Is Race a Social Construct? Razib Says Ask Your Genome.

Only a government bureaucrat would be happy with this situation.

That’s Razib Khan, in a nice post noting how genetic testing, by revealing our infinitely variable genetic heritages, should show how race is a social construct rather than biological fact.

The chart to the left shows how race is a social construct. It’s a bar plot which partitions ancestry, and as you can see, the Asian children are a mix of European and Asian. How does that happen? Because in 1980 the US Census included people of South Asian origin as “Asian Americans.” In contrast, those of Middle Eastern origin remain “non-Hispanic white” (this not totally crazy, think Ralph Nader or Marlo Thomas). But it means that an ethnic Baloch from Pakistan is “Asian,” and an ethnic Baloch from Iran is a “non-Hispanic white.”

Obvious more fine-grained genomic analyses are necessary at least to force us to acknowledge the stupidity of these bureaucratic quirks. I am chagrined to realize that I’ve put “Asian” as my race quite often on medical related forms (or, my parents have done so), when the reality is that my genetic background is very distinctive from someone who is from East Asia (and, West Asia).

Skip Gates made a similar point at the Genes, Environment, Traits (GET) conference last May, when he talked about having his own and others’ genomes sequenced for his television series Faces of America. The genetic histories revealed, he said, “put the lie to any idea of racial purity. We’re all bouillbaise!” (He was quite funny. All the people who got tested, he said, were fascinated to find how mixed their heritages were — and those who found their heritages to be really straightforward often felt disappointment. “They wanted something more interesting,” he said. “It was the only time I’ve ever seen white people wishing they were black.”)

So it’s all mixed. But, says Khan:

this more detailed look at a genomic sequence does not necessarily obviate the need for higher level categories, such as race. One might conceive of a genotype as conferring a set of transparent risks contingent upon a particular variant at a specific location. But by and large we’ve run into limits in this endeavor. And even when we know much more, there will likely be subtle interactions and networks which will simply not fall out of a raw sequence. That’s because populations have histories, and their identity as members of a population is telling you something about that aggregate history. That history shapes a “genetic background,” the sum total of genotypes across the genome, in which a specific genetic variant expresses itself. For example, the ancestors of Amerindians were isolated from the populations of Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania, for at least 10,000 years. Their genomes today are then the outcome in part of this particular special history.

As you might expect, this point — and he has a point, even if its complex and tetchy — gets debated in the comments.

And in a guest post at the excellent Genomes Unzipped, Khan takes a good look at his own genome. In an interesting way, it gets complexicated.


A-glitter in the Net (13 Feb 2011)

One of the big pleasures of the last few days: Steve Silberman, who lately is writing one wonderful thing after another about autism, posted a beautiful piece about a profoundly autistic man who speaks with his photography.

“They managed to achieve what we could not do out of fear.” via Nature Middle East scientists react to #Egypt events

@RebeccaSkloot & EO Wilson discuss science writing

Why Study Cultural Neuroscience? Ask @CulturalNeuro

“Social Steganography” Big fun: Clive Thompson reports on @zephoria‘s fascinating research into hidden-messaging

The Great Gatsby Channels Bill Clinton, or Perhaps Vice Versa

I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby, and even this fourth or fifth time, it gives a pleasure beyond anything I’d dare hope for. Fitzgerald, who apparently couldn’t control his drinking or much else in his life, exercises complete command here. He creates a sustained lyricism and economy rivaled in the last century only by Nabokov’s Lolita. About every third sentence, he just hits one out — gone, gone, gone.

During the book’s first party, for instance — this is the tawdry, impromptu, embarrassing gathering at the apartment that Tom Buchanan keeps in the city for his mistress, and where a few hours after this sentence, he breaks her nose — our narrator Nick Carraway takes stock of the wife of a sad, mediocre photographer who lives a floor down.

His wife was shrill, languid, handsome, and horrid.

Those seeking a passive sentence that works, or adjectives that work, heed: Even the sound of each adjective here sets up the next, and this five-word string replicates the flashing alternation of wonder and grotesquerie that Fitzgerald holds before us.

A chapter later we visit a grander, more beautiful version of this party — the party at Gatsby’s where we, and Nick, meet him face to face. And I was fascinated, reading it this time, to find myself meeting not just Gatsby but Bill Clinton.

Nick, drunk, has sat down with Jordan Baker at one of the many tables on the great lawn, and at first he doesn’t realize he’s just joined Gatsby. When Nick recognizes his mistake and apologizes for not recognizing, Gatsby, who alone among the crowd seems sober, apologizes right back.

“I thought you knew, old sport. I’m afraid I’m not a very good host.”

Then he becomes Bill Clinton. That is, he turns on Carraway the sort of deeply empathetic attention that countless people have described Ciinton emitting. My best friend, Richard Ober, for instance, met Clinton (Richard, who was and is active in New Hampshire environmental affairs, got invited to one of the White House breakfasts that Clinton held to take the pulse of more-or-less ordinary citizens), and later he told me, “When he turns to you and asks you what you think, you feel utterly, completely listened to. Part of you knows it probably doesn’t really matter. But the experience of it, the thing you feel while he’s looking at you, nodding and listening and asking questions, tells you it matters more than anything else in the world. And when you watch him listen to someone else it’s clear they’re feeling the same thing.”

When Nick Carraway apologizes to Gatsby for not recognizing him, he gets exactly this.

He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

But then we leave Clinton behind — or rather, Clinton leaves Gatsby behind:

Precisely at that point it vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong ipression that he was picking his words with care.

Gatsby can’t sustain it. He’s like a Clinton that didn’t fill out.

Science Writing, and the World, Loses One of Its Finest

The saddest song I know is one Lucinda Williams wrote about her brother:

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world:

The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips,

A sweet and tender kiss.

The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring,

Someone calling your name.

Somebody so warm cradled in your arm —

Didn’t you think you were worth anything?

I did not know J.R. Minkel very well. But having read his work, having bantered with him on the web, I felt admiration, affection, and a sense of enormous promise about this young writer, who was only 31 when took his own life earlier this week. Minkel was one of those people, incredibly important to us, I think, who embodies so much that is fine in the world that you invest in him many of your hopes for it — more than you realize, I find, now that he’s gone.

John Rennie, who worked with Minkel at Scientific American, has remembered him aptly and gracefully:

This past week, those of us who knew JR have been sore at heart with the knowledge that we lost him, irrevocably. JR had family and friends who were genuinely close to him; I won’t insult the honor of those relationships by pretending that I knew him better than I did. I was one of his bosses back during the days he worked at Scientific American, but we also talked a lot about things that had nothing to do with the job because we had a similar sense of humor and we shared an interest in martial arts. Over the past year or so, as I became more active again in social media, we struck up our acquaintance all over again. I always admired him….

If you want a more true sense of who he was—and how much potential he was still grooming—go to his brilliantly named web site A Fistful of Science. That’s where you can see his self-deprecating humor and honesty, and the breadth of his interests. He was a postmodern libertarian-turned-socialist who had gone through a few personal epiphanies on the subject of gender politics and believed we should all wake up. Read what he wrote on “Gender performativity for science geeks (aka: Let them wear drag).” Or “Forget science vs. postmodernism; give me pushback against the status quo.” Or “Why I don’t buy – or maybe just don’t care – that xenophobia is an evolutionary adaptation.” Or (and you know I enjoyed this one) “Want: Ray Kurzweil to proselytize about climate change.” Or any of the rest.

Was JR original in a way that only highly smart people can be? Or was he smart in a way that only highly original people can be? I never cracked that nut.

I dearly hope that JR’s family, whose grief must be immeasurable, can take some solace knowing that JR’s light and intelligence and spirit, his michievous beauty, reached and delighted and inspired many people. He was one of those who makes you think better of the world. He still is, and he will continue to be.

The Journal of Universal Rejection: Submit with certainty

I can think of several reasons NOT to do this post. I’m traveling. I’m trying to mix business and pleasure, family (loud) and work (quiet). I have no time, and, 7 time zones from home, no idea what time it is anyway. I have more important things to blog about. I can smell that the coffee is charring in the crummy little hotel coffee maker.

But I had to get this out there. Ivan Oransky, a reputable medical journalist whom I know exists, has interviewed a person I don’t quite believe even exists: The editor of the Journal of Universal Rejection:

Earlier today, we were introduced to the Journal of Universal Rejection by our friend Duncan Moore. From its homepage:

The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected. Despite that apparent drawback, here are a number of reasons you may choose to submit to the JofUR:

  • You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.
  • There are no page-fees.
  • You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).
  • The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.
  • You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.
  • Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.

Does it get better? Of course it does:

Hey You Men Who Yell “Nice Tits”: STFU

An especially nice pair. Image by @Tatters, some rights reserved.

ScienceOnline, more than most conferences, seems to add immense energy and new perspectives to discussions long percolated. Often this rises in an unexpected way, and often from the blog posts re-examining the conference and its sessions. Behold: In the past couple days, two blog posts have energized the often dead-tired but ever-relevant issue of sexism in the science and writing worlds. Yesterday I crossposted a post by Kate Clancy, of Context and Variation, that examined with particular nuance the internal battles and obstacles that many women feel in presenting their work to the public. Today brings a much different but equally special post, “I’ve never been very good at hiding,” in which Christie Wilcox, of Observations of a Nerd, declares war on titty talk.

A few weeks ago, I received a facebook message. It was from a male admirer of my blog (and his fiancée, coincidentally). In it, he said “You are GORGEOUS, and your tits look absolutely incredible.” I froze. I know it was meant as a compliment, but it made me really uncomfortable. It was a sentiment that was much more muted in other comments I’d gotten. You know, ones like “wow, you’re an amazing writer AND you’re hot?” or “who would have thought a pretty girl could be so good at science?”

Of course, if you point out to any of these people that their comments are sexist, they instantly defend themselves and say that’s not what they meant. They weren’t trying to imply women should be less good at science or writing, they just wanted to say that it’s cool that I’m pretty and nerdy. They think women in science are great.

But what they fail to realize is the fact that my looks are important enough to comment on is what makes their comments sexist.

Then, after some explaining, some pondering, and a reminder that the science blogosphere has some work to do, this smart, tough young woman makes up her mind, right there before us, stands up and draws her sword:

I don’t have the same risk-aversion that other female scientists or science writers might because I haven’t been beaten down or held back. Nor am I timid. Trust me, no one has ever accused me of being too quiet. Call me ambitious, driven, or even a bitch – those words are all compliments in my book – but be certain that I will not allow my gender to prevent me from achieving success.

Clearly, we need to make a change in the science blogging community. I won’t stand up and say I have all the answers. I don’t know how to better encourage other female science bloggers other than to say I’ve got your back. I can’t assuage the fears of those who think if they put their name and face on a blog, they’ll lose credibility or get attacked, other than to lead by example. But maybe I don’t have to do more than that. Perhaps all it will take to tip the scales is a woman who is willing to say “bring it” and is still standing a year later.

Well, then. Bring it.

I find this both wonderful and horrible. I’ve met Wilcox a couple times, and I don’t know her well, but she is ever so pleasant, and my impression is that while she now stands tall before us having drawn her sword, that’s not her favorite stance or persona. Rather she has taken up sword because she sees a battle that must be fought and won. It’s a shame she must do so. She has less frustrating work that she loves. Yet clearly she must take up this battle, and I admire her for taking it up so boldly. She brings to mind my favorite novelistic hero, Lucky Jack Aubrey; when Lucky Jack decides to engage, he engages. My late mother had to do likewise. So do my sisters. So, it appears, must my daughter. Thus horror and wonder: Horror this thing must still be fought; wonder that Wilcox so energetically the battle.

Whose battle is it? Everyone’s I’d say. Wilcox’s post has already inspired a rich conversation in the comments, one taking alongside and entwined in many ways with the comments-conversation in Clancy’s post. About halfway down, my dear friend Steve Silberman lodged a quick comment but kept it brief, he said, because he didn’t want it to become too much a male conversation. I know what he means. Yet as I said in my own hurried (but long; I didn’t have time to write shorter) comments there, I think we men should engage here, if for nothing else than to tell their fellow men, when they are being titty idiots (titjiots? something), to STFU. Even if we don’t elaborate on STFU — maybe especially if we don’t elaborate on STFU — it might inspire some self-reflection. Or at least get them to STFU.

So for those men who don’t already understand, I offer this brief STFU guide:

What are you thinking? Hear this: Telling anyone but your sweetheart that you like her breasts is like giving a stranger a squeeze. You may be drooling inside, it happens, but for God’s sake, man, YOU DO NOT HAVE A SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THIS PERSON. That’s your fantasy. Keep it in your pants. It was nothing to do with public life and conversation

Part of this comes down to manners. As my mom said, Some things you just don’t talk about it in public. So men: However short is your personal list of Things You Don’t Talk About in Public, Add to it a woman’s physical appearance. If you truly just can’t resist some reference to anatomy, tell her what Cornell West told my English prof sister — tall, good-looking redhead vying for a job  — after her presentation at Harvard: “Sister, you kicked some ass.” Trust me, that goes over much better than “Nice tits!”

I know that to some women this may seem slightly patronizing (though I hope not), but: Men, if this is what it takes to give a crap, think about how you’d feel if someone said something similar to your mom or your sister. I PRAY that thought disturbs you.

I care about this because it’s disgusting and idiotic and demeans both public conversation and over half of humanity. I care about it more immediately because my late mom — an absolute kickass doctor who went through med school in Texas in the 1950s as a highly attractive single mother, a stunner and a hotshit, way-smarter-and-tougher-than-you, cowboy, who took no guff from anyone — had to deal with this crap nearly all her professional career. Well into her fifties. She bore it well, for she was tough as hell. She was so hard you could rollerskate on her. But she didn’t enjoy it, and there’s no reason she should have had to deal with it.

My kickass sisters the lawyer and the English prof have to deal with it too. One, while in college, was straightout offered an A — an A she was already EARNING, thank you — in return for sex. I wanted to drive down, from New York to Texas, and pound the guy’s face against his desk. There! You want some Dobbs on your desk! Here it is! My sister said, No, that’s okay. I’ve got it covered. She did. God save that guy if he encounters her now, when the table is level. Yet despite two generations of tough battlers before her, clearly my daughter, now 6, will have to deal with this crap as well. This anger me.

Men: A woman at work — blogging, doing science, lecturing, whatnot; they’re in the working world, for god’s sake — SHOULD feel an insult when they get titty compliments. You should learn this, and realize that no matter what your intentions, this will be the effect of your inappropriate “compliments.” Why? Because a statement about their anatomy or sexual appearance gives notice that this woman, presently operating in a realm of work and public discourse, must please and impress not just with her work or intellectual contributions, but with an available sexuality, free for inspection, comment, and all but direct physical fondling by the observers. WTF is that? As to the “Well, it could happen to men, too, so it’s really equal”:  That it happens to men only with extreme rarity should tell us something: It happens rarely to men, and frequently to women, because some men feel they gain an advantage by introducing sexuality into the conversation. So cowboy up. Be man enough to fight fair. Leave the tits out of it. If you must mutter about them, talk aloud to yourself later, when you’re all manly and alone.

I harbor no doubt that Christie’s BRING IT attitude can deliver what we might call an educational effect. I was once walking down a Brooklyn street with two friends, a man and a woman, soon after we graduated college — Oberlin, where harassing and sexist language and leering was (rightly) looked at harshly and not often heard — when one of a trio of large, tough-looking construction workers, who were sitting alongside the sidewalk having lunch, gave a wolf whistle in response to the sight of my friend Jane. (Such charm.) I felt shocked, bothered, disgusted, and flummoxed as to what to do. Should I be chivalrous and said STFU (and maybe get thumped)

I didn’t have to decide. Jane took matters into her own hands. She stopped and turned and faced these three big men dead on and said, “Thanks! Thanks for fucking NOTHING!” Doug and I stood slack-jawed, amazed. The construction workers sat dumbstruck. They stayed dumbstruck as Jane stared them down for several seconds. They said nothing as she turned and we walked off

I like to think their behavior and possibly even their thinking was changed afterwards. I know my own thinking about such comments were.

Finally: Men, if the above seems complicated, use this simple rule: If you’ve a vague feeling that what you’re getting ready to say might be inappropriate, pay heed. Say something safer, or just STFU. If that rule is too complicated, just STFU.

So readers, that’s my two cents. For the heavy  coins, head to NotSoNerdyChristie’s blog, read her post, and engage. Mind your manners.

And to Christie Wilcox: Sister, you kicked some ass.

Image:  @Tatters, some rights reserved.


When Your Brains Disagree, You Get Illusions

Your brain, in some ways, is really several brains trying to agree on one account of the world. Sometimes those many brains don’t agree, and they produce confusion — or an illusion. At her wonderful Biophemera, Jessica Palmer uses a review of new book by Roberg Kurzban, to look at how this works.

Psychologist Robert Kurzban’s new book promises to explain Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite.It’s a bold promise, and I was skeptical when first invited to review it. But Kurzban delivered – hilariously, entertainingly so. Although since I agree with almost everything he writes, I may not be the most objective of critics. (FYI: this is a long review, so if you’re short on time, you can skip to the end of the post, and watch the author’s short video trailer about the book. Cheers.)

For starters, Kurzban has convinced me to be more careful when I talk and write about my brain (and yours). Kurzban’s key point is that our brains are modular. As a result of this modularity, different cognitive units can know or believe inconsistent things at the same time. Kurzban illustrates this idea with the Adelson illusion – in my opinion, one of the best optical illusions ever. Here it is:

Believe it or not, square A is exactly the same color as square B!

Most people have a difficult time believing this – I certainly do. But Adelson’s illusion is a simple application of lightness (or color) constancy: our visual system is designed to feed us not just raw data, but a useful interpretation of what we see. This auto-correction process allows the pages of a book to appear “white” in both bright sunlight and leafy shade, despite the change in the amount of light reflected from the pages. (You can prove to yourself that your visual system is deceiving you by framing squares A and B with your fingers, to isolate them from the rest of the image and establish a common reference color.)

For more confounding wonders, read the whole review at Biophemera, where Palmer has also posted a video interview with Kurzban.

Guest Post: The Dilemma of Women in Science & Blogging: Even when we want something, we need to hide it

I went to some stirring sessions at the incomprable ScienceOnline last week, but I also missed some great ones. One in particular I regret missing (it ran while I was on an eBooks panel) was “Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name.” That title sold it short, it seems to me, for as one of the participants, Kate Clancy, relates below, the session raised questions of far greater range and depth than the question of anonymity. Clancy, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, ran the post below at her own blog, Context and Variation, and it stirred such a rich conversation in the comments, and raised with special nuance and intelligence  issues I’ve thought and struggled with myself, though obviously from other angles, that I asked if I could crosspost it here as a guest post, so as to bring it to an additional readership. Clancy kindly agreed.

After reading it here, you might want to check out the comments at her blog for perspective and further thoughts, and if you wish, weigh in either there or here. You may also want to subscribe to Clancy’s RSS Feed or follow her on Twitter. Also of note: Robin Lloyd’s nice take on the session at Scientific American.

— David Dobbs


The Dilemma of Women in Science & Blogging: Even when we want something, we need to hide it

by Kate Clancy

A few years ago, I was standing outside the building where I taught, unlocking my bike. It was one of the first days of the semester, and I had just finished teaching. I was wearing one of my teaching uniforms: wideleg trouser jeans, a black boatneck sweater, and beautiful forest green heels. Except in really bad weather, I wear heels when I teach because it helps me feel older, like I have some authority. Being sometimes several decades younger than my colleagues, but usually less than a decade older than my students, meant my gender and age made me a sort of sexualized second class citizen.

An older faculty member approached me to unlock his own bike. He complained about where some students had locked their bikes because they obstructed the bike lane. He mentioned that he had told the police but that they never did anything about it. I nodded sympathetically.

“Of course,” he then said, “if I had been dressed like you, maybe they would have listened!”

And just like that, I was no longer a colleague. I was a woman.

* * *

The perils women sciencebloggers face are not that different than those we face in the real world… though the exposure of the internet can occasionally make it less safe. And the risks that women avoid out in the world, are not unlike those we avoid in the blogosphere. That was one of many important conclusions made in the panel Sheril Kirshenbaum, Anne Jefferson, Joanne Manaster and I ran for the Sunday midday panel entitled “Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name.” I believe Sheril was the one who first suggested the topic.

This panel ended up being a great experience, for several reasons. First, leading up to the session, I had the opportunity to meet with other women at the conference and discuss the topic. I found myself in large, women-only groups on a number of occasions (though I just realized, this happens to me a lot at academic conferences too: I think I avoid schmoozing with men more than I realize, a point I will return to later). Each time, I brought up the panel to hear what they had to say, and they made beautiful points, expressed legitimate frustrations, shared both good stories and horrible ones, and in general kicked ass. There were some seriously smart and savvy women at Science Online 2011.

“Even when we want something, we feel the need to hide it”

Because I’m not sure whether these women want to be identified by the points they made or stories they shared, I’m not naming names here. But after each impromptu mini-panel, I took copious notes. Here is what the women I spoke to had to say:

Guardian podcast captures the richness of ScienceOnline & science blogging

Bora Zivkovic

I just finished listening to Alok Jha’s podcast at Guardian about ScienceOnline. What a pleasure! Jha gracefully captures what drives science (and all) blogging, and what it offers readers — and writers  — that they can’t get elsewhere. Jha and his producers also convey beautifully the spirit and intersection of interests that makes ScienceOnline so special.
Alok also asked everyone he interviewed for their favorite blogs. I was pleased to be named by someone (not me! I  cited John Hawks). Here’s the whole list:

Mind Hacks by Vaughan Bell
Observations of a Nerd by Christie Wilcox
Neurotic Physiology by Scicurious
Science Seeker, an aggregator
Not Exactly Rocket Science by Ed Yong
Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait
The Loom by Carl Zimmer
Laelaps by Brian Switek
Frontal Cortex by Jonah Lehrer
Neuron Culture by David Dobbs
Superbug by Maryn McKenna
NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman
The Gleaming Retort by John Rennie
Science 3.0 by Mark Hahnel 
John Hawks’ Weblog
Thoughtomics by Lucas Brouwers
Krulwich Wonders by Robert Krulwich
A Blog Around the Clock by Bora Zivkovic
Scientific American blogs
The science comedian by Brian Malow

It’s an irresistible, highly pleasurable listen. Get there.
Image: Akok Jha (right) catches up with Bora Zivkovic at ScienceOnline 2011. Photo by Ryan Somma.

Mapping the Twittersphere on New Year’s Eve

Over at Atlantic Tech, Nicholas Jackson brings us a map of Twitter activity on New Year’s Eve:


Four seconds after midnight in Japan on January 1, 2011, a new world record was set: 6,939 tweets were sent out in one second, Twitter announced on the company’s official blog. This map of Twitter activity on New Year’s Eve clearly shows that a lot of 140-character messages were being sent in Japan. What I find most revealing about this, though, is the amount of activity in Brazil. Sure, there are a lot of tweets being sent across the United States and Europe.

Get the whole thing at Atlantic, and find out why Brazil is so dark.