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Nature Vs. Nurture: Waging War Over the Soul of Science 235

derekmead writes "Wherever determinism appears, controversy attends, raising specters of days when colonialists, eugenicists, public health officials, and political idealists believed they could cure the human condition through manipulation and force. Understanding those fears helps shed light on the controversy surrounding a recent paper (PDF) published in the American Economic Review, entitled, 'The "Out of Africa" Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development.' In it, economists Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor argue that the economic development of broad human populations correlate with their levels of genetic diversity—which is, in turn, pinned to the distance its inhabitants migrated from Africa thousands of years ago. Reaction has been swift and vehement. An article signed by 18 academics in Current Anthropology accuses the researchers of 'bad science' — 'something false and undesirable' based on 'weak data and methods' that 'can become a justification for reactionary policy.' The paper attacks everything from its sources of population data to its methods for measuring genetic diversity, but the economists are standing by their methods. The quality of Ashraf and Galor's research notwithstanding, the debate illustrates just how tricky it's become to assert anything which says something about human development was in any way inevitable."
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Nature Vs. Nurture: Waging War Over the Soul of Science

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 18, 2013 @05:05PM (#42938793)

    Economists tend to be interested in how human behaviour relates to the study of money. Which is not exactly a neutral research direction.

    It was also an economist (Herbert Spencer) that studied Darwin and to give us the famous "Survival of the Fittest" instead of the more accurate "Survival of the Fit".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 18, 2013 @05:17PM (#42938889)

    The summary's typical inflammatory crap. THe paper takes an existing economic hypothesis ("Genetic diversity plays a role in economic development, and there is an optimal amount of diversity which has a net positive effect. There are also suboptimal amounts which have negative effects.") and then tries to justify it by pointing out that certain _genetic regions_ of the globe (not geographical, though they tend to fall along those lines) are better off than others.
    Most importantly, this study does not correct for external factors, and as is typical for most of the junk that economists push, it assumes that if there's a correlation, that correlation will hold true no matter how many factors are not analyzed in the data. Further, it's a bunch of "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" arguments with some handwaving to hide the stark (and, at least from the references in the paper, unsupported) assumptions they make.

    Is it bad science? Sure. But economics isn't a science, and if you disagree, you probably don't have a degree in a hard science.

    "The quality of Ashraf and Galor's research notwithstanding, the debate illustrates just how tricky it's become to assert anything which says something about human development was in any way inevitable.""
    Let me fix that for you:
    "Data be damned. If two people with degrees say it, they must be pioneers of truth hunted by the system, and if you say their argument is weak and laughable, you can't even see how deep your own bias runs!" Thank you, Slashdot. Sometimes I forget that you got bought out by sensationlists.

  • by fermion ( 181285 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @05:23PM (#42938931) Homepage Journal
    I am working my way through this book but so far it makes a pretty good case that human development is a combination between genetics and natural resources. For instance, it talks of one genetically identical group, separated over a long period of time to two disimilar environments, and when they met again one slaughtered the other.

    He talks of certain events happening repeated in different groups and at different times. For instance, the development of crops and the different rates of adoption of those crops, even by neighbors who can be assumed to genetically similar.

    This really has nothing to do with fear, anymore than saying that a light bulb is turned on by a human flipping a switch and not a human praying to a god who then allows the flip to be switched. It has to do with a long line of research that shows simplifying variation amount humans is problematic, and mostly a result of forcing generalities. For instance, asian people are short and thin is a genetic disposition. But when fed an western diet, many become tall and fatter.

    We all know that economist are basically are free to say whatever they want, because really, they make no testable conclusions. Cutting income does increase the amount of stuff we can buy, because, really,, how can we say that it is the conclusion that is incorrect and not just that we are too stupid to apply it. OTOH, if a geneticist says something, and it later proved false, the gentisist is not free to go around and say that her failure is caused by the lame media, and not bad science.

  • by femtobyte ( 710429 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @06:08PM (#42939291)

    Just looked at the actual paper... wow, that's a load of rubbish.

    The figures showing the data that they use to prove the "hump shaped" correlation of economic status against an optimal "middle ground" genetic diversity are just big sprays of uncorrelated points, through which you could draw basically any curve you want with equal statistical probability. The parabolic-shaped curves that they've chosen are basically entirely determined by a couple outliers in South America. No statistically reasonable interpretation of their results would give them anything publishable to say --- at least outside the especially low standards of Economics.

  • Eric Raymond (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Jodka ( 520060 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @06:54PM (#42939587)

    Open source advocate Eric Raymond [], author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar [] and The Art of Unix Programming [] has entered the Nature-Nurture debate, stating here: []

    And the part that, if you are a decent human being and not a racist
    bigot, you have been dreading: American blacks average a standard
    deviation lower in IQ than American whites at about 85. And
    it gets worse: the average IQ of African blacks is lower
    still, not far above what is considered the threshold of mental
    retardation in the U.S. And yes, it’s genetic; g seems to be about
    85% heritable, and recent studies of effects like regression towards
    the mean suggest strongly that most of the heritability is DNA rather
    than nurturance effects.

    For anyone who believe that racial equality is an important goal,
    this is absolutely horrible news. Which is why a lot of
    well-intentioned people refuse to look at these facts, and will
    attempt to shout down anyone who speaks them in public. There have
    been several occasions on which leading psychometricians have had
    their books canceled or withdrawn by publishers who found the actual
    scientific evidence about IQ so appalling that they refused to print

    Unfortunately, denial of the facts doesn’t make them go away.

  • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @08:16PM (#42940153) Journal

    ...based on the dynamics of the AGW arguments here, attacking methods and data and conclusions is tantamount to attacking the Scientific Method.

    I disagree, I started following climate science in the early 80's, became convinced it was a serious problem in the mid 90's, and started posting on AGW somewhere around 2000, The (often raucous) AGW debate on this site has overall been a good example of how science works over time to defeat self-interested propaganda (eg: I can't remember the last time I heard the "volcanoes" canard on slashdot). I think at the very least most people who have followed the slashdot debate are better informed because of it, I know I am.

  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Monday February 18, 2013 @09:41PM (#42940661) Homepage

    Let's forget about colonialism and the last 100 years.

    What I'm interested in is how the paper reconciles the notion that genetic diversity correlates with economic growth, that genetic diversity correlates with migratory distance from Africa, and the periods in time where the greatest centers of civilization, trade and economic growth were in Africa, while areas more distant were as to Ethiopia today?

    Are they suggesting that genetic diversity rapidly tracks up and down with the rise and fall of nation-states absent any explanatory mass influx of immigrants or genetically-selective die-offs? Where did all the genetic diversity come from in Europe that led to today's economic growth if it was not there when Europe was in economic doldrums?

    Or could this simply be yet another case of a researcher starting with the assumption that the socio-economic tapestry of today and only today is the natural, inevitable workings of biology?

    I give them props for considering the entire globe, at least. It's really funny when someone only looks at a specific time and place and declares it the perfect reflection of inherent biological differences.

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.