one with 83, one with 105, etc., and consequently the weighted average of all self-identified African Americans is 87, or whatever. Yes, we would find, on closer inspection, that the situation was more complex than it initially appeared, but it wouldn’t in any way invalidate our observations about the overall average.

      You can do the same with whites. As I noted elsewhere in this thread, the Ashkenazim are head and shoulders above white gentiles, with the Ashkenazi-gentile gap among whites roughly equal to the black-white gap, and almost certainly for genetic reasons. So there are two different white populations whose genetic cognitive potentials differ widely. But we could also throw all the whites together and get an average of 100 or so with a slightly chubby right tail in the distribution due to the Ashkenazim.

      Even better, the average AA has about 40% European blood

      Not really important to my argument, but FWIW, I’m seeing numbers in the 20-25% range from multiple studies.

      The only thing you can really say about African Americans genetically speaking is that they all possess one or more of the gene variants responsible for darker skin tone.

      It’s not necessary to be able to make universal statements. We’re talking about correlations, which come in values other than -1, 0, and 1. All that’s necessary is that there be a correlation among the genes coding for different traits, which is exactly what you get when populations are isolated for thousands of generations. To give a trivial but uncontroversial example, the genes for blue eyes, blond hair, light skin, and lactase persistence are all correlated with each other. As are the genes for dark skin, Afro-textured hair, and sickle cell anemia. Yes, most of these are simple traits in terms of the number of genes involved, but there’s no logical reason to rule out a priori the possibility that highly polygenic traits also correlate with the physical traits characteristic of socially defined races. Indeed, it would be surprising if they did not.Report

  16. Avatar Ted Christopher says:

    Hi Steve et al,

    I am going to go against the grain here and go Big Picture. Before doing so I have to say I appreciate your efforts. I also add that I think your comment on Plomin’s book at Amazon is under “Steve Terranova” (and that you should have responded in some way to my comment on your comment).

    Big Picture here is that DNA is the language of life and its evolution (behavior-based selection is presumed to have played a big evolutionary role – see the Baldwin Effect). The unfolding big check on DNA’s status is via both (human) behavioral genetics and personal genomics. The immediate preview on that check is monozygotic twins. They physically look very similar (Check – makes sense). Beyond their appearances, though, No Check. Studies of the health/disease trajectories of monozygotic twins are remarkably discordant up to and including their longevities.

    Nature plus Nurture is thus seriously challenged.

    Crudely DNA appears to make sense in a physical way but beyond that we should have had our doubts. The additional DNA connection is to specific DNA-driven conditions (genes behaving as expected). After 2008’s “Tour De Force” sweep thru the common genetic variants found a “beyond belief” lack of correlations to a lot of heritable conditions it should have produced a huge wave of doubt. It didn’t and ever bigger waves of studies have in fact found essentially nothing. The constructive aspects of such new studies and they usually at least hint at the failure of the earlier studies.

    For another Big Picture point here is when Scientific American asked David Watson about when the personal genomics/behavioral genetics searches would be completed he suggested “ten years”. He said that in 2003 and it still not clear they have found traction. When I read descriptions of the heritability search status acknowledging that scientists ‘wish they had found more’ I think to myself along similar lines ‘I wish I had had more of a career as a professional athlete’. Genetics is deep in denial.

    People should have noticed that there are materialism (and thus genetics) confounding behaviors. The prodigy realm and the transgender realm are good examples. Beyond this for the curious there are well supported taboo behavioral phenomena. Naturally, then people should be wondering about alternative metaphysical explanations (what else can you do?). Such explanations can offer some insight into significant conditions, including schizophrenia.

    The Third Law of Behavioral genetics (positing unique environmental factors) is sheer bullshit. With an injection of integrity scientist would be acknowledging this (along with the behavioral conundrums).

    If anyone would like more on this, along with some possible explanations, then feel free to contact me at tchrist7@rochester.rr.com . I am “Ted Christopher” although officially (and at Amazon) “Paul E. Christopher”.