Golden ideas

By Razib Khan | March 6, 2006 4:33 pm

Evolgen points me to the fact that even our hosts here at Seed are spreading the “blondes are going to go extinct” hoax/meme which first cropped up 3 years ago. I also noticed that someone as informed about biology as John Wilkins was was taken in. An altered iteration of this hoax/meme that focused on redheads was also spreading last year. As Evolgen notes, this meme has been thoroughly debunked. To make it short, if you assume that blondness is a monogenic recessive trait (a gross simplification), its expression in the population will be q2, derived from Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium p2 + 2pq + q2 = 1. A recessive trait will be expressed at a lower frequency than a dominant trait vis-a-vis the causative gene’s frequency in the population. Because recessive traits are easily “masked” within a population selection has a difficult time expunging them from the gene pool, ergo, the common feature of deleterious recessives persisting at very low frequencies (there is often a mutation-selection balance in this case). In regards to the blonde hoax the key is that the blonde phenotype could go extinct if you had a low enough frequency and a random-mating scenario…at least temporarily. The expectation is that over the generations occassionally someone who carried the “blonde gene” would mate with someone else who carried the same allele and their offspring would re-express the blonde trait, even if the frequency of the allele was low enough that one would expect in any given generation no one would express the trait. In other words, unless an allele is positively selected against, it will presist in the genetic background.
OK, enough baby genetics. The fact that it is a hoax is pretty well documented (the “research” was never done and emerged out of thin air, the WHO sourcing is bogus), and the scientific problems or confusions relating to the idea are clear. Of course, early 20th century geneticists might have been confused and fooled too, so don’t feel too bad. What I am curious about is why this meme is so contagious. As I note above, it even spawned daughter memes (note that the redhead-going-extinct-meme wasn’t as retarded and took into account basic Mendelian issues, evolution in action!). One of the original problems with Dawkins’ “meme” idea is that it was “mind blind,” there were no assumptions or inferences made based on the nature of the way we engage in cognition. Anthropologist Dan Sperber has been working over the past 20 years on a paradigm he terms an epidemiology of representations, why do some ideas spread and others fail? Though the details of the idea are important (eg., ideas that have a replicative instruction do well), the nature of how well the idea fits with the mind are also crucial, highly counterintuitive ideas tend to fail because they are hard to remember and comprehend, triviallyr intuitive ideas are just too banal. Something that is somewhat novel, but not too out of the ordinary, tends to flourish.
How does this relate to the blondes-going-extinct-meme? My questions is this, why do journalists keep repeating this hoax even though trivial googling will unearth its falsity? Obviously the idea is appealing or plausible in some way. Here are reasons I think it spreads:


1) First, the fallacy of blending genetics. Humans perceive genetics to naturally work in a blending fashion because that is what we tend to see in our own lives with our parents and ourselves. A whole suite of traits tends to be thrown together in a synthetic melange, and we have a difficult time understanding that fundamentally genetics is particulate or discrete. If blondism is thrown in a mix with a dark-haired majority it naturally makes sense that it would “go extinct” because its shimmering essence is diluted. This is the sort of thing that cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer terms “getting information for free,” we already have some intuitive ideas to work with that the idea can slot into. The blending paradigm of genetics naturally implies that variation will be diminished, and blondes happen to be one antipode of that variation. The implication of their diminution is clear.
2) Next, the fallacy of panmictia. In a Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium you have random mating so that all alleles are associating randomly. In a scenario where all humans are mating randomly blondness does have issues, it seems plausible that if 1 out of 20 adults white American adults is naturally blonde than less that 1% of humans are naturally blonde as adults (this is a back-of-the-envelope intuition derived from 1 out of 20 northern Europeans being naturally blonde). The implication here is that around 20% of the alleles that code for hair color in northern Europeans are blonde generating. If northern Europeans are about 400 million out of the world’s 6.5 billion people (I’m being very generous with the term “northern European” here I think) you get around ~1% of the alleles for hair color being blonde. In a panmictic situation, where everyone in the world is randomly mating, you have fewer than 1 out of 10,000 individuals expressing blondness. What is the problem with this? Aside from my simplifying assumptions (I’m not off that much I suspect in any case), we don’t live in a panmictic world!!! Journalists today are often from a high socioeconomic bracket, and they have likely traveled and met many different sorts of people. They likely know people who are involved in international and transracial marriages. This is novel, at least for now, and catches one’s eye. There are a non-trivial number of extremely disparate matings today because of emigration, travel and globalization. But, that does not represent the vast majority of humanity. Correlated genetic structure is going to persist for long time, and projecting out current trends 1,000 years into the future is pretty ridiculous. The fact is that interracial marriage is still relatively rare compared to what it would be given a totally random mating situation even in the United States (though far more common among small minorities like Asian Americans). Combine fallacy #1 and #2, and you get a situation where blondes disappear into the blackhole of the beige universe (even though the beige universe is a fallacy too!).
3) Lastly, I hestitate to say this, but there is the Passing of the Great Race fallacy. The early 20th century was the high water mark of scientific racialism, and books like The Passing of the Great Race and The Rising Tide of Color bemoaned the demographic decline of the white race in the face of colored peoples. Today the near minority status of non-Hispanic Whites in 2050 is a source of pride and relative joy for many whites. First, I don’t buy this as a cross-class phenomenon among whites, and second, this is premised on particular fallacies. The fallacies are simple, it assumes no intermarriage and neglects the reality that most people who are 1/4 Japanese American, for instance, identifiy as white, and racially it ignores the reality that a substantial subset of Hispanics are physically not discernable from non-Hispanic whites and so the window of assimilation to “Anglo” status is a strong possibility over 50 years. Also, as I noted in a previous post projecting fertility is not so easy, and immigration patterns are not fixed in stone. Nevertheless, there is also another issue, and that is that to some extent some whites take upon the burden of being above racial consciousness, facing racial extinction with equanimity and placidity that only a truly post-modern and civilized people can. Blondes, being the apotheosis of “whiteness,” are an ideal test case to illustrate this superiority. If there was an article about the extinction of blacks in 100 years I suspect that the tone would be less jocular and light, after all, diversity in the context of non-whites must be preserved. But there is another strand, and that is amongst the white masses, who consume tabloid journalism. I don’t think the sentiments expressed by Madison Grant or Lothrop Stoddard in the books above are totally dead, just as they find expression on other peoples and ethnic groups, and this sort of “scare mongering” is a powerful selling point. I have noticed that the “blonde extinct” and “redhead extinct” memes are extremely prevelant in white racialist message boards, this is the kind of thing they are primed to hear, the sort of dire warning that motivates them toward racial action. In short, you have a synergy of white elites showing off how advanced they are in not caring about their impending racial extinction, and white masses who still exhibit a modicum of racial awareness buying up the paradigm of doom & gloom because it is compelling and worrying copy.
The overall point is that science and society interact, that science is not a rational exercise, even if the final outcome is pruned, paired and reshaped by a social system which does result in a rational and empirical edifice. Though we may get to the destination we seek, the road is bumpy and filled with pot-holes of our own making.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics
  • http://nusapiens.blogspot.com/2005/11/survival-of-cutest.html Nus

    Good post, Razib. The persistence of this fallacy demonstrates that ignorance of the basic principles of population genetics is not limited to those aligned with the political Left.
    The most consistently non-understood (yet crucial) parts of Darwinism are Natural Selection and its younger sister, Sexual Selection. If there is strong enough selection in favor of blondes (and I think there is, at least in females), then the trait will persist. IMO the future probably won’t be alabaster skin-wise, but it might be blonder than the present.

  • http://evolvethought.blogspot.com John Wilkins

    A few comments.
    1. There was indeed an echt paper on the distribution of alleles for blond hair. The fraud was the WHO “report” that claimed blond alleles would be eliminated.
    2. Sperber’s view is, in my opinion, both trivially true (of course our prior psychological capacities and dispositions influence the spread of memes) and irrelevant. From a “meme’s-eye view” our brains are the ecological landscape to which they adapt by evolution. Boyd and Richerson’s recent book Not by genes alone has an excellent discussion of this, which they call the “biased transmission” model of culture. IMO neither Sperber nor Boyd and Richerson have quite disposed of the meme problem, only pushed it back a step. Of course, this needed to be done, because the original meme account (which, as it happens predates Dawkins and even Richard Semon in the 1930s, but goes back to TH Huxley) was naive, and trying to find a gene-analog for culture is otiose, but that said, the issue is not whether memes evolve, but whether they are observer-dependent. In short, is a “meme” just a bookkeeping entity, as Goudl noted genes were?
    If a meme is something that “exists” because it is salient, then its “mind-blindness” is unimportant. We can track the evolution of intentional, as well as unintentional, objects under the same rubric, just as we can subsume artificial selection under natural selection. And I am of the view that memes *are* phenomenological objects rather than physical ones.
    The real problem with the “blond” meme is typology. We try to classify the world in ways that are natural, but our types are often biased by social and cultural constraints, which is why “blond” even matters except as a phenotypic character state. I agree that there is an underlying racism involved in taking it to be significant often, but it does exist as a non-racial trait, and can be studied thus. What journalists do with that (and they have a conservative and restrictive framework for all new issues, particularly realting to science) is not the fault of the science, of course.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    john, you talking about the froster paper? you can find discussion at the link, and in the comments the author shows up. i liked the paper, but the data was more novel than the thesis.

  • http://www.iSteve.com Steve Sailer

    Razib writes: “to some extent some whites take upon the burden of being above racial consciousness, facing racial extinction with equanimity and placidity that only a truly post-modern and civilized people can. Blondes, being the apotheosis of “whiteness,” are an ideal test case to illustrate this superiority.”
    A good example is science journalist Steve Olson’s National Book Award-nominated account of population genetics. Of it, I wrote:
    “Another curious feature that Olson’s book shares with many other contemporary writings about population genetics is the author’s apparent longing for the abolition of his own subject matter via universal random interbreeding. Although animal and plant biodiversity is routinely celebrated as a supreme good, the conclusions of books on human biodiversity tend to treat it as a temporary evil that will soon be gone, and good riddance to it. It’s as if that geology textbook ended with an ode to the blessed day when the Earth will plunge into the Sun, thus happily eliminating the need for a science of geology…
    “In essence, what is so enthusiastically anticipated is the admixture of people of European descent. Evidently, there is something uniquely, even superhumanly evil and dangerous about European DNA that means it must be diluted. Strikingly, the greatest enthusiasts for this view tend to be highly European themselves. (Olson, for example, is blond.) This reflects that weird combination of racial self-loathing and racial egotism found in so many white intellectuals. A psychologist once said that alcoholics are egomaniacs with low self-esteem who see themselves as the turds around which the universe revolves. Post-modern whites tend to indulge in the same warped world-view.”
    Olson is blond.
    http://www.vdare.com/sailer/human_history.htm

  • http://adversecity.blogspot.com/ Oran Kelley

    This story also appeared in the Sunday NYT, WHO bit and all.

  • http://adversecity.blogspot.com/ Oran Kelley

    On memes:
    Anthropologist Dan Sperber has been working over the past 20 years on a paradigm he terms an epidemiology of representations, why do some ideas spread and others fail? Though the details of the idea are important (eg., ideas that have a replicative instruction do well), the nature of how well the idea fits with the mind are also crucial, highly counterintuitive ideas tend to fail because they are hard to remember and comprehend, triviallyr intuitive ideas are just too banal. Something that is somewhat novel, but not too out of the ordinary, tends to flourish.
    How much prior research and thinking is Sperber duplicating here? These are all essentially commonplace observations of anyone who has ever worked in, say, any marketing-related field. I can’t see how looking at this from the perspective of the putative entity “meme” improves anything (aside from making the commonplace look novel through new terminology, which, btw, is a long established marketing practice itself.)
    But if we are attempting to conduct discourse that is a little less centered on surface novelty, why use the word meme when the word “idea” has served us so well for so long, and why elaborately re-make observations that have already been made by wise men and sharpers through the ages?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    , why use the word meme when the word “idea” has served us so well for so long, and why elaborately re-make observations that have already been made by wise men and sharpers through the ages
    well, sperber doesn’t use the word meme. i use it here because of its common acceptance. i think he uses the term representation, though since his material is often originally written in french there might be a latinate bias in terminology. the original research is not really done by sperber, it is more memory & cognition work done by people like pascal boyer.

  • Jason Malloy

    Snopes shows the same hoax all the way back in the 19th century!

  • Cogsys

    why use the word meme when the word “idea” has served us so well for so long
    They may have similar denotations, but I think the different frameworks they imply (e.g. self-replicating cultural units in an ecology) would need to be much more interchangeable in order for us to say the more specific term (meme) actually has no use.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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