Friday, July 09, 2004

The Dangers of Genetic Determinism

I remember trying some months ago to point out to a certain individual (who shall not be named here) that just because differences in rates of myopia had been noted between populations of different "racial" origins didn't mean that there was anything "innate" about the differences noticed, and that lifestyles just might have had something to do with the differences seen. To this character, all that mattered was that "myopia is high in all East Asian countries, and low amongst African groups for which we have data", ergo, it obviously could have no other explanation than a genetic one, which my "political correctness" was supposedly preventing me from acknowledging. With all of this in mind, it's with amusement that I noticed this Marginal Revolution post, excerpted below:

Contrary to popular belief, people in east Asia are no more genetically susceptible to short-sightedness than any other population group, according to researchers who have analysed past studies of the problem.

The epidemics of myopia in countries such as Singapore and Japan are due solely to changes in lifestyle, they say, and similar levels could soon be seen in many western countries as lifestyles there continue to change...

Myopia is on the increase in most places, but in countries such as Singapore it has reached extraordinary levels. There, 80 per cent of 18-year-old male army recruits are myopic, up from 25 per cent just 30 years ago.


70 per cent of 18-year-old men of Indian origin living in Singapore have myopia, while in India itself the rate is roughly 10 per cent.

Another study found myopia rates of 80 per cent in 14 to 18-year-old boys studying in schools in Israel that emphasise reading religious texts. The rate for boys in state schools was just 30 per cent.
I find it hard to see how genetics could possibly explain the disparities between Indians living in Singapore and those living in India proper, or between Israeli students in religious schools and those in ordinary ones. Might not a more parsimonious and down-to-earth explanation for what is going on be that people who study more tend to have worse eyesight? After all, we didn't evolve to be book-reading animals, and in the Paleolithic there'd have been no reason for any of us to spend many hours a day for years on end peering at small squiggles, so it makes sense to consider myopia as a natural consequence of exposing our eyes to abuses they weren't designed to tolerate.

I remember pointing all of this out at the time, even drawing on my own family as an example (I'm shortsighted, but no one else in my immediate family is) of how excessive book-reading can damage eyesight. My argument was waved aside as "unsound" because the myopia figures a certain individual had in his possession happened to correlate with "racial" differences, but it never seemed to occur to this person that what he preferred to think of as differences stemming from "racial" genetic endowments might have had to do instead with the fact that these "races" also had many cultural differences in common: only a fool or an ignoramus would fail to register that people of East Asian origin have a great deal in common culture-wise - thanks in large measure to the tremendous debt all other groups owe to Chinese civilization - and in particular they all have a tremendous respect for scholarship; on the other hand, anyone who's ever picked up a book on Africa will realize that literacy came late to the continent*, and as such it ought to be no surprise that - ta da - shortsightedness is far less common there!

What I'm trying to get at with all this is that ridiculous arguments like "why are Africans not overachieving everywhere around the world?", apart from being plain false (where are the statistics for "all the world" that such people have to support their claims?), would, even if true, not in any way buttress arguments for innately inferior African intelligence, any more than a Roman arguing in 50BC "Where are the great literary and philosophical achievements of the Germanic tribes?" would have had the force of truth behind any claims he might have made about the innately inferior civilizational capabilities of Germanic tribesmen. Arguments that ignore cultural and historical commonalities and differences in order to reduce everything to simple-minded genetic causes are outright invalid and unworthy of being taken seriously, and people who insist on making them despite being repeatedly corrected are simply stupid, certainly far too stupid to be casting aspersions on the "innate" capabilities of others.

*Though, funnily enough, literacy rates in more than a few African countries are already higher than they are in some parts of the world where writing has been known for thousands of years (see here or here). I suppose that's yet more evidence of African intellectual inferiority ...