Thursday, October 18, 2007

'Race' and Evolution

James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double-helix, said in a recent interview that, effectively, blacks are, on average, less intelligent than other races. Here's the quote (via the ABC News link above) from an article quoting Dr. Watson:

"He says that he is 'inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa' because 'all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours-–whereas all the testing says not really,' and I know that this 'hot potato' is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that 'people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.' He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because 'there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level.' He writes that 'there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.' "

As many know, Dr. Watson doesn't exactly have a great reputation: after all, his and Francis Crick's discovery was based on data stolen from Rosalind Franklin, and there have been stories about his male chauvinist views. Thus, many will be quick to write this statement off as a personal racist streak. And perhaps he does harbor some racist views--one particular sentence is telling: "His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that 'people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." Here, he is erroneously attributing a group average to individuals, encouraging the extrapolation of a generalization to particular individuals, and vice versa, the stock in trade for prejudice and stereotyping.

But what about the rest of his statements? Let's consider what he is saying, starting with his last statement.

"There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."
Despite the many problems with defining and testing something like "intellectual capacity", we should be able to agree that there is something called "intellectual capacity" that we all have. It should also be clear that, unfortunately, not everyone has an equal intellectual capacity: simply look at true geniuses and the severely mentally handicapped in any population. Now we've established that a wide variation of intellectual capacity exists; some is certainly due to environmental factors, but some portion has to be due to our genes, our DNA. After all, we aren't smarter than fruit flies because of our upbringing and diet.

Now let's talk a bit about human evolution. The current generally accepted theory is that modern humans evolved in Africa and that a couple groups left Africa, maybe in several waves, to colonize other areas. Those groups located nearby geographically will tend to intermix their genes readily, while those geographically far apart (by distance alone or by barriers such as oceans or mountain ranges) will exchange genes rarely, if at all. If any population is split into two isolated or nearly-isolated groups, the groups will change (read: evolve) differently from each other. These differences are very apparent in facial structure, skin tone, and other obvious physical characteristics.

It is important to note that this distinction only works when looking at widely disparate parts of the globe. If you were to move systematically from one place to another across the land, (say from Eastern Africa to China) you would see a gradual shift from one set of characteristics to another. This is an important observation, and I hope the consequences of it are not lost on you; I will touch on it again later.

Returning to the general differences observed in disparate human populations, if we can see fairly big differences in visible surface features, why could there not be differences in other characteristics? And why couldn't one of these be intellectual capacity? It seems like a fair inference to make, given that we've established that genes can impact intellectual capacity, whatever that really is. Thus, it is possible that disparate groups of people can differ in intellectual capacity.

Now we can start to evaluate the portion of Dr. Watson's statement mentioned above. We have established that "the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution" can conceivably differ. Do we have, as he claims, "no firm reason to anticipate" that intellectual capacity would evolve identically in all human populations? Well, it seems unlikely that much 'downward' divergence would occur from a base level. However, it is entirely possible that all groups did tend to increase in intellectual capacity, but at differing rates. Thus, it does appear that this claim is also true. Given this, it should of course be apparent that "wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so" -- if indeed groups of humans vary in the "powers of reason," no amount of wishing will change that fact.

"He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because 'there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level.'"
Now we've established that it is entirely possible for different groups of humans to differ in intellectual capacity. Before I discuss this portion of the statement in full, I must touch on the concept of 'race' in biological terms. Contrary to what you might believe, species are not discrete units that have specific, defined boundaries. 'Species' are neat designations imposed on a messy world, to allow us to have some hope of grappling with it. Biologists understand that the borders of what is a species is often very fuzzy: there are examples of groups of animals where two fairly similar groups can interbreed with an intermediate group, but the two extreme groups cannot interbreed with each other (See Wikipedia: Ring species). Species distinction can only be seen between two geographically separate groups of animals, while there may be a constant variation seen when moving from the region of the first group to the region of the second group.

Sound familiar? The same thing is seen in a biological treatment of race: distinctions can be apparent in the extremes, while the races may appear to blend together in-between. Race-designation, like species-designation, is an artificial categorization imposed on a messy world. However, the artificial nature does not mean the designation is useless. It should also be emphasized that race here does not necessarily relate to skin color. It relates to ancestry from a historically isolated population relative to other populations. (As an aside, race distinctions will diminish as increased genetic mixing between disparate populations occurs.) These populations will have unique distributions of genes, potentially resulting in different phenotypic (displayed) outcomes.

Now let's return to this part of the statement. Let's assume, for the moment, that we have a good definition of intellectual capacity (which we don't), and that we have a good way to measure it (which we don't, and quite possibly can't), and for the sake of argument let's assume he is correct that people of African descent have, on average, less of an intellectual capacity. What does this mean? Well, it means that if you were to apply the ideal test to people of African descent, and obtained a mean, that number would be lower than that obtained for people of other descent. The mean is a value that indicates that (assuming an even, or 'normal', distribution) 50% of individuals are above that value, and 50% of individuals are below that value.

However, this doesn't tell us anything about how two populations relate to each other. In fact, it is highly likely that, even if the average does really differ, variation of the two populations would overlap so much that it would be incorrect to take the (potentially true) sentence "blacks, on average have less intellectual capacity than whites, on average" to mean the (patently false) sentence "all blacks have less intellectual capacity than all whites." You similarly cannot use the first statement to imply that any particular individual has a greater or lesser intellectual capacity than any other. This problem is further compounded by the inherent fuzziness around the borders of what we consider to be races. This is why discrimination based on race, even with evidence such as we have been discussing, makes no sense; this is exactly what Dr. Watson said. The second part of the above statement just makes sense: sure, promote those who do well regardless of race, but don't promote those who aren't quite there simply to meet some ideal of diversity.

Of course, even if all of this might be true, some would say that we should forbid any inquiry into such matters as sex differences or racial differences because it encourages the generation and maintenance of prejudices. I reject this type of claim on its face. Forbidding intellectual inquiry simply because it could generate 'harmful knowledge' has never made sense. Certainly a racist (or sexist, etc.) could seize on such knowledge as proof of their beliefs; however, their inability to grasp the difference between group averages and individuals ironically places them in the lower reaches of the intellectual capacity scale, and they would be unlikely to change their minds even if evidence showed the opposite was true.

Even if Dr. Watson has some racist tendencies, his overall statement and conclusions are not illogical in and of themselves; however, we would need a much more robust, culturally- and educationally-neutral way to determine intellectual capacity before we could make such a firm conclusion in any direction.

So what about his claim regarding Africa? It could, conceivably, be a factor, but the more important contributors to difficulties in aiding Africa are likely environmental and cultural. It's better for all involved to assume the latter.

Update: Dr. Watson has disclaimed his entire comments (CNN), though more likely to calm down the resulting firestorm than because he really didn't mean them, though his premise that there are good data supporting his claim is specious at best. As you can see, the reasoning behind the issue is complex, and may be difficult for some people to grasp, if they are paying attention through the whole explanation. It was probably easier for him to apologize than to try to explain.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Damned if we do...

Recently I've been thinking about the situation in Iraq, and struggling. I hate this war as much as the next person; I was against it from the beginning. It has weakened us domestically and internationally, and it has strengthened our enemies. I've wanted us to get out of there for a long time now... but I'm no longer as confident of that option anymore. Would leaving truly be the end of our involvement, or might we end up with a new problem 5 or 20 years down the road which will cost much more to tackle than sticking it out now? Will Iraq, now Shiite-majority, align with Iran after a bloody civil war? But if we stay instead, is there really a significantly decreased chance of that outcome, with much more American--and Iraqi--blood having been spilled in the process?

Regardless of how odious the start of the war was, we need to look at the problem of Iraq detached from those emotions, as a stand-alone problem. If we do not do this, we risk over-correcting and causing a greater problem than we already have, in a vain attempt to turn back the clock and pretend the invasion never happened. If we do pull out, we must do so only after careful, sober contemplation of the possible outcomes.

Friday, July 06, 2007


It's been a while, hasn't it? I'd like to talk about immigration policy in the United States, specifically the legislation which was recently rejected in Congress twice in the past two months.

First let's explore some of the principles underlying the issue. "We are a country of immigrants," is a commonly-heard phrase, but what does it really mean? At the simplest level, it means that the vast majority of the people living in America today can trace most of their ancestors from Europe and elsewhere, arriving after the 1500s. We're all familiar with the Jamestown colony and the Pilgrims, and all the waves of immigration since then. Every new wave of immigration was seen very similarly by those already established here. They were cast with suspicion, there were fears that they are taking "our" jobs, that they weren't assimilating. Thus, it is argued, we or our ancestors were subject to these same irrational fears at one point, and they eventually assimilated quite well. On the whole this is true; over several generations, assimilation has tended to occur.

There is certainly a small subset of Americans who are anti-immigrant and harbor these fears and prejudices, but that isn't the major reason that some people are against illegal immigration. Another phrase often used is "no one is illegal." This is supposed to strike an empathetic note, emphasizing how people who come live in the United States illegally are doing so because they're experiencing hardship in Mexico and are trying to improve their lives coming to America. It's sad that they are having this hardship, and it is commendable that they are trying to improve their lives by coming here. But lets consider this line of thinking... does everyone facing oppression and hardship have some right to come live in the U.S.? Any realist would have to admit that there are far more impoverished, starving, downtrodden masses (and there are people in the world facing much more hardship than those entering the country illegally) in the world than our country could accommodate, and if we even attempted to make an open invitation, the standard of living for everyone would drop precipitously, and there would soon be no more American Dream to reach for. As a practical matter, it would be impossible to allow everyone to come in if they wanted to. There is no inherent right for any person or group of people to pursue the 'American Dream'.

The United States of America is an entity containing a society, defined territory, resources, and a sovereign government. The government exists to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" (Preamble, U.S. Constitution), and it thus has a vested interest in monitoring and controlling the flow of people into the country. There are population vs. resources considerations (as noted above) and health and medical considerations, as well as security interests, among other things.

I agree with immigration in general: it's vital and in keeping with our national ideals. However, it becomes a problem when some would-be immigrants circumvent the legal, official immigration process and they aren't being caught and deported. The first problem with this is that we lose control over how many people are coming into the country and who they are. Second, we discourage and frustrate all the people who are patiently wading through the legal channel. Third, those that get through illegally are forced to stay underground and are subject to extortion and more hardship.

Currently there are two immigration paths. You can go through the legal process and enter American society as just another person, or you can try to cross the border illegally (sometimes almost killing yourself via smugglers) and taking day-labor jobs that pay far below the poverty level until you're caught or you die.

The first step to dealing with the problem is to shut off the second path. The border must be secured. Granted, this would be much easier if we weren't spending $144 billion/year in Iraq (Thanks Bush!), but it must be done. Why? Well, no matter what path you would choose to take to deal with the immigrants already here, it's much easier to do if you bring the rate coming in form a deluge to a trickle or not at all. Not to mention that there are security benefits from securing the border as well, from smugglers to possible terrorists.

The next step is to deal with those immigrants already here. Now I can sympathize with the boot-'em-out strategy, but they won't be very efficient or effective. The passive version, which is to make it so inhospitable for them here (by tightening enforcement on employers and the like) that they'll have to leave, likely won't work because these people are poor, may not have the resources to go back, or it may still be a better life here then at home. The active version, which is to actively hunt down and deport them, would require astronomical resources and effort from our law enforcement agencies and judiciary, and this would likely detract from the more important victim crimes. Also, as a nation we're partly responsible for their current situation. We didn't secure the border very well and we also didn't apply enough pressure on employers and to deporting them when their numbers were few. Thus many found it easy to live here, told their friends and family back home, and more and more came in. At this point, once we have secured the border, then implementing a program--call it 'amnesty' if you must, but the term shouldn't matter--which would give these people, who are currently living as a permanent underclass--a status which, ironically, would discourage assimilation--a path to legality, and eventually citizenship. Now of course we'd run background checks and deport those who had committed felonies and maybe make those with misdemeanors work a bit extra hard. But no other system is practical enough or accounts for the fact that our prior negligence allowed this to become as big a problem as it is.

I hope now you can see why we need to secure the border first, and that doing what this immigration bill would have done is putting the cart before the horse. And this is why I, a Democrat, am glad that it failed.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Surge and a Dictator's Death

Read: "He takes his secrets to the grave. Our complicity dies with him." Robert Fisk, The Independent

Read/Watch: "Olbermann: Special comment about 'sacrifice'" Countdown w/Keith Olbermann, MSNBC

It's unbelievable that we've reached this point. Over 3,000 U.S. troops killed on the battlefield. Many thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives. Nearly 47,000 U.S. troops, and God only knows how many Iraqis, have been wounded (link). And for what? Iraq has an insurgency that's been in its "last throes" (link) for a year and a half now, and there's no end in sight. It's even been reported that many members of the Bush administration, possibly even Cheney himself, may actually believe that the war is already lost (link).

So why, then, is a surge being considered? At this point, the reason is morbidly obvious: Bush does not want to be the guy who lost Iraq, does not want to be the one to oversee the withdrawal. NBC reported (link) that a pentagon official told them that the "surge" idea (a "surge" is not a strategy) was "more of a political decision than a military one." This is sickening. If you haven't, please watch Keith Olbermann's 'Special Comment' linked above.

Thankfully, the Democrats were able to take over both the House and the Senate, and we might be able to finally see some changes. The Democratic leaders of both bodies sent a letter stating, in the strongest terms ever used by Democrats, that a surge should not occur and that a phased withdrawal and shift to training and counter-terrorism operations must begin. Read it here.

And of course, Saddam Hussein was executed last week by hanging. His crimes, of course, are indisputably horrific, and there is no question that if anyone deserved the death penalty, he would be one of them. However, execution in this manor was a very, very bad plan. The 'trial' which got him to this point was a joke--a 'kangaroo court'--set up by a shaky Iraqi government under the guidance of the "Coalition:" lawyers and judges were killed, and Saddam's lawyers were hampered. In the end, he was only tried for one of his crimes and killed immediately. Why couldn't we have a proper international tribunal to fully document all of his crimes? Part of the reason, perhaps, is that U.S. complicity--and the people behind it--would very likely have been brought up, things they hope people would forget. Please read the first article linked at the top regarding this. It is a shame we rushed through this, and all for revenge.

The war did not start out impossible to win; we may have ended up in this place even if we had done things right, but we are certainly much worse off than we could have been.

Happy New Year.