Suman Seth is associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, at Cornell. He is an historian of science, and studies medicine, race, and colonialism (and dabbles as well in quantum theory). In his new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, Seth takes on a fascinating subject that all of us who have worked in tropical regions but with a western (or northern) perspective have thought about, one way or another.
As Europeans, and Seth is concerned mainly with the British, explored and conquered, colonizing and creating the empire on which the sun could never set no matter how hard it tried, they got sick. They also observed other people getting sick. And, they encountered a wide range of physiological or biosocial phenomena that were unfamiliar and often linked (in real or in the head) to disease. A key cultural imperative of British Colonials as to racialize their explanations for things, including disease. The science available through the 18th and 19th century was inadequate to address questions that kept rising. Like, why did a Brit get sick on his first visit to a plantation in Jamaica, but on return a few years later, did not get as sick? If you have a model where people of different races have specific diseases and immunities in their very nature, how do you explain that sort of phenomenon? How might the widely held, or at least somewhat widely held, concept of polygenism, have explained things? This is an early version of the multi-regional hypothesis, but more extreme, in which god created each type of human independently where we find them, and we are all different species. (Agassiz, with his advanced but highly imperfect geological understanding, thought the earth was totally frozen over with each ice age, and repopulated with these polygenetic populations of not just humans, but all the organisms, after each thaw).
Seth weaves together considerations of slavery and abolition, colonialism, race, geography, gender, and illness. This is an academic book, but at the same time, something of a page turner. Anyone interested in disease, colonial history, and race, will want to re-excavate the British colonial world, looking at disease, illness, and racial thinking, with Suman Seth as your guide. I highly recommend this book.
A brief update: This morning, Senate Republicans set aside the rules that say that both parties must be present, with at least one member, for a committee vote to advance a Presidential nominee for a cabinet appointment.
In other words, as outlined below, our system is based not only on enforceable laws but also on rules that only work if everyone involves agrees to not be the bully on the playground who ignores the rules. The Republicans are the bully on the playground.
The system requires honest actor playing by agreed on rules. So, without the honest actor, you get this. This fits perfectly with Trump’s overall approach.
Democracy is not threatened by this sort of thing. Democracy was tossed out the window a while back when this sort of thing became possible, and normal. Whatever we see now that looks like democracy is vestigial.
The title of this post is based closely on the title of a statement posted by my friend Stephan Lewandowsky, representing the Psychonomic Society.
The post is the official statement by this scientific society responding to President Trump’s recent activities, and it begins,
Last Friday was Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz Death Camp by Soviet troops in 1945. U.S. President Trump marked the occasion with a statement, although it omitted any specific mention of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
On the same day, Trump also signed an executive order that banned citizens of 7 mainly Islamic countries from entering the United States.
This order—at least initially—also applied to legal permanent residents of the U.S. (“Green card” holders), thus barring them from re-entry to their country of residence after a visit abroad, as well as to dual nationals if one of their citizenships is from one of those 7 countries.
I’m going to use this as a starting point to discuss the most important thing you need to know about the situation in the United States right now.
You know most resources are limited. We can cook along ignoring this for long periods of time, ignoring a particular resource’s limitations, until one day something goes awry and that particular resource suddenly matters more and of it, we have less. So a competitive framework develops and then things happen.
It is the business of the rich and powerful to manipulate the world around them in such a way that when such a limitation occurs, they profit. Candidate Trump mentioned this a while back. A housing crisis is a good thing for a real estate developer. This is not because it is inherently good; a housing crisis can put a real estate developer out of business. But the developer who is positioned to exploit such a crisis, or any kind of economic or resource crisis, is in a good position when thing go badly for everyone else.
One of the long term goals of many powerful entities is to maintain working classes, or other lower classes of servitude, in order to have cheap labor and a market. This has been done in many ways, in many places, at many times. Much of our social history is about this. Many wars have been fought over this, and many social, cultural, and economic revolutions have occurred because of this.
And every now and then, a holocaust happens because of this. This is, in part, because of what I’ll term as Mischa’s Law. Mischa Penn is a friend and colleague who has studied race and racism across all its manifestations as represented in literature, but focusing on the Nazi Holocaust and the holocaust of Native Americans. Mishca’s Law is hard to understand, difficult to believe, enrages many when they hear it, and is often set aside as lunatic raving. Unless, of course, you take Mischa’s class on race and racism, get a few weeks into it, know enough about it. Then, he gives you the thing, the thing I call “Mischa’s Law” (he doesn’t call it that) and you go, “Oh, wait, of course, that’s totally true.” And then you get really depressed for a while, hate Mischa for a while, hate his class. Then, later, ten years later, a life time after you’ve taken the class, and you’ve graduated and moved on to other things, Misha’s Law is the only thing you remember from all the classes you took at the U, and you still know it is true.
The fundamentals are always in place for Mischa’s Law to take effect. Competition, limited resources, different social classes or groups, a limited number of individuals in power, etc. But we, in America, have lived in a society where checks and balances kept one ideology (including, sadly, my own!) from taking over for very long, and there is a certain amount of redistribution of wealth and power.
But over recent years, the rich and powerful have convinced the working class that the main way we distribute wealth, through taxes, is a bad thing, so that’s mostly over. Social welfare has become a dirty word. The rich are richer, the powerful more powerful, and those with little power now have almost no power at all. But we still had a governmental system of checks and balances, so that was good.
But then the system of checks and balances got broken. In fact, the entire system of government got broken. Did you notice this? What happened is, about half the elected officials in government stopped doing the number one thing they were supposed to do, and this ruined everything.
What was that one thing? This: play by the rules.
Playing by the rules requires both knowing the rules and then making an honest attempt to respect them. Not knowing the rules is widespread in our society. I’m sure the elected officials know the rules they are breaking, but increasingly, I think, the average person who votes for them has no clue what the rules are or how important it is that they be observed.
Imagine the following situation. You go to baseball games regularly, to see your team play. Let’s make this slightly more realistic and assume this is a Little League team.
One day a big scary kid who is a bully gets up to bat. The pitcher winds up, throws the ball. Strike one. It happens again. Strike two. One more time. Strike three.
But instead of leaving the batter’s box, the big bully kid says, “I’m not out, pitch it again.” The following several moments involve a bit of embarrassment, the coaches come out, some kids are yelling at the bully, one parent hits another parent, and finally, it settles down, but the game is ruined and everyone goes home.
Next game, same thing happens, but this time nobody wants a scene, so they let the pitcher pitch the ball until the bully hits a single. Then the game continues. But the next game, there are a few bullies, not just one, demanding that the rules be ignored for them, and some other players decide to ignore other rules as well, and pretty soon, there is nothing like baseball happening.
You see what happened here? I’m going to guess that you don’t quite see the key point yet. The reason you leave the plate and go back to the dugout when you get three strikes is NOT because of the properties of matter, gravity, magnetic attraction, the unstoppable flow of water or a strong wind. You are not blown, washed, pulled, pushed, or dropped by any force back into the dugout when you get three strikes. You go back into the dugout because you got three strikes, the rules say you are out, right?
No. Still not right. You go back into the dugout because you got three strikes, the rules say you are out, AND THEN YOU FOLLOW THE RULES.
The Republican party, about half the elected officials, have unilaterally decided, in state houses across the country and in the Federal government, to stop following the rules.
A few years ago, in the Minnesota State House, a Republican representative made the clear and bold statement that he represented only the voters in his district who voted for him, and not the other citizens. He was resoundingly condemned for doing this, and he backed off and stopped talking like that. But over time, in state houses across the country, and in congressional districts, this increasingly became the norm, for Republicans. The rule is, of course, that once elected you represent all the people of your district. But more and more Republicans decided that this rule did not apply to them. They only represent those who voted for them. Now, this is normal in the Republican Party, and the first Republican President to be elected after this change said during his first news conference after his election, prior to his inaugural, that blue states would suffer and red states would benefit from his presidency.
I’ll give you another quick example. In one of Minnesota’s legislative chambers, the chair, who is from the leading party, has the right to silence any legislature who gets up to speak if the topic being discussed is not related to the matter at hand on the floor. So, the legislature is debating a proposed law about bicycles. The Democrats are in charge. A Republican gets up and insists on talking about his horoscope. The Democratic chair of the chamber says something like, “Your remarks are not relevant to the matter at hand, sit down and be quiet.” Good rule.
Last time the Republicans were in charge in that Minnesota chamber, they did this to every single Democrat who stood to say anything about anything, including and especially the matter at hand. The Republicans disregarded the actual rule (that the chair can silence a member who is off topic) and misused the power (that the chair can silence any member) to their benefit.
Tump is not following the rules, the Republicans in Congress are not acting like a “check” on Trump, and we have seen government officials in the Executive branch, apparently, ignoring court orders.
Trump’s executive orders over the last few days have been an overreach of power. For example, in its initial and badly executed form, his “extreme vetting” plan removed the rights of green card holders. Two different court orders neutered at least parts of this executive order temporarily, but it is reported that some officials, working for the Executive branches, ignored the court order. Since these are basically cops ignoring an order from a judge, and judges don’t have a police force, there isn’t much that can be done about that. Cops are supposed to follow the orders of judges. That’s the rule. The only way the rule works is if the rule is followed. There is no other force that makes the rule work.
Trump’s apparent abrogation of previous decisions on major pipeline projects was done without reference of any kind to the regulatory process that had already been completed. Regulations are acted on by the Executive branch, but they come from laws passed by Congress, and the whole judiciary is involved whenever someone has a case that there is something amiss. Trump’s executive orders and memoranda related to the pipeline ignore all the different branches of government, departments, process, and rules of governing.
It would appear that Trump had brought together the two major changes in rule observation that have developed over the last 20 years in this country. First, like the average citizen (of all political stripes) he is ignorant of how anything works. Second, like the bully that stands by the batter’s box, he shall not observe any rule that he does happen to find out about.
You see, for a United States President to become a dictator, he has to do only one thing: Stop following the rules. The US Court System, the Congress, and the Executive exist in a system of checks and balances, and that is supposed to keep everybody, well, in check. And balanced. But the Executive is the branch of government with multiple police and security forces, an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, Marines, and a Coast Guard. There is a rule that only the Coast Guard can carry out military-esque activities on US soil. But there is a mechanism for putting that rule aside. The President puts the rule aside. That’s it.
We live in a world of limited resources, and a pre-existing system of inequity, class, and ethnic categorization that allows the powerful to exploit and control most everyone else. We live in a country in which a single individual can take over the government by getting elected president then ignoring the rules, whether or not he formally declares himself in charge of everything. There is no mechanism to stop this from happening. There are all sorts of rules in place to stop it, such as the political parties putting up qualified candidates, the electors making sure they elect a qualified candidate, the Congress certifying the election of qualified candidates. But those things did not happen, and we now have a man who by all indications intends to dictate, not lead, dictate not rule, dictate not represent. There is no indication of any kind whatsoever that we do NOT have an incipient dictatorship as our form of government right now, and there are strong indications that this is where Trump is going.
And this is where Mischa’s Law becomes a thing.
“Racism, left unchecked, will eventually lead to holocaust.”
Question: How do we wipe out racism by making racists not be so racist?
Answer: We don’t.
We do something else that actually works.
The expanding Trump-fueled conversation about racism
It has been absolutely fascinating to observe myriad conversations reacting to the Trump electoral win. All the usual suspects are engaged, but also, many others who had previously been little involved, or not at all involved, in the national political conversation, are saying things.
And along with this has come a certain amount of method or concern questioning. I won’t call it trolling because only some of it is that, and “trolling” is one of those terms of art used in a not very artful world. Let’s just say that people are questioning approaches in ways that are sometimes interesting.
Many people seem to think there is a way to communicate to those who hold opposing views that will make their views more entrenched, and a better way to communicate that will change their minds. This opinion is often based on very strongly held feelings but lack reference to any scientific study or valid body of data.
Communication experts are not as dogmatic, because communication is an academic field, a science (an artful science, perhaps) and therefore, complex. Communication experts know that, for the most part, people don’t change their minds much, or if they do, not for very long. People’s opinions on widely discussed issues do not alter in the face of argument, and when they appear to do so, it is often only a little, and only temporary.
(I quickly add that people do change their minds completely, going into a process with dogmatically held beliefs, later leaving the process with nearly opposite beliefs. I’ve seen this happen may times in the evolutionary biology classroom. Go to any meeting of atheists, and you’ll see it there too, people who were dogmatically religious who are not dogmatically not. Numerically, these people are rare. But, they do count.)
A few days ago I said something insulting to or about (can’t remember the details, it happens so often) someone or some group that was spewing racist hogwash. I was mildly scolded (as often happens) for being so nasty. You catch more flies with honey. People are going to hear that sort of thing and not change their minds. You can’t convince anybody of anything that way. And so on.
And yes, that scolding was half correct. A harsh approach will rarely change someone’s mind. But, the obverse assumption, that being nice would change someone’s mind, is almost nearly as incorrect.
Convincing someone was not my objective, and when it comes to racism, rarely is. Getting people who are deeply racist to become un-racist is nearly impossible. Changing those minds should not be the objective if one wants to be efficient (though efficiency is not always the goal, I quickly note).
There is a different goal, and that is to make people shut up.
“… go right into the zoo where you belong …”
I have a story that I think is true. I am a trained anthropologist, and I’ve focused some of my work on racism, so I believe myself when I tell this story.
Act I: Once upon a time, closing in on 20 years ago, I moved from the Boston area to the Twin Cities. Before moving, I lived in that space between Harvard, MIT, and a half dozen other colleges, where most of the people one meets are progressive and liberal, and standard white American racism simply isn’t something you encounter on a day to day basis, even if it is more common in other parts of the metro area or elsewhere in New England. Indeed, the majority of people I worked with on a day to day basis were not even white Americans, so it would take extra work to locate that sort of racism. A nice, safe, academic bubble.
Soon after moving to the Twin Cities, I ended up in a northern near-outer-ring suburb (we classify our suburbs by which ring they are in). The northern outer ring suburbs are working class, conservative (but often Democratic because of the Union presence), and a bit xenophobic. If you hear a story about something bad happening in the Twin Cities area — something racist, or just plane Coen-Brothers-Fargo — there is a good chance it happened somewhere between Fridley and Coon Rapids. This is where I lived for a while. Also, Falcon Heights, which is an odd mix of academic university people and white fear (google that city’s name, you’ll see).
So, I go to Target for the first time. Targets were everywhere in the Twin Cities but had not taken over the entire planet yet. A young white woman is greeting each customer in a friendly matter, a fitting attitude in Friendly Fridley, Minnesota (yes, that is the town’s motto). Each customer had a few items (this was the fast lane) and she put them carefully in a bag, took the money, handed the bag graciously to each customer, and send them on their way with a “Goodaytcha” (a traditional Minnesota greeting, like Aloha or Chow).
Until the black customer came up in line. She did not speak, scowled instead of smiling, slammed his two or three items on the counter expecting him to bag them himself, and gave him nothing close to the time of the day. I was the next customer. I got the bagging, the greeting, the goodaytcha, all of it. That was my first observation of racism in the checkout line in Minnesota, and it turned out to not be a unique experience. This turned out to be how it was done most of the time in Friendly Fridley and many other northern suburb communities.
(I’m careful to get the geography right, because other parts of the Twin Cities are diametrically opposite in attitude.)
As I’m heading for the door, the young woman who worked there came around the counter to do some stock related task or antother, so she’s standing by the door, and I’m about to leave but holding back because I’m messing with the bag of items I just bought. At that moment, a man who had just exited a fairly fancy but rented car, wearing a three piece suit (the man, not the car), black, enters the establishment and asks directions.
“I’m looking for Como Zoo, I’m late for a conference,” he said, in a medium-thick West African accent. “Can I please get directions?”
I was about to answer, but the girl beat me to it.
“Go right down that street,” she said, pointing to Larpenteur Avenue. “Take a right at Hamline, go down a few blocks…”
At this point the man is starting back out the door, hearing the directions, in a hurry, but still listening.
“Then turn left where you see the sign, and head right into the zoo…”
At this point the door is about to close behind the man.
“… where you belong.”
Because he’s an ape, I remember thinking. She is telling this man, probably a doctor or scientist or something from a West African nation visiting us and giving a talk at the local zoo, which is often the venue for small conferences, that he is an ape.
The man stopped, holding the door open, almost said something, then instead, kept going and drove off.
The Decline of Overt Racism in the Twin Cites
None of that is unusual. I saw stuff like that all the time.
It might be a surprise to some that overt racism was widespread in the great state of Minnesota, which gave us Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone (I first met him, by the way, in Friendly Fridley itself!), Walter Mondale, and all that. I’ll note that in the months after first moving here, the two things I heard again and again from others who had moved here a bit earlier were these: 1) Wow, people are really racist here, I had no idea; and 2) “Minnesota nice” … it is not what you think it is.
Act II: During this period of time, a large number of Hmong people had recently moved into the Twin Cities, many to the neighborhood I lived in for a year. Indeed, Hmong farmers grew food in my back yard, they kinda came with the house. Great efforts were made to make the Hmong feel welcome, though there was also plenty of racism. Then Somali people started to move into the area. Almost no effort was made to help them feel comfortable. Apparently, Asians are tolerable, Africans are not. Similarly, people from West Africa, mainly Liberia, were moving here, and it turns out there has long been a strong Mexican presence. I discovered that in some parts of the Twin Cities, anti-Mexican racism was clearly more rabid than anti-Black racism.
And things started to get worse and worse. Bullying in schools was becoming more dangerous. This was not likely related to racism, but was closely linked to intolerance, in this case of transgender and gay students. The CDC almost shut down the largest school district in the state. Take the most populous county in the state and combine it with a very rural county. Remove the major city (Minneapolis) and all the wealthy suburbs. What you’ve got left is traditionally white but with recent non-white immigrants, working class, conservative. That is the Anoka-Hennepin school district. The death rate from suicides, mainly caused by bullying supported by teachers and administrators, was so high that the school district became a point source of youth mortality, which set off alarms, and broght in the CDC.
Two African American women were severely beaten by a bunch of white dudes in a pickup. Transgender people were attacked, some killed. Other bad things happened, joining the intolerance against Somali people, other racist things, the suicides, all that, and ultimately seemed to create a backlash. Programs were implemented. Non profits formed from the blood of some of those who were killed. Government officials and agencies responded. The school districts got involved. There was a not very well organized but widespread push against racism and general intolerance.
Making intolerant remarks and acting in a racist manner went from being expected, normal, maybe even a form of local enterainment, to becoming not OK, frowned upon, disallowed, and in some contexts, punishable.
I believe that overt racism in the northern ring suburbs of the Twin Cities declined.
Did this happen because people got less racist? No. It happened because racists learned the one thing that we can actually teach them, and that they can actually do.
They learned to shut the fuck up.
They learned to top being so overt.
This is important because overt racism normalizes racism. Overt racism provides a daily ongoing lesson for the young, growing up and trying to figure out how to act. Overt racism perpetuates racism. Racists shutting up attenuates the cultural transmission of racism.
Making racism not normal, making racists shut up in as many contexts as possible, slows down the spread of racism, and can lead to its decline, much more effectively than being nice to racists can ever hope to accomplish.
The rise of white supremacy, with Trump
Then Donald Trump gets elected. Act III.
I’m not going to argue about whether or not Donald Trump is some sort of leader of the American white supremacy movement. He has been cagy in what he has said, and rather than definitively repudiating the white supremacists, he appointed as “top advisor” one of the country’s best known and most active white supremacists. His immigration policies are mainly directed at people not considered white by white supremacists, and that policy includes getting certain people on a registry, which is the first step in incarceration which is one step closer to elimination by some means or another. I assume that when Trump tries to throw people out of the country because of their ethnicity, he will encounter problems similar to those encountered by the Nazis in their efforts to get rid of undesirables. For example, you can’t just expel people to another country. The other country can say no. In the end, the Trump administration will have to find a solution to that. What, I ask, will be Trump’s final solution?
Within minutes, it seems, of Trump’s victory, we had overt racism everywhere. In these places in Minnesota that had experienced serious intolerance, where this intolerance was just starting to be handled (making people shut up being the first step), we see the name “Donald Trump,” the name “Hitler,” the symbol of the swastika, and phrases like “whites only” or “fuck niggers” and “white America” scrawled on walls and doors and other things in schools, added to notebooks handed in to teachers, and so on.
Racism, rather than being pushed down and smothered, is being normalized, and those who would normally keep to themselves, and thus not be contaminating the up and coming generation, have found their voice.
It is not time to be nice. It is not time to make reasonable, thoughtful, convincing, logical, nuanced, historically contextualized arguments. Well, sure, do that, we all love such things, that’s why we watch the Rachel Maddow show. But when it comes to communicating with racists, don’t bother. Just shout at them, and tell them to sit down and shut up.
The two images I’m showing here are from the a high school in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities. From a farther Western suburb, I could show you a homework assignment with swastikas and “Trump” and “Hitler” written all over it, but I don’t have permission to use the photo. White supremacists, racists, the other scum of the earth that always live among us are rearing their ugly heads and letting us know who they are. Even when they are violent, as they often are, we should not be violent against them. But we can make them shut up.
I will assume you are paying some attention to the discussion of racism vis-a-vis Charlie Hebdo, Muslim bashing, obnoxious religious (in this case Islamic) rules of behavior, freedom of speech and expression, etc. If you were thinking that this situation is simple you better check your thought process, or your privilege, or something. Get an oil change. Take a class on race and racism. Something. Because it is not simple.
The following thought experiment is still an oversimplification but perhaps worthy of consideration, as a means of parsing out the very first level of complexity and nuance. I’d love comments on it.
A religion includes a prohibition against drawing its prophet. Otherwise, nothing interesting happens. Practitioners of that religion are barely noticed by the rest of society. They are easily confused with Unitarians, perhaps, except this one rule they have. However, a very large percentage of people in this religion are not of the dominant ethnicity/race. Indeed, when a run of the mill working or middle class white person is found to be of that religion, almost invariably, people are at least a little surprised. So they are like brownish Unitarians. Indeed, for this thought experiment we shall call them the Brown Unitarians.
Somebody draws their prophet simply because there is a rule against it. Since these people are slightly brown, there is a certain amount of racism already baked in. This was a racist act. It might have been an intentionally racist act, or it might have been a blunder, but that would have the same effect, and failing to recognize the similarity is itself a racist act (intentional or otherwise). At the very least, the act is not polite, is harassment, and mild racism, but it could be worse depending on the nature of the drawing, the context in which it is distributed, and other factors. (It was possible that someone drew the Brown Unitarian Prophet entirely by accident, unknowingly, and the test of that is that if they are informed of the wishes of the Brown Unitarians, they make some effort to undraw the prophet and apologize, because, after all, offending people’s religion is a dick move, and why do that without a reason?)
Now imagine the same scenario as above, but previous instances in which the Brown Unitarian Prophet has been displayed have resulted in peaceful but strong protests.
In response, somebody draws the prophet again. This might be a racist act but it might also simply be a counter protest by someone concerned about free expression.
Now imagine the same scenario, but advanced one level. Some of the protests over drawing the Brown Unitarian Prophet are violent, and there is an attempt to codify the prohibition over creating this image into law.
In response, somebody draws the prophet again. This might be a racist act, or it might be a simple counter protest about free expression, but it could also be an important, not really optional, statement against the spread of bone-headed rules (like “you can’t draw a picture of my imaginary friend”) in otherwise secular society.
Now imagine the same scenario, but amid the various sorts of protests, we now have acts of deadly and bloody terrorism involving guns, bombs, etc. People linked with the drawing of the Brown Unitarian Prophet are now being gunned down now and then, occasionally in large numbers.
In response, somebody draws the prophet again. This might be a racist act … nothing that has happened has obviates that possibility. It might be a routine protest in favor of freedom of expression. But it might also be a brave and necessary, forceful and meaningful, slap in the face against those who want to repress others with their unreasonable, extremist, and very annoying rules based on dumb-ass rules about their imaginary friends.
Did you notice that this starts with the people drawing the prophet being dicks? Did you notice that the racism (actual or potential) never goes away? Did you notice all along there may be a large grey area in which racist acts can be achieved, but disguised as noble acts?
I think this is a partial analogy to the circumstances surrounding the Charlie Hebdo situation, except the beginning, the first scenario.
I first heard about Wade’s book when a colleague started talking about bits and pieces of it. He was reading it pursuant to a writing a review. I asked the publisher for a review copy, which they kindly supplied, and started tracking the pre-publication reactions. After reading the first couple of chapters, I realized that I needed to write a review of this book, but I wanted to do something a bit more than a blog post. So, I contacted American Scientist. I had reviewed two books for them earlier. American Scientist is actually my very favorite science magazine (among magazines that are not peer reviewed research outlets). It is a bit higher level than Scientific American (which is also a good mag) in its treatment of subjects.
The book review editor told me that American Scientist had shifted its book review approach to be more of a notice section, mainly talking about books that they recommended to their readers without intensive critical reviews. But they felt that my review of this particular book would be important so they agreed to try out a more extensive review to feature in the next issue.
For this reason I’ve been mainly quiet about Wade’s book. I did attend an online seminar with him and Agustín Fuentes, during which I asked a few questions, but for the most part I decided to focus only on this printed review which would come out after the dust had settled around Wade’s publication date. Keeping my mouth shut has been painful (as some of you know from our private conversations).
And now that review is done, in print, and thankfully, available on line.
My original plan was to point to the American Scientists review and at the same time provide a longer blog post with all the stuff that would not fit in the printed review. But as I wrote the review and interacted with the editors at American Scientist, the phrase “Normally our reviews are under 800 words” evolved into something more like “This is important, don’t worry about length. We’ll figure it out.” This is not something you hear from editors very often, especially in print media! In the end, the review that got published is the review I’d write on my blog, significantly improved with editorial input form Scientists’ Nightstand editor Dianne Timblin and the American Scientist’s Editor in Chief.
Note: The online review is one of those muti-page web pages, so don’t forget to read all of it!!!
The phrase “Correlation does not imply causation” has developed in to a Falsehood, as I discuss here. This is in part because people often use the phrase to argue that a particular correlation has no meaning, which is a false argument. It is, of course, true that a correlation does not in and of itself prove a causal link between two things. And, as pointed out in a few places, but I’ll refer you to this Mother Jones piece for background, the relationship between single mothers and homicide and other crime is … well … interesting. Continue reading Correlation and Causation: Single Mothers and Violent Crime→
The presumption being examined here is that humans are divisible into different groups (races would be one term for those groups) that are genetically distinct from one another in a way that causes those groups to have group level differences in average intelligence, as measured by IQ. More exactly, this post is about the sequence of arguments that are usually made when people try to make this assertion.
The argument usually starts out noting that there are dozens of papers that document group differences in IQ. I’ll point out right now that most of those papers are published in journals with editorial boards staffed in part or in total with well known racist scientists such as J. Philippe Rushton. That fact is not too important to what I have to say here, but since the usual argument about race and IQ starts out with “Hey, look at all these papers in these great journals” it is worth noting.
Heritability of IQ measures is then proffered, often in reference to the famous “twin studies” which show a high heritability for IQ. Heritability is a measure derived from covariance between relatedness and some phenotype. Heritability is not genetic inheritance. It is scientifically incorrect and probably academically dishonest to assume or insist that a high heritability value means that something is genetic. It often is, but it need not be. The truth is, that there are many things that could have a high heritability value but that we know are not genetic, so we don’t make a heritability estimate. There are other things for which we have strong a priori biological arguments that hey are genetic, and we thus make heritability estimates as part of the research on those things. Then there are things that we don’t know the cause of, and in those cases, making an estimate of heritability is useful as an exploratory tool. But, and this is important, arriving at a high value for heritability does not indicate genetic inheritance.
If you apply the methodology of the twin studies to language, you would find that having the capacity of language is of a similar heritability of having one head (as opposed to zero or two heads, for instance): Undefined. The number of heads does not vary, and heritability is a measure of covariation (I use the term “covariation” in a non-technical sense here). If you apply these methodologies to what language someone speaks, the heritability for that trait is very high, much much higher than for IQ. If you apply the same method to heritability of geography (the lat/long of where someone lives), it is even higher, especially for babies or people living in traditional societies.
Does everyone understand why that is the case? Familial or cultural causes may be very strong but not genetic. Using this method, if high heritability means that IQ is genetic, then so is which language you speak and so is what part of the world you live in.
The smoke and mirror part of this is equating heritability with inheritance. We speak the language we speak because it is the language of the culture we grow up in, not because of a gene for speaking French vs. a gene for speaking Sumerian.
This makes sense because we know how a person acquires language, so no one even tries to measure heritability of which language someone speaks. (Same with heritability of geographic location. It would be an absurd measure.) But people make the assumption that intelligence is inherited. Why do they make that assumption? Because lots of people for a long time wanted to, and in some cases, needed to believe this so, and thus it has become part of our culture. It is part of our uncriticized received knowledge, along with other racialized ideas and various sexist ideas, and so on. But recent research (meaning over the last 30 years) has shown us that other than in the case if inherited neuro-developmental diseases, it is impossible to imagine how intelligence can be inherited in such a way as to explain the variability we see in the most inter-group differences. Maybe a little, but not that much. That there is some genetic component is not impossible, but it is very hard to maintain the idea that it is genetic and ethnic, or genetic and racial, or genetic and explanatory of more than a few IQ points in most people. There are no genes, there are no developmental mechanisms, that have been identified. So, to many the issue of inheritance (not heritability, but inheritance via genes) of intelligence is not really an issue.
However, there are many who still need to hang on to this belief. Why they need to hang on is itself an interesting question. I can’t say for a given individual but I’ve been engaged in this conversation for 30 years and in my experience it is very often because of a desire to support a racialized model of human behavior.
The evidence for the usual IQ/Group/Race/Ethnicity/Genetic model we see is always given first as group differences. When the language and geography analogs are brought up, we always see the twin studies brought in. But twins are raised together in the same environment. So they have the same language, the same cultural customs, the same geography etc. That they have the same IQ is not surprising.
There is an interesting set of interactions between familial effects and environmental effects with any of these twin studies results, but it has to be understood that heritability is not inheritance. If you have a genetic mechanism that is real (not inferred or made up) that integrates with a developmental process that can manifest a phenotype based on a genotype (that is real, not made up or inferred) then you can translate heritability to genetic inheritance, roughly. We seem to see this in a number of psychological conditions/diseases, for instance, and obviously we see it for a lot of physical traits. If on the other and you have familial effects that would cause offspring to resemble their parents without genes then cultural/social/familial context is more likely to be the explanation.
Variation in IQ across groups in a single society (like in the US) (which is not the same as a single culture) is known to be primarily caused by SES and home environment, and is indicated by such things as parents’ educational level. Educational levels of Americans have been going up for a hundred years. So has IQ. IQ can jump up in a generation if one generation is educated and changes home environment and SES etc., and thereafter those offspring and grand offspring have higher IQ’s. No new alleles were introduced to cause those changes. Cultural differences were introduced, and we have a concept of the mechanism by how that works.
The difference in IQ across time within a given population is sometimes much greater than the difference in IQ across the usual groupings of people (i.e., “race”). When scientist seek societal, cultural, nutritional and educational explanations for differences in IQ they find them easily. When scientists who have this need for group differences to be genetic seek those genetic explanations for differences in IQ they have to invent new and shall we say “interesting” statistical techniques to justify how their usually cooked data underlie their biologically implausible explanations. The latest is “there are thousands of genes and there are so many we can’t see the pattern,and that is the pattern.” Funny that. The number of genes with tiny variants that “must be” the cause of variation in IQ is going up and up and up and the number of genes that are estimated actually exist in the human genome has gone way down. At this point, we are very close to saying that individual variation in IQ is best explained by … which individual you measured the IQ in!
Let me explain that in another way, which is an analogy though it looks like a statistical argument (don’t mistake the two). If I show you two points on a graph, I can describe a line indicating their relationship with the formula Y = mX + b (the formula for a line). I can use the same formula to describe the line representing a scatter of points, but the line might be a poor describer of the scatter. How bad it is may be indicated by a statistic (a correlation value or a “R” value or something). But, if I change the formula to Y = m1X1 + m2X2 + b then I get a curvy line that may match the points better. But it will still be imperfect. But, if I add even more coefficients so there is one coefficient per point, then I go back to a (nearly) perfect describer of the line once again. Because, I’ve drawn a line (more or less) that starts with the first point, then goes to the second point, then to the third point, etc. etc.
And that would be cheating.
And that would be pretty close to what some of the more recently implemented statistical models of genes and IQ do. If I include every allelic variation in humans (hypothetically) and correlated that to individually measured IQ, I’ve drawn a line from one human’s genetic value (along one axis) and IQ value (along another axis) to the next person, the next person, and then the next person so on down the line. At this point, ladies and gentlemen, we show that IQ correlates (almost) perfectly with fingerprint.
The next argument in favor of the genetic inheritance of intelligence is often to link IQ to head size or brain size. However, much of the data related to this research is very made up or cooked, and the causal arrow is problematic. Also, a third or fourth level factor in IQ is diet, which may affect brain size. Separately, a primary factor in skull shape and bone thickness is also diet (though in totally unrelated ways) which in turn is ethnic/regional… Bottom line, the system is complex, but the data do not support the assertion unless you make a big part of the data up, and Rushton has famously done so.
Another argument that is often made to salvage the genetic determination (by racial group) of intelligence is the between national data that has been more recently assembled and foisted on us. This is no different than ethic groups in the US. IQ is a standard measure, and groups vary in this value. Other measures will also result in variation. The variation is there, and the group level distinction is there. But finding more examples of that does not lead towards the conclusion that this is racial or genetic. Across nations we see a lot of measures that we know change (often in predictable directions) over time with industrialization or various other transitions. National IQ, fertility, various health measures, and so on all do this. And, of all these measures, the most suspect in terms of quality of data is IQ (excepting some more obscure health related data). These IQ comparisons don’t tell us much.
The final argument in favor of the inheritance of IQ via genes passed on from parent to offspring is usually to cite the twins separated at birth studies. These studies, however, simply do not show this. These twins are not separated at birth in the way most people think they are. Usually, the twins knew each other as they grew up, and/or knew commonly held family members. They lived in the same culture, usually in the same city, often in the same neighborhood, and sometimes even in the same physical house. They went to the same school and had the same diet. Separated at birth in these studies usually means grandma and grandpa took one of the twins to raise because mom and dad were strapped. Grandma and grandpa may have lived down the street. The kids may have attended the same school, even the same classes, and spent a lot of time together outside of school.
I was separated (though not from birth) from my older brother, because he lived on the second floor of a two family house, and I lived on the first floor. By the exact criteria of the twin studies, we would be counted as separated because it happened early enough in my life. But, that household I grew up in was a single household that happened to be set up in a two family house. The two floors were connected by an internal rear stairway that led to locked doors (had we locks). I was rather shocked to realize at one point as a child that we were the only family in my neighborhood with two kitchens. (Or two bathrooms, for that matter.)
There may be a small component of intelligence that is inherited, but it seems to be swamped by other factors. The insistence that genes determine intelligence and that these genes are divided up in our species by groups that are often defined racially is usually misguided, and is scientifically wrong. The supra-ultimate argument, after the final argument, brought up in this sort of conversation is usually that the anti-racist argument is a Politically Correct argument, yada yada yada. But it is actually a scientific argument, and the racialized intelligence argument is not. Making the latter a politically incorrect argument.
The Science component of “The Nation’s Report Card” was released today and clearly indicates that we have moved one step closer as a nation in two of our most important goals: Building a large and complacent poorly educated low-pay labor class, and increasing the size of our science-illiterate populace in order to allow the advance of medieval morality and Iron Age Christian values.
In June of 1940, France fell to Germany. Among the troops who were overwhelmed by the German attacks were about 17,000 black West African colonial troops with the French Army. Many of these soldiers were shot do death by the Germans, who considered these Africans to be subhumans, as they stood in surrender. Surely, it would be fair to consider this to have been part of the Holocaust.
Then the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese did a pretty good job of trying to take over the world, millions upon millions died in that war, and the rest of the Holocaust happened.
The Allies banded together and put everything they had into defeating the racist, fascist, imperialist, evil Axis forces. And eventually prevailed. And Paris was liberated and the first troops to march into the city just abandoned by the Germans were, suitably, French.
But not the Black French.
The units that would have marched into Paris at the time of liberation consisted of a majority of black faces, as the French Army was staffed at this time primarily with colonial troops. But the black faces were weeded out of the ranks, intentionally, so that the companies of soldiers marching into liberated Paris would be 100% white.
I ask you, what, the fuck, were the Allies fighting for?
This fact has recently come to light (although, presumably, people have known about this since it happened) as the result of a BBC archiving project.
… Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted his Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.
Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle’s division must not contain any black soldiers.
In January 1944 Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, “confidential”: “It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.
“This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.”
Nature, the publishing group, not the Mother, has taken Darwin’s 200th as an opportunity to play the race card (which always sells copy) and went ahead and published two opposing views on this question: “Should scientists study race and IQ?
The answers are Yes, argued by Stephen Cici and Wendy Williams of the Dept of Human Development at Cornell, and No, argued by Steven Rose, a neuroscientist at Open University.