Monthly Archives: September 2015

“Race” in 2015: Myth or Reality?

[Notable New Media]

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

I have no reason to believe that Nicholas Wade, long-time science columnist for The New York Times and author of Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of our Ancestors (2006), is a racist, if “racist” is to mean believing in the inherent superiority of one human “race” over any other.  In fact, he expressly condemns the idea.  But in the more limited and hopefully sober context of the science of “race” (that’s the last time I’ll put it in quotation marks), Wade is a veritable maverick, to put it most diplomatically.  Indeed, his conclusions that biological human races do exist, and conform generally to ancestral continental regions, appear remarkably more consistent with those of the general public.

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In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Wade immediately acknowledges that the vast majority of both geneticists and anthropologists deny the existence of biological race.  “Race is a recent human invention,” according to the American Anthropological Association, and a mere “social construct,” per the American Sociological Association.  First to decode the human genome, Craig Venter was also quick to announce that “[t]he concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.”

But academics especially are resistant to biological race, or the idea that “human evolution is recent, copious, and regional,” says Wade, because they fear for their careers in left-leaning political atmospheres and because they tend to be “obsessed with intelligence” and paralyzed by the “unlikely” possibility that genetics might one day demonstrate the intellectual superiority of one major race over others.

According to Wade, “[s]ocial scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race [indeed, biology] explains nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value.”  But “the emerging truth,” he insists, “is more complicated.”  Although the author sees individuals as fundamentally similar, “their societies differ greatly in their structure, institutions and their achievements.”  Indeed, “[c]ontrary to the central belief of multiculturalists, Western culture has achieved far more” than others “because Europeans, probably for reasons of both evolution and history, have been able to create open and innovative societies, starkly different from the default human arrangements of tribalism or autocracy.”

Wade admits that much of his argument is speculative and has yet to be confirmed by hard, genetic evidence.  Nevertheless, he argues, “even a small shift in [genetically based] social behavior can generate a very different kind of society,” perhaps one where trust and cooperation can extend beyond kin or the tribe–thus facilitating trade, for example, or one emphasizing punishment for nonconformity–thus facilitating rule-orientation and isolationism, for instance.  “[I]t is reasonable to assume,” the author vies, “that if traits like skin color have evolved in a population, the same may be true of its social behavior.”

But what profound environmental conditions could possibly have selected for more progressive behavioral adaptations in some but not all populations?  As the climate warmed following the Pleistocene Ice Age, Wade specifies, the agricultural revolution erupted around 10,000 years ago among settlements in the Near East and China.  Increased food production led to population explosions, which in turn spurred social stratification, wealth disparities, and more frequent warfare.  “Human social behavior,” Wade says, “had to adapt to a succession of makeovers as settled tribes developed into chiefdoms, chiefdoms into archaic states and states into empires.”

Meanwhile, other societies changed far less dramatically.  “For lack of good soils, favorable climate, navigable rivers and population pressures,” Wade observes, “Africa south of the Sahara remained largely tribal throughout the historical period, as did Australia, Polynesia and the circumpolar regions.”

Citing the work of University of California, Davis economist Gregory Clark, Wade then postulates that, during the period between 1200 and 1800 CE–twenty-four generations and “plenty of time for a significant change in social behavior if the pressure of natural selection were sufficiently intense,”–the English in particular evolved a greater tendency toward “bourgeoisification” and at least four traits–nonviolence, literacy, thrift, and patience–thus enabling them to escape the so-called “Malthusian trap,” in which agrarian societies never quite learn to produce more than their expanding numbers can consume, and, finally, to lead the world into the Industrial Revolution.

In other words, according to the author, modern industrialized societies have emerged only as a result of two evolved sets of behaviors–initially, those that favor broader trust and contribute to the breakdown of tribalism, and, subsequently, those that favor discipline and delayed gratification and lead to increased productivity and wealth.  On the other hand, says Wade, Sub-Saharan Africans, for example, though well-adapted to their unique environmental circumstances, generally never evolved traits necessary to move beyond tribalism.  Only an evolutionary explanation for this disparity, he concludes, can reveal, for instance, why foreign aid to non-modern societies frequently fails and why Western institutions, including democracy and free markets, cannot be readily transferred to (or forced upon) yet pre-Industrial cultures.

So how many races have evolved in Wade’s estimation?  Three major races–Caucasian, East Asian, and African–resulted from an early migration out of Africa some 50,000 years ago, followed by a division between European and Asian populations shortly thereafter.  Quoting University of California, San Francisco statistical geneticist, Neil Risch, however, Wade adds Pacific Islanders and Native Americans to the list because “population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry.”

To those who would object that there can be no biological race when so many thousands of people fail to fit neatly into any discreet racial category, Wade responds, “[T]o say there are no precise boundaries between races is like saying there are no square circles.”  Races, he adds, are merely “way stations” on the evolutionary road toward speciation.  Different variations of a species can arise where different populations face different selective challenges, and humans have no special exemption from this process.  However, the forces of differentiation can reverse course when, as now, races intermingle due to increased migration, travel and intermarriage.

Wade’s analysis has been widely criticized by many esteemed geneticists and anthropologists, yet defended by a few others.  And one wonders if the real battle is one over mere semantics, if not politics.  But, as always, Wade weaves an interesting argument into a truly engrossing and, of course, informative narrative built on the rock-solid foundations of both history and science.

Time to Rethink Omega-3s?

[Notable New Media]

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

Nutrition researchers have long touted the heart-health benefits of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, typically found in wild oily fish and flaxseed, for example.  General recommendations to consume foods rich in Omega-3s and even to supplement with fish oil derived in part from evidence showing that the cold-climate Inuit, for example, have persisted quite healthfully–that is, with a low incidence of cardiovascular disease–on traditional marine diets rich in fat, especially Omega-3s.  The inference was that the Omega-3 fatty acids were protective against heart disease, perhaps because they lowered LDL and raised HDL cholesterol levels in the blood.

But do such benefits accrue to all human populations more or less equally?  Perhaps not.  In a study recently published in Science, researchers scanned the genomes of 191 Greenland Inuit (formerly known as Eskimos, whose ancestors had lived in the Arctic for thousands of years) and compared them to the genomes of 60 Europeans and 44 Han Chinese.  What did they find?  The native Greenlanders had developed special mutations to genes involved in fat metabolism (fatty acid desaturases) that likely evolved through natural selection to help counteract the effects of a diet high in fat, mostly from seals and whales that consume oily fish.

According to these researchers, that 100 percent of the Inuit, but only 2 percent of the Europeans and 15 percent of the Chinese, possessed these adaptations implies that, on average, members of each population might synthesize Omega-3s very differently from members of the other populations.  In other words, one group’s unique evolutionary adaptations–in this case, to cold weather and a traditional, high-fat diet–might render them an inappropriate population upon which to base nutrition advice to the general public.

But those who take personal health seriously already knew better than to receive generalized nutrition advice as gospel.  First, as I’ve argued more than once before, nutrition science is inherently volatile.  Myriad confounding factors, difficult to isolate and measure, often make it nearly impossible for researchers in this field to offer concrete advice.  Second, for many reasons, every individual requires a personalized diet and exercise plan that also evolves as the individual grows older and as continuing and disciplined personal experimentation (that is, science) reveals his or her special health and performance needs.

Fitness Folly

[Notable New Media]

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

Chances are that your local personal trainers, or self-styled “fitness professionals,” read (or at least peruse the pictures and headlines in) the IDEA Fitness Journal (IFJ), which characterizes itself as “the professional voice of the fitness and wellness industry.”  Trouble is, personal trainers seldom possess the education, insight, or life experience necessary to recognize pseudoscientific nonsense, let alone to responsibly interpret genuine fitness science.

I’m frequently struck by the IFJ’s soft-headed approach to what should be a candid and at least somewhat intellectually rigorous exploration into exercise science.  But an article in the current, September 2015 issue, titled “Mapping Emotions in the Body” (“knowledge” of which can earn a certified trainer continuing education credits) almost knocked me completely over.

The author, IDEA’s “mind-body-spirit spokesperson,” begins by suggesting that “you can identify where you feel particular emotions in your body.”  She doesn’t bother to tell us how she “knows” this, of course, or how it might occur.   But she does refer to a Finnish study that sought to “address this question scientifically.”  Hey, that would be great!  Right?

Maybe not so much.  In one experiment, the article’s author reports, subjects exposed to “stories, movies, and facial expressions” painted on blank human silhouettes the location where they “felt bodily sensations in response to different emotions,” like fear, anger, love, and depression.  A second experiment asked subjects to examine human silhouette “heat maps,” depicting vaguely bordered blobs of color over the head, chest, abdominal, and even appendage regions of the body, and to “identify which emotion they thought triggered that specific bodily reaction.”

But of course even casual consumers of serious science literature know that subject self-reports are inherently unreliable regardless of subject matter.  But self-reports of emotions, or perceptions while experiencing emotions?  Forget it.  How do we know, for instance, that one subject’s anger isn’t another’s fear or depression?  Indeed, how do we know whether the subjects actually felt the emotions at all, instead of merely thinking about them?  As reported, the study’s protocols seem to ask far more questions than they answer.

In any case, the article’s author decided not to ask such questions.  In the end, she merely aped the researchers’ claims that “different emotions are represented in distinct bodily patterns and that these experiences are universally human.”  Apparently, the “fitness professionals” responsible for your performance, health, and safety don’t need to know anything more than that.  For one, I feel deeply embarrassed for the fitness industry.  Strangely, however, my head, chest, fingers, and toes remain unaffected.

Undeniably Nye.

[Notable New Media]

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (St. Martin’s 2014), recently-celebrated creationist debater, Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”), has collected a few dozen frustratingly brief essays on a wide variety of scientific topics with special emphasis, of course, on evolution.  Undeniable could inspire very casual readers of full-length non-fiction–if such creatures really exist.  But it might disappoint certain others.

I can’t help but conclude that Nye’s primary motive was to cash in quickly on his recent popularity among science literates and left-leaning political ideologues.  Which is absolutely fine–better him than Oprah’s spawn, for example.  First, he includes precious few references that discriminating and truly curious readers not only crave, but require.  Second, Nye’s opinions on GMOs, for example, were apparently premature.  Indeed, he changed his mind around February of this year, shortly after his visit to Monsanto’s headquarters.  “GMOs are not inherently bad,” he finally concluded in an interview with HuffPost Live. “We are able to feed 7.2 billion people, which a century and a half ago you could barely feed 1 and a half billion people and [it’s] largely because of the success of modern farming.”  True, but why would that fact surprise anyone, let alone Bill Nye?

In any case, Nye remains an exceptional science communicator, perhaps because of his wonderfully geeky bow-tie, or maybe because he claims to empathize with the many religiously-abused deniers of evolution–including his debate opponent, Ken Ham, who still insists that the Earth is no more than 6000 years old.  Nye understands “the troubling nature of the shortness of our lives,” for instance.  But human mortality can either “make you want to listen to old country western songs about how miserable life can be,” he says, “or it can fill you with joy.”

I don’t know about any of that–mortality is a pretty tough nut to crack, regardless of one’s musical tastes.  But Nye’s certainly correct that humans as a species–most individuals excluded, of course–have made great strides in comprehending the objective truths of our existence in just the last 150 of our 100,000 total years on planet Earth–thanks to the methods of science.  “Think what lies ahead for our species,” he prescribes hopefully, “if we preserve biodiversity and raise the standard of living for everyone.”  That could be great, I suppose–depending.  But maybe a great deal to ask of a species whose adult members continue to think of “science” as merely a subject they studied (or not so much) in school.