the political thought of 1890 with the genetics of 1890, in 2010

There’s been a great deal of fuss about the Bundesbank director Thilo Sarrazin’s book, in which he argues that the “upper layers” of German society ought to be encouraged to breed for fear of Muslims, etc, etc. The SZ points out here that he confesses to just making up his numbers:


Es ging um die Frage, woher Sarrazins viel zitierte, im Brustton der Faktizität vorgetragene Behauptung eigentlich kommt, dass siebzig Prozent der türkischen und neunzig Prozent der arabischen Bevölkerung Berlins den Staat ablehnten und in großen Teilen weder integrationswillig noch integrationsfähig seien. Sarrazin gab zu, dass er keinerlei Statistiken dazu habe. Er gab zu, dass es solche Statistiken auch gar nicht gibt.

But I’m not sure if anyone has pointed out quite how strange Sarrazin’s thinking is.

Für ihn ist die Unterschicht sowieso schon lange abgeschrieben, der Genpool degeneriert. Denn bereits seit dem 19. Jahrhundert sei die deutsche Gesellschaft immer durchlässiger geworden, “auffallende Hochbegabungen” hätten damals in Preußen bereits die Möglichkeit bekommen, das Gymnasium zu besuchen. “Das bedeutet aber, dass die Entleerung der unteren Schichten von intellektuellem Potential bei uns weiter fortgeschritten ist als in Gesellschaften, deren Durchlässigkeit sich erst später entwickelte.”

He thinks, or at least claims to think, that because the German (and specifically Prussian) education system has given the lower classes the opportunity to go on to higher education since the 19th century, Germany has a problem – the masses have been emptied of “intellectual potential” too early.

What strikes me as telling here is that it’s not just that Sarrazin’s political thought is trapped in the Wilhelmine era – his understanding of genetics is, too. This post of Razib Khan’s on the great early-20th century debate between the biologists who rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s work, and the biometricians, who had been trying to link data gathered on the range of human traits with the Darwinian inheritance, explains why.

The biometricians were essentially trying to operationalise Darwinism with early statistical methods. This gave them a problem; a lot, but not all, of the variation in biological traits at least seemed to be nice and smooth, movement along a well-behaved curve. With no other model of inheritance available, they assumed that genetics was a simple process of blending – children were an average of their parents. This had wide-ranging consequences; it implied that regression to the mean would apply to people. We would all eventually be average. From there, it wasn’t hard to predict that we would all, eventually, be mediocre and that racial degeneration was inevitable.

This is one of the great intellectual accident black spots – a nauseous gap in the barrier by the roadside. Experimental work, like Mendel’s, showed that something else was happening. One of the problems was that statistics itself needed to advance to resolve the debate. There is a very good reason why Francis Galton was both an important early statistician and a eugenist, and why it would eventually be a statistician, R. A. Fisher, who demonstrated that a Mendelian process was observable in the biometric data.

But by that time, the original mistake had set off a great avalanche of analogies. Social Darwinism and everything that followed from it was out there. It’s a horrific thought that its consequences have a lot to do with statistical methods, and it’s telling that Fisher published in 1918. The important point about Mendelian genetics is that it’s discontinuous – it doesn’t blend down to the average. Variation is conserved; not only will the German working class continue to produce bright kids, the elite will occasionally toss out a Sarrazin.

30 thoughts on “the political thought of 1890 with the genetics of 1890, in 2010

  1. As a German, I’m not particularly embarrassed by Sarazzin’s remarks.

    What I am embarrassed about is that apparently a large proportion of the German population either agrees with him, or that they haven’t bothered to look at his theses in more detail before responding to polls that they agree with him.

    I’m not sure which is worse.

  2. Sarrazin may have thrown a lot of nonsense to the German public on immigration. Yet, he has provoked (alas by using flawed and populist argumentation) a necessary debate.

    Many modern Germans are masters in suppressing (Verdrängung). They suppress their modern national identity. They privately suppress the nazi past of their country. It is so hard to talk to even a young German about national-socialism or the WW2 that I have the impression they do not speak much privately inside families about it. The consequence being that guilt is tacitly handed over from generation to generation.

    Now, their modern Verdrängung, is the intense antimmigration feeling that most of them share yet do not dare show publicly. I do not think that Germany is more xenophobic than any other European country. Germany is a modern and mostly open country. Indeed, a short trip to Austria or Switzerland may be a refreshing experience in terms of European xenophobic standards. Yet suppressing your concerns and not speaking openly about them does make matters worse.

    Throwing Sarrazin out of the Bundesbank and doing the utmost to suppress a needed debate does not do anything else than nurture populists and provocateurs.

    As somebody who has lived in Germany for a long time it was exactly that unspoken distrust that you felt everywhere and the ensuing gradual social marginalization what did hurt most. Because of that, Germany is still a very unfriendly place for highly skilled immigrants who want a place in the high end of the social ladder thus stripping it of exactly those kind of people that could serve as the role models of the young descendants of the Gastarbeiter. Most of those highly skilled I know have already or plan to flee to the US.

  3. If recent studies are correct , most Europeans descended from two females. That might convince us alone (and also in spite most of us of not looking very apish of late) that there is a certain amount of continuing divergence. Even identical twins , for whatever reason, are known to later specialize in very different topics. Add to this that it is not only a question of our evolution in itself. Much as some might like to imagine otherwise, our surroundings are not solely steriley shaped by us for our ultimate achievement, but evolve in their own fashion also, often well beyond man’s control. So while we recognize the concept of survival of the fittest, social cohesion often helping to that end, and include variety and specialist niches in the same frame work … well just look what happened to the dinosaurs, who have to spend what must seem an eternity as now undersized lizards, lest we follow their path and end up as some kind of primordial shrew. In fact the Basque people of the western Pyrenees are said to have maybe Europe’s most ancient surviving language and make up, and they seem more perturbed by Spanish than Jewish origin, something some bankers might agree with for very different reasons. We haven’t included Neanderthal or even Martian input (!) … vive la difference or is tyranny part of natures game , and if so does it need to be outlearnt or is it as necessary as Mr. Rex once may have been ?

  4. If recent studies are correct , most Europeans descended from two females.

    this is not even wrong.

    re: the main point of the post, i don’t think the r. a. fisher’s unification of evolution with mendelism implies what you believe it implies. at least not necessarily. fisher himself was a convinced eugenecist who had many of sarrazin’s exact concerns re: breeding and class. he discusses these sorts of issues in the second half of the genetical theory of natural selection.

  5. “It is so hard to talk to even a young German about national-socialism or the WW2 that I have the impression they do not speak much privately inside families about it.”

    You are living in a fantasy world. Or perhaps you haven’t been in Germany since the mid-sixties.
    It is very easy to talk about national socialism with germans of all ages. And if you think that the – about average – xenophobia in Germany doesn’t has a lot of piublic outöets you really don’t know anything about the country.

    There are things germans don’t talk about: Their income or their religion. But you would know this, being such an expert.

  6. @razib – it may not have implied that *for him*. it’s certainly not unknown for people to keep their own beliefs separate from the implications of their own work…

  7. It’s not at all hard to talk to Germans about National Socialism.

    That said, the immigrant question is something else. Certainly it’s not always easy to be an immigrant in Germany!

    But anecdotes are not data. I haven’t seen a good, recent article on immigration and integration in Germany; if anyone has a link, I’d be interested.

    Doug M.

  8. “Certainly it’s not always easy to be an immigrant in Germany! ”

    doug

    it depends on how you do it. if you try to speak to germans in germany in halting german, you get treated badly; but if you speak loudly in American accented English (and are in addition tall and fair-skinned), they will love you (i nearly typed “grovel”)

  9. it’s somewhat off topic, i suppose, but has anyone ever asked himself why the euginists (word?) want the poor to improve through breeding? i mean… if you are at the top of the pile, don’t you want to be surrounded by more and more-stupid poor who can then be assigned to perform more menial tasks even more cheaply? when’s the last time anyone of us has been able to afford a decent sedan-chair ride? now, if we could only get the poor to make twice as many babies the sedan chair ought to be within reach again, no?

  10. eni: Those are 15 years of German history, out of almost ten times as much history as a modern state, and much more than that as a territorium. Still, those 15 years have been very important in shaping Europe outside of Germany as much as inside Germany, up until very recent years. I wrote my impressions about that in http://my.opera.com/jax/blog/der-ubergang and I would still stand by this five years later.

    We are past those post-war years now, and I think to most any German the 20 years of Reunification would trump the 15 years of Nazi Germany.

    Reunification, not the history of Nazi Germany, have made the Germans (in my view) more introspective than most Europeans, and may have made them less enthusiastic about the European project as well.

    I would concur with you and the above posters though. Germany is not particularly foreigner-friendly. Germany has more immigrants than most, but they don’t tend to welcome them warmly, then again these days you are welcome to visit most places but welcome to stay in preciously few.

  11. it may not have implied that *for him*. it’s certainly not unknown for people to keep their own beliefs separate from the implications of their own work…

    not totally sure what’s being said here. if you mean that fisher’s eugenical theses being normative values separate from his scientific work, whereby the latter refuted the former in fact, that’s not how he saw it. the link above to the genetical theory of natural selection was fisher’s summation of the broad arc of his ideas, and his mathematical model of evolution was something he viewed as the raw material of an an applied science. which is why he turns to human eugenics in the second half of the book (this half is naturally often ignored today because its assumed background values are now rejected). but you don’t need to take my word for it, see a reason for everything, or his biography written by his daughter, r. a. fisher: life of a scientist.

    when i indicated that fisher’s views are in line with sarrazin’s, i think it has to be noted that one of his hobby-horses was the lack of reproduction of britain’s upper classes and gentry after the demographic transition (he had a large family himself consciously). he was a major proponent of ‘positive eugenics’ whereby the elites were incentivized to have many children, as opposed to ‘negative eugenics’ where the lower classes were incentivized (or coerced in many cases) not to have children. this is usually given as a way to rehabilitate his enthusiastic eugenic beliefs in our day, because unlike northern europeans in germany and scandinavia, and the USA, the british eugenicists didn’t push too hard for illiberal legislation which restricted the reproductive rights of others (or this is what i’ve read, i don’t know enough about the eugenic movement to give an authoritative apologia for them :-).

    i’ll also note that charles davenport of cold spring harbor, and ameica’s top scientist who supported eugenics, was a convinced mendelist as well. the divide between mendelists and anti-mendelists was partly one of generation, and for the older cohort one of training (experimentalists were mendelists more often than not). the younger generation of mendelists were probably less eugenical, but i think that has to do with the fact that so many of them were experimentalists on non-human organisms (e.g., the morgan lab). that made their focus less on humans, and human social and political concerns.

    i also don’t believe that a mendelian model of heritable variation refutes sarrazin’s contention about interclass sorting. but i’m not totally sure what he’s arguing, and the translations have been kind of weird. and i’m not totally clear on the details of alex’s model here either, so i’ll let the nerdy scientific aspect rest.

  12. “Many modern Germans are masters in suppressing (Verdrängung). They suppress their modern national identity. They privately suppress the nazi past of their country. ”

    The exact opposite is true. To just ignore the bad times is the normal position in most nations, Germany is the expectation that even made the dark sides the core of the history curiculum. If you want to look for most visible modern day denialism, look to Americas threatment of the atroxcities. (guilty of troll feading). Oh and of course tourists get threated better than immigrants that cant speak German, thats pretty basic.

    Now to Sarazin, well ok hes a troll aswell…)-:. Sarazins thinking should be very familiar to an Anglo Saxon audience as its far more widespread there. In the end, its 80% old fashioned racism with maybe 20% class based prejeduces mixed in. The rationalication with some iq obsessed social darwinism is an innovation in Germany.

    Im also surprised how much support Sarazins bullshit gets in polls and even book reviews by some mainstream newspapers that appear to have read the book.

  13. Now to Sarazin, well ok hes a troll aswell…)-:. Sarazins thinking should be very familiar to an Anglo Saxon audience as its far more widespread there

    for the record, most colored people i know generally believe that there’s far less racism on the surface of day to day life in anglo-saxon nations than in continental europe. i know this is my personal experience. and i grew up in a 99% white area which was 75% republican in the states.

    (though china and the persian gulf are much more difficult in racial terms for a dark skinned

  14. Maybe he means racism in the narrow sense, scientific racism is more common in anglosaxon countries? I do believe that’s true.

  15. Right meant the pseudo heredity science package to sell the racism, not overall racism. Works best as upper class racism in inequal societies. Thats probably the reason that particular form was unpopular so far. Inequality increased a lot in over the last 10 years.

  16. ” With no other model of inheritance available, they assumed that genetics was a simple process of blending – children were an average of their parents. This had wide-ranging consequences; it implied that regression to the mean would apply to people.

    I’m not quite sure what you’re implying here but regression toward the mean does apply to humans. I think this was empirically proven already by Galton with regard to traits like height (it was Galton who discovered the phenomenon of regression toward the mean), and it has since been proven for IQ, for example. It is precisely this regression that makes eugenics unrealistic or at least very difficult to pull off successfully — exceptional individuals tend to have offspring who are rather mediocre.

  17. Firstly, the spam filter of this site is infuriating: if you forget to type in the number, you will lose your entire post when you click ‘submit’. I bet you have lost hundreds of comments because of it.

    It’s somewhat off topic, i suppose, but has anyone ever asked himself why the euginists (word?) want the poor to improve through breeding? i mean… if you are at the top of the pile, don’t you want to be surrounded by more and more-stupid poor who can then be assigned to perform more menial tasks even more cheaply?”

    Eugenics was a progressive utilitarian ideology aimed at improving the genetic quality of the nation. It was not about creating social classes with different genetic potentials. Eugenicists wanted the “genetically unfit” to die out, either by discouraging or preventing them from reproduction, or by encouraging the “genetically fit” to reproduce more.

    “Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he has also the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective.

    This is precisely the aim of Eugenics. Its first object is to check the birth-rate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being, though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock.”–Francis Galton (1908)

  18. Davide

    “BTW, Razib, I’m curious as to your position on race and IQ.”

    have you asked yourself what you mean by “race”?

  19. It is precisely this regression that makes eugenics unrealistic or at least very difficult to pull off successfully — exceptional individuals tend to have offspring who are rather mediocre.

    i don’t have time to get into the technical details, which aren’t that technical really, but regression doesn’t invalidate eugenics or evolution. though it may make it harder. how much harder depends on the heritability of the trait in question. the heritability of height in developed nations is 0.8-0.9. let’s assume 0.8 for conservatism’s sake. what does this mean?

    it means that if you have a parent who is 1 standard deviation above the norm in height, and a parent who is at the median, you can expect the offspring to be 0.4 standard deviations above the norm. if you have two parents who are 1 standard deviations above the norm, you have an expectation than the offspring should be 0.8. the math is simple

    e(x) = (average parental value) X heritability

    if you have a large set of individuals who are 0.8 units above the norm with parents of values who are 1 units above the norm, and you mate the individuals who are 0.8, will they regress further? no! in fact, this is how animal breeding words. you’ve now set a new population median.

    there are reasons eugenics may not work. but there’s some confusion as to the scientific basics here, and it goes to regression to the mean. which really is a confusing topic to be clear. for now i commend you to this section of wikipedia on heritability:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritability#Regression.2Fcorrelation_methods_of_estimation

    Firstly, the spam filter of this site is infuriating

    i think i did that, and i hit “back” and the text was there, fwiw. i’m on windows/chrome.

  20. Razib, you’re of course correct. The point I was trying to make, contra the OP, was that regression toward the mean is something that concerns humans, too, and that it is a force that eugenicists would have to struggle against to make their scheme work.

    i think i did that, and i hit “back” and the text was there, fwiw. i’m on windows/chrome.”

    That doesn’t work on Win/Firefox.

  21. Firstly, the spam filter of this site is infuriating

    V sorry about the lossage; spam is pretty infuriating too.

    Doug M., what are you looking for in an article? Evolution of the legal situation? Public attitudes? Does the article need to be in English?

  22. “V sorry about the lossage; spam is pretty infuriating too.”

    Yeah, but if there was, say, a pop-up window asking you to fill in the answer if you forgot it, posts would not be lost. I don’t know if your software would allow such a thing, of course.

  23. I’ve taken a bit of German years ago, and I still can’t completely read the quotations. I know I could use a translation site, but it would make sense for you to just have the english translations below the quotes in your post.

  24. You are dodging the admittedly ugly issue. Sazzerin would reply that the German mean is higher than the Turkish mean. Regression or not. This is not about the recipe for breeding perfect individuals but about which group should be favored by immigration policy. Sazzerin thinks the evidence is clear which group has a better probability of producing higher quality offspring.

  25. I have been an immigrant in Germany, with my family. Admittedly, we look ‘European’ and integrated by learning the language, going to local schools/workplaces etc but I do not recall a single incidence of the sort of casual racism that is often implied about Germany here in the UK. Perhaps I was too young to notice. On the other hand, my parents recall serious discussions with ‘intellectual’ types who would not have any qualms about talking over quite ‘politically incorrect’ ideas – the sort that most sensible people in the UK would be unlikely to tackle for fear of being labled racist. So, from my experience of living in the country, it is not especially surprising to hear comments of this strenght being made – whether or not they are agreeable or representitative of the country as a whole is an entirley different matter.

  26. It is not true that you get discriminated in Germany only if you do not speak the language well. Go speak to foreign students in German universities. They have to have a good or very good command of German by default. Yet, if they come from the developing world they are discriminated all the same. If one has ever set foot on a US university it becomes clear how much discrimination is out there in German campuses.

    It has far less to do with xenophobia and far more with old-fashioned social discrimination. If you are an Indonesian, Chinese, Indian etc. you are out of luck, if you are an American, Canadian and so on Germany is more than ok.

  27. Is there no end to Alex’s knowledge ? Coding/design, statistics, modern history, comms, military science in all its forms, cryptography and many more – now he throws genetics into the mix.

    But in leaving the German for us to translate, is he guilty of terrible intellectual snobbery?

    I have the problem that my knowledge of both stats and genetics is minimal – but …

    Surely if intelligence is heritable, and intelligent women have fewer than average babies, or dim women have more than average, that’ll affect the overall average intelligence? I’ve read that 40% of German graduate women are childless.

    So if Sarrazin means clever-clog people by “the upper layer” isn’t he right, ignoring “fear of Muslims” for a moment? Gregory Cochran put his finger in the air for “rich nations” and said “Average genetic IQ potential is probably dropping: something in the range of 0.5 -1.0 pts per generation. The driver is mostly low fertility among women with lots of education.”

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