The Art of Deception: When Kindness is a Lure to Betrayal

Over at NPR, Barbara King has a post about the mostly amusing deceptions that chimpanzee mothers sometimes engage in. It’s a nice post that includes an amusing video, which I’ve pasted below; note the look on the face of the mom when she cashes in on the deception, which is centered around an exchange of favors, and take her child’s tools. “Thanks; I’ll have that.”

King’s post put me in mind of an example of chimpanzee deception I highlighted in an article a few years ago. In this one, far more cruel, an act of apparent generosity is used to disguise something quite different. It came from the work of Frans de Waal.

Deception runs deep. In his book, “Our Inner Ape,” Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, describes a simple but cruel deception perpetrated by a female chimp named Puist. One day, Puist chases but cannot catch a younger, faster female rival. Some minutes later, writes de Waal, “Puist makes a friendly gesture from a distance, stretching out an open hand. The young female hesitates at first, then approaches Puist with classic signs of mistrust, like frequent stopping, looking around at others and a nervous grin on her face. Puist persists, adding soft pants when the younger female comes closer. Soft pants have a particularly friendly meaning; they are often followed by a kiss, the chimpanzee’s chief conciliatory gesture. Then, suddenly, Puist lunges and grabs the younger female, biting her fiercely before she manages to free herself.”

Happy holidays, folks — and careful what offers you accept at those office parties.

James Watson as genetic error

Adam Rutherford addresses James Watson’s attempt to dodge his past:

Like all contemporary biologists, my career is largely based on his work. The medal? If I could afford it, I wouldn’t want it. My field, human genetics, was founded by another racist, Francis Galton, who sought to demonstrate white British dominance over the colonies using biometrics. He gave birth to eugenics, an endeavour never realised in the UK, but that was broadly supported around the beginning of the 20th century across the political spectrum, from Churchill to Marie Stopes to William Beveridge. His and my alma mater, UCL, is currently thinking hard about how to scold his racism and continue to respect his scientific legacy, which is undeniable and unrivalled. The nicest irony is that genetics – the field he founded and Watson transformed – is precisely the subject that has singularly demonstrated that race as a scientific concept holds no water.

“No one really wants to admit I exist” says Watson. That’s not it. It’s more that no one is interested in his racist, sexist views. Watson, alongside Crick, will always be the discoverer of the double helix, to my mind the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Here’s our challenge: celebrate science when it is great, and scientists when they deserve it. And when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too. It turns out that just like DNA, people are messy, complex and sometimes full of hideous errors.

It’s a short, lovely, smart takedown. Get the rest at He may have unravelled DNA, but James Watson deserves to be shunned | Adam Rutherford | Comment is free | The Guardian.

Read 2: Trouble at Vassar, peace in Rwanda, success at the Strand. Plus Angela Merkel’s secret & how brains create agency.

The Astonishing Rise of Angela Merkel. By George Packer at The New Yorker

John Kornblum, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, who still lives in Berlin, said, “If you cross her, you end up dead. There’s nothing cushy about her. There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.” On Merkel’s fiftieth birthday, in 2004, a conservative politician named Michael Glos published a tribute:

Careful: unpretentiousness can be a weapon! … One of the secrets of the success of Angela Merkel is that she knows how to deal with vain men. She knows you shoot a mountain cock best when it’s courting a hen. Angela Merkel is a patient hunter of courting mountain cocks. With the patience of an angel, she waits for her moment.

German politics was entering a new era. As the country became more “normal,” it no longer needed domineering father figures as leaders. “Merkel was lucky to live in a period when macho was in decline,” Ulrich said. “The men didn’t notice and she did. She didn’t have to fight them—it was an aikido politics.” Ulrich added, “If she knows anything, she knows her macho. She has them for her cereal.”

My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK By Kiese Laymon at Gawker.

The fourth time a Poughkeepsie police officer told me that my Vassar College Faculty ID could make everything OK was three years ago on Hooker Avenue. When the white police officer, whose head was way too small for his neck, asked if my truck was stolen, I laughed, said no, and shamefully showed him my license and my ID, just like Lanre Akinsiku. The ID, which ensures that I can spend the rest of my life in a lush state park with fat fearless squirrels, surrounded by enlightened white folks who love talking about Jon Stewart, Obama, and civility, has been washed so many times it doesn’t lie flat.

After taking my license and ID back to his car, the police officer came to me with a ticket and two lessons. “Looks like you got a good thing going on over there at Vassar College,” he said. “You don’t wanna it ruin it by rolling through stop signs, do you?”

Love for My Enemies. An extraordiary tale, with video alternating with short stretches of connective-tissue prose, of reconciliation among the perpetrators and survivors of the Rwanda genocide. By Lukas Augustin and Niklas Schenck at The Atavist. Skip the latte, buy this instead. It will stick with you much longer.

When Wellars again asked Innocent to forgive him, in front of the group at Christophe’s workshop, Innocent gave him a hug and told him, “Let’s go to the bar and have a drink.” Step by step, Innocent had lost his anger toward Wellars. He had learned that Wellars had not planned the killings and had given back the land he stole during the genocide. He had also helped Innocent discover the identity of the man who had killed one of his brothers. Over time, something deeper evolved: The two men became friends again. When Innocent’s wife fell ill, Wellars bought her medicine. When Wellars moved houses, Innocent helped him. When one has money, he buys Fanta—or, at night, beers—for both. “Before the genocide, our friendship was about childhood,” Innocent says. “Now it is more focused, it is stronger. I can call upon him when I am in trouble.”

The Strand: The business model that’s kept the NYC bookstore up and running despite the threat of Amazon and e-books. By Christopher Bononas at Slate.

Until [2003], the Strand had been a beloved, indispensable, and physically grim place. Like a lot of businesses that had hung on through the FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD years, it looked broken-down and patched-up. The bathroom was even dirtier than the one in the Astor Place subway. You got the feeling that a lot of books had been on the shelves for years. The ceiling was dark with the exhalations from a million Chesterfields. There were mice. People arriving with review copies to sell received an escort to the basement after a guard’s bellow: “Books to go down!” It was an experience that, once you adjusted to its sourness, you might appreciate and even enjoy. Maybe.

That New York is mostly gone, replaced by a cleaner and more efficient city—not to mention a cleaner and more efficient Strand. “Books to go down!” is extinct. So is Book Row, the Fourth Avenue strip that fortified the readers and writers of Greenwich Village. Though there are signs of life in the independent-bookseller business—consider the success of McNally-Jackson—few secondhand-book stores are left in Manhattan. Only two survive in midtown, and the necrology is long. Skyline on West 18th Street, New York Bound Bookshop in Rockefeller Center, the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th—closed. Academy Books is now Academy Records & CDs.

So, then: Why is there still a Strand Book Store?

Top-down causation and the emergence of agency. By Kevin Mitchell at Wiring the Brain.

Causes of behaviour can be described both at the level of mechanisms and at the level of reasons. There is no conflict between those two levels of explanation nor is one privileged over the other – both are active at the same time. Discussion of meaning does not imply some mystical or supernatural force that over-rides physical causation. It’s not that non-physical stuff pushes physical stuff around in some dualist dance. (After all, “non-physical stuff” is a contradiction in terms). It’s that the higher-order organisation of physical stuff – which has both informational content and meaning for the organism – constrains and directs how physical stuff moves, because it is directed towards a purpose.

Is SCOTUS’s gambit to wreck healthcare unprecedented?

Linda Greenhouse says it is — and that next to SCOTUS’s decision to put Obamacare on the choppping block, Bush v. Gore was nothing.

There was no urgency. There was no crisis of governance, not even a potential one. There is, rather, a politically manufactured argument over how to interpret several sections of the Affordable Care Act that admittedly fit awkwardly together in defining how the tax credits are supposed to work for people who buy their health insurance on the exchanges set up under the law.

Further, the case the court agreed to decide, King v. Burwell, doesn’t fit the normal criterion for Supreme Court review. There is no conflict among the federal appellate circuits. (Remember that just a month ago, the absence of a circuit conflict led the justices to decline to hear seven same-sex marriage cases?) In the King case, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., unanimously upheld the government’s position that the tax subsidy is available to those who buy insurance on the federally run exchanges that are now in operation in 36 states.…The absence of a circuit conflict and an imminent rehearing by the country’s most important court of appeals would, in the past, have led the Supreme Court to refrain from getting involved.

So no, this isn’t Bush v. Gore. This is a naked power grab by conservative justices who two years ago just missed killing the Affordable Care Act in its cradle, before it fully took effect. When the court agreed to hear the first case, there actually was a conflict in the circuits on the constitutionality of the individual insurance mandate. So the Supreme Court’s grant of review was not only unexceptional but necessary: a neutral act. The popular belief then that the court’s intervention indicated hostility to the law was, at the least, premature.

As Greenhouse notes, it takes four justices to call a case to the court. She assumes the four who did so likely include the four who tried to kill ACA in its crib two years ago; they failed only because Chief Justice John Roberts failed to vote along with them, as he often does. The healthcare of tens of millions may soon depend on how John Roberts views a few clumsily written phrases.


The link and excerpt above are part of today’s edition of my almost-daily Read Two newsletter,  which you can get by signing up here or in the box at right.  Also in today’s Read Two were stories by Alex Horton on How Three Veterans Uncovered the Iraq War’s Biggest Untold Story, Frank Swain on  tuning his hearing aid to WIFI, and Ed Yong on Why Some Microbiome Studies May Be Wrong.

Read Two: Philosophy of the pee-pee dance; fun failures.

The Philosophical Implications of the Need to Pee. By Daniel Yudkin at Scientific American.

What if I were to tell you, for instance, that belief in free will is negatively correlated with the desire to urinate? Those are the implications of a new study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition by Michael Ent and Roy Baumeister. They predicted—and found—that the more people felt they needed to pee, the less they believed that humans are in control of their destinies.

Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure. A few snippets from this fun trip through failure:

Howard Jacobson: It starts early. You can come into the world smugly trailing clouds of glory, already sainted in the life before life, or you can enter it reluctantly and ashamed, helpless, naked, piping loud – Blake’s baby not Wordsworth’s, at the first sight of whom your mother groans, your father weeps. I was a Blake baby.

Diane Athill, at 95 years of age and still writing: It was the writing that really put an end to failure. In the early 1960s nine stories “happened” to me. I say “happened” because I did not decide to write them, but suddenly felt a peculiar sort of itch, which produced them. One of them won the Observer’s short-story prize. I was told that I’d won it on my birthday, in December, and having submitted the story in March I had forgotten about it. The news was astounding, and became even more so when I went to collect my cheque and they kindly offered to show me the room in which all the entries were stored: two thousand of them. Two thousand stories, and mine had been judged the best! I understood at once what had happened, and it was by far the best part of a lovely experience: that dreary bedrock under the surface of my life was no longer there, and off I could go into happiness.

Anne Enright: The writer’s life is one of great privilege, so “Suck it up”, you might say – there are more fans than trolls. But there are two, sometimes separate, ambitions here. One is to get known, make money perhaps and take a bow – to be acknowledged by that dangerous beast, the crowd. The other is to write a really good book. And a book is not written for the crowd, but for one reader at a time.

The piece also features Margaret Atwood, Will Self, and Lionel Shriver, and Julian Barnes.

Also excerpted in today’s Read Two newsletter*. A Fight to Save Children From a Fatal Genetic DiseaseHealth Care Reform ImperiledOur ‘Mommy’ Problem.


 *The excerpts and links above are from today’s issue of Read Two and Call Me In the Morning, my most-days TinyLetter email offering snippets from recent reading. In the full newsletter, all five links have excerpts. You can see them here. To get the almost-daily email with all five, sign up below. Fear not: I won’t share your email with anyone, and should you change your mind, it’s easy to unsubscribe.
 
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Yaba-daba – my “Social Life of Genomes” story won a AAAS award.

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A good day (so far). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today announced that “The Social Life of Genes” (Pacific Standard, Sept/Oct 2013), my article on how the genome responds to social life, won the 2014 AAAS/Kavli Science Journalism Award for best magazine work in 2013 — a distinction I’m tickled to be honored with. This comes atop the story’s inclusion in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, edited by Deborah Blum.

I’m deeply grateful to Pacific Standard’s editor Maria Streshinsky for so enthusiastically embracing this story, and the rest of the staff there, particularly deputy editor John Gravois and associate editor/fact-checker Michael Fitzgerald, for supporting it so well.

As to the award: I join some humbling company. Winners in the magazine category the last few years include Hilary Rosner, Steve Silberman, Adam Rogers, and Gary Wolf, all superb writers who won with amazing stories. Winners in other categories include Hilary Rosner (again) and other peers I greatly admire and respect, such as Carl Zimmer and George Johnson. A real pleasure to be chosen. I look forward to escaping the Vermont winter this February to accept the award at the AAAS meeting in San Jose.

The relevant section from the AAAS press release is below. Full announcement, with winners in other categories, is here, where you’ll find great stories on submarines, fish, fear, cancer, the ubiquitous microbiome, and the slow death of the world’s largest organism. My hearty congratulations to all, and I look forward to seeing you at the AAAS,

David Dobbs explained how a growing body of research with diverse species, from bees and birds to monkeys and humans, suggests that social life can affect gene expression at a scale and breadth not previously suspected. Sawyer called the piece a “fascinating, entertaining trip through studies of gene expression and how scientists came to learn what they know about how genes interact with our social environment.” Dobbs also explored some of the more speculative questions raised by the research, including just how quickly a person’s gene expression may change in response to social isolation and other environmental factors. The story is rich in detail, including an opening description of how researchers kidnap “foster bees” from switched colonies, vacuuming them up, shooting them into chilled chambers and freezing their gene activity. Peggy Girshman, executive editor of Kaiser Health News, said Dobbs used “clear and creative prose” to lay out “complex issues in ways a layperson could really grasp, not always easy to do.” Dobbs said he welcomed the encouragement by the judges as he works on a book which deals with similar themes. “Writing rigorously and engagingly about behavioral science is terrifically challenging,” Dobbs said, “and this story in particular took an enormous amount of work.”

Cited: “The Social Life of Genes,” Pacific Standard, Sept/Oct 2013.

Sylvia Plath on nose-picking, and other readings

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Sylvia Plath picks her nose By Sylvia Plath, by way of Janet Malcolm.

There are so many subtle variations of sensation. A delicate, pointed-nailed fifth finger can catch under dry scabs and flakes of mucus in the nostril and draw them out ot be looked at, crumbled between fingers, and flicked to the floor in minute crusts. Or a heavier, determined forefinger can reach up and smear down-and-out the soft, resilient, elastic greenish-yellow smallish blobs of mucus, roll them round and jellylike between thumb and forefinger, and spread them on the under-surface of a desk or chair where they will harden into organic crusts. How many desks and chairs have I thus secretively befouled since childhood? Or sometimes there will be blood mingled with the mucus: in dry brown scabs or bright sudden wet red on the finger that scraped too rudely the nasal membranes. God, what a sexual satisfaction! It is absorbing to look with new sudden eyes on the old worn habits: to see a sudden luxurious and pestilential “snot-green sea,” and shiver with the shock of recognition.

From Plath’s Journals, via Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta paperback, 2005), 160–161.

The allure of Beethoven. By Alex Ross at The New Yorker.

Above all, Beethoven shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music. In the course of the nineteenth century, dead composers began to crowd out the living on concert programs, and a canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center. As the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph: in Leipzig, the percentage of works by deceased composers went from eleven per cent in 1782 to seventy-six per cent in 1870. Weber sees an 1807 Leipzig performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the titanic, turbulent “Eroica,” as a turning point: the work was brought back a week later, “by demand,” taking a place of honor at the end of the program. Likewise, a critic wrote of the Second Symphony, “It demands to be played again, and yet again, by even the most accomplished orchestra.” More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible. This is not to say that Beethoven’s predecessors, giants on the order of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, fail to reward repeated listening with their cerebral games of variation. In the case of Beethoven, though, the process becomes addictive, irresistible. No composer labors so hard to stave off boredom, to occupy the mind of one who might be hearing or playing a particular piece for the tenth or the hundredth time.

He’s right.

The Shrimp Is a Lie. By Megan Garber at The Atlantic.

The advocacy group Oceana tested 143 shrimp products—sourced from 111 different establishments—comparing the claims labels made about the shrimp’s origin to the shrimp’s actual DNA. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because Oceana is the same group that published the results of a fish-species test last year—the study that found, among other things, that nearly a third of all the seafood sold in restaurants and supermarkets across the country was fraudulently labeled.) Oceana scientists tested samples of the tasty crustacean in four regions across the country: the Gulf of Mexico; Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Portland, Oregon. New York City had the highest amount of misrepresentation (43 percent), followed by Washington (33 percent), the Gulf of Mexico (30 percent), and Portland (5 percent).

The Existential Crisis of Public Life Online. By Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic.

So for hundreds of thousands of people, Gamergate has been just there for a month now, an enervating army that makes itself known as soon as the “#Gamergate” hashtag is tweeted. It’s an attentional brushfire that, even when it’s not being discussed, could flare up at any time. It’s a source of exhaustion even before it has done anything to exhaust. The eloquent and humane film critic whose nom de blog is Film Crit Hulk recently wrote a long meditation on this. He pointed out that the scariest element of all this is that “pro-Gamergate” arguments follow the circular and meaningless patterns of the indoctrinated, yet its adherents seem to have absorbed this dogma exclusively through the Internet. In other words, Gamergate is a cult without geography.

Janet Malcolm on disruptive biography

[Clarissa Roche’s] biography of Vanessa Bell won her critical and popular acclaim; it is a long, well-narrated work. It convinces the reader that Vanessa was splendid — a game, kind woman and a gifted artist, who led a rich, beautiful life — and it is poised on the tension between the demented “plot” of Vanessa’s existence and its serene day-to-day actualities and achievements. Angelica Garrett’s memoir, in contrast, like Dido Merwin’s memoir of Plath, is full of aggrievement and complaint and one doesn’t like her for it — as one ultimately doesn’t like it. We don’t want to be told what vengeful memoirs like Angelica’s and Dido’s oblige us to consider: that our children and friends do not love us, that we are neurotic, blind, pathetic, that under the eye of God our life will be seen as a mistake, something botched and wasted.

From Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman (Granta paperback), 149.

You can get these daily via email by signing up for my Read Two and Call Me In the Morning.

Photo by Smugs Spatzer, some rights reserved.

Christine Kenneally’s Rich, Rompy Read on Genes

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Illo by Eric Nyquist, via NY Times.

Of Christine Kenneally’s father’s father — a man neither Kenneally nor her father ever knew, a man who did the deed requisite to reproduction and promptly vanished — she asks, “Did he leave anything more significant than the loud bang of a door shut down the generations?” Of course he did. He left his DNA and a granddaughter determined to draw from modern genetics and hard-won family history a coherent account of her roots.

So opens my appreciation on the cover of this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review of  The Invisible History of the Human Race, Kenneally’s “smart, splendid, highly entertaining look at how DNA, increasingly visible to us since we first sequenced the human genome in 2000, can ‘open up tracts of human history that had been entirely obscure.'” The book itself opens up huge tracts of pleasure, curiosity, astonishment — and admiration at what Kenneally has done.

As I note in the review, the book could stand on its weird and delightful factoids alone, but hardly need do so. Its main argument is that DNA provides great insight into human and personal ancestry — if combined with other, broader perspectives, such as anthropology, economics, history, linguistics, and genealogy. to the prosaic work of mining archives for genealogy.

While DNA may now be visible, … it remains more hint than history. Kenneally, a journalist and linguist, shows that just as a gene usually delivers its genetic message only in conversation with an incoming chemical messenger, so our DNA tells its tales most fully only in light of the history of the people who carry and interrogate it. It takes all those threads to get the whole story. And Kenneally wants it all.

“If everyone had his DNA analyzed,” she writes, “and that information were linked to everyone’s historical information, it would be the nearest thing to the book of humanity.” She backs up this claim beautifully, showing how genetic analysis can be combined with skillful mining of historical, social and cultural information to solve fascinating riddles of ancestry.

It’s a splendid book. Do take in the full review at the Times, for more about its riches, as well as a Willie Nelson line I’ve been dying to deploy for such an occasion. Then treat yourself to Kenneally’s book (Powell’s, IndieAmazon. B&N). It’s been a good while since I’ve read such a rich, fun, engrossing book about genetics — or about any science.

How trolls work, from one who’s seen it up close

This comes to us, sadly, as part of what seems a goodbye from writer and coder Kathy Sierra, who was driven off the internet once before and returned a year ago.

I think this’ll ring true for anyone who’s had even a taste of getting trolled, or watched with attention as it happens.

The trolls aren’t stupid. The most damaging troll/haters are some of the most powerful people (though they self-describe as outcasts). Typically, the hacker trolls are technically-talented, super smart white men. They’re not just hackers. They are social engineers. They understand behavioral psych. They know their Kahneman. They “get” memes. They exploit a vulnerability in the brains of your current and potential listeners.

How? By unleashing a mind virus guaranteed to push emotional buttons for your real, NOT-troll audience. In my specific case, it was my alleged threat to a free and open internet. “She issued DMCA takedowns for sites that criticized her.” Yes, that one even made it’s way into a GQ magazine article not long ago, when the writer Sanjiv Bhattacharya interviewed weev and asked about — get this — the “ethics” of doxxing me. Weev’s explanation was just one more leveling up in my discredit/disinfo program: DMCA takedowns. I had, apparently, issued DMCA takedowns.

If you are in the tech world, issuing a DMCA takedown is worse than kicking puppies off a pier. But what I did? It was (according to the meme) much much worse. I did it (apparently) to stifle criticism. If a DMCA takedown is kicking puppies, doing it to “stifle criticism” is like single-handedly causing the extinction of puppies, kittens, and the constitution. Behold my awesome and terrible power. Go me.

But here’s the thing. I never did that.

via Trouble at the Koolaid Point — Serious Pony. H/t Steve Silberman

Tall tales about tall genes, revised edition.

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How do genes generate traits? A prime answer emerging from the ever-increasing power of genetic studies is that genes create traits through accidental teamwork. That is, as far as our still-early tools and techniques can tell, many and perhaps most traits for which we can find any genetic contributions are influenced by many genes of small effect.

Another consistent trend is that as our genetic tools grow more powerful and we are able to feed them the genomes of larger numbers of people, we tend to find more and more genes contributing to any given trait or disease. For schizophrenia, for instance, the most recent study upped the number of contributing genes from about a couple dozen to about 80. This was hailed as a huge, even decisive step forward. The next study to go bigger will likely find more.

Same thing is happening with genes for height. Over the last few years, height has become a  example of how a obvious trait is actually shaped by many genes. At first the contributing number was thought to be a dozen; then several dozen; then maybe hundreds. Now a new study has muddied up this  relatively clean picture by finding that perhaps half of all human genes shape height — or, depending on how you count it, may all human genes. Or maybe, sort of, even more than all.

Say what?

As one person observed on Twitter, the idea that pretty much every single one of our genes helps to shape height comes close to meaningless. Now, in an essay titled “The height of folly”, veteran geneticist and sometime troublemaker (in the best sense of that word) Ken Weiss picks that up and runs with it. It’s a fun, smart, learned, and deliciously mischievous romp.

Weiss opens by commenting on a quote about height from famed geneticist Thomas Henry Morgan, whose fruit fly work laid the foundation for tracing traits to genes.

In 1926, geneticist Thomas Henry Morgan wrote this about stature:

A man may be tall because he has long legs, or because he has a long body, or both. Some of the genes may affect all parts, but other genes may affect one region more than another. The result is that the genetic situation is complex and, as yet, not unraveled. Added to this is the probability that the environment may also to some extent affect the end-product.
> (TH Morgan, The Theory of the Gene, p 294, 1926):

His point, of course, was not about stature per se but about the difficulty of identifying genes ‘for’ traits because there are many pathways to a trait, and they aren’t all genetic. This was understood eighty-eight years ago, and yet we have had study after study, ever larger, merging smaller studies, and all sorts of fancy statistics to account for various internal complications in genome sampling, and still the results pour forth as if we haven’t learned what we need to know about this and many traits like it.

Then Weiss considers the height paper’s assertion that even though the genetic factors contributing to height may seem incalculable, they are not:

The authors rather glibly come to what they seem to feel (did they take a poll?) is the comforting conclusion that while number of causally contributing genes is huge, it isn’t ‘infinite’. But that is at most technically true and in fact is farther from the real truth than the authors intended, or perhaps even realized.

Finally Weiss argues, half for fun (and he’s having a lot of fun) but mostly for real, that the proper number to consider, for both practical and conceptual purposes, actually is infinity.

We’re not just playing word games here. The number of causes, even just the genetic causes, of stature variation is truly infinite. It is misleading of the authors to try to reassure readers that at least the number is finite. That is in essence a tactic, perhaps inadvertent, that justifies the enumeration-approach form of business as usual.… If the science is to advance beyond a pretense of causal enumerability, what we need to do is develop some new, quantitative rather than enumerative causal concepts. How we should do that is unknown, unclear, debatable,…. and in our business-as-usual environment, probably unfundable.

Weiss, if I read him right, is posing a highly disruptive argument: That in a time when the effects of genes on traits appear more uncertain, unpredictable, vague, and circumstantial by the day, with seemingly every study finding more genes but fewer answers, the hunt for Yet More Genes threatens to turn into a chase that does more to justify itself than it does to show us anything new.

By saying the number of causes of stature variation is finite they essentially mean that they are enumerable and that there is an end to the counting, by which time all causes of stature will have been accounted for. That is simply false.

It’s not that genes are meaningless; it’s that perhaps they don’t mean what we think they do — and that we’re so locked into seeing genes as playing a sort of directorial role, and so convinced that if we count them properly we’ll gain some fundamental new insight, that we keep asking the same questions even though the answers are increasingly meaningless. Accordingly, we need to ask different questions.

The wise TH Morgan realized these issues in early 20th century form without needing to have all the expensive and extensive data that we are amassing. But his statement was generic and one might say it called for confirmation. We have had many other sorts of confirmation for similar traits, but perhaps what’s been reported for stature closes the book on the basic question.

So now, if the science is to advance beyond a pretense of causal enumerability, what we need to do is develop some new, quantitative rather than enumerative causal concepts. How we should do that is unknown, unclear, debatable,…. and in our business-as-usual environment, probably unfundable.

Get the whole romp at The Mermaid’s Tale.