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Evelyn Fox Keller, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at MIT, comes at the old nature versus nurture question from an interesting direction. What do you mean, she asks, by versus.

"What do you mean" is literal. Keller probes at language and meaning in the book.

Francis Galton

The story starts with Francis Galton. Galton was Charles Darwin's half cousin. He wrote a book called English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. The theme of the book was: how could Francis Galton be so smart?

From his very comfortable and long-inherited family home, Galton set down an answer: nature. Francis Galton was smart by nature. He had inherited it. And because of this, he proposed, the English people should give to people like Francis Galton, money to breed.

See? Francis Galton was smart. As a writer, he could overlay complexly interesting double meanings, on simple common words. "Nurture," about English Men of Science, is overloaded. As is the question of their nature.

Drums and Drummers

For explaining what she means by mirage, about a space between nature and nurture, Keller picks up Hans Kummer's analogy of drummers and drums. It would be meaningless to ask, how much of the sound comes from the drummer, and how much comes from the drum.

A study shows that the heritability of a trait difference in the mating behavior of fruits flies is, say, 50.00%. Then, one fruit fly is cloned, and the experiment is repeated. The heritability of the very same trait difference would now be zero.

Little h and Big H Heritability

There are two measure of heritability. The book lays them out, if you want to get into it..

Agricultural breeding science focuses on little h, or narrow heritability. It is the easier to measure. They don't care, about any one corn plant in the field.

Behavioral genetics (including of people) uses Big H or broad heritability. It is the harder to measure. And you can't do experiments on people the way you can on corn. Double trouble.

There is a third understanding of heritability, which is a nontechnical one. We want to know how much of our own eye color we got from mom, or from grandma. This meaning is a mirage. It is the drum and drummer question. It can't be asked of individuals, but only of populations. And it can't be asked of traits, but only of trait differences.  

Omit Needless Words!

A review in the American Scientist calls Keller's book the Strunk and White of heritability.

if there were a little manifesto that we could curl up with and reread every couple of years to restore to our thinking the clarity we know this difficult subject deserves? The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, by Evelyn Fox Keller, may be just the book we’ve been waiting for.

Science reporters dealing with the latest result of a twin study, say, could benefit from having the book on their desk. As could we. As could, actually, scientists in the field. Keller shows scientists who have a solid grasp on the concepts, repeatedly slipping in what they say.

This little book has four main takeaway points: Discussion of the issues is muddled in history and language; the move from individuals to populations; the move from traits to trait differences; and the contributions of modern genetics. One hundred well written pages, with one chapter for each.

Evelyn Fox Keller, The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture. Duke University Press, 2010.

Originally posted to Garrett on Sun Jul 10, 2011 at 11:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is Science, Math, and Statistic Books. (4+ / 0-)

    A part of the Readers and Book Lovers family of diary series.

    Thanks much to plf515, for having me in today's slot.

  •  You want me to read a book? WTF?? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I think I know all I need to know about this topic from Trading Places.

  •  A very interesting take on an old discussion. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Garrett, palantir, Dragon5616, sberel

    Thanks Garret.  Well done.

  •  Nature, nurture, nonsense (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    palantir, Garrett, Dragon5616

    is the name of an article I wrote.  I think the whole debate is silly and, in fact, meaningless.

    I wrote more about it here

    Founder Math and Statistics Geeks . Statistics for progressives

    by plf515 on Sun Jul 10, 2011 at 12:26:53 PM PDT

    •  My training in science, (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      plf515, Dragon5616, greengemini

      such that it is, is in population genetics. The statistical view. "Particles" of inheritance is good enough. They might as well be "Whatchamacallits" of inheritance, from that view.

      There has been a really striking change in popular views on the subject. Which has both come at the same time as, but goes against, much better science on cellular genetics.

      A problem is that mirages can be talked about. They have a small shimmering lake, and two palm trees. Even though they are not real.

  •  To play Devil's advocate: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Obviously it's meaningless to ask "how much of your foot is due to genes and how much is due to environment?" However, isn't it a perfectly meaningful question to ask for a given population living in a given range of environments. how much of the variance in some trait (say foot length) is from genetics and how much from environment? Of course the sum doesn't have to be 100% because there can be major interaction terms, terms that are truly random, and so forth.

    For example, birds can be rated on various personality traits. Experimenters can switch the eggs, and see how much of the variance goes with the birth parents and how much with the "adoptive" parents, and how much correlates with neither. These experiments are actually done.

    So what's the argument that the question is meaningless?

    Michael Weissman UID 197542

    by docmidwest on Sun Jul 10, 2011 at 06:57:02 PM PDT

    •  An example (0+ / 0-)

      that she uses in the book, edited slightly to match yours:

      As an example, consider a trait that is known to be biologically inherited (i.e., repeated from generation to generation), such as, e.g., the number of feet an individual has. We would normally say that feet number is a heritable trait. But what is the technical heritability? Answer: zero, or very close to it. And the reason is that, while there is phenotypic variance in the human population (not everyone has two feet), this variance is almost entirely due to accidents, not genetics. The genetic variance relevant to feet number in the population at large is virtually nil.

      This is from a section where she is going after the confounded misinterpretation of broad heritability measurement, not strictly the meaninglessness of it. But imagine a science paper: "Number of Feet in Humans Has Low Heritability." What?

      The book has a certain pointed quality to it. But it isn't at all intended as an argument on a point of controversy.

      •  wow, very off-the-point! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Since foot number is not a trait that often varies for genetic reasons. Foot size always does. So I'm wondering what she says about that whole broad category? That would include shyness in flamingos, etc.

        On the identical twins, the point that they frequently difer on points of interest does nothing to invalidate the question. In fact, it's an excellent experiment directly to answer part of the question- the hereditable variance in many traits is much less than 100%. Variation between identical twins raised in the same family shows that there's variance which is neither genetic nor associated with the broad environmental factors nor with their interactions. That still leaves molecular accidents in utero, interactions with friends, infections, and all sorts of other small effects.

        The thing is, none of this is really a point of controversy. I should look at the book, but I'm trying to see if in transcending the faux controversies she also transcended the routine content.

        Michael Weissman UID 197542

        by docmidwest on Mon Jul 11, 2011 at 06:02:48 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  But foot number does vary for genetic reasons (0+ / 0-)

          And it does vary for environmental reasons. And the trait difference in a population can be measured in a heritability study, same as for foot length, and be separated out into genetic and anvironmental components. And you get an absurd result.

          More specifically, the absurdity happens when "how much" (variation in foot number in a population, attributed to genetic and environmental components) gets turned into "how".

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