Lit Crit

Two Opposed Ideas

June 06, 2018

Multiple Pages
Two Opposed Ideas

A new contender in the war of books over the implications of the onrushing discoveries in genetics is the exhaustive 656-page She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer, winner of the 2016 Stephen Jay Gould Prize.

Zimmer, who is more or less Nicholas Wade’s successor as The New York Times’ go-to genetics reporter, applies his Stakhanovite work ethic to recounting the past and present of genetic science. Who were the bad guys responsible for the “perversions” such as eugenics and who are the good guys?

Because just about any scientific advance’s glass is part full while still part empty, these kinds of historical questions are endlessly arguable.

Not surprisingly, because ancestry tends to be emotionally meaningful to humans, writers on the topic of inheritance tend to take familial pride in their own ethnic group’s contributions, while slightly resenting the achievements of scientists from other ancestries.

The most famous figure in this struggle for hereditary bragging rights over heredity was the late Stephen Jay Gould, author of the 1981 best-seller The Mismeasure of Man. It had not pleased the Queens-born Gould that many of his rivals for scientific glory in the 1960s and 1970s had extremely WASPish names such as Ed Wilson, Bill Hamilton, George Williams, Jim Watson, Dick Dawkins, and John Smith.

Gould found it suspicious that so many of the famous contributors to the biological and human sciences before his own generation, such as Charles Darwin and his half cousin Francis Galton, had likewise tended to come from similar backgrounds. To Gould, it seemed rather sinister that all these Protestant country boys had been getting credit for more discoveries in evolution than had the honest sons of the Outer Boroughs.

Gould’s literary innovation of snidely recounting scientific history as largely a tale of bigotry and failure among overprivileged WASPs whose pseudoscience is responsible for racism, the Holocaust, and IQ testing has done much to mold today’s conventional wisdom.

Granted, the cascading scientific discoveries of the 21st century haven’t been kind to Gould’s reputation among those paying careful attention. Still, the Gouldian perspective remains immensely influential upon the kind of person who tweets about how Charles Murray deserves to be beaten up by Middlebury College Antifa ski bums.

“It seems to be hard for modern Americans to grasp that genetic diversity within racial groups coexists with genetic distinctiveness among groups.”

Today, the cost of DNA scans is falling radically, so a reckoning about who was more wrong than right is approaching.

Wade, a proud Englishman whose grandfather survived the Titanic, used his New York Times bully pulpit to try to undermine the Gouldian neo-orthodoxy by reporting the hurricane of genetic findings that showed those old Protestant pioneers weren’t always so far off. But the zeitgeist seemed to keep all but a few from catching Wade’s drift.

Wade’s 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance pointed out that, if you’ve been reading the genetics journals, you’ll notice that race really does exist and that evolution under different environments on different continents likely has led to some genetic differences on average.

For this he was roundly denounced.

Earlier this year, David Reich, the energetic head of the ancient DNA lab at Harvard, published Who We Are and How We Got Here. Reich tried a different approach to getting away with making many of the same points as Wade. First, Reich announced his fear and loathing of the Bad Old WASPs:

Writing now, I shudder to think of Watson, or of Wade, or their forebears, behind my shoulder.

Reich then asserted that everybody before himself had been ignorant; and who knows what he might find next. This might seem either disingenuous and/or megalomaniacal in that many of the findings Reich announced, such as that race is real and that ancient Aryans had invaded India, had been old hat to, say, Schopenhauer.

Reich’s book outraged a few last-ditch social constructionists, such as cultural anthropologists. But so far his transparent ploy of not giving due credit to those who’d come before him—unlike Newton, Reich portrays himself as standing on the shoulders of pygmies—has proved fairly successful, confusing and intimidating the science denialists. (Those who grasp Reich’s stratagems don’t much mind because his new technology is churning out so many answers to interesting old questions.)

The energetic science journalist Carl Zimmer might seem well-endowed by ancestry to broker a moderate compromise between the warring tribes on the subject of heredity. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, he reports that his DNA test shows he is 43 percent Ashkenazi through his father, former Republican congressman Dick Zimmer, while his mother, a Goodspeed, is largely from pre–Ellis Island stock.

Zimmer has come up with a double track solution to meet popular demand for vilification of the old scientists while still making sense of the history. Thus, Zimmer starts off in the Gouldian vein with lots on how evil and wrong were the old Protestants like Linnaeus and Galton. He brings in Gould’s pals Richard Lewontin, Leon Kamin, and Steven Rose to set everybody straight.

But, hundreds of pages later, Zimmer goes back to admit that Linnaeus and Galton and the like had made huge innovations. And, by the way, he concedes: You know that IQ testing stuff? Well, it’s basically good science.

Yet how many will still be reading by that point? Zimmer, to his credit, is an extremely clear writer at explaining complicated things. Nonetheless, while I admire his vast industry, there’s something a little off-putting about his prose style in this book. In contrast to Gould’s famous mellifluousness, Zimmer’s taste for short sentences—combined with his lack of irony—makes him sound didactic, as if his vast tome were intended for the proper moral edification of unusually diligent and intelligent schoolchildren.

But perhaps that’s what adults want in 2018?

An obsessive theme in Zimmer’s book is that the old hereditarians like Galton caused the Holocaust. You might think that Zimmer would try to balance off this rather strained argument by pointing out that anti-hereditarian ideologies such as the Marxist obsession with egalitarian social engineering had their own downsides in terms of mass murder.

But Marxism never comes up. Indeed, Zimmer only mentions the Soviet Union’s four-decade anti-hereditarian derangement, Lysenkoism, for a single paragraph on page 500.

Zimmer also insists upon the clichéd but extremist position that race doesn’t really exist biologically. Sure, he admits, 21st-century DNA research keeps coming up with “genetic clusters” not too different from earlier racial maps, such as Blumenbach’s way back in the 18th century. But pay no attention! Zimmer comically flails:

But any resemblance between genetic clusters of people and racial categories concocted before genetics existed can have no deep meaning.

Actually, they can and do. By staring at skulls and the like, the old scientists tended to come up with pretty reasonable guesses of who was related to whom genealogically, which new genetics findings sometimes disprove but often uphold.

Zimmer’s better argument against the genetic reality of race relies upon 46-year-old warmed-over Lewontinism. In 1972, Lewontin argued that 85 percent of total genetic diversity exists among individuals within racial groups, while only 15 percent tracks to geographic ancestry.

This might seem surprising at first, but stop and think about how different people are just within races. Consider the current NBA finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ top scorer LeBron James is massive, while the Golden State Warriors’ top scorer Kevin Durant is spindly.

Therefore, ask Lewontin and Zimmer, what possible importance could there be in that measly 15 percent? Just ignore it. “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

Of course, both basketball stars have significant sub-Saharan ancestry, as do most of their teammates. That 15 percent of genetic diversity that is not random apparently matters in helping cause the famously unequal racial makeup of the NBA.

A thought experiment: Imagine there is an Indian reservation casino where 85 percent of the spins of the roulette wheel are random, but the other 15 percent of the spins come up red if your croupier is an American Indian or black if your croupier is an African-American. Would you like to know that fact?

Yes, you would. A 15-percentage-point edge in making predictions is huge.

It seems to be hard for modern Americans to grasp that genetic diversity within racial groups coexists with genetic distinctiveness among groups. In his book, Reich points to a 2015 study of “The People of the British Isles”:

The study found that the British population was very homogeneous by conventional measures. For example, the classic measure of genetic differentiation between two British populations is about one hundred times smaller than the same measurement of population differentiation comparing Europeans to East Asians.

On the other hand, this genetic distinctiveness doesn’t mean, as is often alleged, that without the vibrant infusion of, say, millions of Pakistanis the British Isles would have been doomed to monotonous human homogeneity. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens didn’t seem to have much trouble finding interestingly diverse personalities among the natives.

A subtle problem with Lewontin’s observation is that its proponents want you to believe it’s absolutely true, but it actually only works relativistically.

Lewontin’s 15 to 85 ratio for racial groups compared to the whole human race is similar to the genetic diversity ratios found within families compared to their racial group.

On average, two people of the same racial group are about as genetically similar to each other compared to the rest of the world as an uncle and nephew are to each other versus the rest of their racial group.

As you’ve noticed, there is both genetic diversity and similarity within families. For example, the author tends to portray his brother as possessing quite a different personality from him, which no doubt he does in many ways. Yet, in other fashions, the two brothers aren’t really all that different: Carl Zimmer is a genetics journalist for The New York Times, and his brother Ben Zimmer is a linguistics journalist for The Wall Street Journal.

Half full and half empty, heredity and environment, nature and nurture, similarity and diversity, lumping and splitting, absolute and relative … These concepts may seem like warring dichotomies that can’t be reconciled, but they are better understood as useful complements. 

As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “… the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”


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