Not by cline alone

Citation: Moreno-Estrada, Andrés, et al. "Reconstructing the Population Genetic History of the Caribbean." PLoS genetics 9.11 (2013): e1003925.
Citation: Moreno-Estrada, Andrés, et al. “Reconstructing the Population Genetic History of the Caribbean.” PLoS genetics 9.11 (2013): e1003925.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article up on the intersection of genomics and sociology, In Research Involving Genome Analysis, Some See a ‘New Racism’. Most of the quotes are from sociologists, which is a problem, because whenever I try and delve into the topic it seems that sociologists don’t actually engage with the latest genomic research, but simply rehash older models which refute naive essentialism which biologists would never find plausible in the first place. But there was an intriguing quote in the piece from Jiannbin Shiao: …The social sciences should replace their biology-based rejection of race “with a version of the feminist distinction between biological sex and socially constructed gender,” he writes. With several co-authors, he has developed a concept called “clines,” adapted from how economists talk about social class, which reflects the continuous nature of human variation while allowing loose clusters to develop, depending on how you zoom into the data.

The paper is The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race. It is admirable in its attempt to engage in the recent literature. Unlike other sociologists the authors seem to have read publications from the 21st century. I do think it’s strange that they are talking about clines as if it is a new idea, seeing as they cite its long-standing usage in biology. But perhaps it is somehow a novel concept in sociology? That says something about sociology I suppose.

But in an area of research such as genomics citations that are six years old may be out of date. The authors published in the summer of 2012, and no doubt had been working on the paper for a few years before that. I’m pretty sure that Steve Hsu, a former colleague of the first author at the University of Oregon, actually told me about the genesis of this paper in the spring of 2011 when I had coffee with him at Berkeley. The authors state:

The primary tools for identifying population structure have been, in order of emergence, (1) comparisons of predefined populations, (2) the Bayesian clustering approach of the program STRUCTURE developed by Pritchard, Stephens, and Donnelly (2000), and (3) new variations on the classical technique of principal components analysis (Paschou et al. 2007). Although social studies of science continue to criticize the circular research design of the first method (Bolnick 2008; Duster 2006b; Marks 2006), the second and third methods have been preferred among academic researchers for over a decade (Risch et al. 2002; Rosenberg et al. 2002).

It has always been frustrating to me that social scientists who object to any utilization of race in a biological sense presume that everyone must have a typological model in mind. So it is good that the authors understand that model-based (STRUCTURE) and hypothesis-free (PCA) clustering are the norm now. But over the past few years genomics has opened up new avenues of analysis, which make these methods somewhat passe. In particular, admixture analysis using segment assignment gives a much finer grained window into the historical genomic landscape of a population. Additionally, segment analysis also leads me to suggest that a default clinal model may not even be defensible in the near future.

I outlined the thesis in my two earlier posts. In short, I propose that in fact because of the protean nature of human culture our species’ development over the last ~50,000 years has been subject to many expansions and replacements, which only requilibrate toward a clinal gradient through admixture. This shows the problems in rooting a normative world-view on an empirical scientific basis. I’m not being original here, and only need to nod to the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy. If your moral understanding of the world is predicated on empirical claims, you should be willing to update those claims. As it is most people are not so inclined, and will continue to reject those empirical results if they are at variance with their preferences. My own views are well known, science goes where it may, and we only delay the inevitable if we shy away from research that may cause us discomfort. Let me quote two evolutionary geneticists on this issue. First, James F. Crow on the study of intelligence and genetics:

I hope that such questions can be approached with the same objectivity as that when we study inheritance of bristle number in Drosophila, but I don’t expect it soon. There are too many strongly held opinions. I thought Lahn had a clever idea in thinking that the normal alleles of head-reducing mutants might be responsible for evolution of larger heads in human ancestry. Likewise, I think that Cochran et al. are fully entitled to consider the reasons for Jewish intelligence and I found their arguments interesting. In my view it is wrong to say that research in this area — assuming it is well done — is out of order. I feel strongly that we should not discourage a line of research because someone might not like a possible outcome.

Now, A. W. F. Edwards, one of Fisher’s last students:

A proper analysis of human data reveals a substantial amount of information about genetic differences. What use, if any, one makes of it is quite another matter. But it is a dangerous mistake to premise the moral equality of human beings on biological similarity because dissimilarity, once revealed, then becomes an argument for moral inequality. One is reminded of Fisher’s remark in Statistical Methods and Scientific Inference… “that the best causes tend to attract to their support the worst arguments, which seems to be equally true in the intellectual and in the moral sense.”

Certainly over the years I have encountered many people who have come to the conclusion that the standard sociological arguments about the fictional nature of racial categories are false, and derive from the caricature that crude racist positions are tenable and correct, and defensible on normative grounds. I have to say that part of this is due to the appeal to science by those who defend liberal democratic values, when that science may not stand up to deeper inspection. Basing your ought on is is not always wrongheaded in my opinion, but you should be very clear on what you are doing.

Posted in Uncategorized

Comments are closed.