January 1, 2008

"What have you changed your mind about?"

Every New Year's Day, literary agent John Brockman promotes his stable of science writers by having them propound on a question of interest. This year's query is "What have you changed your mind about?"

MARK PAGEL
Evolutionary Biologist, Reading University, England

We Differ More Than We Thought

The last thirty to forty years of social science has brought an overbearing censorship to the way we are allowed to think and talk about the diversity of people on Earth. People of Siberian descent, New Guinean Highlanders, those from the Indian sub-continent, Caucasians, Australian aborigines, Polynesians, Africans — we are, officially, all the same: there are no races.

Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. We are on average about 99.5% similar to each other genetically. This is a new figure, down from the previous estimate of 99.9%. To put what may seem like miniscule differences in perspective, we are somewhere around 98.5% similar, maybe more, to chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives.

The new figure for us, then, is significant. It derives from among other things, many small genetic differences that have emerged from studies that compare human populations. Some confer the ability among adults to digest milk, others to withstand equatorial sun, others yet confer differences in body shape or size, resistance to particular diseases, tolerance to hot or cold, how many offspring a female might eventually produce, and even the production of endorphins — those internal opiate-like compounds.

We also differ by surprising amounts in the numbers of copies of some genes we have. Modern humans spread out of Africa only within the last 60-70,000 years, little more than the blink of an eye when stacked against the 6 million or so years that separate us from our Great Ape ancestors. The genetic differences amongst us reveal a species with a propensity to form small and relatively isolated groups on which natural selection has often acted strongly to promote genetic adaptations to particular environments.

We differ genetically more than we thought, but we should have expected this: how else but through isolation can we explain a single species that speaks at least 7,000 mutually unintelligible languages around the World?

What this all means is that, like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations — including differences that may even correspond to old categories of 'race' — that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem. This in no way says one group is in general 'superior' to another, or that one group should be preferred over another. But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.

Arnold Kling has some highlights of other answers here.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

14 comments:

manindarkhat said...

Steven Pinker is still doing his best to please the ghost of Gould:

The other is the empirical fact that human races and ethnic groups are psychologically highly similar, if not identical. People everywhere use language, get jealous, are selective in choosing mates, find their children cute, are afraid of heights and the dark, experience anger and disgust, learn names for local species, and so on. If you adopt children from a technologically undeveloped part of the world, they will fit in to modern society just fine. To the extent that this is true, there can't have been a whole lot of uneven psychological evolution postdating the split among the races 50-100,000 years ago (though there could have been parallel evolution in all the branches).

http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_8.html

Why does he say "to the extent that this is true" when he's already announced that "they will fit in to modern society just fine"? I don't think he really believes his own line.

IMR said...

There's an interesting little interview with Mark Pagel here in Discover magazine from 2005:

http://discovermagazine.com/2005/may/discover-dialogue

Says Pagel: "Human cultural groups have behaved as if they were different species that actively exclude each other, and cultures do have a wariness of strangers. I think it may be a deep-seated part of our psychological makeup. It isn’t necessarily something that we want to promote or be proud of, but it is something that we ought to be aware of."

Bill said...

If we are 0.5% different on average, I wonder what the average difference is between individuals from different racial groups. Probably higher.

Perhaps this will rekindle the multiregional debate. I'm still not fully convinced by the recent out of Africa theory. Evidence from Australia in particular makes me skeptical.

I think people will discover some very strange things about genetic diversity and evolution soon. We aren't really in charge, after all -- genes are, and I suspect they are more sophisticated than we think. They are kind of like the mice in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

the Narrator... said...

"The genetic differences amongst us reveal a species with a propensity to form small and relatively isolated groups on which natural selection has often acted strongly to promote genetic adaptations to particular environments"
"The last thirty to forty years of social science has brought an overbearing censorship to the way we are allowed to think and talk about the diversity of people on Earth."
-Mark Pagel Evolutionary Biologist

I appreciate his honesty...to a point. On the one hand he acknowledges that for the past 40 years this information has been suppressed, but then pretends to speak of it as though it were a modern revelation.
In truth, I think that with so much information at peoples fingertips + the ongoing emergence of hard evidence for racial difference, many scientists are finally testing the social waters with their scholastic toe.

Mr. Pagel's "Changed Mind" reads more like, "Confessions of an Evolutionary Biologist."

Bruce G Charlton said...

Steve Pinker says alsmost the same as Mark Pagel

http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_8.html#pinker

Have Humans Stopped Evolving?

Ten years ago, I wrote:

[...] Are we still evolving? Biologically, probably not much. [...]

Though I stand by a lot of those statements, I've had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped by the time of the agricultural revolution. When I wrote these passages, completion of the Human Genome Project was several years away, and so was the use of statistical techniques that test for signs of selection in the genome. [...]

New results from the labs of Jonathan Pritchard, Robert Moyzis, Pardis Sabeti, and others have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as ten percent of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years. The numbers are comparable to those for maize, which has been artificially selected beyond recognition during the past few millennia.

If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function (as opposed to disease resistance, skin color, and digestion, which we already know have evolved in recent millennia), then the field of evolutionary psychology might have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over and done with 10-000 — 50,000 years ago.

And if so, the result could be evolutionary psychology on steroids. Humans might have evolutionary adaptations not just to the conditions that prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years, but also to some of the conditions that have prevailed only for millennia or even centuries. ...

birch barlow said...

"This in no way says one group is in general 'superior' to another, or that one group should be preferred over another."

I know this sounds nice, but superiority is an issue that cannot be evaded. The fact is, that where it counts, whites and Asians *are*, on average, superior to blacks and Hispanics. The only saving grace is that there are *some* blacks and Hispanics who do possess the kinds of traits that maintain and even build civilization, that is there some blacks and Hispanics who are equal or superior to the average white, and a few who are much superior to the average white. See here, for example [Control F+ "joshua", Control F + "salinas"]

Udolpho said...

I predict that discussion of this subject will only intensify liberal white guilt and make the punishments for PC/multicultural heresies even more draconian.

jnc said...

birch barlow,
(At the risk of sounding a bit preachy) When Mark Pagel used the term "superior" he wasn't referring to cognitive ability or potential contribution to society, but rather to our intrinsic humanity and our value as individuals. It’s alright to say that IQ is important and that high IQ people are more desirable as members of society, but to say that high IQ people are “superior” is a bit messed up, at least in my opinion.

Also, IQ is just one trait out of many, albeit a very important one. There are other traits in which races rank considerably different than with IQ, which was probably another point he was trying to make.

imr said...

Yes, certain races may be better at particular things on average than others, but to claim one race is superior overall to another betrays obvious political rather than scientific motivation.

No biologist wastes their time trying to dream up ways of ranking the different subspecies of the wolf Canis lupus according to relative degrees of superiority or inferiority, so why bother with Homo sapiens?

Besides, droning on about the superiority of one's own race usually carries a strong whiff of personal underachievement.

PatrickH said...

I'm waiting for the day when Steve is invited to answer an edge Question.

Johnson said...

But again, we return to the measure of IQ as the best predictor, for large groups of people, of many different social outcomes.

Superiority is of course subjective and whatnot, but in terms of what we like to think makes humans better than all other living beings out there, IQ is pretty important.

Svigor said...

Yes, certain races may be better at particular things on average than others, but to claim one race is superior overall to another betrays obvious political rather than scientific motivation.

No biologist wastes their time trying to dream up ways of ranking the different subspecies of the wolf Canis lupus according to relative degrees of superiority or inferiority, so why bother with Homo sapiens?


Huh? It's safe to say humans are superior to at least the vast majority of the other species. This is a noncontroversial statement in most circles. The trouble comes in when non-whites might get the shaft, not before.

The question of intrahuman superiority is far more important than the question of intrawolf superiority.

Besides, droning on about the superiority of one's own race usually carries a strong whiff of personal underachievement.

So what connotation is carried by droning on about the invalidity of the question of intrahuman superiority? Reminds me of the guys who run around insisting "size doesn't matter."

It smacks of underachievement because you've been programmed to think that way.

More to the point, who's a big enough sucker to fall for this argument and refuse to address the question honestly, when liberals and wishy-washy "race-realists" are the ones who bring it up in the first place"?

In other words, I never start this conversation, but if liberals or wishy-washy race-realists make the assertion, thinking themselves safe because of "the limits of respectability," they've got another thing coming. I refrain from yakking about superiority on tactical grounds, not principle.

And finally, ad homs are for rubes (irrelevant at best).

LCohen said...

No biologist wastes their time trying to dream up ways of ranking the different subspecies of the wolf Canis lupus according to relative degrees of superiority or inferiority, so why bother with Homo sapiens?

To put the answer concisely: biologists have no problem ranking subspecies of wolf when there's a reason to rank by a certain measurement or set of measurements.

In the human realm, socially valued traits such as cognitive ability are natural measurements to rank by because of their practical implications (otherwise they wouldn't be socially valued).

It's considered insensitive to note such rankings in public, but don't let that cloud your personal thinking, because all facts are connected (as Steve points out).

American Democrat said...

Fascinating article.

"This in no way says one group is in general 'superior' to another, or that one group should be preferred over another."

I agree with the idea that all human races should be treated fairly, and as fellow human beings. (In the aforementioned quote,) In the second clause, I don't understand what is meant, by preferred. What I do believe, is every human race is superior, in its own right. Black Africans are best for Black Africans, and should prefer their own kind for procreation. Likewise for the Bushmen, Arabs, Europeans, Asians, Inuits, AmerIndians, and Hispanics.

The irony is that its the "Liberal" pro-race(-)mixing establishment that makes non-Whites feel inferior. Black women have to compete with the "superior" White women, while Black men are told that White genes (from White women) are superior to Black genes (from their fellow women). This causes personal problems that White "racists" could only dream of.