Journalism threatens intelligence: how Helsingin Sanomat promotes social Darwinism and pseudoscientific racism

14 Mar 2017

Stephen J. Gould wrote in the 1996 revised edition of his book "The Mismeasure of Man": "Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with periods of political retrenchment and destruction of social generosity." As if to actually prove that we are living in reactionary times, on a sunny Monday morning in 2017 a social Darwinist article is splashed over two pages in Helsingin Sanomat (Finland's leading daily newspaper). (HS 6.3.2017 B 12 Tiede: "Äly uhkaa hiipua: koulutusgeenit harvinaistuvat, ja varusmiesten älykin laskee"; Translated as "Intelligence threatens to die down: education-genes become rarer, and intelligence of army recruits declines").

In Social Darwinism a person's social standing reflects his/hers biologically deterministic "worth". Native-born white upper class males at the top. Immigrants, non-white, lower class men, and women in general at various degrees of inferiority. And so social rank conveniently reflects biology, and this social ranking is both desirable and inevitable (by a law of nature).

Gould's book is in essence a long argument against biological determinism of intelligence. He does that by cataloging the faulty datasets, misuse and misinterpretation of statistical procedures, the occasional outright fraud, the prejudice and circularity of argument, and the tragic hilarity in the study of intelligence during the 19th and 20th century.

The HS journalist, however, seems to be oblivious of the problematic history of the subject. Invoking expressions like "education genes" and "national gene pool". One should be grateful that he did not use terms like "dilution of pure stock". Both expressions are meaningless. "Education gene" is just as meaningless as a gene for being a journalist or a gene for being racist. Similarly, "national gene pool" is completely meaningless, given the long history of migrations and interbreedings between human populations. On that subject, I recommend reading the work of population geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza (his most recent book "Genes, Peoples, and Languages" is a good place to start).

When you actually examine the scientific paper (as opposed to the HS article), the most important conclusion that arises is how elusive is the alleged negative genetic correlation between fecundity and level of education: effect weaker for males than for females; correlation can even become positive, depending on mother's age-at-child-birth. They do not report how much variation in reproductive traits is actually explained by their genetic component of education attainment (I suspect very little). Moreover, the genetic component of education attainment is quite weak (explaining only 3.74% of total variation). A weak genetic influence on a weak correlation between education and fecundity is a far cry from a "threat" to "education genes". Genetic determination of either intelligence or fecundity can hardly be deduced from such results.

Given this extremely weak effect, calculating and predicting any long-term evolutionary trend is nothing but a publicity stunt, designed to attract attention to otherwise not too remarkable results. (I personally believe that their interpretation of the results as natural selection is far-fetched; but that is a matter for a different article.) Any evolutionary biologist knows that selection is but one process among many that determine evolutionary change. Random effects, gene flow, and environmental influences are far more important when selection is weak, and because human environment is changing so rapidly, any attempt in such long-term evolutionary prediction is silly. Serious biologists know how difficult and labor-intensive it is to observe natural selection in wild populations, even in organisms with fast generation time and in morphological traits that are far more genetically influenced than a complex behavioral trait like human intelligence. Portraying evolutionary change as simplistic natural selection working on traits correlated with fecundity is a gross caricature that ignores the many theoretical and empirical advances that evolutionary biology has made in the past 150+ years since Darwin.

An imaginary threat of decline in intelligence is not new. Gould's book does more than a thorough review: from a threat to American democracy if "feeble-minded" blacks get the right to vote, through the dangers of unregulated reproduction of the lower (and naturally unintelligent) classes, to the dilution of "Nordic" intelligence by immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Again, it stems from the discredited view that what is hereditary is inevitable, and that intelligence is innate and permanent, determined by a person's genetic heritage.

A famous example is in the seminal book "The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection" by the British statistician and theoretical biologist Ronald A. Fisher, published in 1930. The first two thirds of the book establish a mathematical theory for evolution by natural selection. However, the last third is an unfortunate drivel about how the class system of English society is biologically based (i.e., genetically determined), how it is associated with intelligence (again, biologically based) and how the lower fecundity of the upper classes spells doom for civilization. Fisher was politically conservative, but he did not invent these ideas himself. Those were the common views of upper class British intellectuals of that time.

It's been 87 years since Fisher's book. I believe it is safe to say that civilization is still standing, and has far from declined. So much for long-term predictions of evolutionary decline in intelligence. Cultural evolution influences human affairs much more than the unbelievably slow creep of natural selection. The number of professors and researchers did not increase in the past 70 years because professors and researchers reproduce more rapidly, but because of public policy and recruitment from the general population.

When I first saw the title of the HS article on the front page, even before turning to the science section I knew that one name is going to be mentioned there: Richard Lynn. I was not disappointed. This is a man who has devoted his life to reviving the idea of innate racial differences in intelligence, with very little success. His ideas are not accepted by biologists, and he and his colleagues have been criticized for promoting "scientific" racism. I personally came across a "study" of him on "racial" differences in penis size, and how such variation relates to presumed inherent intelligence differences among "racial groups". A study in which he abuses both ecological theory and statistical analysis, as well as exhibiting very dubious data. To mention his name without at least delivering a warning to the reader is a blunt act of disinformation.

I will assume that the journalist is just completely ignorant of the subject matter. The alternative would be that he actively operates as a propagandist for pseudosciene that promotes biological determinism and racism. Either way, there is something to be said here about the quality of journalism in HS. I recommend reading Gould's book to anyone wishing to improve their understanding (and critical thinking) of the all too common "gene for X" articles. But if you cannot spare the time, I suggest reading just the tragically hilarious history of IQ testing of army recruits (in chapter 5 of his book).

Gould and Richard Dawkings were professional rivals. But the two most celebrated evolutionary biologists of our time agree that we do not want a Darwinistic society, and warn against applying Darwinistic principles in society.

I will end with an amusing anecdote. In the 19th century the size and shape of the skull were considered to reflect intelligence. Gould gives the following account of the ideas of a Swedish scientist: "... Some original brachycephalic [short-skulled] stocks survive among ... Basques, Finns, and Lapps." I guess everyone's got their favorite inferior group.