Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Bell Stops Here: Genetics, Intelligence and Race

What we have thus far.

In my previous post, while addressing the myth of white supremacy, I discussed at length how geography and climate affect the advancement of civilization.

  • The acquisition, storage and maintenance of knowledge defines the advancement of civilization.
  • The ability to acquire, store and maintain knowledge is most determined by geography and climate.
  • The places where civilization advanced are those that had the optimal geography and climate.

Here I will begin to tackle the alternative theory, the one embraced by white supremacists: superior genes have provided certain races with more intelligence thus advancing those races.

Genes and Intelligence.

My contentions combine information from several different subjects: genetics, intelligence, race, evolution, prehistory, history, geography and climate. I am not following someone else's template to put this together, but rather weaving the various threads on my own and trying not to end up with an ugly Christmas sweater. After trying for a too-ambitious presentation which would have had this a very lengthy post, I decided to divide up this post into more modest-sized chunks, even though that means critical pieces will be presented later. In this post, I hope to add to the picture the basics of genetics, intelligence and race.

An Introduction to Genetics.

I liken genetics to the study of atomic physics. The theory of atoms comprising the particulate building blocks of matter goes back to ancient Greece and India, although early theories thought of every material having their own atom, i.e., wine was composed of wine atoms. The idea that only a certain number of elements mixed and matched to make molecules and chemicals was championed by Dalton at the beginning of the 19th century. It was only at the beginning of 20th century that we determined that atoms were made up of protons, neutrons and electrons, a microscopic solar system which is still easy to wrap the mind around. But then these were found to be made up of six types of quarks, six types of leptons, twelve regular bosons, and the Higg's boson. Waves are particles and particles are waves. Uncertainty is the ruling principle. Atomic physics is complicated.

Genetics is the same. Many people have a basic concept of Mendelian genetics: the genes from one parent mix with the genes of another and the child has a mix of traits. For centuries breeding has told us that if you put together a schnauzer with a Chihuahua you get a Chi-schnauzer. Many people know that genes are written out in something called DNA, a chemical that looks like a spiral staircase.

In reality: genetics is complicated. DNA doesn't look like a spiral staircase. It exists all bunched up with parts of it being shut down by proteins or chemically modified. There are jumping genes, silent genes, silenced genes, epigenetic events, transposed sections, promoters, etc.
The increasing complexity of DNA conformation from double-helix to chromosome.

And even when DNA is expressed, the products can be bound up with hairpins, blocked by antisense coding, and have to overcome molecules which attack them.

Rule #1 of genetics: Anyone who claims genetics is simple is lying.

Rule #2: Because genetics is not simple it is easy to weave jargon around their pet theories. These people will tell you the others are liars. Don't trust them.

Rule #2a: Don't trust me.

Seriously. Maintain a degree of skepticism toward anyone claiming to be expert. Test everything. Hold fast to what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21) Being able to separate the real from the bullshit is a necessary survival skill, more so these days with the internet tailoring information to feed biases.

A Brief Genetics Glossary.

I have a habit of talking over some people's heads, even when I think I am being clear. So that everyone is on the same page, here is a brief glossary of the genetic terms I'll use.

Trait: Any feature of an individual, whether it be physical, functional, or mental.
Heritable: Something that can be passed from parents to child or, in the bigger picture, from ancestors to descendants. A tall parent can have tall children. A parent who loses a leg in a car accident will not have a child who is missing a leg.
Gene: A single heritable trait. Sometime the word is used imprecisely to refer to a chromosome (below).
Genes: Collectively, all traits that can be inherited.
DNA: This is the chemical that makes up the genes. Your DNA can be thought of as a long series of letters that spell out the blueprint that is you. In humans, 3 billion letters long. In book form, this would be about equal to 5,000 books with 100,000 words of six letters apiece, a decent-sized library.
Chromosomes: Genes are bundled into long strands of DNA called chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of these, one member of each pair is received from each parent.
Evolution: The science of diversity within species and between species.

Before I go on to genes and intelligence, let's look at intelligence.

An Introduction to Intelligence.

One reason I brought up the analogy of atomic physics is that a parallel argument can also be made in regards to the second topic: intelligence.

For centuries, intelligence was not quantified, but rather expressed as a relative term: one person versus another, one group versus another. The proof of intelligence was individual mental skills, either basic (e.g., the ability to read) or advanced (e.g., the ability to compose abstract arguments or music or invent), or group skills (e.g., the degree of civilization). The last of these three was often retrofitted to define the ruling class and the ruled.

Near the beginning of the 20th Century, when humans finally got around to quantifying individual intelligence they came up with a single number: IQ. (Intelligence Quotient). Seriously. So-called intelligent people put forth that an individual's intelligence could be summarized as a single point on a line. Intelligence had no breadth, no width, no height, no shading.

Around 1940, intelligence was given two forms. Over the course of the 1990s, the modern theory developed and there were eight broad abilities each with their own bundle of narrow abilities. Linguistic intelligence is not necessarily mathematical intelligence, etc. This is the theory of Howard Gardner. Others have focused on the dimensions of intelligence, by analogy, depth being acquired knowledge, width being ability to process the knowledge, and length being editing, imagining, etc.

So how does one go about determining who is more intelligent given multiple forms of intelligence? Do you average them up? Why? Why should each be treated as an equal part to overall intelligence? Do you determine that some forms are more important than others? Which? Don't some of them overlap? Are these seventy forms of intelligence even the last word?

Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, another and influential way of dividing up intelligence

Let me add a few more aspects of intelligence. I once had a boss who was intelligent. He had a PhD and at times he could give brilliant, thought-provoking presentations. The problem was he had the emotional control of a two-year-old and this served to dim any amount of brightness and it sabotaged any intelligent output. When confronted with a personal error, he would insist on a conspiracy. He interpreted the most benign of statements as a personal attack. Having determined the conspiracy, he would rewrite his own work and dismiss those of his employees. In summary, he was a self-destructive buffoon. Intelligence has an emotional component.

In a different line, numerous studies have shown that child nutrition is linked to educational performance. In other studies, in third world countries where intestinal worms can lead to anemia, eradicating this parasite led to an increase in IQ. These findings makes instinctive sense: low energy and trouble concentrating equal low intellectual performance.

Energy level and ability to concentrate are also related to hormones. Too little thyroid or too much glucocorticoids can dull one's intelligence (or dull brain development). This is not only need to be seen as a disease condition in life, but could be related to the inherited levels.

Too little sleep can make a person dull. Beyond environmental or lifestyle causes, this could be the result of a variety of heritable factors, such as anatomical obstacles which lead to sleep apnea.

I have taken two formal IQ exams as an adult. I don't respect these tests enough to present the results, but I will say on the two days they were 20 points apart. That much, I believe. There are days when I'm smarter than others.

Low blood sugar, too much sugar, anemia, too little sleep, emotional control. Taken together, I'd like to propose the obvious: on top of all of the various forms of intelligence, intelligence has a dimmer switch. In the right circumstances it can be put on high or low.

Intelligence and Genetics: What We Have Thus Far.

Adding the above to the discussion of genetics, let's define two more terms.

Polygenic traits: Features of an individual that can be mapped to different genes.

Intelligence, with its many forms and influencers, is a polygenic trait. It appears on different genes and, because it has so many components, it is likely spread out over several chromosomes.

What does this mean when it comes to inheriting intelligence? This is a bit like Yahtzee. Yahtzee is a game where you role five dice. Even if your first role is a six, there is no guarantee you will have a high total, the numbers tend to balance out. Another way of putting this (for those who have no experience with Yahtzee), is saying that intelligence is like the lottery. Not that 1 in 10 million lottery, more like the Pick 3. Luck happens, but luck cannot be reliably counted on.

The results of this can be often seen historically. Although there have been geniuses who have had children of equal genius, there are many more with children of ordinary accomplishments.

Up to this point, I have not delved much into environment and intelligence. How much of intelligence is genetic and how much is the environment you grow up in? No one has the answer (or rather, everyone has a different answer). I've seen the number 50/50 just because people like to compromise and the reason why that number is chosen is because the person is making a statement that in the absence of a rigorously defined number, both should be considered equally. In the absence of a definitive answer, I guess that's an okay, although not precise way of looking at it.

I've seen many in favor of gene theories toss out numbers like 90% genes, 10% environmental. I look at these with suspicion because of the complexity of intelligence and how that can't be a single number. At least the 50/50 people admit that it isn't scientific.

There are those who believe they can translate "divided twins studies" into genetic versus environmental influences. Identical twins have the exact same genes. Those identical twins who are divided at birth and adopted by two different families in theory would provide a perfect opportunity to look at to what degree specific traits are inherited and to what degree they are environmental. They do provide some insight with the following limitations: the pregnancy environment was the same for both children; intelligence, being many things, it ends up with a lot of things to study and compare; epigenetic events (described below) which are both environmental and genetic; biases that can affect intelligence assessment (if both have dark skin, they may be treated with the same biases in intelligent assessment, in upbringing, or in teaching). In regards to the last of these, a world prejudice, genes can define environment and interactions.

There is another way in which environment and genes are linked. People inherit not only those genes that shout out their traits, they inherit genes that only speak up in the proper circumstances. This leads up to the next definition.

Epigenetic events: DNA is not only written down and passed down from parent to child, DNA can be turned on or off. If a gene is kept silent, it is as good as not being there. For example, without the person having the proper nutrition a gene might not be expressed.

To me, this is somewhat comforting. We not only inherit traits, we inherit potential.

In summary, X percentage of intelligence is genes; Y percentage is environment.  Even when saying intelligence is in the genes, it is not the same as saying intelligence is passed along: there is a mix and match of a various clusters of intelligence. As with anything you get from your parents, you get a little of this and a little of that.

On to the next subject.

Race and Genetics.

Hoo-boy. Where to start and more important how to limit a discussion about race? Something must be said about race, because the supremacy in white supremacy has an adjective in front of it. I'll keep it short, because, although the internet is free and you may think this is all I do, my time is not infinite.

Perhaps this sums up genetic research into race the best: ". . .racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance. . ." Richard Lewontin as quoted in Race Finished. What does this really mean? As described in the link, the overwhelming amount of differences between people are differences within individuals and not between what are called racial groups (about a 10-fold difference in favor of individuals). By lumping people together as groups, we miss out on 80-90% of who that person is. By analogy, race is noise; individual people are the signals. To rely on noise to get the message, we lose the message.

Wait a minute. Not much is defined by race? That's not nothing. And skin color, eye color, hair color, well several things at least, if not absolutely proscribed, do tend to strongly cluster in what are commonly called races. Why not intelligence?

I'll continue this in the next installment.

In summary:
  • Genetics is complicated.
  • Intelligence is complicated.
  • Intelligence is many things and polygenic.
  • It is difficult to reliably inherit intelligence.
  • In terms of genetics, race does not mean a lot.
In my upcoming post I will look at how several diverse topics apply to this discourse: God, Democracy, Evolution, The Migration of Humans and Prehistory.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
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