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Sunday, May 2, 2021

Rutherford's takedown of the Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence (NHAI) paper

Gregory Cochran is offered money to 
review "How to Argue with a Racist"

Pinkerite has often mentioned with approval the takedown of NHAI by anthropologist Brian Ferguson, and I was very pleased that Adam Rutherford also criticizes the very bad science involved in NHAI, in his book "How to Argue with a Racist."

Gregory Cochran is one of the two still-living authors of NHAI and is still involved in promoting race science (the third author was the late white nationalist Henry Harpending.) 

I have written about Cochran in the past year, noting his hostility towards Ferguson. So I wondered if Cochran was trash-talking Rutherford too. But the only mention of Rutherford I found on Cochran's West Hunter blog was the comment, displayed above. The West Hunter blog post that rgressis commented on demonstrates Cochran's continued obsession with race, and is entitled Black Doctors, Black Babies

Cochran wrote:

There’s a paper out claiming that black infant mortality is much higher when they’re treated by white doctors, rather than black doctors.

Could it be that MCAT scores have negative predictive value?

No, there’s a simpler explanation: the report is nonsense.  A metaphorical cee-gar to the first person to explain why.

And the next question is: why do the pinheads that authored this paper have jobs?

Cochran doesn't explain why the authors are pinheads nor why the report is nonsense. He does offer a metaphorical cigar to his followers, but does not, as far as I can tell, award it, for the "simpler explanation." So his problem with the paper (other than the conclusion) is still unknown.

I had to laugh though, as I scrolled along, to see Cochran complaining about the professional status of the authors of the paper:

gcochran9 says:

For some reason I assumed the authors were MDs. Not so: business school, public health. I can only hope that they become more familiar with how medicine actually works – much more familiar, and soon.


As I noted in my first post about Cochran, he taught anthropology without a degree in anthropology, but instead was described by the Los Angeles Times around the time of the publication of NHAI (2006) as "a physicist and genetics buff" 

And of course the godfather of contemporary race science is neither a biologist nor a geneticist: Charles Murray is a political scientist whose literary career has been supported by right-wing plutocrats plus studies funded by the racist Pioneer Fund.

Now to the take-down. I have transcribed this from the audio book. Curiously Rutherford never provides the full name of the paper, Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, and just refers to it as "the paper" throughout.

...'winnowing through persecution' is another suggestion in the paper. Somehow acts of oppression and tyranny resulted in survival of the smartest. The authors however are clear in the paper that they can't explain how that would work, as no such effect is seen in other persecuted people. I find it most strange that you'd include such guesswork in a scientific study...

...Cochran et. al describe money-lending and other forms of commerce that are presumed to be the preserve of Jews as "cognitively demanding jobs" and that "the Ashkenazi niche was so specifically demanding of accounting and management skills." Presenting this as evidence also sounds pretty sketchy to me. Medieval money-lending is not exactly rocket science and it's definitely not medieval brain surgery. 

They also cite specific biological factors and physiological effects that could increase intelligence. In the ancient days of 2006, we knew less than we do today about neuroscience and how biochemistry and cells relate to thought and action. But not that much less. Neuroscience is a vibrant field, but the truth is that we still really have very little idea of how neuronal growth and connectivity relate to cognition. If I have succeeded in convincing you that genetics is bewilderingly complicated, apply that to the development of the physical brain and the esoteric nature of thought, and you face one of the great frontiers in science. The suggestion that some disease genes have specific effects on the growth of neurons in a way that might enhance IQ reflects a profoundly simplistic view of neurological development...

...the model they are copying is that of sickle-cell anemia... the disorder is often thought of as being specific to Black people and therefore an example of how biology recapitulates race. But this is not correct. Sickle-cell trait has the effect of being protective against malarial infection. But the price of this protection is a terrible disease. Its existence corresponds not with ethnicity but with the geographical distribution of malaria, because they have evolved along side each other. It is indeed common among people of recent African ancestry, but only those whose descent co-locate with malaria zones, which represent a slice across the middle of the African continent. Similarly, sickle cell disease and traits exist at a high frequency in Greece, Turkey, the Middle East and India in a passim which mirrors the range of malaria. The suggestion by Cochran et al is that the cost of selection for genes involved in intellectual prowess is a high frequency for a handful of diseases (Tay Sachs etc.) that might be important in brains. As carriers of the disease genes occur at measurable frequencies in the population with little disease effect, it is suggested that these genetic variants are evidence for a genetic basis for enhanced intellect...

...the complexities of the arguments for and against the potential intellectual benefits of these particular genetic conditions are a total mess in terms of different studies arguing in support of selection, against selection, or for founder effects, genetics bottlenecks, or neutral drift where changes in DNA are neither beneficial nor detrimental. Cochran et. al. suggest other genes or bits of DNA that may be involved in promoting growth of neurons or the dendrites that grow out of them, and link to other brain cells. 

They didn't know this at the time of writing their paper but we now know that the genes associated with intellectual capability are myriad and are very small but cumulative effect. Pixels on a colossal screen. Of the genes identified so far, and remember that while we know these genes are important, we don't know what they do and therefore why they are important, many are expressed in the brain as indeed are thousands of genes and therefore may well have a direct effect on intellect. There are databases that list hundreds of GWAS results and thousands of genes. You can enter a gene and ask the database to pull out studies that indicate the gene is associated with any one of dozens of types of traits, from height to mortality to bones, as well as cognitive and neurological. I checked the current databases for the disease genes that Cochran et. al suggest might be driving selection for Jewish  brains, to see if at the time of writing they associated with brains or cognitive abilities. The result - not one of them does.

Speculation is sometimes an important part of science. Trying to dream up an explanation for an observation can be a productive way of honing a scientific question in the absence of data that explains it. But not in this case. This one paper has a resounding echo and continues to foster influence and discussion. It was championed by the then-science editor of the NYTimes, Nicholas Wade, in multiple articles and subsequently in a book that was almost universally derided by the genetics community as error-strewn and specious. But celebrated by racists. 

The celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson uncritically cited Cochran's work in February 2019 when writing about the disproportionate success of Jews in intellectual pursuits. I don't pretend to know the motivations of people publishing controversial work which does not fare well against the ruthlessness of scientific scrutiny. In my opinion, the Cochran study may appear to be pursuing scientific truth in the face of political correctness, instead it reads as political but neither true nor scientifically correct...

...to my mind commitment to these fingers-crossed speculations says more about the people that hold these views so tenaciously than it does about Jews, Blacks or any ethnic group. Some of the scientists and race-fixated ideologues are actual racists. Others merely contrarians or skeptics convinced they have unearthed some secret knowledge that has been quelled by a conspiratorial majority.
Arguments that the presence of brain disorders at high frequency in Ashkenazi Jews might explain the enrichment of genes that boost brains is woolly conjecture. And can be abandoned with current data to hand. Winnowing through persecution is also merely idle speculation and has no place in a decent scientific paper. These are fractionally more sophisticated versions of the evolutionary crime that we call adaptationism, also referred to as panglossism, after Voltaire's character Dr. Pangloss... it's the assumption that natural selection is responsible for specific human behaviors rather than happenstance or processes that are neither positive nor negative but have simply drifted into existence. In the genomic age we are capable of actually seeing the parts of the genome where selection has taken place and there are population-specific mutations that indicate positive selection of particular genes as adaptations to the local environment. Pigmentation, specific diets, resistance to diseases such as malaria and other traits are demonstrably local adaptation that are part of humankind's success of colonizing the world. 

Adaptationism is an error because in many cases it results in untestable hypotheses, but ones that are appealing because they sound superficially convincing: Blacks are good sprinters because of selection during slavery; Jews are intellectually gifted because their history of persecution enriched genes associated with brains. The evidence for selection of genes for intellect in Jews is weak. Is it not simply more scientifically parsimonious to suggest that a culture that values scholarship is more likely to develop scholars... 

...money-lending is a common stereotype not least because of Shakespeare's Shylock. In fact money-lending was a trade that was extremely limited in time and space within Jewish culture in Europe and by the end of the 15th century had largely vanished from Jewish populations. Yet the implication of Cochran et. al's scientific speculation is that business and financial acumen has driven the evolution of Jewish brains...

Rutherford mentions something I also mentioned recently - that in spite of NHAI being roundly criticized by the genetics community, people like Jordan Peterson (and Steven Pinker) keep promoting it as if it is settled science.

Strict adaptationism, described by Rutherford as "the assumption that natural selection is responsible for specific human behaviors..." is the foundation of evolutionary psychology which, like race science, is sociobiology. In this excellent video PZ Myers addresses the problems with evolutionary psychology and why adaptationism is wrong.

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