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Friday, June 30, 2006

Taboo Research Topics

This discussion is about taboo research topics in biology, but such taboos exist in economics as well. Thus, these comments could just as easily be directed at our profession. Even with the protection of tenure, there are some topics that few, if any economists will dare address. As noted in the essay, just ask Larry Summers:

The Subject is Taboo, by Olivia Judson, Commentary, NY Times: ...I was 7 or 8, and ... had just spent the day walking around a golf course with a great friend of my mother’s ..., a man called Tim, and his opponent, a woman called Nora... Nora ... trounced him. Worse, she didn’t do it from ... the “ladies’ tees.” ... She did it from the hardest of all, the “tiger tees.”

I was chatting happily about this, ... not knowing that Nora’s tigerish defeat ... was, in Tim’s mind, an exasperating humiliation. I soon found out. As I relived Nora’s victory yet again, Tim leaned over to me and said, “Olivia. The subject is taboo. Do you know what that means?” And he explained.

Looking back, it seems somehow fitting that I learned this word in the context of male versus female performance. For certain subjects in science are taboo — and research into genetic differences in ability or behavior between different groups of people is one of the biggest of all.

The reasons for this are obvious. Some of the most ghastly atrocities of the 20th century were carried out under the banner of the “master race” and nasty pseudoscientific notions about genetic superiority. Sexual and racial discrimination still persist. ... Many geneticists I know are scared — really scared, and with reason — of having their careers ruined if they ask any other questions. Look no further than Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, who was pilloried ... for wondering if mathematical ability in men and women might have some genetic underpinning. A sign has been hung on the door that says “Area Closed to Research.”...

Research into the genetics behind certain sorts of group differences — skin color, the ability to digest milk, the underpinnings of autism and the like — is now starting to be published. But other subjects remain ferociously contentious. Let me tell you a tale of three papers.

Last September, the journal Science published two papers that claimed natural selection had acted recently and strongly on two human genes involved in brain development. Let’s look at what this claim means. ...

The two [genes] featured in the Science papers are among those thought to affect brain growth. ... What do we know about these genes...? Not much. ... both appear to be involved in cell division, for example — but no one knows ... exactly. We also know ... these genes come in several subtly different forms. Whether these subtle differences matter is unknown. ...

Now, what does it mean to say that natural selection has acted on these genes? As I’ve been discussing ... Sometimes, natural selection promotes rapid change: a mutant form of a gene appears and spreads quickly — within a few hundred generations, say. Evidence of a rapid spread — within the last several thousand years — of a new version of each of the two genes is what the Science papers announced.

The papers caused a stir. For the papers also claimed that the new versions of the genes ... were more rare in sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere. All this means is that, in populations outside Africa, the new forms of the genes may have conferred some sort of advantage — perhaps related to head size, perhaps not... But it didn’t take long for the whisperings to start that the new forms of the genes must be involved in intelligence.

The whispering has no basis: there is no evidence whatsoever that the variants have anything to do with intelligence. ... But brains, genes and race form an explosive mixture. So much so that ... the lead scientist on the papers, Bruce Lahn, will now be retiring from working on brain genes.

Meanwhile, another paper has appeared ... in ... the online journal Public Library of Science Biology. This paper failed to confirm the earlier result. However, the authors found that versions of other genes, also thought to be involved in brain function or structure, have been under recent natural selection ... and this time, the population is not outside Africa, but in it. ... Again, we have no idea what this means. But strangely, these results have received almost no attention: there has been no whispering this time.

I offer this story as ... an illustration of some of the grave difficulties in this field of research. ... As you can imagine, it is virtually impossible to work in an area as poisonously political as this one. On one side, you have neo-fascist groups twisting the most innocuous data out of shape; on the other, well-intentioned anti-racists who don’t even want the questions asked. Worse still, as ... the “intelligent design” movement shows, it is not always easy to make sure that science is discussed rationally. Result: most geneticists are totally unnerved — and who can blame them?

Perhaps, if open debate is impossible, declaring the area taboo is the best way to proceed. I don’t pretend to have a solution. But here are some thoughts. ...

If we declare brain genetics out of bounds, it will make it harder to understand how our brains are built ... and treat the diseases that affect people’s brains, especially in old age. ...[T]he study of human genetics has already illuminated a lot that is interesting and important about our evolutionary past, and how we have come to be. Handled well, this is a tremendously exciting area for research. Do we want to limit it? ...

[G]enetic information is pouring in. Questions about the genetics of human differences are not going to go away. ... Scientists have an essential role to play in mediating understanding. Do we really want to scare good scientists from this field? Then the only people left researching it could be those whose agendas genuinely are sinister.

Now that is a frightening thought.

    Posted by on Friday, June 30, 2006 at 12:09 AM in Economics, Politics, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (16)


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