Category Archives: Me @ work

Syllabus supplements for fall family sociology

Last year I posted a list of blog pieces by subject, to help people teaching family courses generate ideas and discussion. Now my book is done and some of that material is in there. If you use the book for your class, we’ll give you all kinds of awesome teaching materials. But if you’re not using it (yet), here’s another list of blog posts to supplement your course. I hope this is useful whether you’re assigning the book or not, and even if you’re teaching something besides a family course.

This is organized according to my table of contents. Please let me know what works and what doesn’t, and offer your additional suggestions in the comments.

1. Introduction

  • What current demographic facts do you need to know? These 22 demographic data points are a good place to start. What else is necessary knowledge just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed?
  • High marks for Census: Describes the cultural shift at the Census Bureau that followed from Obama’s election and the decision to start counting gay and lesbian married couples. Also, a nice video they made explaining how a small error in a large population (mis-marking the sex box) can dramatically distort the number of a small population within it (same-sex couples).
  • Millennial, save thyself: Are millennials in trouble because their ties to marriage, work, and religion are weak? It’s “kids these days” all over again. With some simple data analysis and trends.

2. History

3. Race, ethnicity, and immigration

  • Black is not a color: Black and White are social, not biological, classifications. So why do we treat the words as if they were just colors?
  • Immigrant health paradox update: What can we learn from the surprisingly low infant morality rates of immigrants? Maybe healthier people migrate, but after a generation (or less) in the U.S., their advantage appears to erode.
  • The world that Sabta made: My grandmother lived from 1913 to 2009, and came to the U.S. from Poland in 1921, the youngest passenger on the S.S. Ryndam. Hers is one of the great stories of the century, leaving a mark that goes well beyond her 50+ great-grandchildren.

4. Social class

5. Gender

6. Sexuality

7. Love and romantic relationships

  • Is dating still dead? The death of dating is now 50 years old, and its been eulogized so many times that its feelings are starting to get hurt.
  • Online dating: efficiency, inequality, and anxiety: I’m skeptical about efficiency, and concerned about inequality, as more dating moves online. Some of the numbers I use in this post are already dated, but this could be good for a debate about dating rules and preferences.
  • Is the price of sex too damn low? To hear some researchers tell it in a recent YouTube video, women in general — and feminism in particular — have ruined not only sex, but society itself. The theory is wrong. Also, they’re insanely sexist.

8. Marriage and cohabitation

9. Families and children

10. Divorce, remarriage, and blended families

11. Work and families

12. Family violence and abuse

13. The future of the family

  • Tripping on tipping points: Minority births are now the majority. Is this a tipping point, a milestone, or a watershed? On the importance of accurately representing trends.
  • Dependency futures: An NPR story (linked here) on retirement prompts a look at how US demographic trends may be moving toward a future with more old-age dependency.
  • Marriage is declining globally: Can you say that? Yes, you can say that. But will it continue? We should be careful with predictions, but lots of demographic evidence suggests it will.

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Diversity is the new normal

I have new briefing paper out today with the Council on Contemporary Families, titled “Family Diversity is the New Normal for America’s Children.” I’ll post news links soon. In the meantime:

I’m happy to provide high quality graphics.

Let me know what you think!

Reports and commentary:

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Christian Smith responds to my review of The Sacred Project

Please welcome guest blogger Christian Smith, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. His post is a reply to my review of his book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, originally posted here. He also posted a reply to Andrew Perrin’s review over on Scatterplot today (but because that is just in the comments section, he doesn’t get the CV line “guest blogger” from that appearance). I have added a few comments of my own at the end.

Reply to Phil Cohen’s “It’s Modernity, Stupid”

by Christian Smith

When Phil Cohen’s response to my book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, was first published on his website, various colleagues alerted me to it, but also suggested it was not worth reading, much less engaging, so lopsided and noxious they said it was. I took their advice. However, over this holiday weekend I thought for fun I might disregard their advice and read Phil’s piece.

My informants turned out to be right. Offering a point-by-point reply to Phil’s review seems fruitless, given where he and I stand. But I will venture a few general observations and leave it at that.

What is most striking about Phil’s response in general is how indeed obviously lopsided it is. If what his readers wanted was the pulling out of context of everything that could possibly be construed to seem to be the worst in a book and framing it in a most damning light, then Phil delivered, entertainingly. His “documented personal animosity” toward me clearly showed in his tone and analysis.

However, if what readers wanted was a careful, reflective, and balanced evaluation of my book, they will have to look elsewhere. Maybe or maybe not such a review will be forthcoming in an academic journal.

Phil’s is the sort of response designed to get a book dismissed early on (within 24 hours of its release in July, in my case) before it is taken seriously by too many potentially interested readers. Throw the damn thing under the bus before it causes trouble. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” is the larger genre of rhetoric to which it belongs. This may be effective ideological activism, but it doesn’t really count as a serious review.

Phil’s reaction is a lot of distraction, mostly. He casts me as an anti-modern grump who can only think anecdotally. He discusses my case as if it were just another round in the Regnerus debacle. He picks away at this and that issue with lots of cute jabs. But those are diversions from my book’s larger argument about sociology’s sacred project and its problematic consequences. The subtext is this: Keep your eye on the ball of the game that Phil wants you to be playing, and ignore Smith’s actual argument. But not everyone is distracted. “I haven’t followed this closely, but it seems like Phil’s reaction just provides more evidence substantiating your thesis,” is what one sociology colleague (a secular, politically progressive, full professor) recently emailed me.

Phil’s view is that sociology’s mission simply = “modernity, stupid.” But that reflects a convergence-toward-uniformity view of modernity inherited from 1950s-style modernization theory. It does serve the rhetorical purpose of branding anyone as anti-modern as a “vaccine denier” who may not agree with Phil’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, Phil’s view about modernity is outdated, specifically concerning the empirical fact of “multiple modernities,” that is, about the massive cultural and institutional pluralism that characterizes real modernity today across and within societies and global regions, which numerous scholars have documented and theorized. There exists an important literature on multiple modernities that Phil might wish to consult to get this point: just as there is not only one modernity, so sociology need not be dominated by one sacred project. Phil’s cloaking of that project with the mantle of an allegedly inexorable singular modernity reflects in yet another way the parochial imagination of sociology’s sacred project that his piece seems intent on defending.

One theme in my book (among many) that Phil’s response obscured is that I am not recommending that American sociology be purged of its sacred project. Most social groups have sacred projects and sociology is entitled to its own sacreds. As I say in my book, sociology would be horrendously boring without a sacred project. Furthermore, when it comes to the particular features of sociology’s sacred project, I personally embrace and endorse many of them. My argument, then, is not to eliminate sociology’s sacred project, but rather to be more honest about our sacred project and its consequences and to allow a greater pluralism of sacred projects within the discipline. That Phil understood that basic point is not at all clear.

I continue to hear reports from various kinds of sociology colleagues around the country who have read my book and say they think it is essentially right, even if they do not agree with all the details. None of them, however, will ever say that in public. Why? Fear, intimidation, self-preservation. They know there is a price to be paid for speaking their minds on these matters, so they keep quiet. American sociology, in other words, has managed to create an environment of uncoordinated self-censorship.

Is everyone okay with that? If so, then let’s be satisfied with the kind of personal-animosity-driven writings like Phil Cohen’s piece. My only request, then, is, as I wrote in my book, that we be completely honest about what is going on and ready to live with the problematic consequences.

scream-sxc924206_32902585

Reply from Philip Cohen

Four short points.

1. I didn’t say, and don’t believe, that my review was driven by any personal animosity. What I said in the original post was that, because I once used a profanity in an email to Smith, I didn’t want to get some editor in trouble if they were to publish my review and then Smith produced my email as evidence of bias. That’s why I published the review myself.

2. If my review was really just a lot of diversions, and out-of-context jabs, which obscured “many” themes from the book, then I really wonder what I missed. Where is there any actual evidence for his argument about contemporary American sociology, which is not subject to “framing … in the most damning light”? Maybe he should provide us with another appendix that clarifies which evidence we should evaluate seriously and which we should avoid lest we accidentally cherry pick anecdotes to make him look bad. The book is very short.

3. “None of them, however, will ever say that in public.” Really? Come on, o ye fearful anonymous colleagues of Christian Smith! Do you who think he is “essentially right” really plan to go through your careers without ever expressing your true opinions in public? What kind of intellectual coward does that (especially when they have tenure)? Coincidentally, this is exactly the tactic Nicholas Wade used in the other book I wrote a long review of this summer. “The less academics defend me,” they say, “the more evidence this is that I am courageous and alone in my maverick stance against the all-powerful academic establishment.” While Smith has an endowed chair at a wealthy private university — with zillions of dollars in foundation grants for his research projects — maybe the next person who agrees with his opinions will be the victim of harsh retribution and face some career-ended “price to be paid.” Or maybe this is baloney.

4. Sure, multiple modernities. However, some contemporary modernities are really postmodern pre-modernities.

Note: I tried to find the source for the screaming man image, but it’s been used too many times without attribution, going back at least to 2008, for me to figure out the source.

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ASA meeting Twitter network graph

The American Sociological Association meetings, which ended earlier this week, had a rollicking good Twitter stream. Now Marc Smith has analyzed the tweeters who used the hashtag #asa14 (and related), and their interactions, to produce network graphs of the meeting’s tweeted undercurrent. I looked through one of the graphs, which I’ll describe briefly.

Smith used NodeXL, and generated a whole gallery of graphs. Just looking in your browser is difficult because the resolution is too low to identify people, but you can download the giant Excel files he made, or use the interactive graphs which allow you to hover over points and see their handles. That’s how I figured out the following graph, which represents 18,000 tweets from Sunday and Monday, the middle of the conference (click to enlarge, but it won’t help that much). Details here, my description below.

Graph-25487The top left, G1, is the heaviest traffic. This was a lot of leftists in active discussions of Ferguson, Missouri, Mike Brown, and Alice Goffman (and her book On The Run). At the center of that mass seems to be Jessie Daniels from CUNY (who describes herself, fittingly, as an instigator), UT-Austin sociology, Conditionally Accepted, Dr. Compton, and C.J. Pascoe, among others. I can’t find the dot for Tressie McMillan Cottom (Tressiemcphd) — who has the highest betweenness centrality of any individual on the graph, and was the most frequently replied-to tweeter — but it’s probably in G1 somewhere.

Moving clockwise, the next cluster (G3) is centered around the official feed of the ASA, @ASAnews, with a lot of tweets about the conference theme, publishers and their booths, and journals.

Clockwise to G5, you get another cluster with a lot of Mike Brown and Ferguson, but this one more focused on education and academia, including Lean In. At the center of G5 is Sara Goldrick-Rab.

The top right, G6, is where I ended up. It has several lose center points, including me (familyunequal), Tina Fetner, and two people who tweeted ASA content that got picked up by a lot of non-sociologists: Mark Abraham (urbandata) and Str8Grandmother. Also up there is Karl Bakeman (my editor at Norton), the Norton sociology feed, and Contexts magazine.

Next on the far right is G10, which has a lot of critical race discussion (#troublewithwhitewomen), as well as information technology. I can’t tell the theme of G9, which includes Lisa Wade and Nathan Palmer (sociologysource).

The orange oval in G7 is centered around the Émile Durkheim feed (“Invented Sociology, and don’t let any Germans tell you otherwise”). This was probably his most popular tweet this time out, with going on 100 retweets:

durkheimcup

In fact, the graph data shows that the G7 sector basically comprises the community formed around this tweet.

The bottom center sector, G4, clusters around Think Progress. Note the strong ties to the top left, where the Ferguson traffic was heaviest. G4 is a key group for transmitting leftist politics into and out of ASA. The feminist Leta Hong Fincher is the node that connects this group to that fan of people off the bottom right of the cluster.

Finally, the bottom left group, G2, is centered on education and technology, with clusters around Liz Meyer, Marc Smith, Gina Neff, and others I’m not familiar with.

So

There are lots of social layers and clusters across the ASA, which could be grouped by specialty, department, age, race/ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, and so on. The Twitter network just happens to leave an easy data trail. I mention all these individuals not to play into a star system, but because it’s easier to name someone than to attempt to categorize them. I’m open to other interpretations of this graph.

I’m getting very sappy in my old age about my love for sociology and sociologists. But as I look over these figures, I think that if I had to pick 5,000 people to spend a weekend with, who all had only one thing in common, I think ASA members was a good choice.

 

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Doing math one-handed? Inequality and the marriage problem (#asa14)

I’m at the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco, on my way over to present the following slides at a session on “Closing the Economic Marriage Gap: The Policy Debate.” Looks like a great session, organized by Melanie Heath, Orit Avishai, and Jennifer Randles, and including Andrew Cherlin, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Mignon Moore, and Ronald Mincy – with a discussion by Barbara Risman.

I’ve uploaded the slides for my talk, here.

The background is in this post, which I wrote in 2011, called, “Is it a ‘marriage problem’?” Here it is again:

Is it a “marriage problem”?

A self-described liberal (Andrew Cherlin) and conservative (W. Bradford Wilcox) pair of academics have produced a “policy brief”* for the Brookings Institution entitled, The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America.

There’s no new information or analysis in the report, so I won’t dwell on it. But I’d like to use it to point out a logical problem with pro-marriage social science in general. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, with my comment following:

This policy brief reviews the deepening marginalization of marriage and the growing instability of family life among moderately-educated Americans: those who hold high school degrees but not four-year college degrees and who constitute 51 percent of the young adult population (aged twenty-five to thirty-four). … [b]oth of us agree that children are more likely to thrive when they reside in stable, two-parent homes. … Thus, we conclude by offering six policy ideas, some economic, some cultural, and some legal, designed to strengthen marriage and family life among moderately-educated Americans. … To be sure, not every married family is a healthy one that benefits children. Yet, on average, the institution of marriage conveys important benefits to adults and children. … The fact is that children born and raised in intact, married homes typically enjoy higher quality relationships with their parents, are more likely to steer clear of trouble with the law, to graduate from high school and college, to be gainfully employed as adults, and to enjoy stable marriages of their own in adulthood. Women and men who get and stay married are more likely to accrue substantial financial assets and to enjoy good physical and mental health. In fact, married men enjoy a wage premium compared to their single peers that may exceed 10 percent. At the collective level, the retreat from marriage has played a noteworthy role in fueling the growth in family income inequality and child poverty that has beset the nation since the 1970s. For all these reasons, then, the institution of marriage has been an important pillar of the American Dream, and the erosion of marriage in Middle America is one reason the dream is increasingly out of reach for men, women, and children from moderately-educated homes.

It’s obvious empirically that adults and children in married-couple families, on average, are doing better on many measures than those not in such families. The logical problem is when people conclude from this pattern that the obvious response is to “strengthen marriage and family life.” But, why not try to reduce that disparity instead?

This is the logical equivalent of the Republican mantra that “We don’t have a revenue problem in Washington; we have a spending problem.” That’s only true if you’re doing one-handed math. And the same holds for marriage.

Yes, there is less marriage, and many people are less well off without it. Does that mean we have a “marriage” problem, or a family inequality problem? Is there any other way to help people develop high quality relationships with their parents, complete more education, get better jobs, accrue financial assets and maintain good physical and mental health?

In the categorical math of inequality, you can try (with little chance of success in this case) to reduce the number of people in the disadvantaged category (non-married families), or you can try to reduce the size of the disparity between the two categories.

*I’m not sure, but I think a “policy brief” is a blog post about policy matters, produced on the PDF letterhead of a foundation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As far as I can tell, this one is a non-peer-reviewed essay which handles sourcing like this: “the findings detailed in this policy brief come from a new report by Wilcox, When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America.” As I’ve pointed out (here andhere), Wilcox’s reports at the National Marriage Project are also non-peer-reviewed essays with a lot of substantially misleading and erroneous content.

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Marriage, divorce, remarriage, age, education (Coontz tabs edition)

Stephanie Coontz has an excellent Op-Ed on the front of today’s New York Times Sunday Review, which draws out the implications for family instability of the connection between increasing gender equality on the one hand, and increasing economic inequality and insecurity on the other. The new instability is disproportionately concentrated among the population with less than a college degree. To help with her research, I gave Stephanie the figure below, but it didn’t make the final cut. This shows the marriage history of men and women by education and age. She wrote:

According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

I highlighted those numbers in the figure. Also striking is the higher percentage of divorced people among those with less than a BA degree (and higher widowhood rates). Click to enlarge: age marriage history Cross-posted on the Families As They Really Are blog.

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Nicholas Wade followup, deeper dive edition

I’m very happy with the editing and fact-checking they did at Boston Review for my review of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, and I don’t want to undermine their work (thanks to managing editor Simon Waxman and associate web editor Nausicaa Renner). If you only have time to read 4,000 words on it, their version is what you should read. It’s up here for free.

But in the thousands of words that ended up on the cutting room floor, there were a few ideas I’d like to post here, for the very interested reader.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by epSos.de

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by epSos.de

Human bones

A number of critics have said that Wade’s early chapters are good, and the book only gets crazy-racist in the second half when he starts attributing social behavior to races and tracing global economic disparities to evolution by natural selection. But I did want to stress that he’s got plenty wrong in the early part of the book as well. In particular, I highlighted the question, why did human bones get thinner in the millennia before they settled down? This isn’t something we worry over much, but I think it’s an important clue to his biases and assumptions. From the published review:

To establish that genes determine social behavior, Wade looks to ancient history, when humans first settled in agricultural communities. “Most likely a shift in social behavior was required,” he writes, “a genetic change that reduced the level of aggressivity common in hunter-gatherer groups.” Of course, many elements were involved—climate change and geography, population pressure, the presence of various plants and animals, advances in tools and weapons, and human biological evolution—but there is no evidence that a behavioral genetic change was required.

I actually spent a fascinating few hours reading the scientific literature on evolution and bone structure, and saw no mention of the reduction in human aggressive behavior as a cause of human bones becoming weaker. To elaborate, Wade thinks natural selection gave people genes for thinner bones because strong bones became less necessary for survival as people fought each other less. He thinks genetic change in behavior led to genetic change in bones. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see any literature at all to back this up (Wade doesn’t cite any).

In fact, if I read it right, we might have thinner bones today than people did 50,000 years ago even though our bone genetics haven’t changed much, as a result of diet and lifestyle changes alone. How is that possible? When the bones of young people bear less weight they don’t grow as thick when they’re adults. This is the issue of tool use and the declining “habitual loads” on human limbs. It might also extend to our skulls because we’re not grinding pre-agricultural superfoods with our teeth all day long. Biological anthropologist Christopher Ruff writes: “In a few years, the strength of a person’s bone structure can change as much as the total average change over the past 2 million years of human evolution.” He cites classic research showing the bones of tennis players’ arms are thicker on the side they hold the racket. There is an alternative view that genetic adaptation did drive changes in bone size, having to do with climate change (here is some of that debate). But nothing about aggression I could find.

This point about the bones not-so-subtly underlies his later argument about Africa’s poverty, which he attributes in part to the genetic propensity toward violence among its people. Rather than aggression being an asset as society evolved, Wade speculates that, in the centuries leading up to the first settlements, “the most bellicose members of the society were perhaps killed or ostracized” (again, no evidence). Cue footage of UN peacekeepers landing in Africa.

Anyway, it’s potentially an important lesson in the malleability of human bodies through life experience rather than (only) through genetic change. The implication is that each generation may still be genetically ready to have thick bones again, but we just keep lucking out and being born into societies with tools and soft foods, so we don’t need to grow them. I find that amazing. I don’t want to push it too far, but I imagine that a lot of behavioral things are like that, too. Evolution has brought us to the point where we have vast potential to grow in different ways, and huge differences between people can emerge as a result our life experiences.

More on the “warrior gene”

In the review I included some discussion of the MAO-A studies:

Wade devotes considerable attention to MAO-A, the gene that encodes the enzyme monoamine oxidase A, which is related to aggression. He singles out studies showing that a rare version of the gene is associated with violence in U.S. male adolescents. Out of 1,200 young men surveyed in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, eleven particularly violent young men carried the 2R version of MAO-A, subsequently known as the “warrior gene.” Nine of those eleven were African American, comprising 5 percent of the black male adolescents in the study.

Sometimes in genetics there is some gene or coding that produces some measureable effect, and that’s how most people seem to think about genetics most of the time – there is “a gene for” something. In the days before today’s genome-wide association (GWA) studies, before scientists had the means to investigate hundreds of thousands of genetic markers at a time, they often looked for effects of such “candidate” genes. This approach was valuable, especially when the role of specific genes was known (as in the case of the BRCA1 gene, associated with higher risk of breast cancer). However, with most diseases, and even more so with behavior, which is presumed to be more complicated than single-gene mechanisms, candidate gene studies were (are) often fishing expeditions, with a high risk of false-positive results, amplified by selective publication of positive findings. It is quite possible that’s at least part of what happened with MAO-A and aggression.

Most studies about MAOA have been gene-environment interaction studies, where some version of MAOA has a statistical association with a behavior only in the presence of a particular social factor, such as a history of child abuse (e.g., this one). This kind of study is tricky and offers a lot of opportunity to fish around for significant effects (which I’m specifically not accusing any particular person of doing). The MAO-A 2R studies he cites weren’t interaction studies. But a couple of cautions are important. First, that 2R version of MAO-A is very rare, and the two studies Wade cites about it (here and here) both used the same sample from Add Health – 11 boys with the variant. Two studies doesn’t mean two independent results. You could never get a drug approved based on that (I hope). Second, as far as I can tell there was no strong reason a priori to suspect that this 2R variant would be especially associated with violence. So that’s a caution. I have to say, as I did in the review, that it may be correct. But the evidence is not there (and you shouldn’t say “not there yet,” either). Those two studies are the entire evidentiary basis for Wade saying that genes that shape social behavior vary by race (“one behavioral gene … known to vary between races”.) I didn’t find any other studies that show MAO-A 2R varies by race (though maybe there are some).

 

Yao Ming and Ye Li

Yao Ming and Ye Li

Modern evolution

Does natural selection still apply to humans? Of course. But I can’t see how it works very efficiently in modern societies, because our demography seems like a poor launching pad for genetic revolutions. Most threats to our survival now occur after we’ve had the opportunity to have children. And it’s getting worse (which means better). The decline in child mortality and the extension of life expectancy beyond the childbearing years means that relatively few people are left of out of the breeding community. That’s how I was raised to understand natural selection: individuals with stronger, better traits breed more than those with weaker, worse traits. In the U.S. today, 97.8% of females born live to age 40, and 85% of those have a birth, so 83% of females born become biological mothers. And a good part of modern childlessness is voluntary, rather than the consequence of a genetic weakness. Even as recently as 1900, in contrast, Census data and mortality statistics show that only 53% of females born lived to be age 40 and had a surviving child. So I don’t know how evolution is working today, but except for really bad health conditions I’m skeptical.

Of course, we have selective breeding producing subpopulations that have concentrations of genetic traits. Yao Ming’s parents were both basketball players, and his wife is 6′ 3″. So they’re on their way to producing a subpopulation of really tall Chinese people. But most social divides we have are not like that — they aren’t based on genetic traits. So I don’t see that being very effective either. To take Wade’s example of Jews and math ability (a chapter I didn’t write about because I was already 3,000 words long), you would need to have Jews not only have good math genes, and only reproduce with each other, but they’d also have to cast out those kids who were relatively bad and math and put the boys and girls who were relatively good at math together. That could happen, but it would be inefficient and very slow, and next thing you know some historical event or trend would come along and mess it all up.

Even the much-discussed increasing tendency of college graduates to marry each other — which gives us about three-quarters of couples today being on the same side of the college/non-college divide — is just sloppy and slow by selective-breeding standards. Maybe it could produce a race of people who like baby joggers and The Economist, but given the low levels of isolation between groups and the length of human generations I just think any progress in that direction would be so slow as to be swamped by other processes pushing in all different directions.

Australia

Wade used Australia to argue against Jared Diamond, whose account of world history, Guns, Germs and Steel, dismisses genetic evolution as an explanation, making him the villain in Wade’s story. How is it, Wade wonders, that Paleolithic Age native Australians were unable to build a modern economy, but Europeans could waltz onto the continent and be successful so easily? He writes:

If in the same environment … one population can operate a highly productive economy and another cannot, surely it cannot be the environment that is decisive … but rather some critical difference in the nature of the two people and their societies.

That’s one of the worst head-scratchers in the book. Does Wade really think that Europeans just dropped in to Australia on an equal footing with the local population, and had to figure out how to thrive there on their raw genetic merits, proving their superiority by their relative success? It can’t be that “the nature of the two people and their societies” means the boats, weapons, technology and modern state social organization the Europeans possessed, because then he has made Diamond’s point. So the “nature” he’s referring to must be genetics. To the reader who has a passing familiarity with modern social science, this is just jarring.

Does cancer genetics help?

To help show the dead-end of Wade’s very mechanical view of genetic influence, I drew out an example from cancer genetics (with a little help from my brother-in-law, Peter Kraft, who is not responsible for this interpretation).

What if we found that genetic factors contributed to social behavior in any of the ways Wade imagines? Speculative as that is at present, it is of course a possibility. Most people are concerned about the implications for genocide and eugenics, for good reason. But even if our scientific motives were pure, the functional utility of such information would be questionable.

Consider a comparison to the much better understood genetics of disease. Take prostate cancer, which is known to have a family history component. Genome wide association studies have identified some genetic markers that are significantly associated with the risk of developing prostate cancer, such that a genetic test can identify which men are at highest risk. However, a review of the statistical evidence in the journal Nature Reviews Genetics pointed out that, even among the high-risk group only about 1.1% of men would come down with prostate cancer in a five-year period. That’s much higher than the 0.7% expected in the general population, but what do you do with that information? Invasive procedures, medications, or preventative surgery on millions of men would not be worth it in order to prevent a small number of cases of prostate cancer – the side effects alone would swamp the benefits. On the other hand, we don’t need any genetic tests to tell smokers to quit, or urge people to eat better and exercise.

This is just one example. Risk factors for this and other diseases are the subject of intense research, and there are actionable results out there, too. But I suspect that genetic influences on social behavior, if discovered, would present an extreme version of this problem: slight genetic tendencies implying tiny increases in absolute risks – and interventions with huge costs and side effects – all while more effective solutions stare us in the collective face.

To complete the analogy: In other words, if – big if – we could identify them, should we incarcerate, surveil, or segregate a subpopulation with a small increased odds of committing crime – thereby preventing a tiny number of crimes while harming a large group of innocent people? And should we isolate and elevate the children of some other subpopulation because of their slightly higher odds of success in some endeavor? Or should we instead devote our resources to improving education, nutrition, employment and health care for the much larger population, based on the well-established benefits of those interventions? We know lots of effective ways to affect social behavior, including against “natural” inclinations.

I’m really not against scientific exploration of behavioral genetics. But the risk of exaggerated results and inflated importance seems so high that I doubt the research will be useful any time soon.

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