All your genes belong to the tribal council!

Dienekes has already commented on this, but I thought I would go over Ewen Callaway’s piece, Aboriginal genome analysis comes to grips with ethics. It’s not surprising that this was written. Even if you take Keith Windschuttle’s position when it comes to Aboriginal-European contact you can’t escape the reality that Aboriginals did not fare so well in the interaction. In fact, they don’t fare so well today in Australia. The life expectancy gap between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Australia is most conservatively estimated at 10 years (do remember that the majority of indigenous Australians are mixed-race). In the racialized physical anthropology of the early 20th amongst the colored peoples Aboriginals occupied the lowest circle of hell. Because of the robustness of their physiques it was argued they were the most primitive exemplar of humanity. Perhaps relic H. erectus.

Here are some interesting sections of Callaway’s article:

…Researchers who work with Aboriginal Australians are now expected to obtain consent not only from the individuals concerned, but also from local and sometimes state-wide groups representing Aboriginal communities across Australia.

A Danish bioethical review board did not believe it was necessary to review the project because it viewed the hair as an archaeological specimen and not a biological one, Willerslev says. However, after his team sequenced the genome, an Australian colleague put Willerslev in touch with the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, a body based in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, that represents the 5,000 or so Aboriginal Australians living in the region where Haddon collected the hair sample. In June, Willerslev flew to the region to describe his project to the organization’s board and to seek its approval. He says that if the board had rejected his proposal, he would have ended the project and left the genome unpublished.

Stepping away from the specific issue of Australian Aboriginals, the case of the “ownership” of genetic information is peculiar. As a “thought experiment” I have addressed the issue of whether identical twins have “rights” to each others’ genomes. For example, if one identical twin put their genotype into the public domain, would the other be within their rights to object? For that matter, people who put their genotypes in the public domain are partially exposing their whole families. Do they have to go ask for permission? Obviously I don’t think so. I didn’t ask my siblings or my parents.

So the issue of group veto or endorsement of the genotyping of individuals, living or deceased, is not a general consideration. It’s a matter of politics and sociology in very specific circumstances. In particular those groups which are labelled “indigenous” in Western societies, and so given particular distinction as the “first people.” Ultimately it reduces down to power politics. Consider for example what the Cherokee nation recently did to its black members. Just because people are indigenous, or there is a tribal council instead of a town council, does not exempt them from the common venalities of political leadership classes. Though there has been a history of “body snatching” by Western scholars in the Americas and Australia, the current respect and considerations given ancient materials which might have DNA has more to do with the possibility that those results might refute the standing of a given group as autochthons. As a practical matter DNA results probably won’t change a thing, but there is always a risk that it might introduce an element of doubt as to the legitimacy of the privileges and rights conferred on those who trace their lineages from the first settlers of a given locale.

More broadly, there is a whole world of “activists” who are themselves not indigenous who have a vested interest in ginning up controversy, and demanding that all the ethical issues be examined from every which angle (they are of course the best judges as to which issues must be tackled before science proceeds). I’ve addressed this before. In short they’re basically academic demagogues. What I’m talking about was on display during the Darkness in El Dorado controversy. Unlike indigenous people themselves these activists will always move on to a new cause to stoke the fires of their righteous indignation. In the 1990s this set was outraged over the Human Genome Diversity Project, but today that enterprise is a great success accessible to all. Did disaster and darkness ensue? Of course not. And the original critics are now fixated upon more profitable targets.

Going back to the issue about Aboriginal genetics, and the genetics of indigenous people more generally, it is in the medium run irrelevant what institutions decide. By institutions, I mean tribes, governments, NGOs, and even academics. If a scientific group avoids human genetic research for political reasons, the probability is that another group at some point in the future will take the project. And when it comes to human genetics the typing and analysis is cheap and easy enough that motivated amateurs can do it themselves. There are certainly enough white Australians with some Aboriginal ancestry that a synthetic genome could probably be reconstructed just from them at some point. Perhaps less ethically if someone wanted to they could probably obtain genetic material by surreptitious means.

Which brings me back to the question of Australian Aboriginals. One of the primary fears, implicit or explicit, about doing biological work on this group is that scientists might report results which would have a chance of dehumanizing them. Dehumanization, broadly construed, is not a problem necessarily. As I’ve noted people found that Europeans had a few percent Neandertal quite funny last year because Europeans haven’t been victims of dehumanization for the past few centuries (read the accounts of Muslim or Chinese observers from before 1800, and you do see clear dehumanization of Europeans in their perceptions). In contrast, Australian Aboriginals have been dehumanized. So how does the result that they might be ~5% admixed with a very distant human lineage change our perceptions? I don’t think it changes much at all. The problem is that people, wrongly I believe, perceive that political and social views have some deep metaphysical basis when they often do not. Scientific racism in the 19th and early 20th century did leverage science, but the racialized sentiments ascendant in the age of white supremacy were first and foremost about values. In the 16th century the partisans of the views of Bartolomé de las Casas succeeded in convincing the Iberian monarchies that the indigenous people of the New World deserved protection from predatory European settlers. But the reality is that the de jure status was flagrantly violated for centuries de facto. In the ideal the Amerindians of the New World were granted the protection of the Spanish monarchy as Christians, but in practice they were treated in a beastly manner by the American Spaniards and their Creole descendants.

Quibbling about the rights and responsibilities of scientists in a given field is not always unimportant or futile. But in the area where genetics and ethnology intersect too often people overestimate the power of genetics to totally reshape how we view ourselves, and how we view other human beings. The reality is that we are what we are, before and after we find out what we are in a more scientific and abstruse fashion. How we behave toward other human beings is less a matter of good science and more good character.

The educated want more children than they have


The post below is probably going to elicit a lot of comments. Some of it will repeat chestnuts of historical wisdom which illustrate the ignorance of the typical modern. For example, it is false that the lower classes always have more children than the upper classes. In general it is the reverse, because the lower orders are more squeezed on the Malthusian margins (this explains how downward social mobility worked in early modern Europe; the less successful children of the elites drifted down to replace the masses who were not replacing themselves).

In any case, Angela M. Cable asks:

Has it not occurred to anyone that perhaps the more educated a woman is, the less she *wants* children. How do we know these women are not child-free as opposed to child-less?

If I was Angela I would go look for the literature on this. I’m not one to ask questions imperiously without taking the time out to actually do some legwork. But I’m a peculiar beast. Let’s satisfy Ms. Cable’s curiosity, which probably remains unsated by any compulsion to find out the truth of the matter. The General Social Survey has a variable which asks the ideal number of children an individual would like to have. Let’s replicate the analysis with that variable, and look at the difference between ideal and realized number of children.


Mean number of children of women by highest degree
attained for age cohorts surveyed after year 2000
Highest degree 1951-1960 1961-1970 1971-1980
Less than HS 2.98 2.78 2.39
HS 2.08 2.05 1.5
Junior College 2.06 1.96 1.52
Bachelor 1.49 1.47 0.85
Graduate 1.46 1.37 0.75
Mean ideal number of children of women by highest degree
attained for age cohorts surveyed after year 2000
Highest degree 1951-1960 1961-1970 1971-1980
Less than HS 2.84 3.26 3.6
HS 3.03 3 2.92
Junior College 3.72 3.17 3.11
Bachelor 3.09 3.14 3.02
Graduate 2.78 3.23 2.9
Different between mean ideal number of children and mean number of children of women by highest degree
attained for age cohorts surveyed after year 2000
Highest degree 1951-1960 1961-1970 1971-1980
Less than HS -0.14 0.48 1.21
HS 0.95 0.95 1.42
Junior College 1.66 1.21 1.59
Bachelor 1.6 1.67 2.17
Graduate 1.32 1.86 2.15

Some of the difference has to be the fact that more educated women have children later. So they’ll get closer to their “goal.” But I don’t think all of it is due to that. Interestingly the variation in the ideal number of children is smaller than that of the realized number of children. That suggests that the gap between educated and uneducated isn’t simply an ideological preference chasm.

A college degree as contraceptive

Update: The Slate piece is not accurately representing the original research:

Lerner’s article is spreading misinformation. What the Guttmacher Institute study shows is not that the educated are having fewer children vis a vis the uneducated, but that there is a growing gap in family planning: the children of the uneducated are increasingly unplanned.

Knocked Up and Knocked Down: Why America’s widening fertility class divide is a problem:

You hear about the “haves” versus the “have-nots,” but not so much about the “have-one-or-nones” versus the “have-a-fews.” This, though, is how you might characterize the stark and growing fertility class divide in the United States. Two new studies bring the contrasting reproductive profiles of rich and poor women into sharp relief. One, from the Guttmacher Institute, shows that the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years. The other, by the Center for Work-Life Policy, documents rates of childlessness among corporate professional women that are higher than the childlessness rates of some European countries experiencing fertility crises.

Childlessness has increased across most demographic groups but is still highest among professionals. Indeed, according to an analysis of census data conducted by the Pew Research Center, about one quarter of all women with bachelor’s degrees and higher in the United States wind up childless. (As Pew notes, for women with higher degrees, that number is actually slightly lower than it was in the early 1990s—but it is still very high.) By comparison, in England, which has one of the highest percentages of women without children in the world, 22 percent of all women are childless. According to the new Center for Work-Life Policy study, 43 percent of the women in their sample of corporate professionals between the ages of 33 and 46 were childless. The rate of childlessness among the Asian American professional women in the study was a staggering 53 percent.

At the same time, the numbers of both unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women have climbed steadily in recent years. About half of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned, with poor women now five times more likely than higher-income women to have an unplanned pregnancy, and six times more likely to have an unplanned birth, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s recent analysis of government data.

It being Slate, the author does not broach what I like to term the “Idiocracy hypothesis”. I invite you to make some observations at a Walmart Supercenter as you stand behind the pregnant 16 year old holding her adorable chubby infant, and then deny the possibility of this outcome. But you don’t need to “go there.” If you have a strong environmental leaning you can still admit that the cultural traits of the middle class may be heritable through acquisition in childhood, while the dysfunctional tendencies of the underclass can also be perpetuated by modeling the behavior of parents and peers. The skewed parental origins of the next generation, and the inferred long term divergence in reproductive output, are issues of some consequence for the broader social order. Systems which shift out of equilibrium may eventually reach a new “stable state,” and one not to our liking.

In any case, here is some General Social Survey data on the mean number of children by age cohort broken down by education for women surveyed after the year 2000. Basically you’re looking at the number of children that women born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, had by the 2000s.

Mean number of children of women by highest degree
attained for age cohorts surveyed after year 2000
Highest degree 1951-1960 1961-1970 1971-1980
Less than HS 2.98 2.78 2.39
HS 2.08 2.05 1.5
Junior College 2.06 1.96 1.52
Bachelor 1.49 1.47 0.85
Graduate 1.46 1.37 0.75


Solutions? One quick one made by Randall Parker is to allow for easier acceleration of education of the academically gifted. Many school districts seem to discourage skipping grades from what I have seen for practical social reasons. But currently women with professional aspirations have a difficult time having children during their peak fertility years because of the necessary demands on their time of university and graduate or professional school. It is of course true that putting 14 year old teens in classes with 18 year old young adults is going to cause problems, but if a woman can make it out of medical school and into her residency around 22, rather than 26, it is going to be a huge difference in terms of options in their early 30s (beyond the peak fertility years, but not very much).


Dodecad Ancestry Project is at ~10,000

A few days ago I noticed that the Dodecad Ancestry Project had nearly nearly 10,000 individuals! ~500 are participants in the project (like myself, I’m DOD075). But most of the individuals were derived from public or shared data sets. You can see them in the Google spreadsheet with all the results. It’s quite an accomplishment, and I commend Dienekes for it. I also have to enter into the record that Dodecad prompted my own forays into genome blogging, and Dienekes also helped Zack with pointers for Harappa in the early days.

The axis of weasel

Pakistanis Tied to 2007 Border Ambush on Americans:

The attack, in Teri Mangal on May 14, 2007, was kept quiet by Washington, which for much of a decade has seemed to play down or ignore signals that Pakistan would pursue its own interests, or even sometimes behave as an enemy.

The reconstruction of the attack, which several officials suggested was revenge for Afghan or Pakistani deaths at American hands, takes on new relevance given the worsening rupture in relations between Washington and Islamabad, which has often been restrained by Pakistan’s strategic importance.

The details of the ambush indicate that Americans were keenly aware of Pakistan’s sometimes duplicitous role long before Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate last week that Pakistan’s intelligence service was undermining efforts in Afghanistan and had supported insurgents who attacked the American Embassy in Kabul this month.

Posted in Uncategorized

Terra Nova half-browns

There’s a lot buzz on the internet for a new show called Terra Nova. Didn’t we already do this? It was called Earth 2 (Steven Spielberg also had an indirect role in that show). I’m not going to watch it. I don’t have a television, and my online television watching is very circumscribed. But I did note that the family at the center of the drama is what we would call “exotic” or “ethnic” in 1980s:

Alana Mansour, the youngest actress, probably has Middle Eastern ancestry. I don’t know. But the mother is played by Shelley Conn, an Anglo-Indian. More specifically a mix of Sri Lankan and British. And the middle child, Naomi Scott, has a ethnic Indian mother from Uganda. The father and son in contrast are fully European in appearance (and Irish and white Canadian were cast for these roles), but it is not uncommon in mixed-race families for such a variance in physical types to manifest across the set of children.

Being human is important because we’re human

There’s a rather vanilla piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer which reviews the ideas of how humans became human. I say vanilla because the headline is somewhat more sensational than the text itself, which seems sober and accurate. But this paragraph jumped out at me:

A main source of the idea that we humans are above the rest of the living world is religion. Even religions that accept evolution espouse a kind of human exceptionalism.

It is obviously true that human religions tend to place a special importance on humans. And it is accurate as well to observe that consistent messages of human uniqueness are most prominently espoused by particular religions. Even those religions such as Neo-paganism and Hinduism which adhere to a monism which collapses the distinction between human and non-human operationally do seem to privilege the human perspective.

But I think for the purposes of analysis we need to step away from the idea that religion is the “source” of any one particular thing. Like morality it’s pretty obvious that human exceptionalism in religion is an extension of our natural intuitions, which derive from the fact that natural selection tends to shape lineages to at least a minimum level of self-absorption. I think this issue needs to be generally kept in mind when we praise religion (e.g., “there would be no charity without religion”) or condemn it (e.g., “there would be no war without religion”). Rather than an ultimate wellspring of human behavior religion is more accurately conceptualized as an intermediating phenomenon. It takes the elements of humanity and recombines them into more complex cultural units. It does does not provide the inputs, it is a function which operates upon the inputs.

Like modestly attracts like

I saw this link posted on twitter, IQ and Human Intelligence:

An interesting finding from genetic research, which Mackintosh mentions, only in passing, as posing a problem in the estimation of the heritability of g, is that there is greater assortative mating for g than for any other behavioral trait; that is, spouse correlations are only ∼.1 for personality and only ∼.2 for height or weight, but the correlation for assortative mating for g is ∼.4. In addition to indicating that people are able to make judgments about g in real life, this finding suggests that assortative mating may contribute to the substantial additive genetic variance for g, because positive assortative mating for a character can increase its additive genetic variance.

I’ve seen these sort of results before. The review is from 1999. In general I always wonder if quantitative values for personality are not to be trusted because of issues with the measurement of personality types. But this is clearly not an issue with height or weight. And in the case of height the overwhelming causal explanation for variation in the West is genetic variation. Overall I’m rather surprised by the rather low correlations for some of these traits, such as height and intelligence. I wonder if beauty, perhaps measured by an index of facial symmetry, might exhibit higher correlation values?

Sunday Stuff – September 25th, 2011


I don’t really enjoy reading past posts on this weblog (I said too much stupid stuff), and I haven’t been following comments too closely. So I’m going to skip those for now.

1) Weird search query of the week: “razib khan hiv.” Last I checked I am HIV negative.

2 Your weekly fluff fix: