Tag Archives: dna

Flesh and Blood, Genetic and Non-Genetic Influences

Three Cheers for Genetic Discrimination!

On facebook, Niles Bliss made some comments about genetics and human behavior that are worth describing. He phrased the same belief in a number of different ways, but this one line sums up a good deal of Niles’ philosophy

It is wrong to treat one group differently due to genetic factors.

Of course, this comment is absurd on two different levels.

Whenever people discuss genetics on facebook, it’s a good bet that they’re discussing race, sex, vaccination, or homosexuality. Another comment by Niles makes it clear this is once again the case [emphasis mine]:

Denying someone the ability to take part in an institution, i.e. marriage, because of a
genetic factor
, i.e. enjoying sodomy (or the females only equivalent), is morally wrong
. The POA vs. Marriage is not the issue. You can keep it. The issue is being treated as a full-fledged member of the species instead of some sort of aberrant embarrassment. Neither polygamy nor Mormonism/Islamism is determined genetically, so there is not the same moral consideration. I do not believe in cultural relativism, and if your religion must have multiple wives, go to a government that is cool with it.

To break this down, Niles is asserting two common, but mistaken, ideas

1. Some widespread variant human behaviors are “determined genetically”
2. It is ethically wrong to discriminate against genetically-driven traits.

“Determined Genetically” Means That You Can’t Avoid The Expression of the Trait Without Killing, Dismembering, or Lobotomizing the Subject

When people say “determined genetically,” they mean that 100% of variation of a trait within a population is caused exclusively by genes. There are some diseases that operate like this, but not many. Certainly I am not aware of any complex societal traits that are “determined genetically.”

Given the influence that nutrition has in early development, I am not even sure that something as “simple” as earlobe-shape is “determined genetically.”

Non-genetic factors in our development include social environment, nutrition, epigenetic load, and pathogenic load.

Discriminating Against People For Genetically-Shaped Traits Is Both Fun, Easy, and Morally Virtuous

Here are a list of some traits with large “genetic components,” that is, given similar environments, most of the variation in these traits by age 30 or so will be the result of variation in DNA

1. Political Orientation
2. Religious Ferver
3. General Intelligence
4. Creativity
5. Future Time Orientation
6. Openness to New Experience
7. Conscientiousness
8. Extraversion
9. Agreeableness
10. Neuroticism
11. Some forms of Schizophrenia / Psychopathology
12. Skin Hue
13. Height
14. Build of musculature
15. Fatty tissue distribution

The only way you are having any fun in your life if you are not discriminating on any of these traits is if you consider the lack of control you now have over your life as “fun.”

(I am exclude homosexuality here because I am unaware of a study showing that > 50% of variation in expression of that trait by age 30 is predictable based on knowledge of blood relatives. I did not, however, research this before writing this post, as my whole point is that not discriminating based on genetic tendencies is ridiculous)

Discrimination Is Right? Wrong? Something Else?

“Discrimination” means treating different things different, and different people differently, based on features that are meaningful.

Many traits with large “genetic components” are meaningful in our lives. Tendency to crime, beauty, personality, political orientation, skin hue, fervor, etc., all matter to us in meaningful ways. Traits without the same obvious genetic component — which political party you belong to, which Church you worship at, perhaps even your sexual orientation — also matter.

Human beings are not disembodied ghosts. Nor are we soulless corpses. We have bodies. We are made of flesh and blood and spirit, clay and the breathe of life.

The Genome Prepares to Cross Time

We’ve already brought back DNA from extinct species. Not we are recovering DNA from ancient human races:

Viking DNA Extracted From 1,000 Year Old Skeleton | Scientific Blogging
Analysis of DNA from the remains of ancient humans provides valuable insights into such important questions as the origin of genetic diseases, migration patterns of our forefathers and tribal and family patterns.

Unfortunately, severe problems connected with the retrieval and analysis of DNA from ancient organisms (like the scarcity of intact molecules) are further aggravated in the case of ancient humans. This is because of the great risk of contamination with abundant DNA from modern humans. Humans, then, are involved at all steps, from excavation to laboratory analyses. This means that many previous results have subsequently been disputed as attributed to the presence of contaminant DNA, and some researchers even claim that it is impossible to obtain reliable results with ancient human DNA.

Extremely cool. There’s no reason to be limited to the human biodiversity that currently exists on the planet. While evolution has doubtless optimized many modern humans for life in the modern world, there doubtless were good variants in the past that were lost either before they became valuable or because of genetic drift.

The Subtleties of Inheritance

Half Sigma discovers “epigenetics,” which is a general term for heritable elements that are not DNA. Maternal cytoplasm is an example of an epigenetic factor, though there probably are more. I assume that epigenetics probably works to exaggerate genetic differences. For instance, if two lands are otherwise equal, except one population is “genetically” higher in intelligence, that population is less likely to experience a famine, and so less likely to be epigenetically stunted.

At the same time, (courtesy of Crooked Timber) Eric Turkheimer of CATO speaks carefully about “innate” differences. Eric post essentially boils down to the fact that genes are expressed differently in different environments. Thus, it’s possible to imagine a world, with the same DNA distribution, where sub-Saharan Africans outscore Jews on intelligence tests. And it’s even easier to imagine a system where the general factor of intelligence does not correlate with verbal skill, spatial skill, height, etc. Of course, those worlds are not our worlds.

Adam of The Metropolis Times emphasizes that, whatever average group differences are, and whatever their origins, people should be judged as individuals. And human rights belong to all humans, not just who score well on tests.

Forensic Racial Genetics

Newsome, M. (2007). The incovenient science of racial DNA profiling. Wired. October 5, 2007. Available online: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2007/10/dnaprint?currentPage=all (from gnxp).

The article is extremely cool, first describing a new technology with obvious Sysadmin implications:

In early March, 2003, investigators turned to Tony Frudakis, a molecular biologist who said he could determine the killer’s race by analyzing his DNA. They were unsure about the science, so, before giving him the go-ahead, the task force sent Frudakis DNA swabs taken from 20 people whose race they knew and asked him to determine their races through blind testing. He nailed every single one…

“Your guy has substantial African ancestry,” said Frudakis. “He could be Afro-Caribbean or African American but there is no chance that this is a Caucasian. No chance at all.”

There was a prolonged, stunned silence, followed by a flurry of questions looking for doubt but Frudakis had none. Would he bet his life on this, they wanted to know? Absolutely. In fact, he was certain that the Baton Rouge serial killer was 85 percent Sub-Saharan African and 15 percent native American.

“This means we’re going to turn our investigation in an entirely different direction,” Frudakis recalls someone saying. “Are you comfortable with that?”

“Yes. I recommend you do that,” he said. And now, rather than later since, in the time it took Frudakis to analyze the sample, the killer had claimed his fifth victim. The task force followed Frudakis’ advice and, two months later, the killer was in custody.

As the technology gets more advanced, more and more details about criminals will be derivable from scant genetic clues. Imagine being able to derive not just where bombs are going off, for example, but the locations of a country where they are probably being assembled — all before starting your humint operations.

Of course, anti-science is part of the Standard Social Science Model, so it’s no surprise that modern crime-fighting has its enemies:

But even the people one might think should be his biggest allies aren’t supporting that, including Tony Clayton, the special prosecutor who tried one of the Baton Rouge murder cases. Clayton, who is black, admits that he initially dismissed Frudakis as some white guy trying to substantiate his racist views. He no longer believes that and says “had it not been for Frudakis, we would still be looking for the white guy in the white pick-up truck.” But then he adds, “We’ve been taught that we’re all the same, that we bleed the same blood. If you subscribe to the (Frudakis) theory, you’re saying we are inherently unequal.”

He continues: “If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would.”

Online: DNAPrint Genomics

The DNA of Politics

“Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” by John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John R. Hibbing, American Political Science Association, May 2005, http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/GeneticsAPSR0505.pdf (from Nebraska Liberation Front).

Today I attended Dr. John Hibbing fascinating lecture on the role of genetics in politics. His powerpoint was excellent, though I do not think he wants to make it generally available. Instead, I found a link to a scholarly article Dr. Hibbing has written that discusses some of the same points.

For those interested in the scientific details, please read the original article. Alternatively, at the end of the article I am putting some footnotes to allow one to read details without having the post bogged down by “boring stuff.”

A political survey was given to many pairs of fraternal and identical twins. Fraternal twins are brothers or sisters that just happened to be born at the same time, while identical twins are genetically identical (identical twins are “clones” of each other). [1]

Using some math, the similarities and differences in answers between the sets of identical and fraternal twins were used to calculate environmental and genetic factors. [2] It did not matter is identical twins were raised as identical twins, raised as fraternal twins, or otherwise brought up. [3]

Every question was at least somewhat influenced by genetics and at least somewhat influenced by the environment. The least genetic — those were “nurture” mattered the most and “nature” mattered the least — were a person’s party affiliation and their view of “liberals.”


This makes sense. A party affiliation is basically a club, while in American politics “liberal” is used as an insult by almost everyone.

Interesting, while one’s own party was almost entirely “nurture,” “nature” was about twice as important in what one thought of the parties. That is, while it was almost genetically random what party you are, your genetic heritage — your “nature” — determines a littlw aht you think of the Democrat Party and the Republican Party


Yet, other factors are genetically more related — particularly things involve money and blood:


What political issue is most closely tied into genetics? What political move would run into the deepest, most ingrained hostility?

School prayer.


There are many reasons that Conservatives may want to be thankful to the Warren Court, but Envel v. Vitale, which banned school prayer, is one of the biggest. The unique factors of American political culture make school prayer a center of gravity — what the Germans called a “schwerpunkt” — in the defense of conservatism. A smart liberal would try to go around it, as water goes around mountains.

Earl Warren was not a smart liberal.

In one swoop the Warren Court threw the progressive movement against the genetic/conservative schwerpunkt of prayer in schools.

That “liberal” is now an empty insult is a testament to Mr. Warren’s work. So is the Bush Presidency, the Republican Congress, and the Court.

Footnote 1: On Identical and Fraternal Twins

“The process of identifying in the laboratory the precise genes responsible for given human behaviors (especially those behaviors that do not have corollaries in lab-friendly animals such as mice) is extremely challenging. Fortunately, even without identifying the genes responsible, it is possible to compile information on the matter of most concern to social scientists: the extent to which attitudes and behaviors have a genetic component. The relevant procedures center on comparisons of monozygotic (MZ; frequently but erroneously called identical) twins and dizygotic (DZ; fraternal) twins.

“MZ twins develop from a single egg, fertilized by a single sperm, and share an identical genetic inheritance. DZ twins develop from two separate eggs, fertilized by two separate sperm, and are in effect simply two siblings that happen to be born simultaneously. As such, DZ twins share the same average of 50% of genetic material as do any two biological siblings. It is this fixed ratio (two to one) of genetic similarity between MZ and DZ twins, and the contrasting average equivalence of environment influence, that provides most of the power of twin designs. It is important to appreciate that the assumption of environmental equivalence is one of equivalence across types of twins, not across pairs of twins or across twins within a given pair. For example, there is undoubtedly at least some variability in parental socialization across siblings, even those of identical age, but acrossmultiple twin pairs the assumption is that this variability is essentially equal for the MZ and the DZ pairs.”

Footnote 2: Mathematically Seperating Environmental and Genetic Factors

“Heritability is typically estimated by subtracting the correlation for DZ pairs from the correlation for MZ pairs and then doubling the resulting difference.At one extreme, if the correlations are the same for MZ and DZ pairs, suggesting that genetic similarity plays no role in similarity for that particular trait, then the result will be an estimate of heritability of zero. At the other extreme, a purely genetic additive trait should produce a correlation of .5 for DZ pairs and 1.0 for MZ pairs, resulting in an estimate of heritability of 1.0 (1.0−.5=.5, and 2 x .5=1.0). In a similar way, we can estimate the influence of shared environment, as opposed to shared genetic material, by doubling the correlation for DZ pairs and then subtracting the correlation forMZ pairs. Again, a purely genetic additive trait should produce a correlation of .5 for DZ pairs and 1.0 for MZ pairs, resulting in an estimate of the impact of shared environment of zero (2 x .5=1.0, and 1.0−1.0=0). At the other extreme, if the correlations are the same for MZ and DZ pairs, suggesting that genetic similarity plays no role in similarity for that particular trait, then the result will be an estimate of the impact of shared environment that is equal to the MZ or DZ correlation (e.g., if MZ=DZ=.4, then 2 ∗ .4=.8, and .8−.4=.4). Whatever is left over is taken to the unshared environment.”

Foonote 3: It Does Not Matter How the Identical Twins were Raised

“Both caveats have been subject to sustained and varied investigation and neither has been found to hold up under empirical scrutiny. The argument of more similar treatment fails on several fronts. Parents frequently miscategorize their twins (DZ twins are often believed by their parents to be MZ twins) and the differential correlation persists in these instances of miscategorization. In other words, the degree of correspondence betweenMZtwins surpasses that of DZ twins even in the large subpopulation of twins thought by their parents to beMZtwins (Bouchard and McGue 2003; Bouchard et al. 1990; Plomin 1990). The contention that MZ twins have closer or more frequent contact than DZ twins turns out to be at best irrelevant. The correlation between the frequency of contact between twins and the similarity between twins on all attitudinal andbehavioral variables tested, including conservatism, is slight and actually negative (Martin et al. 1986). In other words, twins in greater contact with their cotwins are not more likely to share the same attitudes and behaviors, so even if MZ twins have more contact than DZ twins, this contact is not the cause of any elevated correlations. But the most powerful refutation of both of these criticisms comes in recent studies utilizingMZ and DZ twins raised apart. These studies uniformly validate MZ and DZ differences found in earlier studies of twins raised together. Arguments about the relative degree of shared environmental effects between MZ and DZ twins simply offer no credible explanation if the twins in question have been raised apart (Bouchard 1998; Bouchard et al. 1990). In effect, this naturally occurring, if uncommon, condition provides precisely the sort of laboratory control that we would want in an experimental setting.

Biology + Politics @ UNL

Actually interesting:

Next Thursday (November 3) I will be giving a brown bag presentation in Oldfather 538 (at 11:30) to faculty, grad students, and other interested parties.

TITLE: Biology and the Future of Political Science ABSTRACT: Evolutionary and biological principles increasingly are being applied in the social sciences, particularly economics and psychology. Political science has been lagging behind but even this situation is changing rapidly. I [Dr. John Hibbing] will describe these principles and explain how I think they can inform our theoretical and empirical work. I will also describe the role I believe this movement could play in our discipline and in our department. Then, in the second half of the talk I will provide an example of empirical work I have done in this area–specifically, the extent to which political attitudes and social behaviors are influenced by genetics. In the process, I hope to assist skeptics in understanding how genes (sequences of nucleotides in our DNA) could filter through to such seemingly cerebral concepts as social behavior and political attitudes.

Update: Some of Dr. Hibbing’s findings (with my commentary!) are online.