Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Math: Not the only requirement in Evolutionary Biology

“If you can’t stand algebra, keep out of evolutionary biology” – John Maynard Smith. [And Lior Pachter]

For quite some time now, I’ve been watching the steady stream of papers in evolutionary biology where the “math” was correctly formulated, but other problems, often quite fundamental and obvious, lead to published statements which are erroneous, misleading or grossly exaggerated, and harmful.

Take, for instance, this statement published yesterday in the New York Times: "The agricultural revolution was one of the most profound events in human history, leading to the rise of modern civilization."

Really?  Let's see.  Here we have the assumption that modern civilization is linked only to the Neolithic, in other words, the domestication of crops and animals.  In the journalist Carl Zimmer's very next sentence, he goes on to discuss the Neolithic of Europe and Anatolia, leaving most readers with the impression that modernity is entirely a European phenomena, and something that developed only in the last 9,000 years.  The paper looks at a few traits like height, skin color, and a few alleles contributing to actual medical traits like immune system function, fat metabolism and lactose tolerance.  Never mind that we already know that immune system function, fat metabolism and lactose tolerance can be moderated by different alleles, not just the ones that this paper found in European and Anatolian populations.

So, the article and the paper, propped up by statistics, subliminally asserts that these alleles support the notion of a revolutionary advancement in human evolution, only in Europeans, and only coming from "Anatolian farmers", when that is not what is supported at all. 

Human populations are adapting all the time to their environments, and most evolutionary biologists agree that modernity is at least 60,000 to approximately 200,000 years old, not to mention the various problems of defining what, exactly, modernity consists of.

We don't even know if it was "Anatolian" farmers who were the source of some of these alleles, since farmers from the Balkans and Italy, for example, were not even sampled in this paper.

Zimmer even has Rasmus Nielsen, geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, chime in, supporting this shoddy, misleading paper:  “For decades we’ve been trying to figure out what happened in the past,” . . . “And now we have a time machine.” 

Wow . . . "a time machine" . . . no over emphasis there.

This is just par for the course, part of the Eurocentric jabberwocky that has become the Pablum of evolutionary biology.  Never mind that it is harmful to almost everyone, except Europeans, and especially harmful to many aboriginal people, who are often wrongly inferred to be not modern.

These and other fundamental errors are set up using statistical methods which most people cannot understand.  So they may suspect that something is wrong with these assertions, but because the assertions are made in part with mathematical and technical jargon, the vast majority of people will not be able to fully dissect or critique what is wrong.

This goes on all the time in publications in evolutionary biology.

Increasingly, I’m of the opinion that almost the entire field suffers from a quite severe Eurocentric bias, as well as gender bias.

Yet, these unsupportable “conclusions” soon turn up in arguments in the popular press,  in the  influential New York Times, and at the highest levels of government and corporations, to support often hard to detect arguments supporting race and gender discrimination.

It doesn’t help that the field seems to have a tremendous problem policing academics of major research institutes who often collude, blog and harass people online under pseudonyms. Hey, some even blog and harass using their own name. You only need to look at blogs such as the WestHunter blog , a favorite hang out for anonymous evolutionary biologist bitch sessions, often targeted against women and minorities, to see just how biased and broken are the standards of academic "professionalism" in this field:

"Education makes women less feminine, and thus less hot."

"Eh, you don’t have to marry an MBA to do that, and if she doesn’t have an MBA she is much less likely to be a self-centered, career-obsessed shrike."

"Professional women have low fertility, way below replacement: look it up. It’s not a secret. If you believe in high heritability of smarts – and you should, because it is true – that pattern is bound to have bad effects in the long run. Bad effects on the economy, too."

Oh, and what about the Eurogenes blog, another stealth blog of evolutionary biology haters and nutjobs in Academia.  "Oh, Davidski, could you add such and such population and run stats so I can see how absolutely brilliant and evolved I am, compared to everyone else?"

Nope, weakness in math is not by any means the only problem of evolutionary biologists. I’d say far more serious is a gross inability to implement basic standards of ethics and safeguards against bias (and gross negligence.)

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