Bad Science

Biocultural approaches to the study of human behavior, institutions, and circumstances promise to be among the most powerful tools ever developed. But as the technology for gene sequencing has thus far vastly outstripped the interpretive science of meaningfully mapping genes to human scale outcomes, there is a lot of over-reaching.

In this light a recent paper by economists Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor published in the journal American Economic Review  (” The ‘Out of Africa’ Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development ,” Vol. 13, No. 1, Feb. 2013) is a good example. The two economists look at genetic diversity and suggest that there is a “right amount” of diversity, and that having “too much”–as is found in African populations–or “too little”–as in Native American populations–leads to underdevelopment.

Anthropologists and geneticists at Harvard–full disclosure, Ted Bestor, whom I TA-ed for at Cornell in the late 1990s, is one of the co-authors–have written a take-down of the economists’ position and use of genetic evidence, published in Contemporary Anthropology (” Is Poverty in Our Genes “).

A readable summary of their critique can be found in the Scientist , ” Genetics-Poverty Link Questioned “. The summary quotes:

“As economists and other social scientists begin exploring newly available genetic data,” the Harvard group wrote, “it is crucial to remember that nonexperts broadcasting bold claims on the basis of weak data and methods can have profoundly detrimental social and political effects.”

For those who may want to explore the intellectual issues that underly the misuse of genetic data in social science explanation, I recommend the classic piece by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, ” The Spandrels of San Marcos and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme .”