April 27, 2010

Genetic Relativism

Carl Zimmer writes in the NYT in "The Search for Genes Leads to Unexpected Places:"
Edward M. Marcotte is looking for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, and he and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recently found some good targets — five human genes that are essential for that growth. Now they’re hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast.  

I pointed out that in terms of genetic similarity, humanity and yeast weren't really all that different in a National Review article in 1999, "Chimps and Chumps," one of the earlier expressions of my constant theme of "genetic relativism:"
Ms. [Natalie] Angier hopes future studies prove we are more closely related to bonobos than to common chimps. Even Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, the dour authors of "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence" ask, "Those loving bonobos -- did we pick the wrong primate to evolve from?" Dr. De Waal asserts that the news about the bonobo lifestyle "commands attention because the bonobo shares more than 98 percent of our genetic profile … making it as close to a human as, say, a fox is to a dog. The split between the human line of ancestry and the line of the chimpanzee and the bonobo is believed to have occurred a mere eight million years ago." ...

Fifth, the oft-cited 98% figure for shared DNA is less impressive than it looks. Most DNA is unused, so natural selection never changes it. Another big chunk of your personal DNA controls the basics of earthly carbon-based life, and is extremely common across multitudinous organisms. Thus, one study found we share 70% of our DNA with yeast! Perhaps if you don't have a great ape around, you can scrape by letting a packet of Fleischmann's Quick-Rise pinch-hit as your role model. De Waal's statement that a chimp is as genetically similar to a human as a fox is to a dog may be true, but it should remind us of the striking number of gene-driven differences seen merely among dog breeds. A collie is identical to a pit bull in all but a tiny fraction of its genes, yet the two breeds differ radically in size, shape, behavior, mentality, and personality. Small genetic differences can have big consequences.

On the other hand, a collie and a pit bull are more similar to each other than they are to, say, an octopus. And a collie and an octopus would be more genetically similar to each other than to, say, copper-based lifeforms on Epsilon Eridani IV.

The question: "Is X similar to or different from Y?" is extremely relativistic.

And that's true for races, siblings, even identical twins, who might differ in, say, a half-dozen genes due to copying errors, along with other types of non-genetic differences. 

When you study examples of twins, you notice that there are often consistent differences between them. For example, a glance at the basketball statistics of the 1970s All-Stars Dick and Tom Van Arsdale shows that Dick was consistently a little bit better than Tom over their 12 year NBA careers. For example, to take the most context-independent statistic, Dick made .790 of his freethrows, while Tom made .762. Dick shot .464 on two pointers, while Tom shot .433. Dick averaged 34.5 minutes per game over his career while Tom averaged 30.9 minutes. (In their high school class, Dick was the valedictorian, while Tom had the third highest GPA.)

The differences between Dick and Tom were relevant to NBA general managers. For instance, Dick was drafted 10th in the 1965 NBA draft, while Tom was drafted 11th, which, looking back on their long careers, was the correct order.

On the other hand, in a lot of ways, Dick and Tom Van Arsdale were awfully similar.

I apply the same relativistic framework for thinking about more contentious issues, such as race. My basic approach is to make sure I'm right by pointing out the tautological nature of all questions about similarities and differences: "It depends upon what you want to know." When you keep that in mind at all times, it's not terribly hard to think accurately and insightfully. If you can figure out what the right question is, it's much easier to get the right answer.

Indeed, that's why I'm right about racial questions so much more frequently than other pundits. It's easy to figure things out if you have an intellectually sophisticated basis for your thinking. In contrast, the conventional wisdom is based on an embarrassingly crude mindset.
 

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Indeed, that's why I'm right about racial questions so much more frequently than other pundits."

No need to toot your own horn, Steve.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if you don't have a great ape around, you can scrape by letting a packet of Fleischmann's Quick-Rise pinch-hit as your role model.

LOL.

Anonymous said...

You ARE the man, Steve.

Anonymous said...

Paul and Morgan Hamm. It's a truly amazing tribute to genetics that both were Olympic competitors Men's Gymnastics. But Paul was always a little bit better.

Svigor said...

No need to toot your own horn, Steve.

Actually, he's being self-effacing. He's saying, more or less, that leaving behind the baggage gives you +1 SD on your IQ. It's like a southpaw saying he's winning because he was lucky enough to be born a southpaw. And he's right, choosing the right side of an argument is the quickest way to win.

Lugash said...

I am Lugash.

I see the US Navy, a Global Force for Good, has only token whites in it now.

I am Lugash.

AllanF said...

I've contended for years that Americans are horrible at probabilistic reasoning owing to our Protestant roots. Catholics are fairly at ease with the idea none of us are good enough for heaven probably won't make it. Evangelicals by contrast have an all-or-none, you either saved or unsaved dichotomy that I think bleeds over into all their other thinking. Or at least, if they don't let not so fine lines impinge on their thinking as concerns their eternal soul, they certainly aren't letting not so fine lines bother their thinking as they go about the rest of their daily business.

OneSTDV said...

"Indeed, that's why I'm right about racial questions so much more frequently than other pundits."

And I can jump higher than Mini-Me.

Steven J. said...

In the interest of pedantry, I will point out that your statement, from your 1999 article, that "the oft-cited 98% figure for shared DNA is less impressive than it looks. Most DNA is unused, so natural selection never changes it," is rather misleading. Natural selection won't change DNA which doesn't have a function, but mutation and random genetic drift will. Conversely, natural selection is often stabilizing, weeding out changes to DNA that continues to serve a useful function (which is why we exhibit impressive sequence similarity to yeast). The 98% sequence similarity is largely a measure of how much, or how little, change due to random drift has occurred since hominins split off from panins.

kudzu bob said...

Now they’re hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast.

I believe that something similar is happening with Sir2, a so-called "longevity gene" found in everything from yeast to humans, and which appears to be activated by caloric restriction as well as by a supplement I take, resveratrol.

Sir2 research is a very hot topic right now. One lady investor I know made a pile of money when the main company to investigate this got bought out by GlaxoSmithKline.

Reg C├Žsar said...

I pointed out that in terms of genetic similarity, humanity and yeast weren’t really all that different...in 1999...

Then someone beat you by 19.7 centuries:

"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the yeast of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

Tom Regan said...

Surely the bien pensants in Hollywood can come up with a movie that frames some white conservatives as irredeemably narrow-minded for refusing to let their daughter date the bag of yeast next door.

Simon said...

Obviously we can't be genetically closer to bonobos than chimps, since we split from their mutual ancestor 4-5 million years before chimps split into bonobos and chimps around 0.5 million years ago - around the time Neanderthals split from modern humans.

l said...

It's interesting that feminist and gay academics can study bonobos for years and not notice that they are very violent.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3353342/Bonobos-not-all-peace-and-free-love.html

We'll give 'em a pass on murder, since they do a lot of lesbian grinding and penis fencing.

Nicholas Heller said...

This is earth-shaking news. Now that we know that there is virtually no difference between men and yeast, how can we explain the low status of yeast in our society?

How many CEOs of major corporations are yeast? (I mean, actual yeast - appearances can be deceiving). How many doctors or lawyers? How many policemen or firemen?

I did a little Googling, and I discovered that the median annual income for yeast in America is $0.00. This is well below the national average.

I think it's past time we come clean about the reasons that yeast have (has?) been held back in our society. After all, who among us does not harbor scorn - even hate - for yeast in our hearts?

Couchscientist said...

On the subject of being right and having an edge through hbd, has anyone found a way to use hbd truths in investing ? In general, the more Jewish/Asian/White a co is, the better it should do. Could you pick stocks based on which companies are least diverse? It would be hard though as there is market backlash against nondiverse co's and a co has plenty of room to posture. You couldn't be too fooled by tokens at the top, but would have to look generally at the whole workforce. All things being equal, would the j/a/w co's beat out more nam peers?

Dahinda said...

"It's easy to figure things out if you have an intellectually sophisticated basis for your thinking. In contrast, the conventional wisdom is based on an embarrassingly crude mindset."

Quote of the decade!

Anonymous said...

Steve - here's an interesting column about quadruplets which has elements of race and IQ -- which you might find interesting -- from today's NY Times.


http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/quad/

OhioStater said...

Funny by-line in the Los Angeles Times:

"White House considers a legal challenge, and some political leaders call for an economic boycott to protest the law that makes it a crime to be in Arizona illegally."

Apparently being in Arizona illegally was not a crime before this "law". Someone needs to throw Jan Brewer's hat into the ring for VP or president. Sarah Palin take that!

As an aside, the difference between blacks and Latinos is Latinos will leave if the political and economic climate is unforgiving.

Also, some Republicans worry about Hispanic voters, but there wouldn't be any Hispanic voters if we enforced our immigration laws!

Kylie said...

Steve Sailer said: "My basic approach is to make sure I'm right by pointing out the tautological nature of all questions about similarities and differences: 'It depends upon what you want to know.' When you keep that in mind at all times, it's not terribly hard to think accurately and insightfully. If you can figure out what the right question is, it's much easier to get the right answer."

Iris Murdoch has a wonderful illustration of this in her novel, A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Someone asks the high-minded philosopher Rupert, "Why is stealing wrong?" And he replies, "Of course the concept of stealing is linked to the concept of property. Where there are no property rights there is no wrongful appropriation of the goods of another. In completely primitive situations where there is no society--if any such situations exist of existed--it could be argued that there are no property rights and so no stealing...." And on and on and on for a hilariously long paragraph.

Then the character asks the cynical, clear-eyed scientist, Julius, the same question.

"It's just a matter of definition," said Julius.
"How do you mean?"
"It's a tautology. 'Steal' is a concept with built-in pejorative significance. So to say stealing is wrong is to say that what is wrong is wrong. It isn't a meaningful statement. It's empty."

"Oh. But does that mean that stealing isn't wrong?"

"You haven't understood me," said Julius. "Remarks of that sort aren't statements at all and can't be true or false. They are more like cries or pleading. You can say 'Please don't steal" if you want to, so long as you realize that there's nothing behind it. It's all just conventions and feelings."

Anonymous said: "No need to toot your own horn, Steve."

As long as Steve replies to questions as Julius did rather than as Rupert did, I'm quite content to see him toot his own horn. In fact, I think there's a need for him to do so. The Ruperts vastly outnumber the Juliuses today and that's not a good thing.

Dutch Boy said...

This 98% stuff has always been crap:
"Most of their findings do not fit well with the often-repeated erroneous statement that humans and chimps are 98 percent similar, nor with the more general hypothesis that they share a common ancestor. One sequence class within the chimpanzee Y chromosome had less than 10 percent similarity with the same class in the human Y chromosome, and vice versa. Another large class shared only half the similarities of the other species, and vice versa. And one whole class on the human Y chromosome “has no counterpart in the chimpanzee MSY [male-specific Y chromosome].” (referring to a stusy published in Nature; Jan 2010)

Anonymous said...

i will not be donating to you but then you do not seek donations from people who think that you're a pompous know-it-all jerk.

Anonymous said...

The main reason that people are confused about statements like "shares 98% of our genes" is innumeracy and a misunderstanding of digital versus analog.

Most Americans believe that digital is an attribute of machines and that flesh and blood creatures are analog. Not so!

There are only four base pairs in the genome. Moreover two of them complement only with the other two pairs so at any one locus all animals and plants are either one or the other. On/Off. Digital.

That is to say that the information in our genes is encoded in a discrete scheme just like a computer. We would never argue for example that an Apple's OS is 80% identical with an IBM PC's. Actually its probably much higher. Both use ASCII and both are written primarily in C.

We realize that just because the two OS's are 80% similar an Apple program won't run 80% of the time on a PC. That's just not the way it works. Indeed no one is all that surprised to learn that a Windows server OS is 99.99% similar to a Windows client OS when they are in their shipped state. When they are in their installed state they are very, very different. That's because we understand that in the digital realm any single bit can be a switch that changes everything else.

Most people however think of people as being analog. When I put cream in my coffee, they blend in proportion to their relative volumes. We think of races this way too. Mulattoes are often described as "cafe au latte". colored.

AMac said...

Steve, how do you know that "a collie and an octopus would be more genetically similar to each other than to, say, copper-based lifeforms on Epsilon Eridani IV"?

Couchscientist said...

OT but http://abovethelaw.com/2010/04/hls-3ls-racist-email-goes-national/

harvad law student with a federal clerkship lined, aka cream of the crop, had the audacity to mention in a private email that she was unconvinced either way about the genetics of black iq.

Rage ensues.

Remember when AG Eric Holder called Americans (ie white people) cowards about having frank discussions about race. I'm sure he'll come in to congratulate this young lady for the courage to express her thoughts rather be a coward. In so doing I am sure that he will call off the dogs who are howling to make her lose her job offer and destroy her career.

Juan said...

Off topic:

Harvard 3L opens mouth (and then sends an email!) about HBD. Silly her.

http://abovethelaw.com/2010/04/hls-3ls-racist-email-goes-national/

Evil twin said...

Off topic, kind of:

http://www.people.com/people/package/article/0,,20364464_20364639,00.html

Caption the photograph. What words would you have coming out of the baby's mouth?

Curvaceous Carbon-based Life Form said...

"All things being equal, would the j/a/w co's beat out more nam peers?"

Well, you'd think it would if this weren't Bizarro World. Here, however, a co. that doesn't employ sufficient NAMs gets sued into bankruptcy (or at least gets blackmailed into substantial contributions to Rainbow-Push.)
So, no. The stock market is a mug's game.

Better to perform feats of magic: Turn your paper federal reserve notes into *real* money -- gold -- and hide it well.

Svigor said...

And I can jump higher than Mini-Me.

Bingo. :)

corvinus said...

Steve, how do you know that "a collie and an octopus would be more genetically similar to each other than to, say, copper-based lifeforms on Epsilon Eridani IV"?

If Star Trek is to be believed, humanity can interbreed with them (Vulcans).

Anonymous said...

@ I said


I looked at that article. You can't make this stuff up.

It is like they don't even read what they write.

Check out this quote:

"Bonobos, an endangered chimpanzee species found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, live in polyamorous communities where females enjoy high status."


endangered species,

females have high status

Relationship?

David said...

"Unrisen dough" is how Mencken once described Herbert Hoover's appearance.