Tuesday, January 9, 2018

On The Origin Of The Racism Of A Befuddled State Legislator

Of course it was Charles Pierce who led me to the story in the Kansas City Star about the abysmally racist comment from one of the most reliable of sources of idiocy, a state legislature where "The lawmaker, Republican Rep. Steve Alford of Ulysses," said at "a legislative coffee event" :

“What you really need to do is go back in the ’30s when they outlawed all types of drugs in Kansas (and) across the United States, what was the reason they did that?” Alford said at the event. “One of the reasons why, I hate to say it, the African-Americans, they were basically users and they basically responded the worst off those drugs just because (of) their character makeup, their genetics, and that.”

which we can be thankful that even though such things can be said by a state legislator they can still be made to feel it's necessary to apologize for having said them.  I'm not singling out Kansas because I doubt there's a state legislature in the country where such things don't get said informally and on the floor.  

The mention of "their character makeup, their genetics, and that" that kind of scientific racism would normally, in polite company, be called "pseudo-science" but it's a pseudo-science which a lot of the most eminent of scientists have spouted over the years since 1859, though not invoking "genes" to promote their personal racism until the discoveries of Gregor Mendel were rediscovered and applied in ways that I have a strong feeling Fr Mendel may have objected to.   I could provide quotes which I've already posted here and a large number of examples in my background research,  even from eminent Nobel laureates, Shockley, Crick, Watson,  other luminaries as R. A. Fischer and a myriad of lesser known scientists who were quite influential and prominent in their day who say and the same thing in more highfalutin language, though some of it, especially from the likes of James Watson isn't that much different from what the rightly disdained racist legislator said.  You can find similar things all down the line since the publication of The Origin of Species.  The question is why is it OK when a scientist says it.  I know why it isn't when a state legislator says it but science gets a pass.
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One of the most interesting things I found out in my researching eugenics and scientific racism and the use of biological determinism to prop up atheist-materialist claims is that much of what I was taught in high school and university about genes and genetics is in deep trouble and a lot of it was never really established in physical evidence.  Though I would bet if it were possible to survey the population on their understanding of things, it's that half-century and older faith that is the basis of most peoples thinking on this, certainly of most journalists.  Take for example this exchange in an interview between Susan Mazur and Dennis Nobel. 

Suzan Mazur: University of Chicago microbiologist Jim Shapiro, whose work you cite, told me in our 2012 interview that he no longer uses the word “gene,” saying:

[I]t’s misleading. There was a time when we were studying the rules of Mendelian heredity when it could be useful, but that time was almost a hundred years ago now. The way I like to think of cells and genomes is that there are no “units”; there are just systems all the way down.

New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman said he thinks the gene is “down but not out.”

But only a week or so ago the science section of The New York Times ran a piece touting “de novo genes” and their appearance and disappearance.

What is the status now of the gene in your view?

Denis Noble: First of all, I go along largely with Jim Shapiro’s view of the difficulty of the definition of a gene. I think it’s actually even more difficult than Jim says. My argument is very simple. Wilhelm Johannsen in 1909 introduced the definition of “gene.” He was the first person to use that word, although he was introducing a concept that existed ever since Mendel. What he was actually referring to was a phenotype trait, not a piece of DNA. He didn’t know about DNA in those days. We now define a gene, when we attempt to define it, as a particular sequence with “start” and “stop” codons, etc., in a strip of DNA. My point is that the first definition of a gene — Johansen’s definition as a trait, as an inheritable phenotype — was necessarily the cause of a phenotype, because that’s how it was defined. It was, if you like, a catch-all definition of a gene. Anything that contributed to that particular trait — inheritable, according to Mendelian laws — would be the gene, whether it is a piece of DNA or some other aspect of the functioning of the cell. That we define “gene” as a sequence of DNA becomes an empirical question, not a conceptual necessity. It becomes an empirical question whether that particular strip of DNA has a function within the phenotype. Some do and some don’t.

It’s interesting that many knockout experiments don’t actually reveal the function of the knocked-out gene. In yeast, for example, there’s a study that 80 percent of knockouts don’t have an obvious phenotypic effect until you stress the organism. What that tells me is that we have progressively moved from a definition of a gene which made it a conceptual necessity that the defined object was the cause of the phenotype — that’s how it was defined — to a matter which is an empirical discovery to be made, which is whether a particular sequence of DNA plays a functional role or not. Those are very, very different definitions of a gene.

So I go further than Jim. Not only is it difficult, as he says in his book, to now define what a gene is; one should be thinking more of networks of interactions than single and fatalistic genes at the DNA level. It’s also true that the concept of a gene has changed in a very subtle way, and in a way that makes a big difference to how the concept of a gene should be used in evolutionary biology.

The reason for that is very simple. It is that many of the definitions used by modern synthesists, including Richard Dawkins, are actually the Johannsen definition of a gene — that is, the trait as the phenotypic characteristic.

And after a short and interesting passage about how the neo-Darwinists aren't really Darwinists (Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, one of the things we learned was verboten in the real, right way to believe these things happen).  this is said: 

Suzan Mazur: There’s also natural selection, which became a catch-all term. As Richard Lewontin has pointed out, it was intended as a metaphor not to be taken literally by generations of scientists. The range of views about what natural selection is is staggering — a brand, a political term, a political and scientific term, failure to reach biotic potential, physicists are seeing it as part of a larger process now, etc. etc. Things are being majorly redefined.

Denis Noble: You’re putting your finger on a very important point here. And what I just said about the definition of a gene is only one example where I think some philosophical clarity is needed.

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I think an excuse could be made for the racism of  Mr Alford, certainly the scientific part of it, anyway, because natural selection will inevitably give rise to Just-so stories and scientific excuses for racism, and it will give rise to eugenic claims and proposals that is the way that it has been used since the 1860s up till today.   There are people working as scientists in accredited, even world renowned universities that use it in that way and as an excuse for economic, political and social discrimination against women and other groups.  That said, it's likely Alford was just looking for an excuse for his already present racism, I think it's pretty clear that's not an isolated use of Darwinist and neo-Darwinist claims of the sort, it's more the rule than the exception.   

Much as I admire him in may ways, I disagree with Lewontin on one thing, it's obvious from reading Darwin and his disciples from the earliest days and years after he invented natural selection, that they intended it to be taken literally and they were among the first to propose classifying people according to racial hierarchies of intelligence and "fitness" and to even propose that the extinction of entire races was inevitable as they would be replaced by their superiors.  Darwin specifically named the Brits as one of the groups which would supplant "inferior" races around the world.  And it was not only used in that way, it was used to support the subjugation of people in lower economic classes, marking them as biologically inferior and their elimination from the human population was held to be a boon for the survivors.  Eugenics, which was the direct result of the doctrine of natural selection, with Darwin's approval, did not consider natural selection to be a metaphor, you don't base proposals for policies eliminating people from the future on the basis of metaphors.   I think that Mr. Lewontin's laudable habit of speaking uneasy truth failed in on that count. 

Update:  I erred, R. A. Fischer has had praise and honors heaped on him but he was not a Nobel Laureate, he was, however, a man who dedicated his life to coming up with mathematical excuses for racism and who was entirely opposed to racial equality on the basis of his understanding of natural selection.  He is one of the chief architects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis which has been biological orthodoxy right through today, though, as such eminent biologists as Margulis, Shapiro, Nobel and a number of others have said, it's time to put it aside because it doesn't really work. 

19 comments:

  1. So genes are not thing floating in the primordial seas waiting for bodies to coalesce out of the goo so they could finally do something?

    What a surprise.....(sorry, more and more I'm amazed that anyone gave Dawkins more than five minutes attention.)

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    1. I'm trying to get my blood pressure down so I won't risk an aneurism if I go back through The Selfish Gene to look for such incredible idiocies that I didn't notice when I read it about four decades back. I can't believe no one seems to have noticed him saying such idiotic things.

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    2. I think some real scientists ignored him, others were not sharp enough to notice, and some wanted some of that sweet publicity and $$$ Dawkins was getting.

      So nobody cared that he'd said idiotic things. Now I think he's barely remembered; but still some people think he knew what he was talking about, he wrote the book!

      So it goes....

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    3. I think that in academia, even in what used to be regarded as the hard sciences, especially in the post-war period the primary requirement was that your theoretical speculations had to be sufficiently supportive of a materialistic narrative, otherwise how can you account for things like what cosmology and even physics was drawn into.

      With evolutionary biology, the scientific consideration of how, over long stretches of time different species arose, the actual "thing" that was the object of the study was largely unavailable for observation except in the most fragmentary of physical remains from long ago. So even before Darwin the speculations relied on inventing narratives and when you do that the tendency for what is lore to become regarded as science would seem to be almost inevitable. And where there is lore there is the constant temptation of that lore to support your ideological preferences or, as often happens in academia, the lore your thesis adviser preferred and which you inherit a professional interest in, through what program you choose.

      I think the fact that evolution happened over an enormous period of time, under drastically different and largely unknowable conditions, over the entire Earth, through enormous ranges of intertwining, simultaneous lines of descent makes any ambitious statements about it a trade in everything from the most unjustifiably over general statements, the vanishingly improbable chances of achieving accuracy and completeness. I think anyone who doesn't take the kinds of claims Dawkins, evolutionary psychologists and the sociobiologists made with a Northern cities municipal salt pile of salt is being unrealistic.

      The social and behavioral sciences want to also study things that are a. largely unavailable for direct study, b. dependent on the self-reporting of subjects experience, c. in the case of subjects who can't report, the wishful thinking of researchers, d. etc. face impossible to meet challenges and are probably even more prone to ideologically advantageous and unjustified claims. Mix that with evolutionary science and you're asking for trouble. I think there is no accident that natural selection immediately gave rise to eugenics and an different level of scientific racism because of that openness to ideological, racial and class interest in the scientists who took natural selection to their heart, largely,also, on the usefulness it was to their atheist preferences AND the good-news it was to the rich that their unequaled wealth was the reward for their biological superiority. That also started immediately because, based on Malthus, it was embedded in natural selection as it was invented within the British class system. Even someone who wasn't rich knew they could rise by telling patrons, donors and other suck ups to them what they wanted to hear.

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  2. "an excuse could be made for the racism of Mr Alford, certainly the scientific part of it, anyway, because natural selection will inevitably give rise to Just-so stories "

    So it wasn't just Darwin who caused the Holocaust -- it was Rudyard Kipling!

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    1. We've been through the fact that you don't give a shit about the other genocides in history, even recent history, which you prove ever time you comment on this that you don't. Other people don't choose a selected clientele in their moral considerations.

      A. I'm not the one who first used the term Just-so stories for that, it was the eminent evolutionary scientist Stephen J. Gould.

      B. A number of scholars have noted the Darwinist features of Kipling's writing, I didn't make that up, either.

      C. Did you never read a poem called "White Man's Burden"? - or, rather, hear of it, you not being a great reader - in which Kipling pretty much says the same things that Darwin said in The Descent of Man and in such other writings as his correspondence with Gaskell? I've quoted the entire text of the latter, though I'm sure you skimmed, if that. You and Trump do have very similar mental MOs only I'd guess he's taken more drugs than you have, though you're catching up fast.

      Simps, I don't write for idiots like you, I write for people who have read things and who think. Go back and distort what I said. That's part of your MO too.

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  3. Some dumb racist cracker says something dumb and racist about black people and pot and that's the fault of Darwin and Kipling, rather than the stupidity of the dumb racist cracker who said it.

    Gotcha

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    1. You you don't "gotcha" as always you got yourself.

      A. Darwin didn't know genes existed, as I noted he believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Though telling you that is probably less fruitful than telling my cat while she sleeps next to the stove.

      He was, however a flagrant scientific racist whose writing stinks of the same kind of thing that Alford said, I would guess that as probably 99% of the American people who believe they know something about "genes" has a mix of sciency lore in their minds and that natural selection is mixed into it somewhere. He's the one who mentioned "genes" which, as I'm sure most neo-Darwinist true believers would assert, even if they denied it, has something to do with natural selection.

      Again, my cat would probably understand as much of what I just said as you will.

      Dawin and Kipling were racists, what makes their racism less odious than a stupid state legislator from Kansas? Oh, I know, because they don't fit into your regional snobbery and Darwin's special because Inherit The Wind told you so.

      I'm losing interest in this, Simps, in mocking you, it's so repetitive. You know, you repeat the same things over and over just like Michael Wolfe said Trump does. How often do you repeat the same things over and over and over again at Duncans? I'd recommend thinking about it but you don't. Think.

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    2. Oh, and I'm pretty sure that "cracker" doesn't apply to Kansas, though I don't really care.

      I wonder what the equivalent term of derision for someone from you overrated part of the country would be. Maybe I'll look one up in case I decide how to characterize you regionally.

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  4. Here's a clue.

    "Some guy from fucking Jersey."

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    1. No, something as insulting as "cracker" which will be applicable for you. "Asshole" fits but it's not regionally specific and that's the whole point. One of the most putrid racists I've ever encountered was an asshole from your armpit of the nation.

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  5. Good luck with that, Sparkles.
    :-)

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    1. Why, that's it. A synonymous cognomen, an asshole-bigot-snob from your area should from now on be a "simels". I'll start using it. Don't worry, Simps, I'll credit you as the prototype.

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  6. Why are you reciting my credits?
    :-)

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    1. I suppose since that's all there is to you they're the best thing about you.

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  7. And I'll start referring to any generic idiot piano teacher from Maine as a Sparky. So it's all good.
    :-)

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    1. Naw, that's my competitor who couldn't keep students because he was an idiot. So, wrong as usual, Simps.

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  8. Here's a clue: Mockery doesn't care if it's accurate or not, Sparky.

    You really don't understand how this stuff works. But that's part of your charm.
    :-)

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    1. Stupid mockery, your style, maybe. I don't waste it on the stupid, the intelligent require meaning.

      You'd have to be told by someone whether or not you're supposed to find something charming. I find that to be a common trait among the mid-brow residents of the NYC area.

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