Drawing on the slate of human nature

Some of you have been reading me since 2002. Therefore, you’ve seen a lot of changes in my interests (and to a lesser extent, my life…no more cat pictures because my cats died). Whereas today I incessantly flog Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, in 2002 I would talk about Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature quite a bit. The reason I don’t talk much about The Blank Slate is that some point in the 2000s I realized my future deep interests were going to be in population genetics, rather than behavior genetics and cognitive psychology. If you are not a specialist who doesn’t follow the literature. Who doesn’t “read the supplements”. You’re going to stop gaining anything more from books at a certain point.

Similarly, after I read In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, I read a lot of books on the cognitive anthropology of religion. Until I didn’t. Now that Harvey Whitehouse has teamed up with Peter Turchin, I suspect I’ll check in on this literature again.

But life comes at you fast. Today I think the broad thesis of The Blank Slate seems so correct, that we are not a “blank slate”, that no one would argue with that. Rather, the implications of that thesis are highly “problematic,” and social and cultural constructionism has really gone much further on the Left operationally than they were in the early 2000s. To give a concrete example, you can admit that sex differences are real and significant, but you have to be very careful in mentioning or highlighting specific instances or cases where they matter.

Moving to a more controversial topic, for a long while I’ve pretty much ignored the genomic study of the normal variation of cognition. The reason is that until recently all the studies were very underpowered to detect much of anything. The sample sizes were too small in relation to the genetic architecture of the trait because of the “Fourth Law of Behavior Genetics.”

As 2018 proceeds I think we can say that we are now in new territory. On Twitter, Steve Hsu seems positively ecstatic over a paper that just came out in PNAS. His blog post, Game Over: Genomic Prediction of Social Mobility summarizes it pretty well, but you should read the open access paper.

Genetic analysis of social-class mobility in five longitudinal studies:

Genome-wide association study (GWAS) discoveries about educational attainment have raised questions about the meaning of the genetics of success. These discoveries could offer clues about biological mechanisms or, because children inherit genetics and social class from parents, education-linked genetics could be spurious correlates of socially transmitted advantages. To distinguish between these hypotheses, we studied social mobility in five cohorts from three countries. We found that people with more education-linked genetics were more successful compared with parents and siblings. We also found mothers’ education-linked genetics predicted their children’s attainment over and above the children’s own genetics, indicating an environmentally mediated genetic effect. Findings reject pure social-transmission explanations of education GWAS discoveries. Instead, genetics influences attainment directly through social mobility and indirectly through family environments.

Why does this matter? I’m assuming most of you have seen charts like the ones below, which “prove” how the game is rigged against the poor:

The problem that most behavior geneticists immediately have with these popular analyses, which now suffuse our public culture (e.g., the “representation” argument in academic science often takes as a cartoonish model that all groups will have equal representation in all fields given no discrimination; substantively almost everyone believes this isn’t true in some way, but for the sake of argumentation this is a bullet-proof line of attack which every white male academic is going to retreat away from), is that they ignore genetic confounds. This paper is an attempt to address that. Measure it. Quantify it. Characterize it.

The two most interesting results for me have to do with siblings and mothers. Unsurprisingly siblings who have a higher predicted educational attainment score genetically tend to have higher educational attainments. As you know, siblings vary in relatedness. They vary in the segregation of alleles from their parents. Some siblings are tall. Some are short. This is due to variation in genetics across the pedigree. People within a family are related to each other, but unless you are talking Targaryens they aren’t exactly alike. Similarly, some siblings are smart and some are not so smart, because they’re “born that way.”

We knew that. Soon we’ll understand that genomically I suspect.

Second, we see again the importance of maternal effects and non-transmitted alleles. Mothers who have a higher predicted level of education have children with more education even if those children don’t inherit those alleles.* One natural conclusion here is mothers with a particular disposition shaped by genes are creating particular environments for their children, and those environments let them flourish even if they do not have their mother’s genetic endowments. This actually has “news you can use” implications in life choices people make in relation to their partners.

The study ends on a cautionary note. Residual population substructure can cause issues, correcting which can attenuate or eliminate such subtle and small signals. The sample sizes could always get bigger. And ethnically diverse panels have to come into the picture at some point.

But Razib abides. This study had a combined sample size of >20,000 individuals. Then you have the other recent paper with 270,000 individuals, Genome-wide association meta-analysis in 269,867 individuals identifies new genetic and functional links to intelligence. All well and good, but I wait for greater things. There is no shame in waiting for better things. And I prophesy that a greater sample size shall come to pass before this year turns into the new.

And you know what’s better than 1 million samples? How about 1 billion samples!

* Note that the models are controlling for a lot of background socioeconomic variables.

Your impatience is in your genes! (well, some of it)

Nature Neuroscience has a short communication which is very intriguging, Genome-wide association study of delay discounting in 23,217 adult research participants of European ancestry. How’d they get such a large sample size? Collaborating with our friends at 23andMe.

That being said, the abstract leaves a little to be desired:

Delay discounting (DD), the tendency to discount the value of delayed versus current rewards, is elevated in a constellation of diseases and behavioral conditions. We performed a genome-wide association study of DD using 23,127 research participants of European ancestry. The most significantly associated single-nucleotide polymorphism was rs6528024 (P = 2.40 × 10−8), which is located in an intron of the gene GPM6B. We also showed that 12% of the variance in DD was accounted for by genotype and that the genetic signature of DD overlapped with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, smoking, personality, cognition and body weight.

First, “Delay discounting (DD)”, is another way to say that you have high time preference. That is, you won’t forgo some gains in the short term for greater gains in the long term. You would really “fail” the marshmallow test.

Though there have been legitimate criticisms of the replicability of the effect size of the marshmallow test, there almost certainly is something to time preference and delayed gratification, and its relationship to the ability of young children to master the marshmallow test. In a macroeconomic sense societies characterized by low time preference can sustain lower interest rates, and lower interest rates have all sorts of stimulative properties on long-term economic growth.

But to be clear, the paper above does not detect a variant SNP, rs6528024, which explains 12% of the variance in DD. Rather, 12% of the variance could be accounted for by SNP-chip variance. That is, one could explain the “missing heritability” using the markers they had. The total heritablity of the trait is quite higher, 46% to 62% proportions are citied in the paper (narrow-sense). This means that of the total variance of the trait about half could be explained by additive genetic variance. Obviously the SNP-chip only captured a small minority of that additive genetic variance.

DD is correlated with a lot of things. There is a positive phenotypic correlation with:

  • Smoking
  • Substance abuse
  • Obesity
  • ADHD

They observed a positive genetic correlation between the variants associated with DD and:

  • Smoking
  • Neuroticism
  • Depression

And a negative genetic correlation with:

  • College completion
  • Years of education
  • Childhood IQ
  • Schizophrenia

In relation to the last, schizophrenia and DD are positively correlated phenotypically. That probably means that the underlying genetic causes of schizophrenia and DD are very different.

The patterns of correlations offer up a lot of avenues to speculate. They do a little of it in the paper, but are appropriately cautious. It seems entirely likely that in the near future we’ll be able to characterize a lot of the heriability genomically. When we figure out time preference and intelligence we’ll have come close to answering many of the questions that explain why different people have different life outcomes.

Note: It is no surprise that there is a negative correlation between DD (high time preference) and conscientiousness. Also, the association they found, GPM6B, has pretty clear biological relevance. It’s almost certainly real.

Liberals will never disappear (neither will atheists)

In Quillette Hrishikesh Joshi and Jonny Anomaly* ask Are Liberals Dying Out? Since the piece has been shared a fair amount (judging by my Twitter timeline), I thought I should respond to why I don’t think that is a major concern. Let me jump to their last paragraph:

Nevertheless, despite cultural trends, the best available evidence suggests that political ideology is heritable, and that people with liberal personality traits currently have far fewer children than conservatives. If this trend continues, it is possible that the reproductive choices people are making today will influence the political climate of future generations. Over the long run, conservatives could end up winning the ideological contest with fertility rather than arguments.

First, I don’t think the title reflects the modest contentions of the piece. I beseech the editors of Quillette to not engage in the titular hyperbole so common in the mainstream media!

I agree that political orientation seems heritable. That is clear in books like Born That Way. But heritability expresses itself in an environmental context. If you had a totalitarian government most of the phenotypic variation would disappear. Yes, there would be dissidents, but they’d be freaks. Most humans would conform (no, I don’t think the citizens of Soviet Russia were genetic freaks unable to grasp freedom like Howard Roark). The correlation between religiosity and fertility varies by society as well. The more secular the society, the bigger the gap (though last I checked this was not true in China). In a totally conservative future heritable variation for liberalism could just reemerge.

Second, political orientation exists on a relative plane. If one imagines it as some specific thing, or disposition, one can imagine that in the future the liberal-conservative spectrum would exist, but just be shifted. Quantitative genetics has shown that selection can move the mean many standard deviations. I don’t think this is a strong objection to their overall point, but it gets at the fact that we view liberal-conservative tendencies along a distribution (1980s liberal commentator Jeff Greenfield was widely known for making disparaging comments about gays i the prime of his career; that did not destroy his career as a liberal pundit at that time). Perhaps liberal have already won in an age when most conservatives understand and accept that gay marriage is here to stay.

Third, some of the variation is not heritable. It’s random. In fact around half of it within the population. Some people may just be liberal for stochastic reasons. You aren’t going to get rid of this with selection.

Perhaps most essential in terms of theory: frequency dependence. The dynamics of human interaction and decision making are such that the frequency of liberals declining might have an impact on their fitness. To give a weird example, perhaps an economically post-Malthusian society needs a certain number of sub-replacement liberals who engage in particularly productive work to maintain itself. If society slouched rapidly back toward Malthusianism perhaps everyone would just trudge along at replacement.

The big picture problem is assuming constant directional selection and exhaustion of heritable variation is all well and good when you are selecting for wax-seed oil, but human societies are non-linear systems which are subject to big shocks. They aren’t controlled agricultural genetic experiments.

Finally, let me use an analogous case to make an empirical objection. Many people tell me that the future will be religious due to the same dynamics above. This despite the century long trend toward secularization (parenthetical, God is Back was an ill-timed books, as the United States was shifting toward secularization at that time).

But I want to go back further. France was the first nation to start the demographic transition. In the early 19th century the secular elite was worried about the fertility of devout Roman Catholics, in particular the Poles who were arriving. The secular future they envisioned was threatened. It’s been nearly 200 years since these worries, and in those 200 years France has become more and more secular.

My point with this illustration is that if your theory can not predict the past, it can’t predict the future. At least not robustly. Liberal people will always be with us. So will shy people. And atheists too. They may wax and wane, but human variation persists. On the evolutionary genetic level I think frequency dependent dynamics are such that the fait, in the medium term, of low fitness traits is generally to become oddballs, not extinct. And once they are odd they may become fortunes favorites….

* For real, is that his real name?

Just because it’s not hereditary does not mean you can affect it

A comment below from Andrew:

Love to see a post about which human traits worth caring about are notable for having little or no hereditary component. It is all good and well to know what we cannot change, but it makes more sense to focus personally and as a parent on those things that aren’t genetically preordained.

This is a common sentiment I’ve seen. If you haven’t read The Nurture Assumption, please do so. I’d say a substantial reason I think that The Blank Slate is a good book is that Steven Pinker promoted Judith Rich Harris’ work.

With that out of the way: the implication in the comment above is that hereditary traits are the ones you have least control over, so you should focus on the non-hereditary traits. To some extent there is truth in this. Micronutrients are important. You don’t want to turn you children into cretins.

But a major problem with the idea that we can impact environmental impacts on characteristics is that on many traits we don’t know what those environmental impacts are. You can take a behavior genetic model and come to the following conclusion: within the population 50% of the variation is due to genes, 40% of the variation is due to non-shared environment, and 10% of the variation is due to shared environment (parents). We don’t really usually know what the non-shared environment means. It might be just developmental noise. It might be epistatic genetic effects. Or, in relation to behavior, it might be peer group, as Judith Rich Harris asserts.

We just don’t know. What that means is that the hereditary components are what you have legitimate effective control over through mate choice. And shared environment. These two combined are not nothing. And of course there is the impact of nation or community on the environmental in which propensities are expressed.

Addendum: The non-shared environmental variance was once explained to me as a “noise” factor. Just to give you a sense of how well we understand it.