Some science items for today:

With race front and center in every news cycle, it’s good to be prepared for encounters with those who insist that race is “only a social construct” (many of whom also spend all their waking hours totting up accounts of how one race is doing compared to another). Readers of this blog will know that our editorial position is quite the opposite: that cultures are part of the “extended phenotype” of different human populations, and so it’s more accurate to say that societies are racial constructs, rather than the other way round. (This is because, as John Derbyshire has succinctly put it, different human groups “are bound to express different statistical patterns on any heritable traits, which would include traits of behavior, intelligence, and personality.”)

You may run into a particular, brainy subset of such people who will, in support of their belief in human universalism, produce Richard Lewontin’s famous observation that genetic markers vary more within populations than between them. This is true — but it misses the point so dramatically that the wishful generalization he erected upon it has now come to be known as Lewontin’s Fallacy. (You might also hear about Stephen Jay Gould’s antiracist tract The Mismeasure of Man, which has now been so thoroughly discredited that it is held up as a sterling example of exactly the sort of scientific bias that the book had purported to expose.)

The problem with Lewontin’s claim is that it examines only particular genetic markers, which indeed can vary broadly within groups. What it overlooks, though, is that what distinguishes populations are correlations between large numbers of markers — and when one surveys the genome more inclusively, populations are easily differentiated by these patterns of correlation. (Which is, of course, exactly what you’d expect: given the obvious differences in their phenotypes, it would be odd indeed if there weren’t a consistent way to distinguish, say, a Korean’s genome from a Dinka’s.)

Here, then, courtesy of the Unz Review, are two good items on Lewontin’s Fallacy, from Peter Frost and Razib Khan.

Perhaps the simplest argument against Lewontin’s Fallacy is to point out that if what he says is true, then it should be well-nigh impossible to determine population-group ancestry by DNA — but of course companies like 23 And Me do this very successfully, with ever-increasing precision.

Race is fluid, and like everything else in Nature it has fuzzy edges, but it is most certainly real. It is no more of a “social construct” than sex, or intelligence. But do keep in mind, as the tireless scholar hbd*chick reminds us:

there’s more to human biodiversity than just racial differences!

Next up, here’s a related item about genetics and parenting.

Moving on to other topics, here’s something I hadn’t heard about before: hyperuniformity. The messy boundary between order and chaos is an interesting place.

Here’s a puzzling item for you: a man with almost no brain at all. (He’s no genius, but to quote Dr. Johnson: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”)

Finally, with hat-tips to our commenter Henry, here are two items: Global E-mail Patterns Reveal “Clash of Civilizations”, and a new theory of life.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Asher says

    Measurements, all measurements, are social constructs. Race is definitely a social construct. So is height, as are weight, color and pitch. That does not mean that the reality those constructs are describing is not real, nor that such measurements are simply willed.

    Race is a very clumsy way of mapping ancestry and evolutionary divergence. Genetic distance is far superior but understanding it is not really an option for most people, so race is a decent stand-in.

    Posted July 14, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says


    Yes, of course — we can say that any “natural category” is a purely human construct.

    What we are asked to believe, however, is that race is a distinctly invalid category as compared to all the others we use every day.

    Posted July 14, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Asher says

    Yes, absolutely. When the concept of “race” comes up I relate it to the concepts tall/short. Ir’a like saying that since there is no distinct, a priori defining line between tall and short that height doesn’t exist. The important thing to stress with people is that language is not bout Platonic perfect but that it is simply a tool we use to navigate the world.

    I rather enjoy encountering this stuff in person because it gives me the opportunity to absolutely warp people’s minds. Quite entertaining.

    Posted July 14, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  4. My all-time favorite S J Gould quote.

    It’s from the March 29, 1984 issue of The New York Review of Books:

    “I am hopeless at deductive sequencing…I never scored particularly well on so-called objective tests of intelligence because they stress logical reasoning…”

    Posted July 14, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Asher says


    That Gould quote is quite possibly the biggest admission against interests in the entire history of language. Can’t believe I hadn’t seen it previously.

    Posted July 14, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    Is it really an admission against interests? After all, Gould railed against “measuring” man. Perhaps he’s saying “As a prominent public intellectual, my high intelligence is beyond doubt — so obviously there must be something wrong with all these measurements of intelligence.”

    Posted July 14, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  7. Whitewall says

    Malcolm, I believe this post could cause people in certain quarters to start foaming at the mouth. Well done! Surely a high appointment will follow.

    Posted July 14, 2016 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  8. @Asher

    You’ll find it on page 182 of my book.

    I read it in the NYRB when it was published and carefully saved it.

    One of my conclusions: he must have had some mother.

    I imagine Momma Gould’s reaction when Stevie came home with (maybe) a high-eighties percentile score:

    “IQ? IQ? SchmIQ!”

    Posted July 14, 2016 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Asher says

    So, basically, his anti-IQ jihad was simply motivated by his not rating so highly on that measure.

    That has got to be the most pathetic thing ever associated with the notion of science.

    Posted July 15, 2016 at 2:17 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Well, all just speculation of course.

    Posted July 15, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  11. Tina says

    This is a quotation for keeping: “The problem with Lewontin’s claim is that it examines only particular genetic markers, which indeed can vary broadly within groups. What it overlooks, though, is that what distinguishes populations are correlations between large numbers of markers — and when one surveys the genome more inclusively, populations are easily differentiated by these patterns of correlation. ” Well and clearly explained, Malcolm. I understand little of genetics, but some things – that was one of them – seem to rely too much on oversimplification.

    I appreciated the link to the article about the man whose brain has disintegrated, especially in light of the use of Zika Virus to push for abortions. I’d never thought twice about microcephaly until I started trying to figure out why “they” were pushing Zika hysteria. Turns out it’s very common, has a whole “spectrum”, and doesn’t necessarily signify reduced mental function. Also turns out Zika is probably not the culprit of Brazil’s high incidence.

    The “Global Email Patterns” research sounds really intriguing – especially in the age of eBay, blogs, etc which open international communication to everyone. I’m glad I clicked over to the paper itself, I want to go back and read it later. The *article*, though, has a certain PC quality about it. There’s also a certain “Duh” quality. And why the elementary vocabulary? “Between-country” is a dumb-down word the article’s author seems to have made up – the researchers themselves used the more standard “inter-country” (at least in the synopsis). So maybe a good example of why not to judge research by its coverage… even when that cover says MIT on it ;-)

    Posted July 15, 2016 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  12. Tina,

    I have had text interactions with the guy who covers the MIT Technology Review for the very reasons you mention. He has an annoying habit of using dumbed-down expressions for some reason. I did challenge him about it a long time ago (years), but he just blew me off with some nonsensical tripe. I continue to read the articles for the technical content that’s reported and try to ignore his dumb way of reporting it (not very successfully, however).

    Posted July 15, 2016 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  13. Tina says

    TheBigHenry, ah, sounds like he subscribes to the idea that we are living in the “Post-Literate Era”. Thinks his readers hate to read. Such a weird approach, I think.

    Posted July 16, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  14. Hello,

    First, the captcha you are using is extremely annoying. Have you tried askimet? It gets rid of pretty much all of my spam without captchas.

    I also have written about lewontin’s fallacy and how both progressive academics and wikipedians willfully ignore, misrepresent, or outright contradict what the data actually shows. Included in the link is a bad journal article with good data which directly bears on lewontin’s fallacy.

    Posted July 21, 2016 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says


    Akismet removes spam after the fact. Captcha prevents it from coming into being. Using Akismet, I was getting so much spam added and deleted that my hosting service was angry about it.

    Your article is very good. Thank you for the link.

    Posted July 22, 2016 at 5:13 am | Permalink