The Armadillo Gauge

Armadillo
The armadillo questions your assumptions.

When I joined Twitter three years ago, I thought I would get into a lot of arguments with creationists. I mean, I’m an evolutionary biologist. We hear so much about the widespread rejection of evolution and the war on science. But I almost never interact online with anyone who questions evolution. Maybe the movement is losing energy, as least so far as directly confronting scientists is concerned. Instead, who do I find myself arguing with the most?

 

Racists.

 

Specifically racists of the “human biodiversity” variety. Folks who love evolution as much as I do. But they think it means that each ethnicity has evolved a distinct brain type. They think the cultural and technological differences among human societies are primarily due to genetics. To be clear, these beliefs are absolutely false. But when framed with scientific language, they can sound plausible. That makes them dangerous.

 

These pseudoscientific racists get a few things right. They often claim to be correcting common misconceptions. However, I think it would be hard to find many people who disagree with these facts:

  • You could take an unidentified human DNA sample and infer the major geographic homeland(s) of the person’s ancestors.
  • Some of these ancestry-associated genetic differences cause measurable average differences in anatomy and physiology.
  • Most human traits, including psychological traits, have a heritable component.

 

The human biodiversity crowd is also sophisticated enough to avoid some simplistic racist fallacies. They correctly accept that:

  • Genetic differences among populations are not absolute, but statistical averages. For example, a variant of a gene occurs in 20% of Peruvians and 40% of Nigerians.
  • Traditional racial categories, while correlated with ancestry, are a poor proxy for it. For example, “black” includes African Americans with primarily European heritage, as well as several African peoples as distantly related to each other as Greeks are to Koreans.
  • There is no such thing as a “gene for” a complex behavioral habit like altruism or creativity. Such aptitudes emerge from a medley of genetic and environmental factors.

 

But after that, the Darwinian racists head straight into fantasyland. They claim the genomics revolution has validated their form of bigotry. After all, we now know that natural selection has favored genetic changes in some racial and ethnic groups. But a closer look actually lays waste to their beliefs. What parts of the genome show this recent adaptation? Very few. Just the genes underlying the same superficial aspects that we can observe in other ways. Skin color. Ease of digesting particular foods. Ease of breathing at varying altitudes. Resistance to local diseases. Natural selection logically should act differently on these traits in places with differing climates, parasites, and available meals. In contrast, we do not see such differences in genes underlying mental traits. That’s also to be expected, because the main thing driving natural selection on our brains is other people. Our need to impress, outwit, and cooperate with each other provides the adaptive basis for our cerebral abilities. The human drama of gossip, romance, revenge, and fraternity doesn’t change whether you are a tropical hunter-gatherer or a farmer on a frigid plain.

 

The racists aren’t convinced. Their thinking goes like this. Natural selection is a powerful force, right? And people have lived such different lives for such a long time. Shouldn’t even slight intercontinental differences select for different brain wiring? It sounds reasonable at first. But it’s not, because the default assumption in evolution should be that traits do not change. The main effect of natural selection on most biological features is to keep them the same. This is even true of our minds.

 

Consider the armadillos. Sharp noses, weak eyes, crunchy shells, wimpy teeth, serious claws. These are nocturnal, insect-loving beasts with a similar lifestyle to the earliest placental mammals. Those ancient ancestors probably had an armadillo-like intellect. The armadillo lineage hasn’t had a brainy breakthrough since the days when it scuttled under sauropod feet. Now it so happens that most other mammal species diverged from armadillos about 100 million years ago. Woodchucks. Cows. Manatees. Shrews. Aardvarks. Walruses. For most of these animals, I know of no evidence that they are any smarter than armadillos. A handful of mammalian families did become smarter. We’ve all heard about the intelligence of dogs, dolphins, pigs, and of course all of us primates. So how fast does mammalian intelligence evolve on average? There isn’t a very measurable answer to that question, since intelligence isn’t a single concrete quantity like body weight. We need to go with our gut sense of what we mean by “intelligence,” and do some very rough estimating. As a back-of-the envelope guess, I might say that the average modern placental mammal is about twice as smart as an armadillo. Over 100 million years, that corresponds to an average rate of becoming about 0.1% smarter every 100,000 years. But human populations only began to split up about 100,000 years ago. Suppose human IQ evolved at something close to the mean mammalian rate during the past 100 millennia. If so, any variation among races is miniscule. The idea that the French must have different brains than the Ethiopians, simply because they live at different latitudes, just doesn’t hold up. Evolution, as a rule, is much more conservative than that.

 

But wait, say the racists. Why assume a typical mammalian rate for humans? Aren’t we an exception with our rapidly expanding craniums? True, our grey matter did evolve very quickly prior to the emergence of anatomically modern humans. But here are three reasons why this still doesn’t imply substantial racial differences.

 

First, how much smarter than armadillos are we, anyway? I’m going to a take a wild, human-flattering stab and say 20,000 times. 20,000 is a typical adult vocabulary size. And armadillos can learn at least one command via target-training. To get 20,000 times smarter over 100 million years, how fast did we need to evolve? Not as fast as you think. Remarkably, only an order of magnitude higher than the mean mammalian rate: 1% smarter every 100,000 years. Even this elevated rate couldn’t lead to big disparities among races.

 

Second, you shouldn’t conclude that our current rate of neurological evolution is still unusually fast. My ballpark math here, which assumes a consistent rate, is an oversimplification. Evolutionary trajectories don’t continue indefinitely. We didn’t sprout extra opposable thumbs. Imagine a gambler on a winning streak, betting for another big score. The streak is just a statistical fluke, and it’s foolish to expect it to continue. After flipping twenty heads in a row, you should still expect 50% heads on the next few coin tosses.

 

And third, suppose our intellects are really still on an evolutionary fast-track. Then wouldn’t we all keep evolving in parallel? Maybe we all got 1% smarter in the past 100,000 years. I’m just talking about the genetic component of intelligence, of course. We actually have gotten smarter recently, because of cultural changes. This gets to the root of racial prejudice: differences due to external causes are assumed to be innate.

 

So who should we target with evolutionary biology outreach? People who reject evolution for religious reasons? Or people who misinterpret evolution for racist reasons? The former gets a lot of attention, which is important, but let’s not ignore the latter. It’s even a more achievable goal, because these people are already excited about science. That’s actually a good thing. I don’t believe they’re a lost cause. If I’m right, then today’s Darwin-loving racists could be tomorrow’s objective evolution enthusiasts. If not, well, maybe 20,000 was an overestimate.

 

Religious fundamentalism is on the decline, thanks in part to countless science literacy activists. Racism is on a decline too, but it’s not going quietly. The presumptive GOP presidential nominee is no Bible thumper, but his whole campaign is founded on racism. So yes, let’s keep working to promote acceptance of what evolution has accomplished. But don’t stop there. People also need to know what evolution hasn’t done.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Armadillo Gauge

  1. I found teaching intro archaeology classes that even some well-meaning people with common misconceptions about evolution can come to racist conclusions without meaning to. A lot of people really seem to remember “survival of the fittest” and think it applies to everything – they think that all traits have survived because they were beneficial and don’t understand how neutral or even detrimental traits survive. I think this is mostly due to a lack of understanding of other forces at play in evolution, as you mention, that the null hypothesis is that things will stay the same, but also drift, founder’s effect, etc. As one example of how a misunderstanding of this can lead to a racist interpretation of human history – several of my students once kept asking me questions about the first humans who migrated out of Africa, and after a series of several questions, I realized that they were under the assumption that only the strongest, fittest humans migrated out of Africa (so they also had a misunderstanding of the nature of that ‘migration’ – they were thinking of it as a goal, rather than an unintentional movement over time, or an intentional movement of the people who just happened to live in the only place where you can leave the continent of Africa by foot). This post reminds me how challenging it is to teach effectively about human history without a solid foundation in evolution!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you’re unconvinced of HBD, please check out pumpinperson.com

    It is is operated by one of the best genetics bloggers besides Razib Khan.

    Like

    1. Thanks. I figured out the URL even though you entered it incorrectly. That site definitely convinces me that HBD is made-up nonsense. If you really think it’s one of the best genetics blogs, I could list many better blogs that may interest you.

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  3. In the last 100,000 years, the human species has split into drastically different environments. The northern races adapted to environments of the last Ice Age far more alien to their ancestry than did the southern races. Would that not speed up such phenotypic divergence? This possibility is already a confirmed fact with an array of polygenic racially differential traits like skin color, muscle mass, bone density, and so on. Would we use your theoretical trajectory to deny that racial differential skin-pigmentation adaptation ever occurred? You seem to take intelligence to be a special exception, like evolution would discriminate between “superficial” traits and the traits important to human racists, but you know that isn’t so. Nature does not care one way or the other for the opinions of racists. Racists could be correct even if we really don’t want them to be. Intelligence is a phenotype so highly dependent on selection pressure that it would be an evolutionary miracle if no such differential adaptation occurred. And, in fact, genetic variants for intelligence have been identified, and they really do vary in frequency according to the way racists expect. Look up the CV of Davide Piffer.

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  4. @Abel Dean

    Could you expand on why human intelligence is so “highly” dependent on selection pressure?

    Current data allows us to extrapolate that intelligence is a highly polygenic trait influenced by possibly thousands of genes. As a matter of fact human intelligence would be conserved to a degree and every difference would probably be due to genetic drift or selection of alleles with pleiotropic effect rather than direct influence in intelligence.

    Of course you must also be aware of the Flynn effect which indicates that what IQ measures wasn’t at its full potential in the past, therefore it is a leap to expect high selection for it.

    Not to mention that scans for selection pressures among our genome show little evidence for that, granted they are incomplete at the very best.

    Again I am open to any evidence. Let’s first find the genes that influence intelligence, show a statistical difference between folk races, and show that this difference has an additive (taking into account epistatic interactions, etc.) result that has a direct impact on different cognitive abilities that cannot be changed due to environmental pressures.

    We have yet to show any of the abovementioned propositions.

    My prediction is that the small differences in the distribution among those genes between races will result (I am conceding to a somewhat biodeterminist position for the sake of my point, ignoring GxE, etc.) in IQ differences within one standard deviation making it really hard to extrapolate anything for individuals. Also I predict that sub-saharan Africans will be the ones that will come higher due to their higher genetic diversity.

    My main problem with scientific racism is that its stronger proponents hang around white nationalists and guys like David Duke. In the name of academic freedom I am fully in support of pursuing a heterodox hypotheses but at least take your time to disapprove white nationalists and pursue the science only.
    But maybe that’s just my biased position.

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