If there is one thing that casts a pall over the rise of genomic technology and its applications, it is the eugenics movement. This article highlights a new exhibit which surveys the historical development of this movement. Of course we all know about the abominations of the Nazi regime, but eugenics was a mainstream movement at one point. Consider:
For over 40 years, young socially marginalised working class women in Sweden faced the danger of forced sterilisation. This was carried out under laws intended to purify the Swedish race, prevent the mentally ill from reproducing and stamp out social activities classed as deviant. The last sterilisation took place in 1975.
Between 1934 and 1976, when the Sterilisation Act was finally repealed, 62,000 people, 90 percent of them women, were sterilised. 15-year-old teenagers were sterilised for “crimes” such as going to dance halls.
The founder of Planned Parenthood was, famously, but not exceptionally, a eugenicist. Though the racial aspects of eugenics have been widely emphasized, it is important to remember that in many ways it was also a class issue. In Better for All the World, a history of American eugenics, it is pretty clear that in some parts of the American South the movement and legal process was spearheaded by the local gentry who were intent on marginalizing and exterminating the local “white trash” population, whose evangelical religion militated against evolutionary theory and its applied sciences on principle.
I believe that the lessons of the eugenics movement have to be revisited, because genomic technology means that we will all be making choices about the nature of the next generation to come in a less spontaneous and more “scientific” manner than over the past few generations. You know what they say about learning from history….
Dienekes has a nice post up on the follies and failures of historical population genetics. As he notes, part of the problem is that people really want to find x instead of !x, and with a statistical science that is really, really, bad.
As I’ve said before I’ve been reading Martin Nowak’s Evolutionary Dynamics. Nowak is a mathematical biologist, and a lot of his research program deals with game theory, so it isn’t a surprise that several chapters in this book address exclusively game theoretic concepts. In the first chapter to tackle game theory head on Nowak covers a lot of ground, starting with the basics of frequency dependent strategies and pushing all the the way to some heavy theoretical ecology in regards to predatory-prey models. I’m going to pass over the more complex aspects of the chapter (e.g., Rock-Paper-Scissor strategies which involve 3 X 3 matrices), and just focus on the foundation: fixed strategy two player games.
Over at GNXP Classic Ikwa points to some papers from the PLOS One project, which facilitates public feedback in the peer review process. Ikwa has a full list of papers, but I’ll list the ones that he highlighted as of particular interest:
Imprinted genes are expressed in a parent-of-origin manner and are located in clusters throughout the genome…By sequence analysis of numerous species, we place the timing of this event after the divergence of Marsupialia, yet prior to the divergence of the Xenarthra superclade. We identify a large number of sequence variants in KLF14 and, using several measures of diversity, we determine that there is greater variability in the human-lineage with a significantly increased number of non-synonymous changes, suggesting human-specific accelerated evolution. Thus, KLF14 may be the first example of an imprinted transcript undergoing accelerated evolution in the human lineage.
A few weeks ago I purchased what I have since referred to as a “coffee table book for nerds,” Martin Novak’s Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life, a richly illustrated hardcover which is eminently browsable. In keeping with the focus of Nowak’s own researches the chapters in this work are heavy on game theory, and light on population & quantitative genetics. This is fine by me, I’m interested in boning up on game theory beyond hawk & dove ESSes. But there is some evolutionary genetic material, though offering his more cutting edge spin.
In the second chapter there is a thorough look into adaptive landscapes assuming a hyperdimensional genomic space. The original adaptive landscapes were rather primitive affairs, conceived of by Sewall Wright (somewhat cloudily) as two loci diallelic dimensions in concert with one of fitness. Their aim was to illustrate Wright’s ideas about the importance of meta-population dynamics and genetic interactions (i.e., epistasis) in maintaining a diverse adaptive landscape with multiple fitness peaks. This was in contradiction to R.A. Fisher’s emphasis on one primary global peak which natural selection slowly ascended through action upon additive & independent genetic elements. Over the past 70 years adaptive landscapes have had more utility as illustrative heuristics than analytic tools which offer precise predictions which one might test. A few researchers have pushed the area of adaptive landscapes further with new mathematical techniques, see Sergey Gavrilets recent work for instance. But in any case I think adaptive landscapes are still more useful as analogies or heuristics which add a crisp precision to more conventional verbal descriptions than rigorous models which can offer up a clear experimental research program. Nowak’s chapter nevertheless is notable for highlighting the usage of this model in clarifying some issues
I have not, I think, made a secret of the fact that I am a “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” at least when set against the jeremiads of P.Z. Myers or Larry Moran. Part of this is due my personal laissez faire orientation when it comes to to falsities in the minds of others. So long as the falsehoods do not impinge upon my own life I am inclined to let them stand if a full frontal attack would necessitate the spending of time better allocated to other pursuits. Of course, religion is not a trivial thing, its manifestation has significant import for our world. But my own attitude has been shaped by the reading of scientific literature which suggests that some form of organized supernaturalism is an inevitable outcome of modal human psychology. In particular, this passage from In Gods We Trust has been a significant force in my own inclination toward pragmatism in regards to religion:
Finally, the fact that God’s word is accepted as true on faith-come what may-entails that it can never be false or deceptive or merely figurative . Ordinary preoccupation with lying and false belief in communication therefore plays no role in interpretation (or at least no consistent role). Neither can failed attempts at verification or confirmation of this or that aspect of the information represented in a religious statement, or inferred from it, undermine the audience’s belief in the statement’s truth.
On the contrary, apparently discomforming evidence only seems to make believers try harder to understand the deeper truth and to strengthen religious beliefs. For example, after reaading a bogus article on a new fidning from the Dead Sea Scrolls that seemed to contradict Christian doctrine, religious believers who also believed the story reported their religious beliefs reinforced (Batson 1975). For believers, then, confidence in religious doctrine and belief can increase through both, confirmation and disconfirmation of any factual assumptions that may accompany interpretation of those beliefs….
Nick Wade has a new article which draws upon the two new books about the genetics of the British Isles, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, by Bryan Sykes, and The Origin of the British, by Stephen Oppenheimer. The gist is that the British peoples are genetically very similar, and predominantly the descendents of post-Ice Age settlers who swept up along the Atlantic seaboard from the “Iberian refugia”.1 To a first approximation this story is about right, the various studies seem to be converging upon the finding that most Britons and Irish are closer to each other than they are to continental populations (i.e., the English are closer to the Irish than their “fellow” Germanic peoples), and, they are closer to the peoples of southwestern Europe than they are to those of southeast or northeast Europe. But beyond the broad brushes there are fine grained details, and that is what Sykes and Oppenheimer seem to be attempting to fill in. I’ve read Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, and have a review forthcoming, but suffice it to say that Sykes’ work is servicable if a bit overly ambitious. I’ve haven’t read Oppenheimer’s book, but I have read his The Real Eve. He’s not one to be modest, and he’s trying to make another splash. I’ve stated earlier that I thought the Etruscan studies were historical population genetics done right, and I think here Oppenheimer in particular is all about the discipline done wrong. From a Popperian perspective I suppose one could say that Oppenheimer is making bold claims which demand to be tested, but, his idea that Germanic speech predates the Anglo-Saxons, and that the Celts brought agriculture to England, rest upon revisionst and extreme minority positions within history, archaeology and linguistics. It would be one thing if the genetics was rock solid, but it isn’t. The whole model seems an intellectual mess, more ego than experiment. The populations of northwestern Europe may simply be genetically too close to use uniparental phylogenies to definitively decide between historical hypotheses, other fields need to offer concurrent evidence, and that just isn’t happening here.
Update: Check out Language Log‘s critique.
1 – During the Last Glacial Maximum humans retreated in Europe to the more sheltered peripheries of the continent, whether it be in the Iberian peninsula, isolated valleys in the Balkans or the broad expanses of southern Ukraine. After the ice retreated a demographic radiation ensued from these points of origin which have left their genetic imprint.
I have often said that I tend to see “group selection” as a lesser evolutionary force when set against lower levels of evolutionary processes, e.g., “individual” or “gene” level selection. By group selection I do not mean pro-social tendencies, or the success of individuals who band together as a group, but rather evolutionary processes which can not be reduced down to a lower level of selection. In other words, evolution is acting directly upon the group as an emergent property of a collection of individuals. My skepticism toward groups selection is conventional and orthodox: evolutionary change induced by natural selection is, ceteris paribus, proportional to the variation in fitness correlated with heritable genetic variation. In other words, if genetic variation is uncorrelated with fitness evolution via natural selection will not occur. If there is no genetically heritable variation, then natural selection has no power. The classic problem with group level vs. individual level selection is that the former generally does not exceed the latter on the level of genes, that is, there is more within group variance than between group variance. Consider for example two groups, the Flemings and Walloons, the Germanic and Romance (French) speaking ethnic groups of Belgium. Though, on average, the Flemings maybe of fairer coloration (a genetically coded phenotype), it seems plausible that the variation within the Flemings and Walloons in hair color will exceed the difference between the two groups. In other words, on physical inspection alone one could not determine who was a Fleming or a Walloon with any great confidence, since the between group variance is dwarfed by the within group variance.