Monday Links 22-Oct-2018: Warren and genetic testing, Polygenic scores and racism, Wealth increases gender differences

The over arching theme of my blog is how technology trends drive social change. And since genomics is on a Moore’s law price curve, no surprise it’s mentioned several times below. Genomics is a technology lurking in the background, growing exponentially more powerful, which will leap into prominence. First slowly, then all at once. And with that intro, here’s what I found interesting this week, and why.

1. Elizabeth Warren gets a DNA ancestry test. Elizabeth Warren is the front runner to capture the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. She has claimed Native American ancestry, which some disputed, so got DNA tested. Despite news to the contrary, the test showed she does indeed have such ancestry 6 to 10 generations back. Here’s Ross Douthat, who thinks the DNA test was a political mistake:

The DNA test thus simultaneously gives Trump an obvious way to keep the story going on his terms — just pick the lowest end of the genetic estimate and make sport of a “Pocahontas” who’s only one-1,000th Indian — while also annoying Indian groups and anyone on the left (including the actual minority candidates against whom Warren may run) invested in a vision of affirmative action as a righter of historic wrongs rather than just a means to elite self-congratulation.

My take is different. With DNA ancestry testing becoming commonplace, any random angry 2nd or 3rd cousin of Warren’s could take such a test, and out Warren in the process. So better to do it her way.

Furthermore, there’s a rather disturbing metalesson here. No matter what anyone says or does, people gravitate towards believing DNA is more real than cultural identity. It has an air of inevitability. Both those opposed to DNA identity, and those who lust after it, hasten the process. From a 2007 New York Times article by Amy Harmon:

Race, many sociologists and anthropologists have argued for decades, is a social invention historically used to justify prejudice and persecution. But when Samuel M. Richards gave his students at Pennsylvania State University genetic ancestry tests to establish the imprecision of socially constructed racial categories, he found the exercise reinforced them instead.

One white-skinned student, told she was 9 percent West African, went to a Kwanzaa celebration, for instance, but would not dream of going to an Asian cultural event because her DNA did not match, Dr. Richards said. Preconceived notions of race seemed all the more authentic when quantified by DNA.

“Before, it was, ‘I’m white because I have white skin and grew up in white culture,’ ” Dr. Richards said. “Now it’s, ‘I really know I’m white, so white is this big neon sign hanging over my head.’ It’s like, oh, no, come on. That wasn’t the point.”

The future is coming.

2. Amy Harmon on the racist use of polygenic scores. The same Amy Harmon quoted above from 2007 has a new piece this week Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed). The lactose tolerance angle is a good hook. Harmon’s thesis is DNA polygenic scores, which can now predict the probability of complex traits like educational attainment and IQ, are being used, or rather misused, by racists. Which is true of course. Racists use any tool at hand. So this is happening. Harmon’s piece got enough traction she had two follow ups here and here.

That said, if it were 1994, Harmon could simply quote Stephen J Gould to assert the “claim that racial differences in IQ are mostly determined by genetic causes….is as old as the study of race, and is most surely fallacious.” And be done with it. But instead she quotes Harvard geneticist David Reich’s 2018 op-ed, where he says “arguing that no substantial differences among human populations are possible will only invite the racist misuse of genetics that we wish to avoid.” It’s clear Harmon did a lot of background work before writing. But I suspect she found the quotes she got from today’s experts weak tea.

Let’s finish with this bit from Harmon, which captures our moment:

But another reason some scientists avoid engaging on this topic, I came to understand, was that they do not have definitive answers about whether there are average differences in biological traits across populations. And they have increasingly powerful tools to try to detect how natural selection may have acted differently on the genes that contribute to assorted traits in various populations.

What’s more, some believe substantial differences will be found. Others think it may not be feasible to ever entirely disentangle an immutable genetic contribution to a behavior from its specific cultural and environmental influences. Yet all of them agree that there is no evidence that any differences which may be found will line up with the prejudices of white supremacists.

3. More wealth means greater gender differences. New paper. Here’s the abstract:

What contributes to gender-associated differences in preferences such as the willingness to take risks, patience, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity, and trust? Falk and Hermle studied 80,000 individuals in 76 countries who participated in a Global Preference Survey and compared the data with country-level variables such as gross domestic product and indices of gender inequality. They observed that the more that women have equal opportunities, the more they differ from men in their preferences.

For example if everyone is very poor, everyone is a subsistence farmer. Few gender differences. But as society gets richer, people have more options, so do what they prefer. This means even slight differences in gender preference are amplified in wealthy societies. Wealth drives gender gaps. This idea has been around for a while. But it’s becoming more mainstream. Here’s a figure from the paper:


4. Sub-Saharan African population. French President Emmanuel Macron has been talking about African fertility and population. He’s concerned it will create a long term immigration problems for Europe. So now everyone else has chimed in. Here’s Bill Gates talking to Ezra Klein, The Economist, and Ross Douthat, to name a few.

But the essence can be gleaned from just two charts. First, the UN population forecast by continent:

pop forecast
image source: UN population forecast from world bank

The second is women’s educational attainment versus fertility. Most people are aware increased wealth per capita means lower fertility, but fewer are aware social scientists consider woman’s education to be the primary driver of this effect.

our world
image source: our world in data

So the question is whether Africa can get rich fast enough, with the increase in woman’s education attainment that implies, for fertility to decline gracefully.

5. Saved you a click. This is where I summarize a post in a sentence or two, so you don’t need to click through to read the whole thing. Unless you want to.

Let me finish with two last links. The first is an excellent podcast of Ezra Klein interviewing Jay Rosen on where media is headed. Recommended. The second is a powerful essay by Tom Scocca, on having children and time passing, Your Real Biological Clock Is You’re Going to Die. I thought it was wonderful.

That’s all for this week.



Categorized as Link post

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s