A conversation with Jon Entine, for European Scientist

220px-Entine_photo  Jon Entine is an American science writer. He is the founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a nonprofit that educates the public about the revolution in biomedicine and agricultural biotechnology. He was formerly a fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California, Davis, the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University, and at the American Enterprise Institute. After working as a network news writer, producer and head of documentaries for NBC News and ABC News from 1974-1994, Entine moved into scholarly research and print journalism.

  Entine has written seven books, four on genetics and chemical risk, and has addressed a range of controversial issues, including the genetics of sports; the shared ancestry of Jews, Christians and Muslims; socially responsible investing; and why organic farming will not scale to produce sustainable food. He is a contributing columnist and writer for dozens of newspapers and magazines. He has was won 19 major journalism awards including two Emmys, three CINE, Ohio State Award, Chris Award, Best Feature Film Interntional Sport Film Festival,  and a National Press Club Award for Consumer Journalism.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: You carefully investigated the genetic underpinnings of the over-representation of blacks in many high profile sports. Could you remind us of the fruits of your inquiry? Why do whites dominate strength related positions and events in so many sports—and why are blacks so poorly represented in some major sports, such as swimming?

  Jon Entine: I think it’s phenomenal, really startling that if you look at the major sports around the world: track and field, football in Europe, American football, baseball, and basketball, which is an international sport, you see a very odd distribution of which athletes do the best in various sports. In many of the sports, the ones that require speed, quick reaction time, things like global and American football or basketball or sprinting, it’s utter dominance by athletes of West African ancestry.

  In long distance running, which requires endurance, you see the dominance of East Africans and a few North Africans, whose ancestors evolved in higher altitudes, shaping their physique and physiology. You look at strength events, and you see dominance of East Europeans and Euro-Asians with very minimal representation of those of African ancestry. These aren’t just recent aberrations.

  These patterns have persisted for decades and have actually become more pronounced as the playing field got more level, so ‘natural talent’ could emerge and environmental factors were at a minimum. Once the influence of performance enhancement drugs during the 1960s, 70s, and ‘89s driven by Russia and the Eastern bloc dissipated, which distorted who were the best athletes, we saw these patterns become even more pronounced around the world. And I think the more you research this, the more you understand that at the elite level of athletic competition, we are very much a product of our genetics and the patterns reflect evolution in different geographical areas.

  This is not a black/white issue or an issue of ‘race’ as we have traditionally used the term. It’s about regions of evolutionary origin. Phenotypes and genotypes are shaped by thousands of years of evolution. Although some characteristics seem to loosely correlated with traditional, folkloric notions of race, many do not. Just look at the difference in body types and athletic skill sets of distance running East Africans and elite athletes who trace their primary descent to West Africa. The differences in physiology and physique may be small in the case of some characteristics, and there is a great deal of overlap, but those differences are magnified at the elite level of sports competition where a fraction of a second can make the difference between winning a gold medal or being an also ran.

  Social factors alone or even significantly cannot explain why the top two thousand all time 100 meter times are held by a person of West African ancestry yet West Africans are almost nonexistent at the elite level of medium and long distance running. I addressed many of these issues, along with the toxic history of ‘race science,’ in my book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. Although the book is now 20 years old, and some data are dated, the arguments in the book are now mainstream science and genetics. It was actually based on a documentary that I wrote and produced back in 1989 with Tom Brokaw, Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction.

  The idea that anybody can grow up and become an elite athlete with the proper training and opportunities is just not supported by what we know of genetics. Genetics is not destiny, but I would say that genetics is like designing a house. You can tidy up the rooms a little bit, you can move things around, but generally speaking, who you are is like the house itself. Once it’s built, it’s set, and these predeterminations are the result tens of thousands of years of evolution.

  That said, there are always cultural and genetic factors in play. There is a biocultural feedback loop in sports in which culture helps magnify small but meaningful biologically-based differences. People say, “Oh, there are few blacks in ice hockey,” for instance. Well, ice hockey is played in northern climates, and there have been relatively few blacks in Canada or in Europe, historically. So, the number of blacks is almost representative of the number of blacks in those regions. And some sports, like gymnastics, for instance, or swimming, require a lot of training. They require facilities, pools that are very expensive. Social opportunity has largely excluded minorities. The more factors that cost a lot of money, like the availability of expensive facilities, then, cultural and social factors come into play.

  The sports that I cited: running, football, soccer, and basketball which are usually state sponsored or sponsored by schools—sports like those represent a level playing field. It doesn’t require special financial advantages to be a great long-distance runner or sprinter. It’s really natural talent that comes to the fore. So, it’s best to think of sports as a biocultural phenomenon—sports success. And the lower the cultural barriers to entry, the more genetic factors come into play. And those genetic based differences are not distributed equally among populations. In running, blacks of West African ancestry dominate the sprints, totally. In long distance running, blacks of East African ancestry dominate. And that’s purely a result of our genetic history.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: It has been hypothesized that race differences in intelligence and in psychopathy should be connected to the severity of encountered winters over tens of thousands of years of evolutionary time—with Caucasians and a fortiori Northeast Asians having faced the coldest winters and consequently evolved the higher IQs and the lower psychopathy levels necessary to navigate difficult environmental circumstances. Do you endorse this alleged connection?

  Jon Entine: Well, there has been some speculation on that controversial issue by evolutionary psychologists and others, as well as some geneticists, that some people embrace and some people do not. One of the suppositions is that evolution does shape who we are physically, and there are group differences–overlapping but real. We know that. And so, some people have asked, if genetics shape us physically, and we see the examples in sports, it must shape us psychologically and intellectually, as well. And there’s belief among many scientists that there are patterns of differences based at IQ tests—although many people like to dismiss them as unimportant or pseudo-science or racist. I think there’s profound evidence and belief within the psychometric community that IQ tests are very real measurements of a kind of intelligence. But how much of the differences are the result of evolutionary factors versus environmental and cultural factors, including those that impact biology, such as natal and childhood development. Obviously environmental factors predominant in explaining patterns of differences.

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A conversation with Heiner Rindermann, for Man and the Economy

hrin_2019  Heiner Rindermann PhD, is Professor of Educational and Developmental Psychology at the Technical University of Chemnitz (Germany). He is psychologist (PhD University of Heidelberg). His work deals with education and ability development, intelligence and student achievement, economy and politics, evolution and culture, and their interplay at the level of individuals and societies. His recent major contribution is Cognitive capitalism: Human capital and the wellbeing of nations published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: An early contribution on your part in establishing the connection between cognitive ability and human development (in the broadest sense) was to show how the spread of AIDS among ethnicities of different continents is greater as the cognitive ability is lower. Could you remind us of your analysis?

  Heiner Rindermann: In two publications from 2007 and 2009 with my German colleagues Georg W. Oesterdiekhoff, a sociologist, and Gerhard Meisenberg, a biologist, I showed that education (as a proxy for intelligence and knowledge) and cognitive ability (comprising intelligence and knowledge) reduce the impact of the HIV spread.[i] If wealth and modernity are added in analyses at the level of nations – comparing different countries – the effects of wealth and modernity even turned positive, increasing HIV rates! Disproving the usual theory, that AIDS is a disease of the poor, the data robustly showed that AIDS is a disease of the low intelligent. But why? Isn’t this result biased or mad?

  In closer consideration not at all: Studies from other authors on AIDS or on diabetes at the level of individuals also show that income and even education are not crucial for health. The crucial factor is intelligence. Again: Why? Here the Piagetian approach can help us as used by Georg W. Oesterdiekhoff and cognitive hermeneutics of everyday life as I tried to explain in my Cognitive capitalism book: People at lower levels of cognitive development and intelligence, especially if living in a social environment with a similar low level, tend to think and act irrationally, e.g. they believe in magic and behave in ineffective or even self-damaging ways. I.e., AIDS is not seen as being caused by HIV transmitted by unprotected sex but being caused by God, magical powers or sorcery and consequently can be cured by magical treatment, e.g. by having sex with a virgin. And these aren’t excuses for sexual abuse or own failings but people really believe this.

  For instance, a quote from a study by African researchers in Mali underscores this: “Accidents are never attributed to faults or incompetence of the people in charge or machine failure, they are always orchestrated by certain superstitious powers.”[ii] Such a mindset will not lead to more cautiousness or better maintenance reducing accidents.

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A conversation with Davide Piffer, for American Renaissance

laurea   Davide Piffer is an evolutionary anthropologist. He obtained his BA in Anthropology from the University of Bologna and a Master of Science in Evolutionary Anthropology from Durham University. His Master’s thesis was on the sexual selection of sleep patterns among humans, and was the first to link mating behavior to chronotype within an evolutionary framework. His research effort later moved to quantitative genetics (i.e. twin studies), when he published one of the first accounts on the heritability of creative achievement. In 2013 he moved to molecular genetics, focusing on the polygenic evolution of educational abilities and intelligence and this is still his main focus. Within this research area, his main finding is that ethnic differences in intelligence are explained by thousands of genetic variants that predict cognitive abilities within populations. He has published a book of poems.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: You have made a well-known attempt to provide a theoretical framework within which creativity—in science, philosophy, technology, music, mathematics, or literature—may be defined more precisely and measured. Could you present us your theory as it stands?

  Davide Piffer: Creativity is not a single cognitive function or ability. Hence, it is not possible to measure creativity with paper and pencil or computer tests, unlike for example intelligence, or working memory. Creativity is the capacity to generate creative products, that is, scientific theories, poems, paintings, sculptures, inventions that are novel and useful or meaningful. Hence, the only way to measure a person’s creativity is via one’s creativity output (i.e. achievement) which is the sum of creative products over an individual’s (or society/ race) lifespan. A lot of cognitive abilities contribute to creativity, and in my seminal paper (Piffer, 2012), I argued that the widespread use by researchers of divergent thinking as the sole measure of creativity is a mistake. In fact, there are many cognitive and personality predictors of creative achievement besides divergent thinking, including IQ or general mental ability, working memory, openness to experience and non-clinical schizophrenic tendencies (i.e. “shizotypy” to use the psychiatrist’s jargon). Hypomania, or the tendency to feel positive emotions, has been linked to creativity, as well as bipolar disorder. All of these factors constitute what I call “cognitive potential”.

  Divergent thinking (DT) is actually an important cognitive function which has been confined to creativity research. However it would benefit other areas of psychology as well. My opinion is that it would be better to regard DT as a form of intelligence, and to include divergent thinking measures in psychometric batteries and standardized intelligence tests (i.e. WAIS). Since psychometrically it is correlated to general cognitive ability but it taps into different neurological substrates, it would provide a more complete picture of one’s mental power, possibly less tied to academic intelligence and more to artistic or daily-life accomplishments.

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A conversation with Gerhard Meisenberg, for Psych

Gerhard Meisenberg is a retired professor of biochemistry who lives in the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. Originally from Germany, he studied at the universities of Bochum and Munich where he obtained his Ph.D. in biology. He then did biochemistry research in the United States for three years, before joining the faculty at Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica. He worked in Dominica from 1984 until the end of 2018. He became known as the senior author of a major textbook of medical biochemistry that has so far been printed in four editions. In addition, he embarked on research in educational research and psychometrics. His special interest is in secular trends of intelligence (Flynn effects), which he studied in Dominica.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: You are best known for your textbook Principles of Medical Biochemistry as well as your evolutionary psychology treatise In God’s Image: The Natural History of Intelligence and Ethics. How do you move from the former to the latter?

  Gerhard Meisenberg: Biochemistry and the study of human behavior both are part of biology, although at slightly different levels. Psychology is one step down in the “hierarchy of sciences”: more complex, and less precise. What attracted me to human behavior are the big questions about why humans are the way they are, how they got that way, and what it means for our ongoing evolution. As Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I realized that the “big picture” of human history cannot be understood without an understanding of the ongoing evolution of the value systems that determine what aims people pursue and the intelligence that determines how good they are at attaining these aims. Neither of these are etched in stone. They keep evolving, both culturally and biologically.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: A short while ago you co-wrote an article on sex differences in intelligence with Professor Richard Lynn. Could you remind us of the outlines of your perspective on this subject conducive to arousing hysteria?

  Gerhard Meisenberg: There was actually a big debate about sex differences in the journal Mankind Quarterly, where contributors exposed the different views in the field. Briefly, there are those who hold that in modern Western societies there are no sex differences in intelligence that are big enough to have any real-world importance. James Flynn defended this position. The second view is represented by Richard Lynn, who claims that boys and girls start out pretty equal, but from the age of about 15 males gain an advantage over females because their mental as well as physical growth continues to an older age. Lynn estimates that adult men score 3 to 5 IQ points higher than women, which is a very small difference. He thinks that together with a higher male standard deviation, this is sufficient to explain male dominance in many intellectual fields. Then there are those, including myself, who emphasize that males and females have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, males have an up to one standard deviation (15 IQ points) advantage in mechanical reasoning, but females come out on top in tests of emotional intelligence and of verbal and episodic memory. There isn’t a huge amount of disagreement among scientists who study these sex differences. It’s a matter of emphasis.

  Another thing to consider is that sex differences in some non-cognitive traits are much bigger than those in measured intelligence. Some aspects of vocational preferences have sex differences of at least one standard deviation, although this depends much on the way the differences are measured and analyzed. Perhaps the reason why women have lower mechanical comprehension is not that they are innately deficient in this kind of reasoning, but that they have zero interest in the workings of gears and pulleys. Therefore they never bother to develop the ability to understand these things.

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