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Golden ideas

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMarch 7, 2006 3:33 AM


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Evolgen points me to the fact that even our hosts here at Seed are spreading the "blondes are going to go extinct" hoax/meme which first cropped up 3 years ago. I also noticed that someone as informed about biology as John Wilkins was was taken in. An altered iteration of this hoax/meme that focused on redheads was also spreading last year. As Evolgen notes, this meme has been thoroughly debunked. To make it short, if you assume that blondness is a monogenic recessive trait (a gross simplification), its expression in the population will be q^2, derived from Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium p^2 + 2pq + q^2 = 1. A recessive trait will be expressed at a lower frequency than a dominant trait vis-a-vis the causative gene's frequency in the population. Because recessive traits are easily "masked" within a population selection has a difficult time expunging them from the gene pool, ergo, the common feature of deleterious recessives persisting at very low frequencies (there is often a mutation-selection balance in this case). In regards to the blonde hoax the key is that the blonde phenotype could go extinct if you had a low enough frequency and a random-mating least temporarily. The expectation is that over the generations occassionally someone who carried the "blonde gene" would mate with someone else who carried the same allele and their offspring would re-express the blonde trait, even if the frequency of the allele was low enough that one would expect in any given generation no one would express the trait. In other words, unless an allele is positively selected against, it will presist in the genetic background. OK, enough baby genetics. The fact that it is a hoax is pretty well documented (the "research" was never done and emerged out of thin air, the WHO sourcing is bogus), and the scientific problems or confusions relating to the idea are clear. Of course, early 20th century geneticists might have been confused and fooled too, so don't feel too bad. What I am curious about is why this meme is so contagious. As I note above, it even spawned daughter memes (note that the redhead-going-extinct-meme wasn't as dumb and took into account basic Mendelian issues, evolution in action!). One of the original problems with Dawkins' "meme" idea is that it was "mind blind," there were no assumptions or inferences made based on the nature of the way we engage in cognition. Anthropologist Dan Sperber has been working over the past 20 years on a paradigm he terms an epidemiology of representations, why do some ideas spread and others fail? Though the details of the idea are important (eg., ideas that have a replicative instruction do well), the nature of how well the idea fits with the mind are also crucial, highly counterintuitive ideas tend to fail because they are hard to remember and comprehend, triviallyr intuitive ideas are just too banal. Something that is somewhat novel, but not too out of the ordinary, tends to flourish. How does this relate to the blondes-going-extinct-meme? My questions is this, why do journalists keep repeating this hoax even though trivial googling will unearth its falsity? Obviously the idea is appealing or plausible in some way. Here are reasons I think it spreads: 1) First, the fallacy of blending genetics. Humans perceive genetics to naturally work in a blending fashion because that is what we tend to see in our own lives with our parents and ourselves. A whole suite of traits tends to be thrown together in a synthetic melange, and we have a difficult time understanding that fundamentally genetics is particulate or discrete. If blondism is thrown in a mix with a dark-haired majority it naturally makes sense that it would "go extinct" because its shimmering essence is diluted. This is the sort of thing that cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer terms "getting information for free," we already have some intuitive ideas to work with that the idea can slot into. The blending paradigm of genetics naturally implies that variation will be diminished, and blondes happen to be one antipode of that variation. The implication of their diminution is clear. 2) Next, the fallacy of panmictia. In a Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium you have random mating so that all alleles are associating randomly. In a scenario where all humans are mating randomly blondness does have issues, it seems plausible that if 1 out of 20 adults white American adults is naturally blonde than less that 1% of humans are naturally blonde as adults (this is a back-of-the-envelope intuition derived from 1 out of 20 northern Europeans being naturally blonde). The implication here is that around 20% of the alleles that code for hair color in northern Europeans are blonde generating. If northern Europeans are about 400 million out of the world's 6.5 billion people (I'm being very generous with the term "northern European" here I think) you get around ~1% of the alleles for hair color being blonde. In a panmictic situation, where everyone in the world is randomly mating, you have fewer than 1 out of 10,000 individuals expressing blondness. What is the problem with this? Aside from my simplifying assumptions (I'm not off that much I suspect in any case), we don't live in a panmictic world!!! Journalists today are often from a high socioeconomic bracket, and they have likely traveled and met many different sorts of people. They likely know people who are involved in international and transracial marriages. This is novel, at least for now, and catches one's eye. There are a non-trivial number of extremely disparate matings today because of emigration, travel and globalization. But, that does not represent the vast majority of humanity. Correlated genetic structure is going to persist for long time, and projecting out current trends 1,000 years into the future is pretty ridiculous. The fact is that interracial marriage is still relatively rare compared to what it would be given a totally random mating situation even in the United States (though far more common among small minorities like Asian Americans). Combine fallacy #1 and #2, and you get a situation where blondes disappear into the blackhole of the beige universe (even though the beige universe is a fallacy too!). 3) Lastly, I hestitate to say this, but there is the Passing of the Great Race fallacy. The early 20th century was the high water mark of scientific racialism, and books like The Passing of the Great Race and The Rising Tide of Color bemoaned the demographic decline of the white race in the face of colored peoples. Today the near minority status of non-Hispanic Whites in 2050 is a source of pride and relative joy for many whites. First, I don't buy this as a cross-class phenomenon among whites, and second, this is premised on particular fallacies. The fallacies are simple, it assumes no intermarriage and neglects the reality that most people who are 1/4 Japanese American, for instance, identifiy as white, and racially it ignores the reality that a substantial subset of Hispanics are physically not discernable from non-Hispanic whites and so the window of assimilation to "Anglo" status is a strong possibility over 50 years. Also, as I noted in a previous post projecting fertility is not so easy, and immigration patterns are not fixed in stone. Nevertheless, there is also another issue, and that is that to some extent some whites take upon the burden of being above racial consciousness, facing racial extinction with equanimity and placidity that only a truly post-modern and civilized people can. Blondes, being the apotheosis of "whiteness," are an ideal test case to illustrate this superiority. If there was an article about the extinction of blacks in 100 years I suspect that the tone would be less jocular and light, after all, diversity in the context of non-whites must be preserved. But there is another strand, and that is amongst the white masses, who consume tabloid journalism. I don't think the sentiments expressed by Madison Grant or Lothrop Stoddard in the books above are totally dead, just as they find expression on other peoples and ethnic groups, and this sort of "scare mongering" is a powerful selling point. I have noticed that the "blonde extinct" and "redhead extinct" memes are extremely prevelant in white racialist message boards, this is the kind of thing they are primed to hear, the sort of dire warning that motivates them toward racial action. In short, you have a synergy of white elites showing off how advanced they are in not caring about their impending racial extinction, and white masses who still exhibit a modicum of racial awareness buying up the paradigm of doom & gloom because it is compelling and worrying copy. The overall point is that science and society interact, that science is not a rational exercise, even if the final outcome is pruned, paired and reshaped by a social system which does result in a rational and empirical edifice. Though we may get to the destination we seek, the road is bumpy and filled with pot-holes of our own making.

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