Move Along, Nothing to See Here, No Selection After All

In August of 2010 Ann Gibbons wrote a perceptive column in Science about the literature finding evidence for positive selection in the human genome. She described the burst of papers in the late 2000s on the topic and how they had recently slowed to a trickle. Many investigators seemed to have concluded (correctly) that exploiting linkage disequilibrium between putatively selected SNPs had reached the end of the road and that new methods and approaches were in order.

We had been part of the flurry of such papers and we watched the chatter among colleagues about these issues with great interest. Perhaps part of the retrenchment, we thought at the time, reflected this email from nih.gov which many of us received. (Email addresses edited out.)

Dear Dr. Harpending:

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) is planning a workshop to explore the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) raised by research on natural selection in humans. The impetus for this meeting is the sense of a growing need for more thoughtful deliberation by genomic researchers, ELSI researchers, science writers and science editors regarding the societal issues raised by natural selection research. The goals of the meeting will be to: 1) discuss the scientific design and interpretation issues pertinent to this research to determine whether a set of “best practices” can be identified for investigators and peer reviewers in this area; 2) discuss the relevant ethical issues and issues surrounding public understanding and reporting of the findings of this research to assess what issues science editors should consider when dealing with papers in this area; and 3) discuss future directions for genomic and ELSI research related to natural selection.

We would like to invite you to attend this workshop, which will be held in Rockville, MD on October 28, 2008. NHGRI will cover your travel expenses. An agenda for the workshop is attached. Please let us know by COB on Monday, September 8, 2008 if you would like to participate in the meeting, by replying to Chris Juenger (email) and Jean McEwen (email). Please do not hesitate to contact either Chris or Jean if you have any questions.

Best regards,

Alan Guttmacher

Remarkable, isn’t it? They have no shame in DC. This meeting was put on by the Bioethics people at NHGRI (National Human Genome Research Institute), who get 10% of the Institute budget. Ten percent of a lot of money is still a lot of money. This does suggest a place for our government to trim wasteful spending while at the same time making science better.

Unfortunately I stubbed my toe and was unable to attend. I also felt that since I was not a customer of this particular bank there was no good reason for me to show up.

Soon afterward we began getting subtle and not so subtle hints and warnings from colleagues that there was after all not so much selection in humans as we and others had proposed. A killer paper was being prepared by the Chicago folks showing this, pricking the selection balloon, and we needed to hunker down and get ready to retract things that we had written.

We waited and waited, until finally the dreaded paper appeared with the roar of a mouse. The argument seemed to be that since populations that differed in putatively neutral genes also differed in putatively selected genes, the pattern was really not so different, and many of the selection candidates were likely just neutral. Or something like that. We still have no very clear idea what they were saying: it is after all hardly a surprise that the Sahara, for example, would block both neutral gene flow and the spread of selected alleles.

Fortunately our government’s clumsy foray into censorship seems to have had no lasting effect. There is no record of this meeting at the NHGRI website that we can find, and a report on the meeting by Cho, Sabeti, and Tishkoff, cited as in press in several places on the web, apparently never appeared.

Studies of selection and differentiation of human populations are alive and well.

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12 Responses to Move Along, Nothing to See Here, No Selection After All

  1. Rachelle says:

    Odd, isn’t it, that the same people who revel in attacking fundamentalists for doubting evolution suddenly adopt an almost religious aversion to the idea that evolution also continues to change our species.

    That they are hypocrites is the least of my worries. That they are willing to attempt to intimidate researchers is frightening, but not altogether unexpected.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The idea that evolution is ongoing gives people the willies. When I talk with other anthropologists, I find that most are firmly convinced that human biological evolution ended back in the Pleistocene. Things like lactose tolerance are treated as interesting “exceptions.”

    On a related subject, I recently submitted a paper on Tay-Sachs in French Canada. It contained a paragraph about the “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” which I worded as neutrally and summarily as possible. I really thought no one would object to it.

    The paper wasn’t even sent out for review. I was told that it didn’t come within “the scope of the journal.”

    Peter Frost

  3. Peter Frost says:

    The idea that evolution is ongoing gives people the willies. When I talk with other anthropologists, I find that most are firmly convinced that human biological evolution ended back in the Pleistocene. Things like lactose tolerance are treated as interesting “exceptions.”

    On a related subject, I recently submitted a paper on Tay-Sachs in French Canada. It contained a paragraph about the “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” which I worded as neutrally and summarily as possible. I really thought no one would object to it.

    The paper wasn’t even sent out for review. I was told that it didn’t come within “the scope of the journal.”

    • harpend says:

      Peter I read your paper on Tay-Sachs in French Canada and I thought it was excellent. I can’t remember whether you posted it or you sent it to me. Please send me an email, and/or I will send you one if I can find your address, to discuss other venues.

      Anthropology is in sad shape, but I can empathize with them. For example my intellectual life would be much better if epigenetics simply vanished. But I do not heap scorn and sarcasm on the people who do epigenetics, I do not claim that they are motivated by a deep ideology of methylism that threatens decent society. I do not claim that Mendelism has been shown to be absolutely true and adequate for a century and that methylism threatens the end of civilization as we know it.

      You ought to name the journal so the rest of us can learn what to ignore in the literature. Greg and I have not hesitated to describe our experiences with journals. For example we initially sent our Ashkenazi paper to the Quarterly Review of Biology assuming that Geoge Williams was still the editor. We did not know that he had retired and that the journal had been turned over to proles. We got back reviews, after almost a year, written by clowns that the journal must have found at the circus. They rejected our paper because it was well known that Jews had always been farmers, the evidence being “Fiddler on the Roof”.

      HCH

  4. Nanonymous says:

    We still have no very clear idea what they were saying

    When that paper showed up, I took it to mean that the frequency of fixation of near neutral changes dwarfs adaptive ones. That’s exactly what I’d expect. Is this a wrong interpretation?

    @Peter Frost
    What journal did you send it to? Was it before or after your blog post on the same subject?

    On a general note, it blows my mind that the idea that “evolution never stops” is viewed as some kind of revolutionary and insidious one by so many people these days.

  5. Grey says:

    “the sense of a growing need for more thoughtful deliberation by genomic researchers, ELSI researchers, science writers and science editors regarding the societal issues raised by natural selection research”

    And yet no need to consider the societal issues raised by those stating the opposite position as absolute truth.

  6. bgc says:

    The problem runs very deep, and is hard for individuals to oppose.

    If an editor *does* accept non-politically correct papers, and arouses the PC lobbies, then chances are he will not remain editor for very long. Happened to me!

    Put it another way – ‘science’ (actually professional peer-reviewed research – a branch of the state bureaucracy) is *already* bust, and the proper question is whether it will be fixed?

    I’d say not. ‘Science’ will not be fixed because the vast majority (i.e. lying careerist drones) are not interested in fixing it; it deserves to collapse (because it is worse than useless); and real scientists (self-selected small groups of honest amateurs) will have to start rebuilding from the ground up.

    Bruce Charlton

  7. statsquatch says:

    10% goes to bio-ethics? Isn’t 10% what Mormon’s tithe?

  8. jackstrocchi says:

    bgc said:

    Put it another way – ‘science’ (actually professional peer-reviewed research – a branch of the state bureaucracy) is *already* bust, and the proper question is whether it will be fixed?

    Is the corruption of anthropological science by the Left worse, the same or not as bad as the corruption of ecological science by the Right?

    Perhaps this is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. I mention it only because Chris Mooney has gone on alot about how the Right denies global warming, which is true enough. But his supporters seem to resist the tu quoque that the Left indulge in exactly the same form of science denial in regards to “controversial” aspects of the study of human nature eg race, religion & IQ. John Horgan being only an especially obvious example of this anti-scientific attitude.

    So I would like some hard evidence or at least convincing anecdotes that the Left are engaged in systematic censorship of anthropological science at the professional level. (Its obviously happening at the political level if Heritage have now succumbed.)

    The scientific revolution is not a dinner party and there is no particular reason to expect everyones noses to be left in joint by the results of impartial investigation.

  9. Diane Ritter says:

    “The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) is planning a workshop to explore the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) raised by research on natural selection in humans”

    The LEGAL issues?? What LEGAL issues would be raised by research on natural selection in humans?

    • saintonge235 says:

      Such research could easily lead to badthink, and needs to be suppressed now. E.g., natural selection might have resulted in human groups that have different distributions of capabilities and interests, leading to Group A having a greater share of some professions than Group B. This might in turn lead to civil rights plaintiffs who charge discrimination having a much higher burden of proof to win their law suits.

      This is such doubleplusungood badthink that you, I, and everyone reading this should turn ourselves in to the Thought Police for reeducation immediately.

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