Race Ed

Does DNA cause racial differences in test scores?

I got a lot of feedback from Race, Genetics and Taboo. Mostly positive, believe it or not. One particularly engaging e-mail conversation was with Jonathan Tweet, author of the fantastic evolutionary children’s book Grandmother Fish. A lot came out of these dialogues worth sharing with the world. In any case, it’s my responsibility as a geneticist. Just as educators need to speak openly about safe sex despite it being an uncomfortable topic, so it is with race. Thus, even though I maintain that other species are more interesting, here I am writing again about (human) race and genetics.

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The Koala Conspiracy

Do marsupials even exist?

The word of the year for 2016 is officially “post-truth.” It seems a lot of folks just don’t care very much for facts. Instead, they form beliefs based on subjective feelings about what kind of experts are trustworthy and what kinds of stories fit their existing worldview. Fake news is rampant. It thrives under a secular version of Poe’s law: when politics has been fractured into extremes, any tale about the opposition sounds plausible. We are at an impasse. If showing people the data is not good enough, what is?

For science educators, this is nothing new. The most dispiriting and challenging aspect of science outreach isn’t ignorance, it’s willful denial. Folks who have heard about climate change, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines, or the safety of GMOs, but simply refuse to believe it. It’s frustrating. How do objective scientists reach out to the illogical masses?

We can start by not framing it as such a duality. Everyone operates on subjective belief. We’re not so different from each other.

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This Land is Your Land

You are still welcome here

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.

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Evolution for Breakfast

Every bite comes fortified with deep history

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.

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The Red Queen and the Purple President

Heads of stasis

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.

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