How do "genes" work? So-called experts have a hard time agreeing

How we talk about genes shows many are confused. Seductive stats illusions, iffy gene ideas, bad causology, and lax jargon, are creating a recipe for epistemic comedy (and genetic tragedy).


1. Do you know how genes work, or grasp what gene stats mean? A recurring IQ-and-genes fuss shows many are tempted into an epistemic comedy by seductive stats illusions, bad causology, and lax jargon.

2. IQ is 40-80% heritable and interracial IQ differences are “substantial [enough to]... affect… economic outcomes,” writes Andrew Sullivan, wielding science “bravely” alongside Sam Harris and Charles Murray.

3. Sullivan takes the data to mean individual IQ is 40-80% “caused by” genes. That’s not true, nor coherently knowable. Race-focused responses, like Ezra Klein’s, don’t explain the bonkers stats errors.

4. Technical heritability analyzes group variation stats not individual trait level factors. Stats professor Cosma Shalizi explains heritability “says nothing about how much [a trait’s level]… is under genetic control” and it’s “irrelevant to malleability” (heritable ≠ immutable; genes often aren’t carved-in-stone fate).

5. Exposing stats illusions Shalizi warns “causal-sounding phrases... encourage confusion” in many analyses of variance studies (where "due to," "explained by," "account for" don’t have ordinary meanings).

6. A not-known-enough thought experiment illustrates gene-nurture inseparability and misattribution risks—if society sent redheaded kids to bad schools, ginger genes would correlate with (seemingly “predict”) low IQ.

7. Many phenomena don’t fit the specific causal structure that basic stats presume—independent factors with additive effects. Most biological traits involve many, many gene-products playing hyper-complex, interdependent, non-additive roles via long intricate processes.

8. Statistically decomposing processes or functional systems is often like asking what percent of a car’s speed is caused by its engine or fuel or driver (all contribute inseparably).

9. How most genes work remains unknown, and causal opacity warrants extra caution. We do know genes often don’t work like switches or car parts, they’re more music-like.

10. Still, the “joy of stats” seduces many into confusion and causal overreach. For instance, Antonio Regalado covering dodgy DNA-to-IQ “predictors” uses “linked to” and “tied to” but slips into over-causal “explains” and “genetic determinants.”

11. Presumptive causality strains the statistical sense of sexy “polygenic scoring” methods, whose fans hope “predictions can operate in complete ignorance of the biological basis.” This data-fueled folly ignores “ginger-gene” complications.

12. Clearer-eyed experts offer cavernous caveats—neither heritability nor polygenic scoring illuminate genetic “causes” (Turkheimer), “summing” variant contributions isn’t wise (Racimo), and interpretation complexities abound (Novembre).

13. Lax causology and imprudent presumptive causality pervade genomics, “precision” medicine, Big Data and AI. The complete-ignorance-of-how fans forget that including non-causal factors skews, if not ruins, allocation-of-variation calculations (see “structured noise”).

14. Tread gingerly and always consider the causology. Are putative factors direct (“proximate”) causes, or many-complicated-steps removed? Is causal stability warranted? Or causal completeness? Does the causal structure fit stats tools? Do mixed response types muddy your metrics?

15. Correlation abuse and “multiple-regression monster” studies are as scandalous as science’s mass misuse of “statistical significance.”

16. Gene stats jargon has misled Sullivan (scientists like Harris and Murray have less excuse)—the “economic outcomes” leap gets the science, stats, and logic wrong (see Chris Dillow, Matthew Yglesias).

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.