The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Media Roundup

A Teachable Moment

Some bad ideas are like Abba songs. You may feel secure in the knowledge that, while for some inexplicable reason people in the past were drawn to them, their time has surely past. Then one day at a nightclub in Tangiers or on a bus in rural Albania you are suddenly reminded that the dancing queen is only 17.

Racialist theories in genetics are like that. They regularly pop up from time to time, essentially the same bad science as in 1890 or 1920, sprinkled with a fashionable buzzword(s). Older readers may remember the last time around, when Murray and Herrnstein gave the world “The Bell Curve”. That book was the work of a political scientist and a psychologist, and was the correlational hodgepodge you would expect.

That Albanian bus has come back around, playing the same old tune, but now vibrating to the very modern, very scientific beat of “genomics”. Up front in the driver’s hat sits Nicholas Wade, veteran journalist, science writer for the American paper-of-record, The New York Times. Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” attempts to demonstrate that modern genome sequencing and analysis techniques support the old notion that differences in culture and wealth reflect underlying genetic “predispositions”. We’ve seen a particularly egregious example in a previous post.

So why waste more time and bandwidth on this subject? In short, because sometimes what we think of as crap can actually be manure. Genome analysis and population genetics are complicated topics, often outside the range of science writing for the general public. Wade’s volume has fertilized the internet and many, many talented biologists have been driven by varying combinations of outrage and despair to produce excellent, accessible articles and posts on topics such as human population genetics, statistical analysis of genetic data, how genome data is produced and analyzed, and so on. The above link goes to Orr’s New York Review of Books piece. But don’t miss these by UC Berkeley’s Michael Eisen; Orr’s old mentor, Jerry Coyne; Jennifer Raff’s key point on a fundamental misunderstanding of data analysis; Patrick Clarkin on the more general subject of the link between genes and physical or behavioral traits.

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