Monday, February 13, 2017

"The Genome Factor" - Conley and Fletcher

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For decades the Standard Social Science Model has dominated academic social science and mainstream elite thinking. Broadly speaking, the model states: (i) there are no innate precursors for cognitive traits such as personality, intelligence, character and interests - everything is environmental; and (ii) consequentially, there are no innate psychological differences between women and men - or between blacks, whites, east asians or the Ashkenazim.

Since everything is environmental (the 'blank slate' hypothesis) then any observed differences must be due to selective discrimination which can therefore be addressed by public policy. The consequence is a litany of discriminations with which we are all familiar: sexism, racism and various phobias.

Plainly there are differences in the physical realm. Some sports are gender-segregated, for example. But even acknowledging that makes people nervous. Physical differences are played down as inconsequential.

Less well-educated folk know that the blank-slate hypothesis is rubbish. A little experience of families, a little observation both of everyday life and of the world at large will convince most people that it is more likely that the moon truly is made of green cheese.

So what explains the astonishing durability of the SSSM?

Plainly it speaks to that powerful liberal sense of compassion and fairness highlighted in Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory.  Most western democracies are multiracial, patchwork 'internal-empires' - the legacy of centuries of immigration and in some cases slavery. Race- and gender-blind application of legislation and social norms is considerably enhanced by taking the view that formal social and legal equality is also biological equality. Once the argument for population-genetic differences is admissible, it seems to liberals that the floodgates of discrimination would be opened once again.

The ideology of the SSSM also makes it easy to justify generic immigration: high, low and zero-skilled ('everyone is the same'). This can be very convenient for company executives who suffer few of the frequently-negative social consequences of the latter.

Recent advances in genetic sequencing over very large populations pose a grave threat to the convenient untruths of the SSSM. It is already known that almost all psychological and behavioural traits of interest to social scientists are heritable at c. 50-60%. This means that about half the trait-variation in the population is attributable to genetic differences, the rest being due to differences in contemporary shared and personal environments.

Apart from hands-on confirmation of these heritability results, genomics also adds personalisation. Once we understand how to map a person's genome to such phenotypic attributes as IQ, personality, character and a myriad of narrower traits (such as political orientation) with high precision - and correlational accuracies of 0.7-0.9 seem potentially in reach - then it seems that genome truly is life-destiny. And most likely this is the case. The life-history similarities of twins, even when raised apart, tends to show the way.

Social scientists mostly ignore the incoming tsunami of new research. But the genomic telescope has been invented, it's not going to go away. A more sophisticated strategy is deployed in "The Genome Factor" by Conley and Fletcher. The authors are sociologists by profession but research the social science implications of genomic surveys. They had a choice - to go with the trend of such research to transcend the SSSM - or to find ever more intricate arguments to preserve it.

In choosing the latter approach, their strategy is to freely accept the theoretical results of population genetics and the empirical data of GWAS (genome-wide association studies) where this does not threaten blank-slatism. They then labour to find fault in every study which might cast it into doubt while feeding plenty of slack to the many purported environment-only explanations of race and gender differences. You will see plenty of uncritical space given to: continuing discrimination and poor institutions (pp. 107 ff.); subconscious bias, priming and stereotype threat (appendix 5).

In chapter 4, the authors address the claims of Herrnstein and Murray's seminal 1994 book, The Bell Curve. The three theses they wish to 'take seriously' are (to summarise): (i) increasing genetic stratification due to cognitive meritocracy; (ii) increasing assortative mating for intelligence; (iii) cognitive dysgenics via reduced fertility in the cognitive elite.

They announce, to their evident satisfaction, that none of these theses is born out by the evidence. But how convinced should we be by their arguments? The answer is, not very. There are many confounding variables - particular the massive changes in education and employment practices over the decades relevant to analysis - as Conley and Fletcher themselves spell out. In some cases the phenotypic attributes measured do, in fact, accord with Herrnstein and Murray's theses but the authors rapidly draw our attention to their underlying genetic correlates, as derived from GWAS.

Here they find no such trends. But unfortunately, we do not yet know the genetic markers for the relevant cognitive traits. Instead, the genomic indicator the authors use is the incredibly noisy 'polygenic score' (PGS). All we can really conclude is that the effects are small, and that as far as Herrnstein and Murray's proposed theses are concerned, it's too early to be sure.

Chapter 6, 'The Wealth of Nations', engages with Ashraf and Galor's 'Goldilocks' hypothesis of correlations between degrees of genetic diversity (too much in Africa?) and higher income and growth. Yet the correlations are poor (p. 124).  I wish they had engaged with work such as Garett Jones' 'Hive Mind', which focuses on ideas that country differences in IQ and size of the 'smart fraction' have something to do with it. Jones finds remarkably high correlations. But you can see the dangers.

So this is a book with an agenda although I think it's subconscious bias. The authors take too much pleasure in 'refuting' challenges to the core doctrines of the SSSM to make me think they're just doing so to protect their positions.

There are things to learn from this book. As critics they look for every conceivable flaw in twin and GWAS studies - this is socially useful. They also explain various techniques such as GWAS well, although the book is too technical and too dry for both the general public and mainstream social science academics.

In all, I regard this book as a missed opportunity.

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