I was recently contacted by a social scientist interested in genetically-based cognitive differences among human races. He wanted my opinion of his ideas. Here is my response.
I spent the evening after the election repeatedly singing, and playing on the piano, the same song: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” My four-year-old kid danced and sang along. Music helps me cope with grief. Indeed, my emotions weren’t all that different than they would be after the unexpected death of a good friend. I needed that simple melody and its depiction of a nation for all.
How could this happen? Everyone is abuzz with ideas. Most that I’ve seen fall into two categories, anger and empathy. Anger: that the electorate is full of racists and misogynists. Empathy: that working-class whites have legitimate concerns which Democrats failed to address. Both of these are accurate to some extent. Trump is clearly a bigot, and overtly hateful voters were naturally drawn to him. Income inequality is a real problem that no party is sufficiently fixing. But neither of these hot takes gets to the heart of the problem.
You wake up hungry and head straight to the table. This morning you’re having cinnamon coffee, toast with chocolate-hazelnut spread, hash browns, and a banana. Still sleepy, you’re grateful that both coffee and chocolate contain caffeine. Wait, is that because they’re closely related? You look it up. Nope. Chocolate is in the cotton family (you tug absentmindedly at your t-shirt), and fairly close to the hazelnuts that also compose your Nutella. Meanwhile, the closest thing to coffee in your meal are the potatoes. What about the banana? In your head you always grouped it with coffee and chocolate as an exotic tropical crop. It turns out the banana is far from both of them in the clan of your bread’s wheat, which is of course a type of grass. So is sugar. Cinnamon is the last ingredient you Google. You learn that it’s a very distant relative of everything else in your meal, far from almost all fruits and vegetables, and closer to nutmeg. Pumpkin spice diverged from pumpkins over 100 million years ago. This is exciting! You’re not sleepy anymore. You never bothered to wonder before how your own food fits into the tree of life. It’s like a puzzle. The familial relationships among species is known as phylogeny. The fruit in your mouth is kin with the crust on your plate, and, ultimately, with you and the rest of the world. Sated, you save half of the banana for lunch.
It’s election season here in the USA. This year is particularly cringeworthy, but the general format is the same as it’s been since long before I was born. Two major parties each nominate a candidate. Both candidates win a reasonable share of electoral votes. No one else ever gets any electoral votes. Neither party shows a consistent advantage over the decades. Occasionally third parties and independents have made a good showing, but this two-party system has been remarkably stable over our nation’s history. That amazes me. Let me clarify. I’ve seen a lot written about the dominance of Republicans and Democrats, and how Duverger’s Law impedes the success of new parties. But that’s not what interests me. As a biologist, I’m used to competitive exclusion: no two species can occupy the same niche indefinitely. Within a species, a genetic difference does not persist long in the gene pool except under unusual conditions. A balanced polymorphism requires an explanation. So my question isn’t why we don’t have more political parties. It’s why we don’t have fewer.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for a one-party state. Democracy doesn’t function well when we don’t have choices. But that’s exactly why the two-party stability is perplexing to me as a population geneticist. It’s not written into the Constitution that we need to have two parties to give voters a choice. No one had to legislate it, because the duality emerges naturally. But why? Think of a simple political model. Imagine that voter needs are distributed uniformly along an axis of policy. A perfectly centrist candidate should always outperform a left- or right-leaning party, in terms of being more appealing to more voters. Red and blue candidates should always lose to a perfectly purple candidate. If voter needs show a so-called normal or bell-shaped distribution, with more people in the middle, the centrist candidate will have an even greater advantage. This is what usually happens in evolution, after all. Most traits are under stabilizing selection, meaning the individuals with intermediate features do the best. Likewise, a single purple political party should emerge as the reliable winner election after election. That obviously hasn’t happened.
As a scientist, you get used to the fact that most of your friends and family don’t understand exactly what you do. My grandparents once misidentified both my field and institution on their Christmas newsletter, for example. Folks were especially confused when I was a postdoc, a bizarre hybrid of intern and professional that has no real parallel in the larger world. In my current position, things are better. People outside the ivory tower generally accept that I’m some kind of a professor and ask no further questions, since they know what a professor is. The twist is that now my fellow academics are befuddled. Do I have my own lab, or am I in someone else’s lab? Do I have students? Am I here permanently? Does the buck stop with me or someone else?
My job title is alternatively punctuated as “Assistant Professor, Senior Research,” “Assistant Professor (Senior Research),” or “Assistant Professor Senior Research.” I am considered to be “research faculty.” Because this position is outside the traditional path of grad student to postdoc to tenure-track faculty, other university employees aren’t always sure where I fall in the pecking order. Students want to know whether my job is any good, and if so, how to get a similar one. So let me clarify things. What exactly makes someone research faculty, anyway?
Like most biologists, I lean to the political left. I support Roe v. Wade and vote accordingly. I have progressive views on medical care, agriculture, conservation, all that life-and-death stuff we call bioethics. But let’s focus on abortion for the moment. Conservatives are often baffled by the liberal politics of scientists, since as they see it the science is on their side. Occasionally, pro-lifers will try to use my own scientific expertise against me. They ask, aren’t you a geneticist? (Yes). Doesn’t a zygote have a different genome than its parents? (Yes). Don’t textbooks show the mammalian life cycle starting at fertilization (Yes). So doesn’t biology prove that life begins at conception?
I can vividly recall the bathroom floor linoleum in the trailer where I lived as a kid. It was a cheap design of rectangles and squares, each an earthy shade of brown, yellow, grey, or peach. To me they looked like ducks. Almost any two adjacent quadrilaterals could be seen as a duck profile. One shape was the bill, the other the head. Sometimes additional shapes formed the body and tail. I would stare at those ducks endlessly, usually while sitting on the toilet. But it was only a simple geometric design. They didn’t really look very much like waterfowl, my brain just created pictures out of the tessellations. You’ve probably done this, too. Humans find meaning in random noise all the time, a phenomenon called apophenia.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in biology is distinguishing signal from noise. In evolutionary biology, we want to know which changes were favored by natural selection and which were nonadaptive chance events. In genomics, we want to separate functionally important genetic variation from functionally unimportant genetic variation. These kinds of problems are tougher in biology than in many other scientific disciplines because biological systems are inherently so chaotic. To make things harder, our brains are inclined toward apophenia. It’s easy to see patterns that aren’t actually there. But good scientists know how to step back and let noise be noise.