Saturday, December 31, 2011

Simpson story #3

One day in 1983, while I was over at the Simpsons’ doing the typing, I mentioned that the local PBS station in Tucson was about to start re-running the Richard Leakey series, “The Making of Mankind”. Anne Roe Simpson thought it would be lovely to watch over lunch, and George agreed, and so we toodled off from the library into the house and turned on the TV.

Anne made George his lunch (two martinis, every day for half a century) and sat down to knit some booties for their new great-grandchild.  The show begins; it’s the introduction to the series.  Richard Leakey comes on.  Anne mentions how they happened to be visiting Rusinga Island when his mother Mary found that Proconsul fossil.  Remember, G?  (She called him ”G”.  Nobody else did.)  GGS starts sucking down his lunch and zoning out.

Richard Leakey comes back on, announcing to the audience that there are some wonderful new ideas in evolutionary theory, and we’re going to hear about them from the amazing and wonderful Stephen Jay Gould.  Gould comes on and says, “Stasis... blah blah blah ... change ... blah blah blah ... punctuated equilibria”.  Simpson, who had only a minute earlier been fading fast, suddenly straightens up, as if detecting the subtle presence of another adult male Hamadryas baboon nearby.  From behind the Coke-bottle eyeglasses, his eyelids pop open, like Mister Magoo’s.

“The great man is about to speak,” said the graduate student in my head, “So listen carefully.”   Gould’s star had risen to the apex of evolutionary biology – I had been an avid reader of his Natural History columns since starting graduate school in the late 1970s.  And now I was going to hear what George Gaylord Simpson had to say about his work.

Simpson leaned forward.  The future faux historian in me froze the moment.  And Simpson said, “Boo!  Boo!  Boo!”   Even Anne joined in:  “Hiss!  Boo!”

And that is what I remember, for all time:  George Gaylord Simpson booing at Stephen Jay Gould on the fucking television set.


          Simpson felt as though Gould had been making his own reputation in part by putting him down.  In particular, he didn’t like Gould’s argument that Simpson “had it” in Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944) but “lost it” in The Major Features of Evolution (1953).  He felt, to some extent rightly, besieged by the punctuated equilibriists, the cladists, and the vicariance biogeographers – all of whom were bouncing their new ideas off of Simpson’s – without being able to see that as a testament to the scope of his impact upon the field.  Once I suggested that one could make an analogy to Darwin’s first (1859) and last (1872) editions of The Origin of Species.  The first is the one that made a mark on the modern world, the one that caused the sensation by presenting a bold and convincing naturalistic explanation for adaptation and the taxonomic hierarchy, which had previously not had one.  The last edition is flabbier, because it incorporates rebuttals and side arguments that don’t really add much, over a century later.  So maybe the first one is the more important one to read, all things considered, and maybe the same holds for Gould’s point about the importance of Tempo and Mode in Evolution.

Frankly, I have no idea where I got the balls to say such a thing to Dr. Simpson.  I  can only guess that it must have been after lunch, so he was a bit mellow.  He just growled, “The sixth was the one that Darwin intended for posterity.”

Years later, though – Darwin’s own Victorian inbred sexist intentions be damned! - I recommend  the first to students.  That was the important one.

Gould's essay, though, pissed off Simpson so much that when Gould subsequently published a Natural History piece on how his three idols while growing up were his father, Joe DiMaggio, and George Gaylord Simpson, GGS wrote him a nasty letter that ended something like, “and I don’t want to be your idol any more, either!”  True to his word, when PBS did a profile of Gould a few years later, Gould looked straight into the camera and told the audience how his three idols while growing up had been his father, Joe DiMaggio, and ... Charles Darwin.

Gould SJ. 1981. G. G. Simpson, paleontology, and the modern synthesis. In: Mayr E, and Provine, W., editor. The Evolutionary Synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p 153-172.


Here’s something new, a book on applied evolution, based on a wonderful Darwin Bicentennial Symposium in Melbourne, back in ’09 (as Victoria was on fire, I recall). 

I’m essay #16, in between Douglas Futuyma and Michael Ruse, here to remind you what a lousy idea it was to try to apply evolution to human society a century ago.  Anthropologists are such killjoys, aren’t we?  

Friday, November 25, 2011

So, est-ce la science?

The American Anthropological Association’s one hundred and tenth annual meeting, held in Montreal, is over.  Over six thousand people registered, more than ever before, but certainly fewer than next year, barring another San Francisco chambermaid strike (which, you may recall, made us international laughingstocks just a few years ago).

               Had a pretty good time.  Saw a lot of people I like, and didn’t see too many I can’t stand.  (Those people tend to avoid the AAA, anyway.)  Overall, it was kind of cold, kind of inconvenient, and kind of expensive.

               So, Is This Shit Science?  Actually the session was called, Science in Anthropology: An Open Discussion.  (I know, I left out the “merde” in the title of this post, but I don’t know where to put it.)  Ad-libbed a line about how Whether or not this is science, I needed a fucking GPS to find this room.  Got a titter.  I think the only substantive thing I had to say was that there is no anti-science conspiracy in anthropology, and only a paranoiac would keep saying it.  Now the paranoiacs are out to get me. 

               Neither the organizer (Peter Peregrine) nor the chair (Virginia Dominguez) really had much to say.  I held in reserve the fact that the Association was going to present its “Anthropology in Media” award the following night to someone who runs a pseudo-scientific internet dating site based on an updating of the Hippocratic humors – in which you are governed by testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, or serotonin – as if that is something that brings honor to the practice of anthropology.  But it never came up.  (The site is called, and is not about to be honored by the American Chemical Society anytime soon. )

               Russ Bernard had some interesting demographic facts, but didn’t convince me that the primary issues are demographic.  (I’m still mad at having been told back in the 1980s that there were all these anthropologists about to drop dead, and there would be all these jobs available...)  From the floor, Karen Strier seemed to agree that the problem was ecological/demographic (people fighting over resources), rather than ontological (the complexity of rigorous thought in a subject that spans biological and symbolic processes).  I still like to cite an old paper by Ralph Linton, who observed in 1938 (in one of those great old review articles in Science that you just don’t see any more):

This current tendency to bring physical anthropology into closer liaison with a whole series of natural sciences may widen still further the gap between it and cultural anthropology. The connection is already so tenuous that a complete break between the two seems well within the bounds of possibility. The phenomena with which the two disciplines deal are of different orders and the question is whether there is any real link between these orders.

               I saw eye-to-eye with Dan Segal on most of the issues, except one – the “Evolution is just a theory” warning-sticker-on-the-textbook issue.  Dan seemed to say that it’s true, and actually is a teaching moment for the philosophy/anthropology of science.  Both clauses are right, but I don’t think you can so easily dismiss the fact that it really is about fundamentalist Christians trying to undermine science education in the United States.  I think it would be a great idea for scientists to actually learn something about science before trying to teach about it (rather than how to do science, which they are good at), but allying with the creationists (or even the allowing the perception thereof) is not a winning formula.  There’s a too-clever-for-his-own-good sociologist of science named Steve Fuller, and a philosopher named Jerry Fodor, who have gone down that road, to the extent that nobody listens to them, in spite of the fact the they do indeed have something interesting to say.  (In fact, a really good historian named David Livingstone recently sent me a manuscript on that very subject.)

               On the other hand, the teaching of anthropology is also under unprecedented threat.  Not just in Florida, either (where the Republican governor, apparently frustrated by his daughter’s enlightened choice of a major, called anthropology out as singularly undesirable.  I can understand why – Edward Tylor had defined it as “a reformer’s science” way back in 1871.)   Actually, one of the creepiest bits of information I picked up (at the business meeting) is that there are no longer any departments of anthropology in any of the historically black colleges in the US.  Frankly, I haven’t seen the evolutionary biologists flocking to our defense.

               Maybe something else interesting was said.  It made The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog the next day.  Julienne Rutherford keeps threatening to post a video of it. 


Fodor JA, Piattelli-Palmarini M. 2010. What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux.

Fuller S. 2008. Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design's Challenge to Darwinism. New York: Icon Books.

Linton R. 1938. The present status of anthropology. Science 87: 241-48.

Tylor EB. 1871. Primitive Culture. London: John Murray.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tell us about Washington, son - Is it run by a bunch of crooks?

            It’s funny how political humor from 60 years ago could still stand up today.  Li’l Abner was a fairly subversive political satire when it started running in the 1930s, the “Doonesbury” of its day.  Like Lucy and Desi’s baby a few years later, the marriage of Abner Yokum and Daisy Mae Scragg was a huge media event in 1952.  In 1956 it was turned into a Broadway musical, with a fine score by Johnny Mercer and Gene DePaul, and a villainous plutocrat called General Bullmoose (“He makes the rules and he intends to keep it that-a way / What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA”).

            The most famous song is about Jubilation T. Cornpone (unshaven and shorn-pone!), but the most amazing thing is the Foucaultian eugenics song, sung by the government’s scientists:

Fellow scientists!  What delicious conformity!  Imagine – all reactions completely, utterly, precisely alike!  Think of the unbounded horizons of science!  When we can make all mankind look, act, think, feel, hope, desire, dream, buy and sell, inhale and exhale, exactly alike!

Oh, happy day, when miracles take place
And scientists control the human race,
When we assume authority of human chromosomes,
And assembly-line women, conveyor-belt men, settle down in push-button homes.

Oh, happy day, when all the cells conform
And the exceptional becomes the norm,
When from a test-tube we produce gargantuas or gnomes,
And assembly-line babies, conveyor-belt storks, only come to push-button homes.

So much of this, so much of that for the ears and eyes,
So much of that, so much of this for the toes and thighs.
Pour in a pot, stir up the lot, that's the basic plan,
What have we got? I'll tell you what: We've got man-made man!

Oh, happy day, when we can choose their looks
From formulae in scientific books
And add their personalities from psychiatric tomes
And assembly-line women, conveyor-belt men, settle down in push-button homes.

But what is inspiring this blog entry is the song describing the government after Li’l Abner visits DC for the first time.  Here is a clip from the 1959 film version of the musical, which retained the male Broadway principals, but not the females (Leslie Parrish for Edie Adams as Daisy Mae, and Stella Stevens for Tina Louise as Appassionata von Climax, but notably retaining the immortal Julie Newmar as Stupefyin’ Jones).  The indented material was deleted from the movie, but it’s all still amazingly resonant.

Them city folks and we’uns
Are purdy much alike
Though they ain't used to living in the sticks.
We don't like stone or ce-ment
But we is in agree-ment
When we gets down to talking politics

The country's in the very best of hands, the best of hands, the best of hands

The treasury says the national debt is climbing to the sky,
And government expenditures have never been so high,
It makes a feller get a gleam of pride within his eye
To see how our economy expands.
The country's in the very best of hands

The country's in the very best of hands, the best of hands, the best of hands.

[You oughtta hear the senate when they’re drawing up a bill
Whereases and to-wits are crowded in each codicil
Such legal terminology would give your heart a thrill
There's phrases there that no one understands
The country's in the very best of hands

The building boom, they say, is getting bigger every day
And when I asked a feller “How could everybody pay?”
He come up with an answer that made everything okay:
“Supplies are getting greater than demands.”
The country's in the very best of hands

Don't you believe them congressmen and senators are dumb
When they run into problems that is tough to overcome
They just declares a thing they calls a “moratorium”:
The upper and the lower house disbands.
The country's in the very best of hands.]

The farm bill should be eight-nine percent of parity.
Another fellow recommends It should be ninety-three.
But eighty, ninety-five percent, who cares about degree,
It's parity that no one understands!
The country's in the very best of hands

Us voters is connected to the nominee,
The nominee's connected to the treasury,
When he ain't connected to the treasury,
He sets around on his thigh bone.

They sets around in this place they got,
This big congressional parking lot,
Just sets around on their you-know-what,
Up there, they calls it their thigh bone.

Them bones, them bones gonna rise again
Gonna exercise the franchise again
Gonna tax us up to our eyes again
When they gets ‘em off’n their thigh bone

The country's in the very best of hands, the best of hands, the best of hands

Them GOP's and democrats each hates the other one.
They's always criticizing how the country should be run.
But neither tells the public what the other’s gone and done.
As long as no one knows where no one stands,
The country's in the very best of hands

[They sits around in this place they’re at,
Where folks in Congress has always sat
Just sits around on their excess fat,
Up there they calls it their thigh bone

They sits around till they starts to snore
Jumps up and hollers “I has the floor!”
Then sits right down where they sat before.
Up there they calls it their thigh bone.

Them bones, them bones gonna rise again
So dignified and so wise again
While the budget doubles in size again
When it gets them off of their thigh bone

The country's in the very best of hands the best of hands, the best of hands]

The money that they taxes us, that's known as revenues.
They compounds the collaterals,  subtracts the residues.
Don't worry about the principal and interest that accrues,
They're shipping all that stuff to foreign lands
The country's in the very best of hands

So here’s the genetics question:  Which of the actors in that clip do I share 12.5% of my DNA with, by descent,  including my Y chromosome?  I’ll  give you a hint, it’s my father’s father’s brother.  No, it’s not Peter Palmer (Abner), and it’s not Stubby Kaye (Marryin’ Sam). 
            Watch carefully when Pappy Yokum says “Tell us about the government, all them crooks!” at 0:59.  See the resemblance? 
            All right, this is like Hamlet convincing Polonius to see camels and whales in the clouds.  I might as well be related to Julie Newmar.  But that’s Joe E. Marks.  He was in several things:  He played Smee in the Mary Martin – Cyril Ritchard  “Peter Pan” and he was the first person on camera in the Lesley Ann Warren  - Rodgers & Hammerstein “Cinderella”.  You can also hear him here, in the 1965 musical, “Flora, The Red Menace” which was Liza Minnelli’s first Broadway lead:

And I still have her autograph, from when we went backstage and met her.  I think it was just before 3M invented invisible tape.

Al Capp, the cartoonist who drew Li’l Abner, was quite a douchebag in real life, no matter what his politics.  Although his politics were progressive in first few decades of Li’l Abner, he swung to the right as the country moved to the left.  Here he chats with John and Yoko, and sounds almost like Eric Cartman.  At the time, he and John Lennon were about equally famous, and both were more famous than you-know-who.  

Oddly, although alkaptonuria was one of the first diseases shown to be inherited genetically, he didn’t have it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Everybody’s favorite Nazi vacuum-cleaner mogul

               Once upon a time there was an incredibly hot Danish model, named Inga Arvad.  How hot was she?  She was named Miss Denmark, 1928.   She parlayed that crown into a movie career, although that career only lasted for two movies: most notably, Flugten fra Millionerne, something like “Fleeing from the Masses”.   She marries the director, a charismatic Hungarian doctor/explorer/filmmaker named Pál Fejös, whom we will call Paul Fejos.
               Fejos has some wealthy friends, including the founder of Electrolux Vacuum Cleaners, a Swedish industrialist named Axel Wenner-Gren.   Axel has branched out from vacuum cleaners to munitions, and some of his biggest clients are the Germans.  Inga decides that she’d rather do journalism than acting and modeling, and through Axel, she manages to get the first exclusive interview with Hermann Göring, Hitler’s right-hand man, and with Adolf himself.  At the 1936 Olympics (the Jesse Owens games), she sits in Hitler’s box and is introduced by him as the epitome of Nordic beauty.
               Inga emigrates to America shortly thereafter, and settles in New York, where she enrolls in the journalism school at Columbia University in 1940.  Her classmates, however, quickly tire of hearing her complaints about the Jews, and they put the FBI onto her as a possible Nazi spy.  When the G-Men break into her apartment, they discover that she has an autographed picture of Hitler on her mantelpiece, and so they conclude that she is not a Nazi spy – because what kind of a Nazi spy would have an autographed picture of Hitler in their living room? – but they decide to keep her under surveillance as a sympathizer. 
               She is still under surveillance, and still married, when she moves to DC to start writing a gossip column for a local paper, The Washington Post-Herald, and starts schtupping the dashing second son of the wealthy former US ambassador to England.  The former ambassador is Joseph P. Kennedy.  The son is John F.
               Suffice it to say, J. Edgar Hoover lived for shit like this.  He gets a hold of Papa Joe, and mentions that his son, in the Navy, is frolicking with this Nazi sympathizer.  Papa Joe mulls it over, and finds only three things wrong with his son’s amorous activities.  One, she’s married.  Two, she’s a Nazi.  And three, she’s a Protestant. 
               So he leaks the relationship to the columnist Walter Winchell, who writes on January 12, 1942:  “One of ex-Ambassador’s Kennedy’s eligible sons is the target of a Washington gal columnist’s affections.  So much so she has consulted her barrister about divorcing her exploring groom.  Pa Kennedy no like.”  The tryst is outed, and abruptly terminated, and Kennedy has his son sent first to South Carolina, and thence to the Pacific theater. 
               Winchell’s column, however, raised an interesting question:  Where was her “exploring groom”, and why wasn’t he at home with his smoking hot Nordic beauty queen columnist wife?
               Answer: Machu Picchu, of all places, with his old buddy Axel Wenner-Gren.  It seems as though Axel Wenner-Gren has some money in US accounts, and the Fed doesn’t like his politics, and are threatening to take it away from him, unless he does something philanthropic with it.  So Axel wants to start a fund for his side interest, Nordic studies, and would like Fejos to run it.  They compromise that it will be named after Wenner-Gren’s anthropological interest, but will be administered by Fejos according to normative anthropological ideas and interests.  And Fejos cables his wife (soon to be ex-wife), “Well, here it is, your first break in the greatest institution of newspaper writing in the U.S.  You made Winchell’s column.”
               Paul Fejos kept the Viking Fund, later the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, resolutely anthropologically mainstream.  He consulted with the great ones at Columbia – Ralph Linton, Sherry Washburn – for suggestions about what to fund, and helped subsidize the development of radiocarbon dating, and disseminating Washburn’s new physical anthropology, etc. – to his everlasting credit, and to that of his successors.
               Because it could easily have been otherwise.  Around the same time, a wealthy textile merchant named Wickliffe Draper was looking to start a philanthropy by which to support like-minded scientists. He called it The Pioneer Fund, and tapped the eugenicist Harry Laughlin to be its first president, in 1937.   Laughlin had been awarded an honorary doctorate from Nazi-controlled Heidelberg University the year before, in recognition of his pioneering work in the field of encouraging the modern state to sterilize its citizens involuntarily.  The Pioneer Fund, throughout its history, has chosen its beneficiaries quite differently from The Wenner-Gren Foundation.  A list of their grantees reads like a Who’s Who of Anachronistic Biological Determinism, resolutely faithful to the principal scientific and political interests of its benefactor, all those years ago.  Its current president is the psychologist J. Philippe Rushton.

Lombardo, P. A. (2002) '"The American Breed": Nazi Eugenics and the Origins of the Pioneer Fund', Albany Law Review, 65: 743-830.

Rushton, J. P. (2002) 'The Pioneer Fund and the scientific study of human differences', Albany Law Review, 66: 207-262.

Tucker, W. H. (2002) The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

I should add, old Axel Wenner-Gren sure knew how to make a vacuum cleaner.  My mother bought an Electrolux in 1950, and it still works.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Stupid Religions of the World, Volume 2

               The Hebrews finally wrote their legends down around 500 BC, and produced a masterpiece of redaction.  It blends Canaanite traditions with Babylonian traditions (from the 6th century exile, ended by Cyrus the Great), and gives the people a national identity rooted in the oldest civilization they had ever heard of, Egypt.

               One of the most remarkable features of the beginning of Genesis is the way in which it relates the same ostensible events in two successive different (even contradictory) voices.  These are actually marked for the reader textually, as the work of a Being referred to as “God” (Elohim) and “Lord God” (YHWH Elohim).  Thus, in Genesis 1:27, “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He them; male and female created He them.”  And then slightly later (in Genesis 2:7), “The the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (and Lord God doesn’t get around to making woman until 2:22).

               And thus are the sacred stories of different groups of peoples officially harmonized.  A millennium or so later, the Christians will do the same sort of thing, albeit a bit more clumsily, with the four gospels.

               The point is to give the Hebrews (later, Israelites; even later, Jews) a history, an origin, a unity.  The first Universal Ancestor is Adam; the second is Noah.  The first Specific Ancestor – that is to say, the father not of everybody, but just of these people – is Abraham.  Abraham not only roots the Hebrews in the ancient (pre-Egyptian) peoples of the Near East, but his genealogy is a great text in and of itself. 

               If you trace the human race backward, obviously at Adam you run into a dead end.  Abraham is not so much a dead end as a cul-de-sac, with a father (but no named mother), and a marriage to his half-sib, Sarah.  Sarah says she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife, twice – and later on, Abraham explains that it isn’t really a lie, for “she is indeed my sister, but the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother” (20:12).   Gods and heroes are not uncommonly the products of incest, for that makes them the end of geneaology.  Zeus and Hera are siblings.

               Abraham’s family serves an important political purpose, the claim to the land.  There are a lot of peoples there.  Who deserves to be there?  Let’s examine the family of patriarch Abraham for the contenders. 

               First we have Ishmael, father of many of the local peoples.  He is himself the first-born, but illegitimate, son of Abraham, by his Egyptian concubine or handmaiden or slave or something, Hagar.  Not only is his mother not from around here, but let’s face it, Ishmael is a bastard.  Hardly a noble sort of parentage, entitling his descendants to much in the way of land rights. 

               Second, we have Moab and Ammon, the sons of Abraham’s nephew Lot, son of his brother Harran.  Unfortunately, Moab and Ammon are not really worthy either, as the products of the incestuous union of Lot’s unnamed daughters with their father (Genesis 19).  I mean, your half-sister is one thing, but your daughters?  Enough said.

               Third, we have Abraham’s younger son, the legitimate one, Isaac.  And just to reinforce the point, Isaac will marry his first-cousin-once-removed (Rebekah) and have twin sons, the younger of whom, like his father, will inherit everything.  That son is Jacob, who will change his name to Israel, and whose children – the children of Israel – are the ones presumably reading the book.

               Like any origin myth, it tells us Who we are, Where we come from, and Why we’re here. 

               And the answer is, We come from around these here parts, we are descended from the indigenous owners, and we are the legitimate occupants.  It’s Abraham’s, and his only honorable and legitimate heir was the father of Israel, and we are his children.

               Except that we also come from Egypt.  So we will explain that as well.  We start with Izzy’s son Joe (just to make sure that you’re still reading attentively!) and end with Moses.  Moses was given God’s law, which includes a special statute, that you should take a day off once in a while, particularly after working six days in a row. 

               But there is a theological and political dispute here as well, of course – something involving subaltern monotheists and hegemonic polytheists.  His very name, Moses, is weird.  Weird enough, apparently, that the Bible decided that it needs explaining.  Thus, Exodus 2:10 – Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and decides to call his name Moses, “Because I drew him out of the water,” which is what the Hebrew root (M-Sh-H) would suggest.

               There are reasons for regarding this as just another load of bulrushes, as Sigmund Freud pointed out in Moses and Monotheism (1939).  Not the least of which is that it presupposes that Pharaoh’s daughter would be a fluent speaker of Hebrew, and would give him a Hebrew name while nevertheless concealing his identity.  If we take the position that Pharaoh’s daughter more likely was Egyptian and spoke Egyptian, then we perhaps ought to seek a cognate for the name Mosheh/Moses in Egyptian.  And that is when we discover the fact that there is a cluster of New Kingdom pharaohs who names all contain that lexeme.

               In the 16th Dynasty there is a king called Dedu-mose.

               In the 17th Dynasty, there are two brothers, and successive kings, Ka-mose and Ah-mose. 

               And then in the 18th and 19th Dynasties, a succession of pharaohs named Thoth-mose (Thutmosis) and Ra-mose (Ramesses), and Amen-mose (Amenmesse).  The root seems to mean “child”, as is “child of Thoth” or “child of Ra” – or even, perhaps, “Hey, look at the child I just pulled out of the river” .   Somewhere smack in there in there also is the birth of Egyptian monotheism under Akhnaton.  Maybe that’s just a coincidence.

               The point of all this is that we know a heck of a lot more about Akhnaton than we do about Moses.  We don’t know when Moses lived, or even if he lived, but we do know that there exists a nice chunk of bricolage about him for later mythmakers to work with. 

               And yet, genomic researchers claim to have identified his Y chromosome. 

               (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)      Yes, this comes down to genomics as 21st-century snake oil.  It will sell bogus tribal affiliations to African Americans, bogus clan affiliations to Europeans, and bogus claims of descent from Moses.

               How do you get the Y-chromosome of someone whose ontological status is on a par with that of Achilles and Merlin?  You go after his brother, Aaron the high priest.  As the first article on this subject began, in the leading science journal in the world, “According to biblical accounts, the Jewish priesthood was established about 3,300 years ago with the appointment of the first Israelite high priest.”

Karl Skorecki, Sara Selig, Shraga Blazer, Robert Bradman, Neil Bradman, P. J. Warburton, Monica Ismajlowicz & Michael F. Hammer (1997) Y chromosomes of Jewish priests.  Nature, 385: 32.

First I have to confess that anyone with the chutzpah to start a paper in Nature, “According to biblical accounts” has got my attention and admiration.  Apparently the rules are that you can adopt the bible as scientifically reliable as long as the book you are referring to is not Genesis.  After all,  it isn’t as if Exodus doesn’t contain miracles too.  Remember manna from heaven? 

               Or better yet,  when the river turned to blood?  I just saw a TV show that explained that it might have been caused by cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.  Those guys must have a different translation, because my bible doesn’t say anything about blue-green algae or cyanobacteria.  It doesn’t say, “And God turned the blue-green algae upon the Nile, and Lo, the Egyptians thought it had turned to blood.”  In fact, just where it could have said, And he did smite the Egyptians with cyanobacteria which these hapless morons thought was blood, it says rather “And he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood” (Exodus 7:20).

               It’s a miracle, get it?  Not a poorly-remembered history, as primitive 19th century scholarship often tried to render it.

               The point is, the geneticists find that Jews who self-identify as priests tend to have more similar Y-chromosome markers than Jews who say they are not priests (or Jews who don’t even know what the fuck you are talking about).  In itself, not very surprising, since Jews who claim to be priests tend to have similar surnames (Cohen, or a cognate – like Katz, a contraction for “true Cohen”).  And of course, people who have similar surnames tend to be more closely related to one another than they are to other people (a condition known as isonymy, with attendant implications for people who have only had surnames for maybe 300 years).

               And rather than understand the data within the facts of human biology, the authors put it into the context of biblical literalism.  And got it published in Nature. 

               But most importantly, you can find out if you’ve got The Lawgiver’s Y-chromosome for just $300.  And that’s where we begin to realize what genomics is really all about.  After all, Jesus didn’t know much about genomics (he was haploid to begin with), but he knew that if you have a conflict of interest between truth and profit, the truth will inevitably suffer (Matthew 6:24). 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Plotz biology

Yet through all this juggling, I detect no sign of fraud or conscious manipulation.

                        S. J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 1981: 69.

A couple of weeks ago a paper came out in PLoS Biology – an online, open access journal – that had some tongues wagging.  Various bloggers blogged about it, some journalists wrote it up – the one about Stephen Jay Gould fudging his data in accusing craniologist Samuel George Morton of fraud 150 years earlier.

            The problem with the paper is a fundamental one: It purports to be a contribution to the area of “science studies” but is signally poor as such.  It may be a contribution to revisionist positivism studies, but that’s about the most charitable thing I can say about it.  Even the conclusion is completely ass-backwards, which is something of a giveaway.  The conclusion they come up with, after arguing that Gould fudged, is that there is less fudging in science than is widely thought, rather than more – strange, given that they had presumably just added to the stock of fudge.
            There is an informal rule-of-thumb in the anthropology of science, that goes, “When smart people say stupid things, they’re usually doing it for a reason.”  Let’s start there.  What is this paper even about?  What makes it novel and interesting?  Why are they writing it?  (Sorry to sound like a science studies fan, but I think that’s what they might ask.)  The authors tell us: 
Gould’s analysis of Morton is widely read, frequently cited, and still commonly assigned in university courses (refs.).  Morton has become a canonical example of scientific misconduct...

Let’s pause right there.  Who says it’s an example of misconduct at all, much less a canonical one?  Gould didn’t; Gould argued that Morton fudged unconsciously.  I wrote chapters on “Bogus Science” and on  “Scientific Misconduct” in my book, Why I Am Not a Scientist  (their Ref. 4), and didn’t mention Gould’s  treatment of Morton, and I mentioned Morton himself only in passing, as a phrenologist.   (Perhaps unsurprisingly , that interest of Morton’s – the scientific aspects  of head bumps – doesn’t get a mention in the new paper.)
            So why didn’t I cite it as a canonical example of misconduct?  Two reasons:  First, Gould himself didn’t think it was; and second, even Gould’s argument for unconscious fudging had been convincingly challenged in a paper published in Current Anthropology 23 years ago (their ref. 14).
            In fact, not only didn’t I cite Morton as they were bemoaning, but (if their central assertion is true) only one other reference in their list might reasonably be expected to cite Morton, as a work of “science studies” analyzing scientific misconduct – The Great Betrayal, by Horace Freeland Judson (their ref. 16).  And Judson doesn’t mention Morton either.

Michael, J. S. 1988. A new look at Morton's craniological research. Current Anthropology 29:348-354.

Judson, H. F. 2004. The Great Betrayal. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Marks, J. 2009. Why I Am Not a Scientist: Anthropology and Modern Knowledge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

            So who do they cite in support of the statement that Morton is a canonical case of misconduct?  Works by three skeletal biologists: Loring Brace, Della Cook, and Jane Buikstra.  The problem is that the authors of this new paper seem to be criticizing the science studies literature for the perceived failings of skeletal biologists.  This is unfortunate, but not the problem of people working in science studies. 

            In fact, if you take the trouble to read Brace's Race is A Four-Letter Word (their ref. 11), you'll be more industrious than the authors of the new article. Why? Because in the context of an extensive and erudite discussion of Morton, Brace goes on to cite Gould's analysis in precisely the opposite way than the new paper claims.

            As far as science studies goes, then, the paper is erecting and attacking a straw man.  They produce no evidence that people who work in this area regard Gould’s critique of Morton as canonical, important, or valid.  The only two relevant works they cite do not in fact mention it.  One of the three references by skeletal biologists they cite as accepting Gould is actually completely dismissive of Gould (and I don't have access to the papers by Cook and Buikstra).   The central argument of this paper, then, is to correct the way that some skeletal biologists are mis-citing an obscure historical issue. 
            That is not new, interesting, or important.
            The bulk of the paper is indeed devoted to establishing a point that has been widely known for over two decades, and is widely accessible  because it was published in a major journal:  that Gould did not even reliably establish that Morton had indeed fudged unconsciously.  That paper is their ref. 14.  So their industry brings positive knowledge: Now we know, for absolutely sure, that Gould did not even reliably establish that Morton had indeed fudged unconsciously.
            Which brings us to the next question:  What do the authors themselves  think is new, interesting, or important about this?  What lessons do they think are to be drawn from their labors, of establishing something that was already known, and is unfortunately occasionally still mis-cited by people in physical anthropology?
            Here are their parting words:        

That Morton’s data are reliable despite his clear bias weakens the argument of Gould and others that biased results are endemic in science. Gould was certainly correct to note that scientists are human beings and, as such, are inevitably biased, a point frequently made in ‘‘science studies.’’ But the power of the scientific approach is that a properly designed and executed methodology can largely shield the outcome from the influence of the investigator’s bias. Science does not rely on investigators being unbiased ‘‘automatons.’’ Instead, it relies on methods that limit the ability of the investigator’s admittedly inevitable biases to skew the results. Morton’s methods were sound, and our analysis shows that they prevented Morton’s biases from significantly impacting his results. The Morton case, rather than illustrating the ubiquity of bias, instead shows the ability of science to escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts.

I must say, I had to read this several times in order to grasp the enormity of their illogic.  First, by vindicating Morton, they believe they have shown that “biased results” are not  “endemic in science”.  Well they certainly  still are in physical anthropology.   Physical anthropology is just now being discovered by historians of science, but its secrets are fairly well known.   What about Hooton’s criminological work (describing the statistical physical differences between inmates and volunteer firemen in three states)?  The physical difference may well have been real, but his interpretation of it was so crude that Harvard  never published the successor volume to Hooton’s 1939 The American Criminal, Volume I.  What about the nationalistic, racial, and anatomical biases that permitted Piltdown Man to go unchallenged for decades?   What about national traditions between Japanese and American primatologists?  Haven’t you ever noticed how Chris Stringer always seems to find the evidence for Replacement, and Milford Wolpoff always seems to find the evidence for Multiregional Continuity?  Do you think that’s a coincidence?
            It’s biased any number of ways, but it’s still science, and it may or may not be true.
            Let me give a relevant example, because it concerns a literal successor of Morton’s  - Carleton Coon of the University of Pennsylvania, sitting President of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 1962.  Coon published his book, The Origin of Races, as a scientific manifesto for the segregationists.  How do we know this?  Because we have his mail.  He worked with the segregationists and gave them preprints of his book, which tried to demonstrate that Africans had become Homo sapiens 200,000 years after Europeans – and which, he coyly suggested, may explain their backwardness and uncivilizability.

Coon, C. S. 1962. The Origin of Races. New York: Knopf.

Jackson, J. P., Jr. 2001. "In ways unacademical": The reception of Carleton S. Coon's The Origin of Races. Journal of the History of Biology 34:247-285.

———. 2005. Science for Segregation. New York: NYU Press.

            The author, Professor Coon, wanted his work to be judged independently of the circumstances of its production.  He worked hard to conceal his ties to the segregationists, and wanted people to read it  as if it were an objective work of science.  But it never was an objective work of science, and to read it today as if it were such a work, is to accept the author’s highly political dissimulation.  It was a scientific work written for the segregationists, and cannot be read honestly today as anything but that.
            So whatever Morton may or may not have done, and Gould may or may not have done, it has nothing to do with understanding the role of ideology in co-producing the facts of human science.

            Their second conclusion is even less logical:  That although the biases of the investigators are ubiquitous, a scientific fact can transcend them.   I suppose so, in theory.  But what particular fact are we talking about here, exactly?  That  a sample of African  skulls measured by a creationist phrenologist polygenist may have a smaller average volume than a sample of European skulls?
            Morton, whose work the new paper wants to convince you was shielded from cultural bias, actually was so engrossed in the differences among the sets of skulls that he was unable to see them as belonging to a single species, as the products of a single origin.  Does that sound like culturally unbiased scientific work?  Do the authors of the new paper believe that fact shines through the cultural bias as well?  If not, why not?

            The ideological bias is so overwhelming, that these authors can’t even see it themselves.  It resides in the question: What do you actually think you are explaining in documenting a difference in cranial volume between two non-representative samples?  Morton really thought that a difference of an average cubic inch in cranial volume explained why black people were enslaved.  Do you?  If you don’t, then why do you think this is important?  Morton’s conclusion about the hat size of races is not now, and never was, an important scientific fact.
            Earnest  Hooton really believed that he was explaining criminality by nailing down “the criminal look” of the head.  Carleton Coon really believed he was explaining racial problems in America not as the products of social history and injustice, but of evolutionary  biology.  In the 21st century, explaining human social facts by recourse to human biological facts is passé as science.  Go find another reason to measure heads. 

            That, to me, was the brilliant lesson of The Mismeasure of Man – it put the craniologists and psychometricians on the defensive, and forced them to justify themselves.  (And they eventually did so a few years later, I suppose, with The Bell Curve.)

Herrnstein, R., and C. Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve. New York: Free Press.

            But this brings me to the dirtiest thing of all about this paper.  Its model isn’t any admirably truth-seeking science; it’s inspired by the venomous nonsense of Derek Freeman.  Freeman was the maniacal Australian anthropologist who attacked Margaret Mead’s 1928 bestseller, Coming of Age in Samoa.  What was weird wasn’t so much the zeal with which he pursued the half-century old work, but his extraordinary assumption that it was somehow a lynch-pin of modern anthropology.  By elevating the significance of Coming of Age in Samoa, Freeman thereby elevated himself; and moreover, in knocking it down, he would be leading the way to a new and better (sociobiological) anthropology.  Freeman permitted other ideologues, like Steven Pinker, to dismiss Margaret Mead, and by extension, normative anthropology, as having been simply discredited.

Mead, M. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Morrow.

Freeman, D. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pinker, S. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking Penguin.

Shankman, P. 2009. The Trashing of Margaret Mead: anatomy of an anthropological controversy. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

            I see a lot of that in here.  I don’t think Gould’s analysis of Morton was any more important to science studies than Coming of Age in Samoa was to anthropology.  By inflating its significance, the authors of this study themselves become that much more important.  And they see their own exceedingly parochial obsessive work as being somehow paradigmatic.  It just isn’t.
            So I will take away two lessons from this.  First, about  Stephen Jay Gould.  Gould, like everybody else in science, tended to see what he was looking for.   That’s a good science studies lesson.  Second, about this paper.  For the most part, it is paranoid positivist rhetoric mixed with slovenly-argued bombast, and a warmed-over critique of Gould, not a significant new contribution to knowledge.  If it were, it might have been publishable in a real journal, like Current Anthropology.


I met Steve Gould once or twice.  He autographed my copy of Ontogeny and Phylogeny, “To Jonathan – May the creationists never have a day of peace!”  Years later, he did get me hooked me up with the Annals of Improbable  Research, which awards the IgNobel prizes annually, and for that I am grateful to him.  G. G. Simpson hated his guts, but that’s a story for another time.