Anthropologically Unsound: Why Genetic hyper-determinsim is not as scientific as you think…

First, the caveats that are necessary, I am not an anthropologist. I am not a comparative biologist.  I am not a geneticist.  I am writer and as a writer, I read things.   I did study anthropology seriously, but abandoned it for philosophy at the undergraduate level because I knew philosophy+English would be more helpful to getting into law school, and I condensed the anthropology and philosophy courses into a liberal studies specialization.  So I am a educated and informed layman, and you should read me with that limitation in mind.

Second, there has been some misreading  of people being more “human bio-diversity friendly” than I am.  Race in the US does trace to morphology which does have some referent to traits that can be spotted on genetic screening, and it does tie to regional traits.  This has been attempted to be explained by some geneticists who are sociobiology friendly as also tying to cultural traits which are statistically highly heritable and are the outcome of things like criminal execution and sexual selection.  While I am sympathetic to the idea that there are still evolutionary traits developing due to sexual selection, you can see how this can be used, particularly with paired with evolutionary psychology, to rationalize cultural traits as more historical than they are.  The example one often hears is the evolutionary biologist explaining why pink is linked with women, while the historian of culture knows this has only been the case for about 120 years in European and post-European colonial cultures.

Still the second point is important.  I have pointed out that, for example, oxytocin bonding manifests completely differently in different cultures: a study that I have linked to before concerns Korean and US cultures. The more interesting thing about this is that recent sexual selection can’t explain the interaction differences because Koreans raised in the US have many more of the reactions to oxytocin in their friendships you see amongst Americans.   Meaning even if you cannot discount phenotype differences on behavior, the relationship is obviously more culturally primed than most people think. Race-realism predicated on cultural genetic determinism does not only not explain this, but ignores the tons of recent discoveries which complicate it and brackets them out of the question: environmental cues and triggers that effect gene manifestation (see many mental and physical illnesses require both a gene AND an environmental condition to have a higher probability of manifestation), epigenetics developments of traits, cultural priming of genetic traits through cultural management of environmental stressors, and, even the logical fact,  the fact that nature-nurture binaries are a category error predicated on some spurious notions of “nature” and “society” which are not justifiable.

Enter here some thoughts over at a friend of mine’s blog, Vulgar Materials, talking about IQ related theories on race and the current development of “human nueral uniformity” as somehow a type of “liberal or leftist creationism.”   He asks a simple rhetorical question which takes this vague, HBD-esque notion and exposes its problem:

If physicalism is correct, strong AI must be possible, and it is fairly certain that there are hardware layouts upon which would supervene minds vastly superior to our own, and perhaps, some day, we shall devise them. But evolution only ever seeks out local optima. This makes it vastly inferior to human design; every transitional form must pay off in terms of fitness (under whatever environmental conditions it appears;) it knows irrationalities plenty but no speculative bubbles. What if intelligence is subject to such chassis limitations – if the human brain is about as advanced along that dimension as can be given its design constraints? Several considerations make this plausible.

You may ask what could this have to do with intelligence difference between races being genetically innate.  Why not just point out the studies that show that being raised outside of poverty conditions leads to dramatically increased IQ, or that “black” students enculturated as “white” through adoption in mixed race families often show significant increases in aggregate IQ.  The problem with these objections is that they don’t show the problem with the entire question.

So, what are his answers:

First, there does not appear to be much low-hanging chemical fruit available for improvements to intelligence. There haven’t been any conspicuously successful nootropics other than caffeine (which shifts cognitive capacity around in time; the piper must yet be paid,) and large-scale studies have consistently failed to find SNPs that impact intelligence

This is more damning than it first appears. Through dopamine and oxytocin manipulation, which base levels are correlative to gene expressions in individuals, one could actually change both your social and intimate ties. You willingness to give or endure violence for a group one is attached, etc.  There, however, is NOTHING LIKE THIS WITH INTELLIGENCE or even abstract reasoning such as IQ.  We can pharmacologically boast concentration but we are boasting intelligence fatigue in that point, not intelligence overall.  This means we still do not understand what exactly we are describing by intelligence and would have a hard time reducing it anything we could see as a gene manifestation.

His next answer:

Second, intelligence is likely the result of an intra-human arms race, rather than struggle with the extra-human environment. Humans have intelligence enough to kick the ass of (non-human) nature ten times over everywhere on the planet – the myth of the noble savage, living in harmony with her natural environment, is exactly that – but we do have a tendency to get into more nettlesome battles of wits with each other.

This point is more subtle. The HBO advocate can say, “See this is proof of group selectivity as competition is generally between groups.”  That may have been trouble in nomadic, hunter-gather societies which have more complete in-group cohesion and show violence as a trait towards outsiders, but it is NOT true anytime after the development of agriculture or even pastoral nomadism. Class society begins at this time as division of labor is required for agriculture to work. Given proximity, such intelligence battles are not only in-group but often both inter-class (between groups competing for resources) and intra-class (between individuals competing for status and advancement).  Therefore, intelligence should so signs of being related to positions within a culture framework. Those IQ studies on poverty and “racial enculturation” (which is explicitly tied to class) and IQ are far more indicative of this than the hyper-genetic determinism implied in “human nueral uniformity.”

His last point is the one most relevant to anthropology:

Third, humans have unusually low genetic variation; we are a bottleneck species. This point has been emphasized in previous anti-racist arguments; the point here is not just that absolute current variation is comparatively low, but that there is less room for maneuver.

While some scientific racialists have argued that human races amounted to sub-species, this does not stand water.  I have talked about research indicating that hominid sub-species are more like what we view as races, and even then we have to consider removing them as sub-species because products of sexual union between the various hominid groups appear to have been reproductively viable for generations down.  Meaning most biological notions of species do not apply.  This is even more true now because of the bottle neck discussed.  Furthermore, if you remove the African populations from the equation, the bottle neck gets even tighter (as there is more genetic diversity within Africa that in all the areas outside of it).  While HBD advocates like to argue that Asians, then whites, then hispanics and first peoples (North West Asians), then Africans make some kind of human intelligence hierarchy. This does not stand to up to our knowledge of population genetics:  Hispanics are a cultural group, not even a clear race in the reductive HBD definition.  Secondly, Native Peoples have phenotype evidence clearly showing ancient SIberian/Asian ancestry, why the strong difference in IQ?  Why does the sophistication of Meso-American society indicate that perhaps even as recently as 400 years ago, which in biologic time is nothing, Meso-American culture as technologically and culturally advanced as European. IQ studies now explain that?  No. No, they don’t.  Even the recent sexual selection hypothesis doesn’t.    A good recourse on this from a slightly more left-than-me pov can be here.

So the question becomes what do we mean by identity and why does it have these effects?  I used to be a Marxist skeptical of identity theory. Now I am skeptical of both liberal identity theory rooted in stand-point epistemology and classical Marxism, but I think there is a core to identity theories of human relationships that are more anthropologically sound than some of the more abstractified Marxist notions of pure class struggle as the sole “mover of history”. Marx’s critique of capitalism stands and fails on capitalism, and increasingly it is capitalism itself that I realize Marxist did not actually agree on what it is, and manifestations of intra-class racial and ethnic conflict are hard to hand-wave away.  Marx’s theoretical work here was incomplete–he admitted this– and used too many Hegelian terms that actually do not seem to have done the work he wanted (the implied teleology was too simple). I keep going back to Weberian notions of class and identity relationships and conflict as they seem, while primitive, actually more clarifying.

Conversely, the analytic and “scientific” crowd, like what sees around sites like Less Wrong,  one links with sites like have mystique of abstractification.  This mirrors the teleological mystigoguery one sees with Hegelian frameworks, but inverts them. By rooting the notion of reason on analytic logic predicated on sets in math or on subject-predicate equations, the context of the observation is stripped out as is even the possibility of discussing history.  You add this observations from historical sciences like “evolutionary biology” and you have a recipe for hiding all sorts of cavaets, exceptions, and historical differences crucial the claims being made.  Beware the power of “pure reason,”  it is often hiding something.


4 thoughts on “Anthropologically Unsound: Why Genetic hyper-determinsim is not as scientific as you think…

  1. Glad you thought it was useful. (Of course, I’m not a scientific expert or anything either – just someone who thinks he can notice when arguments get a little too breezy.)

    I would actually agree w/r/t Weberian notions of class(/status) being more useful than Marxian ones, with respect to identity considerations. To reach for an apposite metaphor, one useful way to conceptualize class struggle/material factors as being “the motor of history” is to consider the role of natural selection vis-a-vis other mechanisms of evolution. It would be silly to take the “panadaptationist” line of desregarding all the others, and in fact in any one iteration the role played by selection can be quite small. But selection is the mechanism with the most structuredness or directedness, the one with the best signal/noise ratio. It becomes progressively more important the more you zoom out.

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