Bad politics in Nature: Bunce and McElreath (2019)

Today I read a paper in Nature by John Bunce and Richard McElreath, entitled “Sustainability of minority culture when inter-ethnic interaction is profitable.” As a staunch advocate for cultural pluralism, and a supporter of the theoretical autonomy of all cultures regardless of minority status (since history tells us that what is a majority today can quickly become a minority tomorrow, and vice versa; ask the Aztecs) I was enthused by the subject matter, and read the paper with great interest.

The paper opens strongly with some well-phrased descriptions of cultural shift and variation. Very quickly though, we start to see a political leaning emerge:

The highlighted sections, while not necessarily incorrect, give us a clear look at authorial intentions. Cultural displacement occurs when minority cultures are lost to a “powerful majority group.” The suggestion that preventing the loss of minority cultures may contribute to the richness of society is something I entirely agree with, but it is also inherently subjective and inappropriate for one of the world’s leading scientific journals. The citation (no. 12) used for the ‘richness’ claim is a dummy citation which refers only to language preservation activist Michael Krauss giving the same opinion. There’s more to criticize about the idea of “optimally distinct group identities” (optimizing for what, specifically?) but you get the idea.

What I think is truly inappropriate is this next part of the work:

We can now infer that this article is the brainchild of John Bunce (author 1) whereas McElreath (author 2) probably played the role of methodological consultant, which makes sense as his best received book is on coding and mathematics. I’m going to continue in reference to Bunce as the author.

Bunce’s description of ethnically Mestizo Peruvians – those of mixed Spanish and South American heritage – is an accusation that carries a moral charge far too great for his feeble implications to support. To describe these people as ‘colonists’ because some of their ancestors were indeed colonists is no different to describing Muslim minority communities in the Balkans as ‘invaders’ because many of their ancestors did indeed enter the Balkans as part of Muslim military invasions. I use this example, because ‘invaders’ is exactly the term used by Brenton Tarrant to describe his victims in Christchurch. I am sure that Bunce himself would be horrified by the Christchurch massacre, and would strongly protest the legitimacy of Tarrant’s terminology. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Bunce’s language isn’t intended to be used both ways; it’s a hypocritical, ideological accusation that lacks logical consistency.

The lack of consistency in moral standards is something that we see in the article’s conclusion as well. Toward the end of the article, Bunce finishes by concluding that minority cultures may be preserved by establishing interethnic barriers or boundaries which can be freely crossed by the minority culture, but not the majority culture. This isn’t particularly surprising or novel, insofar as this is something we’ve been implementing as a political solution to the problem of cultural preservation of ethnic minority cultures. In the UK, for instance, we have a Welsh Parliament, a Scottish Parliament, but not an English Parliament. I don’t think the legislators who enacted these parliaments would be surprised by the scientific revelation here, since they presumably already guessed it would be the case.

But to me there’s an issue beyond that which Bunce (and perhaps also McElreath) bear responsibility for missing. When proposing solutions to social problems, researchers are faced with a theoretically limitless number of ways in which to achieve their goals. I could just as easily publish a paper concluding ‘wholesale systematic genocide is a very effective way of eliminating minority cultures.’ It’s obviously true, but also obviously not worth publishing. Likewise in the case of this paper, it seems that author John Bunce is making statements which are obviously true, combining them with those that are logically incoherent, and packaging these into a ‘scientific paper’ hardly fit for purpose in order to promote his political ideology.

Angela Saini thinks about race like Richard Spencer

Quillette just published this essay by Drs. Bo Winegard and Noah Carl, who joined forces to review Angela Saini’s new pop science book, Superior.

For the unfamiliar, Saini is a Desi journalist and writer from Britain considered popular within her undergraduate and professional audiences. More specifically, her popularity appears relatively confined to the center-left and middling-high (+1 SD) openness portion of that audience. Her wikipedia page (which she probably wrote herself) emphasizes her two MA degrees from high-tier British universities (Ox and Imperial) and the two books she wrote prior to Superior seem like manifestos on behalf of perceived underdogs, whose true virtue she is compelled to explain. I’m going to let a page from her book on women, entitled Inferior, speak for itself:

Just one page alone tells us so much about the kind of person who succeeds in the industry of science journalism today.

In Saini’s worldview, the “early divisions” that appear and begin to distinguish male and female humans in childhood reflect only a belief about biology, not biology itself. Reproductive and sexual behavior by consenting adults is guided by a kind of zombie notion, fed by scientific research (which is thus implied to be unreliable). If we have an interpretation of the past that contradicts this, it is only because our visions are tainted by “myths.” Men are dominant, therefore women must be, and are, submissive.

Amidst this, we (meaning Angela Saini) have “this dark, niggling feeling that never seems to go away no matter how much equality legislation is passed: the feeling that we aren’t the same, that, in fact, our biology might explain the sexual inequality that has existed… across the world.” We don’t need Freud to point out how much closer this is to a childhood diary of shameful thoughts than a book about science. Yet Saini moves decisively to nip this ‘dark feeling’ in the bud, dispelling it with one phrase: ‘thoughts like these are dangerous.’

This, in a nutshell, is Angela Saini. Her motivation is to act against the very thought that anything biological could explain anything she views as sociological. If the science seems to suggest any differences that can be related to biology, this is only because, she tells us, the science is itself flawed:

You can probably guess what her latest book Superior: The Return of Race Science had to say about its subject matter. The Quillette article did a pretty good job evaluating Saini’s arguments, so I won’t repeat their rebuttal. Instead, I want to draw attention to Saini’s fundamental mistake that we see in both Superior and Inferior: she combines strawman ideas of race and gender into a Frankenstein belief system no-one actually holds. Let’s start with her definition of race from the prologue of Superior:

“No place or people has a claim on superiority. Race is the counter-argument. Race is at its heart the belief that we are born different, deep inside our bodies, perhaps even in character and intellect, as well as in outward appearance.”

Winegard and Carl did a good job at picking up on what she actually means. In their words, Saini’s definition “inextricably binds up race with morality, making it an  affront to human dignity and a threat to metaphysical equality.” To Saini, race is the idea that these features on which any two randomly selected humans from the same society will differ (appearance, character, intellect) grants a metaphysically and morally superior status. Racism, then, is a Nietzschean view in which one’s group is a master, and others are slaves.

Interestingly, Saini’s attitude here is much closer to the ‘pro-race-ists’ such as Richard Spencer than any credible scientist working in biology or related fields. As far as I’m aware, Spencer – like Saini – believes that race does indeed confer some metaphysically superior status; he only disagrees with Saini on the small matter of its existence.

Saini Spencer
Race is real No Yes
Race is socially constructed Yes No
Race determines metaphysical value Yes Yes

Ignoring her inadvertent agreement with the alt-right, I’m going to throw a curveball into our discussion by arguing that both Spencer and Saini are wrong. In common English parlance, we use the word race to legitimately describe groups defined by shared cultural characteristics, but also those defined by shared patterns of biological descent and variation, and often we see a substantial degree of overlap between the two. Yet we do not (or, at least, cannot) use race as a marker of metaphysical value or worth, and it is for this reason that both Saini and Spencer are incorrect.

Saini counters throughout her book, most notably when she interviews David Reich in chapter 7, that racial categories are mere (i.e. imaginary) social constructions. Consider the following paragraph:  

There’s some truth to be found here: racial categories are indeed socially constructed. Consider the list of racial categories proposed below (from chapter 5 of Nicholas Wade’s book on the topic):

By definition, these are social constructions because they were assembled by a social community (scientists) and are subject to change and redefinition over time. But does this truly suggest, as Saini & Co. assume, that this makes them worthless and harmful? Don’t all categories of human knowledge, like fashion, physics, religion, and law operate the same way – being constructed by a social community and then applied for a specific purpose within a relevant domain? To her credit, the paragraph above does give the remarkable admission that “some categories may be useful” but discredits itself by making a full 180 to conclude that race is both useless (i.e. invalid; not fit for purpose) and pernicious, which is a synonym for wicked and malevolent.

A common-sense response might seek to look at some examples of what we often call ‘race’ in order to evaluate how harmful or inaccurate it really is. African Americans are a great place to start, because they are indeed genetically heterogeneous to a degree that makes the notion of biological homogeneity seem hard to defend. As we know, those considered racially ‘black’ in America include original AAs of West-African slave descent, recent arrivals from East African countries like Somalia and Ethiopia, or Khoisan immigrants from South Africa (who are described in Wade’s book as a separate racial category altogether). Therefore, it’s fairly unsurprising that AAs have among the highest levels of intragroup genetic diversity in the world, and are composed on average of roughly 79% African ancestry. In the case of individuals with 0% African ancestry like Sean King, it’s very clear that African/black American is a social identity or ethnic grouping, bearing little resemblance to the biological category Wade proposes.

For people like Saini, the definitional breadth of blackness in the American social context is the strongest possible case to support her argument. Yet if we concede that black is too broad to be useful, we tacitly accept that any trends, gaps, or disparities revealed by the adoption of ‘black’ are just as useless as the category itself. Prostate cancer, which remains the biggest killer of Western men today, has rates among black Americans that are “50–60 times higher than the rates in Shanghai, China.” Do we really think that pretending black and Asian Americans to be equally susceptible to prostate cancer will rid us of a “nonsense” and “wicked” category? Or would it worsen the already severe health disparities dividing America along racial lines today?

We don’t have to speculate – let’s check for common-sense by looking at a country overtly opposed to racial categories. France has a legal prohibition on collecting demographic statistics of ethnicity or race, which it has ardently enforced for many years. Yet despite this, the French government assiduously collects data on the proportion of newborns considered ‘at risk’ for sickle cell disease – a genetic disorder effectively limited to individuals of Sub-Saharan African ancestry. If France consistently avoided collecting statistics on racial demography altogether, then the life expectancy of its black population as well as the efficiency of its health service would obviously suffer as a result. How this would further the cause of justice, let alone science, is never explained by Saini – but it’s consistent with a set of policy measures her book strongly supports.

While Superior commendably admits that “understanding [medical] correlations is important” it never tells us why health disparities occupy a unique position among behavior, socioeconomic outcomes, social attitudes, or any other characteristic that will on average differ between groups; knowing one is important, but no harm will befall a society that ignores every other disparity that exists (???). When paraphrasing the section quoted above, we get: ‘no need or value to categorize people biologically, but understanding medical implications of biogeographic ancestry is important, but most categories are nonsense, but there are some physical differences, but most categories are useless, but some are useful, but race above all else is a wicked and insidious way to interpret the diversity we believe to characterize the human species in our world.’ While hyperbolic, this is no less extreme or radical than the claims and normative proposals found in Superior, particularly in its sections on cognitive ability.

You could counter that any concept of race which clumps Ethiopians, West Africans, Khosian, and Sean King in a single category is inherently silly, and should be removed or refined. This is a reasonable suggestion, but it fails to acknowledge the advantages of ‘fuzziness’ we’d trade off by enforcing a more strictly genetic interpretation on the general population. Saini is well-aware of this, rightly noting:

“…according to the rules laid out by the US government in its 1997 Office of Management and Budget standards on race and ethnicity, people who originate in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are automatically classified as white. Since Hefny arrived from Egypt, he is officially white.”

It’s certainly true that the ostensibly racial category of ‘white’, like ‘black’, is applied very openly in the United States – but why exactly is this a bad thing? After all, if our critique rests upon the divisiveness of race, then we should aim for racial categories that are open and inclusive to the utmost extent that doesn’t compromise the quality of information on health disparities or socioeconomic gaps in our societies. If we don’t bother with pragmatic utility and instead focus solely on the strict scientific accuracy of racial categories, we’re beginning to sound alarmingly close to actual 20th-century Nazis – something that should tell us we’re going in the wrong direction.

Stepping back into the safe territory of common sense, we might ask why on earth Saini gets it so wrong. After all, if categorizing humans into groups based on shared genetic ancestry can help people (which it can) and if these categories can be relatively inclusive (which they appear to be) then why oppose the effort? For our answer, we turn right back to Saini’s prologue, where she writes:

“We invent hierarchies, give meaning to our own racial categories…” “…once defined, these “races” rapidly became slotted into hierarchies based on the politics of the time, character being conflated with appearance, and political circumstance becoming a biological fact.”

Above all, it’s these claims where I cannot help but dig my heels in. The idea that race is made meaningful by hierarchy is as absurd as gender being intrinsically hierarchical. The notion that categorizing people based on shared ancestry invariably conflates character with appearance suggests that well-intentioned scientists like David Reich are ultimately motivated by a sinister desire to determine moral goodness based on physical aspect. While Saini seems to acknowledge that although race can be medically useful and sociologically informative, such benefits are a mere coincidence of its true purpose: to rank order the moral importance of an individual life based on racial ancestry, so that we can treat them differently.

Perhaps importantly, I’d suggest that this would be serious cause for concern, were any of it true and not dramatic fiction. The idea of moral worth or value sounds abstract or arcane to many of us today, but it was very tangible for the passengers of the sinking Titanic, where men (being of lower moral value) resigned themselves to death while women and children descended to the safety of the lifeboats. The case of the Titanic shows that when push comes to shove, ‘moral value’ ultimately means ‘who gets to live and who has to die’ so it’s definitely a subject worth raising if and when we feel there is valid cause for concern. Nevertheless, the fact that military servicemen and first responders routinely give their lives for people of racial groups Saini considers ‘lower’ on her fictitious racial hierarchy should give you a sense of how valid this concern really is.

Ultimately, Superior is very much like Inferior in that both books rest upon a fictitious idea of ‘race’ and ‘gender’ that is always assumed, never justified, and shared only among her fellow ideologues liberally quoted in every chapter as if to hammer their bad and unpersuasive ideas right into your skull. Both of her books start not with their subject matter of race, or gender, but with her – with personal stories from her background and upbringing, and the various ways in which she was ‘unjustly’ and ‘inaccurately’ categorized while growing up as a brown girl in Britain. It could be that this writing style is popular in circles I’m unfamiliar with, or it could be that Saini – like so many others who simply assume the views of their ‘opponents’ – is projecting her ghosts and demons upon an audience that sorely deserves better.