How technology makes ideology irrelevant

By Razib Khan | March 4, 2011 2:04 am

Dienekes points to two interesting phenomena which when juxtaposed together show how the pace of technological change can outrun ideological arguments and hand wringing. Those of you who have been reading me since the early 2000s know where I stand on issues such as the “Kennewick Man” controversy. I think there’s an objective reality which should be studied. The latter is a normative judgement. There’s no rule embedded in the universe that truth needs to be set free, it’s a preference. So when it comes to Creationism of organized institutional religions, or shamanic ethnic Creationism, I don’t put much weight in its value or importance. But the shadow of Kennewick Man still looms over contemporary controversies as we crest the peak swell of human genomics in terms of the rate of increase of insight. Apparently members of the America Indian Program at Cornell are objecting to The Genographic Project. The project is headed by Spencer Wells, who has an appointment at Cornell now. An English professor associated with the American Indian Program apparently sent the student newspaper an almost parody-like email of impenetrable obfuscating academic-speak:

In a statement issued by AIP, the program’s director, Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, English, criticized National Geographic’s language about diversity and said that the project “deconstruct[s] communal identities by individualizing members” of marginalized communities, such as indigenous peoples.

“In marked contrast to the goals of the Cornell Ancestry Event, which seeks to define ‘diversity’ biologically in terms of universal genetic codes … Indigenous peoples customarily define themselves not biologically, but socio-culturally and politically in terms of varying ideas of nationhood,” the statement says.

“[The project] is ahistorical in that it substitutes a biological profile of one’s identity for one’s historical (social and political) connections to a particular community. This clearly has an impact, among others, on historically underrepresented groups in the U.S. — African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/as, and Native Americans — in that a biological profile can be dissociative in relation to one’s history,” Cheyfitz said in an e-mail.

Dr. Cheyfitz is an excellent high priest of this verbal arcana. And, he has acolytes:

Dajahi Wiley ’14, a student affiliated with AIP, pointed to historical trends that challenge what the AIP statement refers to as the project’s “homogenizing fantasy of a diversity where we all somehow wind up being the same.”

“For centuries, non-white peoples have been called fundamentally different from whites in physical and cultural ways. Now, there are groups and projects like the Genetic Ancestry Project that claim that everyone is basically the same,” Wiley said. “While the former was and is maliciously racist, the latter represents, at best, a naive understanding of the world and social dynamics. As such, this is a topic of concern not only for American Indians, but all communities of color.”

“What AIP objects to I think … is the way in which the Genetic Ancestry Project appears apolitical and acultural when in fact there are very real, but implicit, political and cultural sentiments expressed in it,” Curley said. “In other words, AIP sees the Genetic Ancestry Project as constructing a meta-narrative of human history and has objection to some of the assumptions and characterizations made in this process.”

Curley cited an example from the National Geographic website regarding “The Human Family Tree,” a similar project that tested and analyzed the DNA of 200 people on a single block of Queens, N.Y. The genetic analyses yielded representation of all of humanity’s major ancient migratory paths.

An accompanying timeline on the National Geographic website describes Native Americans as “cut off from the rest of humanity until Christopher Columbus arrived.” The description on the timeline is not only skewed but also a “politically-and culturally-rooted caricature of world historical events,” according to Curley.


A warlock!

It goes to show how insulated this particular academic and activist community is that they’d think this sort of opaque holding forth in a caricature of fashionable nonsense does their cause any good. There are real concerns they’re mooting here, and concrete issues with how science and powerful institutions have dealt particular populations. You can state the concerns in plain English in a way that makes it so that you are taken seriously, and you don’t give people an excuse to giggle because they think you’re being cleverly obfuscating. If you really believe in your cause you should try to speak as clearly as possible, and not cloak yourself in the dialect of your tribe. Terms such as “dissociative in relation to one’s history” probably have a plain meaning, if you are an Ethnic studies major, but they are just mystifying to the general public. It’s as if I held forth seriously about how we need to be careful, because the “genotype data is unphased.” That’s not going to mean anything to anyone.

Wells & company are eminently polite in these occasional spats. They must know these disputes are inevitable, as a concerted campaign emerged in response to the Human Genome Diversity Project in the 1990s. You can read all about it in The Human Genome Diversity Project: An Ethnography of Scientific Practice. I recall in the early 2000s Spencer Wells had to deal with an Australian Aborigine elder who expressed unvarnished skepticism at the theories propounded by geneticists in his documentary The Journey of Man. But from what I can tell the elder did not attempt to interfere in Wells’ scientific endeavor.

But at the end of the day all the agitation and worry about the implications of the HGDP it didn’t matter. You can pull down the HGDP data set, and do your own analysis overnight. Thousands of scientists, and hundreds of amateurs, are doing so right now every week. I’d be curious to see the ‘dissociative’ effect of the publication of papers such as Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation. But I’m skeptical that Dr. Cheyfitz has read and reacted to that paper. My impression is that the type who are hardcore political activists generally lose interest after the first battle is lost, and science moves on. There’s always another political issue to “deconstruct.”

Which takes me to a new paper which Dienekes highlighed as well, Genetic variation in Native Americans, inferred from Latino SNP and resequencing data:

Analyses of genetic polymorphism data have the potential to be highly informative about the demographic history of Native American populations, but due to a combination of historical and political factors, there are essentially no autosomal sequence polymorphism data from any Native American group. However, there are many resequencing studies involving Latinos, whose genomes contain segments inherited from their Native American ancestors. In this study, we introduce a new method for estimating local ancestry across the genomes of admixed individuals and show how this method, along with dense genotyping and targeted resequencing, can be used to assay genetic variation in ancestral Native American groups. We analyze roughly 6 Mb of resequencing data from 22 Mexican-Americans to provide the first large-scale view of sequence-level variation in Native Americans. We observe low levels of diversity and high levels of linkage disequilibrium in the Native American-derived sequences, consistent with a recent, severe population bottleneck associated with the initial peopling of the Americas. Using two different computational approaches, one novel, we estimate that this bottleneck occurred roughly 12.5 thousand years ago; when uncertainty in the estimation process is taken into account, our results are consistent with archeological estimates for the colonization of the Americas.


Savonarola, you lost. You’ll always lose!

Remember there are different kinds of genomic variation (e.g., microsatellites, SNPs, CNVs). Because of the political battles apparently there hasn’t been much sequencing of Native Americans. So the researchers simply looked at Mexican American mestizos, who have substantial indigenous ancestry. At some point in the near future anyone will be able to download the genomes of Mestizos and so gain a window into the genetic variation of Amerindian populations, whether those populations consent or not. If enough white Australians get sequenced, presumably someone could reconstruct the Aborigine genome from the fragments in white Australians. And so on. The technology has outrun the time for talk. If Spencer Wells is stymied by politics, private individuals could get genotyped and pool their information. This horse has left the barn.


Prometheus had the last laugh

So back to my preferences and values. We live in an age when human genomics is exploding, when the knowledge can pour out in front of you if you put in the labor hours. They take away the university funding. They can terrify scientists, or even assault them. But much of the data is now out in the public domain. There’s software to analyze the data, and visualize it. All that’s required is a will. Battles based on whether truth is One or truth is divided and subject to ideological preference will continue. But rest assured, the conclusion of this war is foregone. The incantations of the priests and the lamentations of their followers have no more power over us. I am smiling. Let them scream. They should if they suspect what truthful terrors may well up from the deep.

Image credit: Erik (HASH) Hersman, Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Köln

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
  • onur

    If ideologies (which are themselves mostly modern in origin BTW) want to be taken seriously in this age, they should fully submit to science and do not block or discourage it and be flexible enough to transform themselves in full accordance with the latest scientific findings.

  • onur

    I consider religions as ideologies BTW.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    onur, i think the main issue is that this type ideologue perceives science to just “another superstition.” if they’re being polite, they’ll say it’s another “way of knowing.” obviously we don’t look at it that way. but here you have a chasm of premises. though as i state, even if you believe science is objective truth, that does not entail that you believe all the depths of science should be plumbed. that is an ideological preference, one which i espouse. i suppose you could say i’m a positivistic nihilist.

    in any case, i think it’s pretty clear that i’m sanguine about these latest skirmishes in the ‘science wars.’ we won, they lost. this just a coda. the public may fear science. much of it may reject science. but without intellectual shock troops they won’t be able to fully mobilize collectively, and too much of the anti-science stuff stinks of political posturing and not genuine substantive sincerity. the former is a lot less dangerous in the long term than the latter. we believe that we have truth on our side. they have tenure in their sights.

  • onur

    Savonarola is a good example to the fate of the antiscience horde. How many people have ever heard of Savonarola? Contrast that with the fames of Newtonus, Galilaeus and Copernicus. In the same manner, no one will remember Cheyfitz, but the name of Wells will be an indelible part of the textbooks of the future generations.

  • toto

    Savonarola, you lost. You’ll always lose!

    Three cheers to that – though to be fair he lost against the Pope, rather than the forces of free inquiry…

    If ideologies (…) want to be taken seriously in this age, they should fully submit to science and do not block or discourage it and be flexible enough to transform themselves in full accordance with the latest scientific findings (….) I consider religions as ideologies BTW.

    One of my friends is a middle-class Pakistani with a PhD in molecular biology (gene regulation) from a reputable British university. She worked on plasmids and gene regulation under the supervision of a world authority on the subject. She spent four years of her life creating GM bacteria and comparing their response to various compounds.

    She also finds it really funny that I do believe humans are descended from “monkeys”.

    Humans are good at compartmentalizing.

  • John Emerson

    And scientists are better at compartmentalizing than almost anyone else. They have to be, because original work is normally done on specific narrow, well-defined questions and all other related questions of any kind have to be bracketed out.

  • bob sykes

    toto’s friend is not alone. Virtually everyone in the humanities and social sciences believes in the anti-evolutionary theory of the blank slate. At the same time, they claim to believe in “evolution”, by which they mean something like Spencerian evolution or maybe Lamarckian evolution. See David Stove’s book “Darwinian Fairytales.” It is the best summary of the humanist objections to evolution.

    toto’s friend is not even alone among scientists. I’ve known and read university physicists, mathematicians and engineers who think Darwinian evolution is mathematically impossible. Karl Popper for example and, if I remember correctly, Bertrand Russell. And, of course, Michael Behe, a biochemist.

    The town where I live just spent the last two years and a few hundred thousand dollars trying to fire a biology teacher who taught his students creationism (and fundamentalist Christianity and anti-Catholicism to boot). They succeeded. But the local paper has been full of letters supporting the teacher.

    The struggle against superstition still rages.

  • onur

    One of my friends is a middle-class Pakistani with a PhD in molecular biology (gene regulation) from a reputable British university. She worked on plasmids and gene regulation under the supervision of a world authority on the subject. She spent four years of her life creating GM bacteria and comparing their response to various compounds.

    She also finds it really funny that I do believe humans are descended from “monkeys”.

    Humans are good at compartmentalizing.

    I would classify hers as a case of hypocrisy rather than compartmentalization, and especially so as she is a biologist.

  • DPG

    What is this “shamanic ethnic Creationism” that you speak of?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #9, some native american groups claim to reject that they’re derived from asian immigrants, because their elders tell them they were always where they were. if you take them at their world, they’re saying they sprung out of the earth. it may be politics though.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Karl Popper for example and, if I remember correctly, Bertrand Russell. And, of course, Michael Behe, a biochemist.

    popper changed his mind. i also thought his issue was he didn’t think it was falsifiable. i’d b curious about russell. michael polyani had some ideas.

  • onur

    i’d b curious about russell.

    Judging by the writings of him I have read (I admit they aren’t that much; BTW, I have never been a fan of him), he would be one of the last people that I would imagine as being an opponent of Darwinian evolution (or any other proven scientific finding).

  • onur

    But if Russell was a blank statist (I don’t know whether he was or not), my thoughts about his reverence to science would change, as the blank state hypothesis (I cannot even call it a hypothesis actually, it is more like a belief/dogma) has been disproven countless times.

  • onur

    as the blank state hypothesis (I cannot even call it a hypothesis actually, it is more like a belief/dogma) has been disproven countless times.

    I mean scientifically disproven.

  • Mark

    “You can state the concerns in plain English in a way that makes it so that you are taken seriously, and you don’t give people an excuse to giggle because they think you’re being cleverly obfuscating. If you really believe in your cause you should try to speak as clearly as possible, and not cloak yourself in the dialect of your tribe. ”

    You get a similar deliberate obfuscating in a lot of modern poetry, but because it’s art, and not politics (well, the two do intersect, but you know what I mean), it’s completely unchecked by the need to actually reach people (which poets stopped trying to do a while ago), and is instead held up as something to aspire to, probably because it signals mastery of a tribal dialect, like you imply.

    Last year when I was getting my MFA I was assigned a book of completely incomprehensible poetry to read and write a reaction to. The only way I could figure out that it was about the poet’s brother’s struggle with AIDS was by reading the back. I wrote a nasty response to it and my professor wrote back that “[my] appreciation for poetry is severely hampered by an insistence on understanding what I read.” I suppose so.

  • dave chamberlin

    What is the worst that can happen. Funding gets suppresed in the USA but it goes on elsewhere. The fear that others are getting ahead of us in important technology will then trump our earlier ignorance and the funding will come back. Call it playing the sputnik card, if it’s good enough to create a 840 billion dollar defence budget, then it may be an ounce of fear is worth a ton of grant applications. Don’t let them chinese get too far ahead of us, why it gives me the shivers.

  • omar

    “I wrote a nasty response to it and my professor wrote back that “[my] appreciation for poetry is severely hampered by an insistence on understanding what I read.” I suppose so.”

    Seriously, he said that? Wow! Though I am not surprised.

    About plain language, I guess any language is a code understood by those who know the code. Post modernist professors and their more eager students presumably know the code, so its not impenetrable to them..and its not really aimed at anyone else. They are just signalling to each other. In many cases, it may be about tenure and social position in that world, but in some cases it may be a mating strategy. Given how much of adult life is now given over to finding a temporary mate, I expect that explains some of the nonsense..its a courtship display?
    I am partly kidding, of course.

  • onur

    Oops! I mistyped “blank slate” as “blank state”. Sorry for the confusion. I sometimes make such typos as English is neither my native tongue nor a language I speak in daily life.

  • Chris T

    What’s more is that people who take this line tend to be very selective about *which* beliefs need protecting. It’s OK to ignore the ideological objections of Christian creationists, but if a minority group feels threatened, by golly research needs to be stopped!

  • Brian Too

    A couple of comments.

    I agree with the title and premise as I’ve seen this very dynamic play out in another field.

    Do you notice that some people resist knowledge because “bad things might happen.” Well, yes! However fear of change and possible loss isn’t a very good survival strategy in the modern world, is it? This mindset was probably adaptive pre-Renaissance (sorry if that reference is a little geopolitically limited). Not so much now.

    Then there are the people who acknowledge some bad social situation of the past and are over-concerned with avoiding that setup in the present. The worst are the ones who are members of the (historically) oppressing group and aim to “adopt” the cause of the oppressed.

    Knowledge of the past and a conscience are all that is necessary to avoid a replay of historical injustice. In fact you can get along just fine with the conscience alone, if that’s all you have at hand. You don’t need to get all hyper-reactionary. It just comes off as misplaced and overbearing.

    When you step back, what is the more impressive and appealing philosophy of life?

    1. “Today I learned something about myself and the world around me. Tomorrow I’d like to do the same thing. Isn’t life great?”

    2. “Today I prevented something bad from happening. Tomorrow I’d like to do the same thing. Isn’t life great?”

    Of course they are not mutually exclusive positions. However for some individuals it can seem that way.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    I left a couple of comments on Dienekes regarding this issue. I won’t repeat them here. The Out of America theory makes this whole situation a bit more interesting and entertaining. Scientists correctly identified the Bering Strait as the geographic bridge connecting Old World humans and New World humans. But they totally messed up the directionality of migration, which exposed a fundamental weakness of positivist science: it substitutes an abstract, ideal sequence of selectively assorted facts for a real sequence of unique events, which is history. To an affected outsider, such as a Native American activist, this positivist story-telling looks self-serving ad politically driven because the selected facts aren’t unique events, hence are irrelevant for a truly historical narrative.

    BTW, I remember contacting Spencer Wells regarding the out of America alternative to out of Africa. His secretary directed my e-mail to him, but he never replied. There’s nothing particularly polite about refusing from discussing alternatives, whether you speak about your own ideas clearly or not. At the same time, I corresponded with Vine Deloria (the author of Red Earth, White Lies) – one of the Native American detractors of the Bering Strait theory – for a long time and visited him in Boulder in 1998. He was a truly mature intellectual who clearly understood the difference between myth and science and, unlike some of the proponents of the Bering Strait theory, knew how not to turn science into an ideology or a pseudo-religion.

  • http://www.riverellan.blogspot.com Tom Bri

    Onur, you wrote this comment:…If ideologies…want to be taken seriously in this age, they should fully submit to science and do not block or discourage it and be flexible enough to transform themselves in full accordance with the latest scientific findings.

    I must respectfully disagree. I have great respect for the scientific method, but little for any particular scientific fact. I have seen the facts change too many times even over just my lifetime to slavishly allow any particular one or set to dictate my beliefs. Science is lighting a lamp in the dark, but the dark is still a lot bigger than the light. There are too many areas where we have to operate on little better than blind belief. Science is a search for truth. Not truth.

  • Kiwiguy

    ***They must know these disputes are inevitable, as a concerted campaign emerged in response to the Human Genome Diversity Project in the 1990s. You can read all about it in The Human Genome Diversity Project: An Ethnography of Scientific Practice.***

    Peter Frost has a good account of this in the context of Cavalli-Sforza’s career:

    “In 1991, he announced a new phase of his research: the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), a program to collect and analyze DNA from all human populations. It would be the crowning achievement of his career. Among other things, it would “produce a mine of data to comprehensively explore human prehistory, determine the genetic relationships between the earth’s populations, and provide valuable information on human genetic diseases” (Stone & Lurquin 2005, p. 160).

    Cavalli-Sforza did not expect controversy. After all, he had been pursuing this kind of research for the past twenty-five years. He had also done all the right things, including not saying anything about links between genetics and behavior. There was of course his Inuit study, but it had been aborted at the last minute. Finally, the project had support from a broad range of scientists, including his old colleague Walter Bodmer. It could not possibly go wrong.

    It did go wrong. In fact, he had stuck his hand in a hornet’s nest. For the first time in his life, people were denouncing him as a racist and the HGDP as a “vampire project.” He was flabbergasted by what seemed to be a big misunderstanding.

    Yet there had been no misunderstanding. The new project violated principles that Cavalli-Sforza himself had earlier acquiesced to. This point was made by two opponents, Joseph Alper and Jon Beckwith, who denied that the HGDP would contribute anything worthwhile to the study of the human genome…

    There was nothing racist in the HGDP by itself. It did, however, draw attention to the existence of human populations and could therefore frame questions about the ways people differ from each other…In the face of these attacks on the HGDP, the only successful counterattack would have been to demolish Lewontin’s argument…

    …Instead, he chose the path of least resistance. He began to cite Lewontin’s 1972 paper after having ignored it for two decades. He also began to argue that the HGDP provided further proof for Lewontin’s conclusions…

    Cavalli-Sforza failed to see the substantive nature of attacks on the HGDP (2). The attacks were fueled not by a horrible misunderstanding, but rather by a sincere belief that very little genetic variation actually exists between human populations. The project was therefore at best unnecessary and at worst mischievous…The funding dried up and many researchers who had initially been interested began to shy away. Contrary to what Cavalli-Sforza states in his autobiography, the HGDP remains uncompleted to this day, at least in its originally intended form.”

    http://evoandproud.blogspot.com/2010/10/evolution-of-cavalli-sforza-part-vi.html

  • onur

    Tom, change is a constant characteristic of science and it in no way diminishes its value, on the contrary, greatly increases it. It is a virtue to change your mind when you get new information. If you value things in proportion to stability, then religions are overly better for you. I completely agree with you that science is a search for truth and not truth itself.

    There is no dictator to dictate you the scientific facts, you are free to believe what you want. But if you want to be taken seriously in the world of high IQ intellectuals, you have to play the game according to the rules and this is only possible by being flexible enough to adapt to the latest scientific findings. You don’t have to believe every one of them, but you have to adapt to the new environment accompanying them even when you have opposite views, and your opposing views have to have some validity.

  • onur

    this is only possible by being flexible enough to adapt to the latest scientific findings.

    and the latest scientific paradigms.

  • http://www.riverellan.blogspot.com Tom Bri

    Onur, thank you. Here your said:…You don’t have to believe every one of them, but you have to adapt to the new environment accompanying them even when you have opposite views, and your opposing views have to have some validity…

    This is a big step-back from your earlier statement. There are several currently-popular scientific beliefs that I have not been convinced on yet, the ideology is running far ahead of the science.

  • onur

    Tom, there is no step back, just clarification. I guess you misunderstood me because of my phrase “fully submit”. Fully submitting doesn’t mean blind belief, it means being in full accordance with and there is absolutely no necessity to regard every single scientific finding as true (scientists themselves don’t regard every single scientific finding as true, that would be completely unscientific).

  • onur

    there is absolutely no necessity to regard every single scientific finding as true

    There is also absolutely no necessity to regard every single one of the latest scientific findings as true, that would be completely unscientific too.

  • onur

    Flexibility is the key here, and not just for ideologues but also for scientists.

  • imnobody

    Not only religious guys compartmentalize. Naturalists are expert at compartmentalizing their philosophical assumptions and avoiding their ultimate consequences. They are so expert that they are completely blind to them.

    Anyway, three cheers for scientific progress, inquiry and evolution. And down for the Savonarolas of religions and ideologies (including naturalism).

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Onur, given when Russell was living, a blank slate viewpoint wasn’t unreasonable. A lot of the good evidence against that sort of claim has arose in the last fifty years, and a lot of the claimed prior evidence (and for that matter some of the claimed evidence now) is more ideologically motivated pseudoscience than anything else. Given what Russell knew at the time, being in favor of a blank slate would have been completely reasonable.

  • onur

    given when Russell was living, a blank slate viewpoint wasn’t unreasonable

    I have serious doubts about that. Technology may have been relatively inferior then. But I think tabula rasa can easily be scientifically refuted with even lower level of technology or not at all. In fact, I am flabbergasted by how it was taken seriously for so long and even why it was conceived in the first place.

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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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