Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kill Popular Science

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Steven Pinker’s new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is out, and the reception reminds me of an album release from a trendy band during the 1990’s. I must beg my readers’ forgiveness for writing this very preliminary review for a book that I have not finished because the subject matter is so important. Most reviews and buzz for this book center on Pinker’s observations about the decline of violence and the advance of enlightened views. Pinker has been speaking about this phenomenon for years, and many facets of it are apparent in my own lifetime, such as the utter metamorphosis of public consensus regarding homosexuality. The book has a number of fascinating graphs that speak to the changes, and I have little reason to critique his central thesis, other than to say that I am not sure the trend entirely represents genuine progress. For example, I suspect that he could have placed a graph of the decline of fat jokes alongside his graphs of the decline of racial prejudices. While society has improved control over physical aggression, the obesity epidemic proves that indiscipline still finds expression. In fact, when one considers the growing acceptance of “alternative”—excuse me, “integrative” medicine, one can see how the triumph of enlightened tolerance can coincide with a lax shrug off of reason and scientific rigor.

Though I perused the tome in the modern cursory version of the word’s contradictory meanings, I gave special attention to the latter chapters, particularly chapters 8 and 9 on the nature of violence, itself, which has been one of my obsessions. That discussion concerns the overriding paradox of this work. How could this man, who wrote The Blank Slate to passionately declare that we are not and that behavior is part heredity, reconcile with a belief that societal evolution pushed radical behavioral modification? I regret to say that this was a serious weakness of an otherwise well-reasoned exposition.

First let me stress that I do not see Pinker’s observations as fundamentally opposed to the revolution taking place in biosocial criminology and genetic psychiatry. On the contrary, making aggression anomalous likely accentuates the role of genetics and biology in what deserves to be considered a veritable behavioral disease. What science really calls into question is whether historic trends justify extrapolation, and from what I can tell, Pinker has dodged such speculation. To illustrate his handling, the book contains extensive discussion of how the secular rise in IQ, known as the Flynn effect, could be reducing violence, but I found no mention of the evidence for subsequent plateauing. Then again, my hope is that the research on the genetics of violence, which I attempt to elucidate, could help channel efforts to find new ways, including pharmacological developments, to sustain aggression’s decline.

Judging by Pinker’s treatment of the subject, my message is not getting out. He dismissed research on monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) using a study with which my regular readers are all too familiar.

[A]n association between the gene and aggression has not been found in non-European populations, perhaps because they have evolved other ways of regulating their catecholamine levels. (Genes often act in networks regulated by feedback loops, so in populations in which a particular gene is less effective, other genes may step up their activity to compensate.) For now, the Warrior Gene theory is staggering around with possibly fatal wounds.

Nice try. Pinker is referencing the Widom and Brzustowicz paper that combined men and women to compare “whites” to “non-whites.” Gender was not controlled, and that white sample was 33% female. Non-whites were 38% female, but women were far more represented among non-white subjects with the low-activity, 3-repeat allele. For the subjects with the 3-repeat allele, which is the allele considered most impacted by the environmental trigger, whites were 24% female, and non-whites were 43% female. Antisocial behavior in women, but not men, is mediated by the epigenetic methylation of MAOA as well as a newly discovered second promoter that actually has more effect in women than the alleles mentioned. Also, of course, MAOA is located on the X chromosome. Women have two copies, which helps explain why even the radical Brunner-syndrome mutation that completely disables the gene does not seem to affect the behavior of women. It can be nice to have a spare.

Pinker seems to have received his introduction to this subject through the New Zealand Maori controversy, in which Rod Lea had to make amends for allegedly saying that the Maori are prone to criminality. Thus, Pinker is completely unaware that studies have found that MAOA influences aggression in non-whites. Weder et al found that the gene-environment association of MAOA and aggression held for a 58-subject sample of African-American and biracial children. Kevin Beaver’s research also helps support this association. His 2009 study on MAOA’s effect on gang membership and weapon use included African Americans. His 2010 study on African-American men and violence used a genetic index that included MAOA and four other genes that affect catecholamine levels.

At least claiming that MAOA does not affect non-white people fits a politically correct agenda of raising the self-esteem of minorities who feel the burden of a violent stereotype. What would you think of Steven Pinker if he spread a complete falsehood that could label a group of people genetically violent without any scientific basis whatsoever?

[T]he low-activity version of the gene is even more common in Chinese men (77 percent of whom carry it), and the Chinese are neither descended from warriors in their recent history nor particularly prone to social pathology in modern societies.

I previously debunked this, but I guess I must do so, again. A study by Lu et al found that 42 Taiwanese men, or 55% of their 77-subject control sample, had the 3-repeat allele of MAOA. Lea and Chambers copied the information incorrectly. Then, an editorial against MAOA research by a doctoral student repeated the falsehood. Now, Pinker has immortalized this slander against Chinese people in a bestselling book. The actual allele frequency given by Lu et al matches the allele frequency found for Asians in subsequent research, which is not higher than that of other groups besides white people. Pinker, like so many others, conflated the 3-repeat allele with the 2-repeat allele as the “low-activity allele,” even though the 2-repeat allele doubles the association with violence without needing an environmental trigger. The 2-repeat allele accounts for 4.7% of African-American MAOA genes and 0.00067% of Asian MAOA genes (assuming that the only Chinese control subject with the allele did not have mixed ancestry). Not only does this bogus insult create a new stereotype for Chinese people, but the numbers error reinforces an old generalization, as all four guilty parties were white boys. (Chinese people, when you buy my neighborhood, recall that I personally sent Pinker a corrigendum request.)

Herein lies the problem with popular science. Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor who previously chastised Malcolm Gladwell for misspelling “igon value.” Pinker’s new book encompasses a prodigious collection of disparate lines of evidence. Even so, he dismissed a vital segment of potentially life-saving research using biased sources that were motivated at least in one case by racial politics. When Dr. Phil stumbled through his television show episode on the warrior gene, he made mistakes and showed his ignorance, but he did not bring an entire field of study into disrepute. However, when Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen Jay Gould call IQ testing an “ice flow” or decry its “reification,” it has consequences for science. Gladwell and Pinker inhabit a pantheon of respected liberal thinkers whose influence reverberates throughout academia. Their stature alone can transform an ignorant statement into an authoritative observation. Their superficial summations can leave a lasting imprint on another’s life’s work, as they bring along a vast audience of comparative ignoramuses to boo rogue points of view (not unlike a daytime talk show).

Widom CS, & Brzustowicz LM (2006). MAOA and the "cycle of violence:" childhood abuse and neglect, MAOA genotype, and risk for violent and antisocial behavior. Biological psychiatry, 60 (7), 684-9 PMID: 16814261

Weder N, Yang BZ, Douglas-Palumberi H, Massey J, Krystal JH, Gelernter J, & Kaufman J (2009). MAOA genotype, maltreatment, and aggressive behavior: the changing impact of genotype at varying levels of trauma. Biological psychiatry, 65 (5), 417-24 PMID: 18996506

Beaver KM, DeLisi M, Vaughn MG, & Barnes JC (2010). Monoamine oxidase A genotype is associated with gang membership and weapon use. Comprehensive psychiatry, 51 (2), 130-4 PMID: 20152292

Kevin Beaver, Ashley Sak, Jamie Vaske, & Jessica Nilsson (2010). Genetic risk, parent–child relations, and antisocial phenotypes in a sample of African-American males Psychiatry Research, 175 (1-2), 160-164

Lu RB, Lee JF, Ko HC, Lin WW, Chen K, & Shih JC (2002). No association of the MAOA gene with alcoholism among Han Chinese males in Taiwan. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry, 26 (3), 457-61 PMID: 11999895

Lea R, & Chambers G (2007). Monoamine oxidase, addiction, and the "warrior" gene hypothesis. The New Zealand medical journal, 120 (1250) PMID: 17339897

Patrick-Michael Whittle (2009). Darwinism and the nature of Māori MAI Review

Philibert RA, Gunter TD, Beach SR, Brody GH, & Madan A (2008). MAOA methylation is associated with nicotine and alcohol dependence in women. American journal of medical genetics. Part B, Neuropsychiatric genetics : the official publication of the International Society of Psychiatric Genetics, 147B (5), 565-70 PMID: 18454435

Philibert RA, Wernett P, Plume J, Packer H, Brody GH, & Beach SR (2011). Gene environment interactions with a novel variable Monoamine Oxidase A transcriptional enhancer are associated with antisocial personality disorder. Biological psychology, 87 (3), 366-71 PMID: 21554924


JJ Anderson said...

Thank you for this blog post. It's too bad that you weren't able to discuss this with Steven Pinker before he finished his book. He might have changed his manuscript - or maybe not. I don't know who's correct on this issue!

nooffensebut said...

Sure, I am a nice guy, and I would have been happy to check his manuscript. He also could have read my blog. If he used Google a little bit, he would have known about my blog. When you Google “widom brzustowicz,” the authors of the study on which he based his conclusion, my work is first and second. I have been writing about this for years, and I conveniently organized all my writings on violence with a link in the top right corner. He also could have done due diligence and checked his source’s source, since every other study shows that Asians do not have an unusually high warrior gene allele frequency. I have a feeling that academics are just very uncomfortable with this evidence for ideological reasons, but Pinker had a reputation for being a little iconoclastic.

Nanonymous said...

I have a feeling that academics are just very uncomfortable with this evidence for ideological reasons

Of course. Only fear of the results (by researchers or funding agencies; likely both) can explain the absence of comprehensive and unambiguous data pertaining to the frequency of the 2-repeat VNTR MAOA in different populations. Also, what could be easier than just going and checking genotypes of prison populations?

Kiwiguy said...

I've posted a review on Amazon and on the UK amazon site pointing out Pinker may be too quick to dismiss research on MAO-A.

darkritual said...

Thanks for this blog-post. For me, reading this is Better late than sorry. And you were absolutely correct in pointing out that lay people like me would be convinced by the commentary on your research in a pop-science book without being too skeptical.

Not really sure what the solution to the problem is but I think blogging and blogs in general are a great normalizer to access information directly form scientists as opposed to journalists or someone else interpreting the science for them.

I hope it gets better, and I hope your blog and similar ones get greater exposure.

nooffensebut said...

"I hope it gets better, and I hope your blog and similar ones get greater exposure."

Thank you.

Chuck said...

New article on this in press:

Beaver et al., in press. Exploring the association between the 2-repeat allele of the MAOA gene promoter polymorphism and psychopathic personality traits, arrests, incarceration, and lifetime antisocial behavior

"The current study examined whether the 2-repeat allele, which has been shown to be functionally different from the 3-repeat allele, was associated with a range of antisocial phenotypes in a sample of males drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Analyses revealed that African-American males who carried the 2-repeat allele were, in comparison with other African-American male genotypes, significantly more likely to be happy, outgoing, and pro-social." -- or something not like that.

Kiwiguy said...

@ NoB,

I understand Pinker is changing the typo in new edition of the book.

nooffensebut said...

Great! Thanks for your help. I changed the Wikipedia page, too.

Anonymous said...

Write to him and tell him that he is wrong. He will appreciate it and you may have a very interesting dialogue.

Then blog about that dialogue.


nooffensebut said...

As I briefly mentioned in the post, I sent Dr. Pinker an e-mail prior to writing this. He responded in no direct fashion of which I am aware. He wrote a defense of his book against other critics, but I doubt that any such defense is possible for the errors that I have described.

max said...

Perhaps a little research into history would debunk your assessment here? The Chinese have throughout their history been Govern under a feudal, agrarian, and hierarchical system and China itself was always been rife with wars, in fact far more frequently than have Colonial Sea Powers and in larger scope all the way up till WW1. Back to your results of 77 samples all I read was the CI frequency of that study between 66-88% which rounded off to 77%, those are not samples, those are actual percentages. If you could prove otherwise kindly provide the sources for it.

max said...

Besides, the examples you listed was a separate study of Taiwanese men with 77 control subjects, the 77% frequency with a round up of a CI frequency of 66-88% was from the New Zealand Medical Journal that did it with conjunction to a study of Maori men, at least learn to differentiate between different studies of different samples.

nooffensebut said...

No, if you look to the right side of Table 1 in Lea and Chambers from The New Zealand Medical Journal, it makes clear that the Chinese data comes from Lu et al, 2002. Also, see the number "6" from the paragraph before the table, which refers to Lu et al. Table 1 from Lu et al shows that the control sample size is 77 and the 3R allele frequency is 54.5%. Lea and Chambers switched those two numbers and created a confidence interval of 66-88% from them. I haven't yet posted Lu et al to my MAOA bibliography, but I intend to post all studies. I also added a table for racial allele frequencies. So far, out of 2,552 total Asian alleles, the MAOA-3R frequency is 59.7%. Lea and Chambers were wrong, Steven Pinker was wrong, and now Adrian Raine also repeated this error in his book.

Anonymous said...

Also, what could be easier than just going and checking genotypes of prison populations?

Could publicly available CODIS data be used as a proxy?

Anonymous said...

My copy of Pinker's book gives a figure of 55% for the frequency of the 'low intensity' version of the gene he talked about in Chinese men.

I wonder if he corrected it on your account?

nooffensebut said...

I'm glad to hear it!