More on Lewontin’s fallacy

Lewontin’s Fallacy — which primarily concerns the amount and importance of genetic difference between regional populations — has caused so much mischief that it can’t be debunked enough.

Here is Long (2010) on it:

Earlier in this decade, Rick Kittles and I took an unusually critical look at FST (Long and Kittles 2003). We analyzed a unique data set composed of short tandem repeat (STR) allele frequencies for eight loci genotyped in both humans and chimpanzees (Deka et al. 1995). These data made it possible to see how FST played out when no one could dispute taxonomic and genetic significance. The answer surprised us. FST was pretty close to the canonical 0.15 shown so many times for human populations. In our analysis, FST was 0.12 for humans, but for humans and chimpanzees together, FST rose only to 0.18. Indeed, we found one locus, D13S122, where the size range of human and chimpanzee alleles hardly overlapped, yet FST equaled 0.15 (Figure 1)….

…Richard Lewontin’s dismissal of race may not have led to the wide popularity of FST in population biology, but it did galvanize anthropology. Lewontin confronted race by trying to show that classical racial groupings accounted for too little of the total diversity to be of any value. In retrospect, it is odd that Lewontin felt that 15% of variation among groups is small and even odder that others have concurred. Sewall Wright, the inventor of FST , believed the opposite. To Wright, FST = 0.05 or even less indicates considerable differences, and FST = 0.15 reflects moderately great differences (Wright 1951, 1978). Low values of FST reflect large gene frequency differences in replicate populations (Figure 2). In other words, these seemingly small values of FST permit allele frequencies to drift widely among populations. Unfortunately, Lewontin did not contest the larger issue, which is whether or not races are a good way to portray the pattern of gene frequency differences between populations.

Long goes onto argue that the classically defined races don’t represent subspecies. Whether they do or not, though, depends on the definition employed; and the issue is largely academic. The important point is that Lewontin’s widely adopted interpretation of Fst values that lent to the widespread belief in insignificant genetic differences between populations has been thoroughly debunked. This interpretation now has been shown to be fallacious on a number of accounts.

It may be that “human genetic equality is a contingent fact of history,” as Gould argued, stating:

Human groups do vary strikingly in a few highly visible characters (skin color, hair form) — and this may fool us into thinking that overall differences must be great. But we now know that our usual metaphor of superficiality — skin deep — is literally accurate. (Gould, 1984. Human equality is a contingent fact of history.)

But studies of within-between group variability do not provide evidence for this as Gould and others thought. The traits that to Gould’s mind defined human worth will have to be analyzed one by one to see if in fact human populations are equal, as so understood.

Long, 2010. Update to Long and Kittles’s “Human Genetic Diversity and the Nonexistence of Biological Races”(2003): Fixation on an Index

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9 Responses to More on Lewontin’s fallacy

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    As I wrote in 2000:

    Still, let’s assume that Lewontin’s 15% solution is widely applicable. That’s like going to a casino that has American Indian and African American croupiers, and 85% of the time the roulette spins are random, but 15% of the time the ball always comes up red for Indian croupiers and black for the black croupiers — pretty useful information, huh?

    • Chuck says:


      Thanks for the link. As for Lewontin’s Fallacies, I’ve already discussed the 15% angle with respect to HBD:

      “Imagine some trait for which there is a 1:1 phenotypic/geneotypic relation and for which the within population SDs are 15; if the genes for that trait were randomly dispersed throughout the genetic variance, a 15% between group variance would be equivalent to a >.8 SD difference.

      (15% between populations / 85% between individuals within populations)

      between trait variance = a(b)/w = y
      = 2(sqrt(y)) = z

      a=within group trait variance
      b=between group genetic variance
      w= within group genetic variance
      y= between group trait variance
      z=between group trait difference

      between trait variance = 225(.15)/.85 = 40
      = 2(sqrt(40)) = 12.6 = ~.8 SD

      (for reference, there’s a > 1 SD difference in average cranial size between East Asians and S.S Africans; cite: Beals, et al., 1984. Brain Size, Cranial Morphology, Climate, and Time Machines)”

      Michael Levin did a similar demonstration in “The Race Concept: A defense.” When you think about it, it’s obvious. But if you don’t show people, they’ll choose to not think about it.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    What I don’t understand is why we should be so tied to the resulting differences between races? Most of the things that we might reasonably care about such as intelligence or “tendency to succeed” are absolutely social constructs. Whereas it might just be true that substantive genetic differences cluster around racial distinctions, due to a long and particular history of population isolation, those differences only amount to differences we care about to the extent that we want to place a value on them.

    Unlike racial distinctions, intelligence is variably and subjectively defined; furthermore is itself a product of the values of historically dominant populations. Thus it seems we have to make a two pronged decision: (1) are we to accept only one form of intelligence as the “true” form of intelligence? Is there no space for a diversity of intelligence (mathematical, physical, artistic, creative, linguistic, spatial etc)? (2) if we are to indeed only value one kind of intelligence, are we going to define it based on standardized tests such as the IQ test (which has been consistently revealed to be culturally biased, learnable, and ultimately merely revealing of a person’s ability to take the test, and not of some kind of universal “intelligence” )?

    It seems that the measures that we use to create a hierarchy of racial distinctions are wildly subjective. More productively we can chose to value the nuances and subtleties of both our between and within race characteristics as opposed to limit ourselves to whatever genetic domain we happen to have been born into. If it is to be shown for instance that “Negroids” are better at something than the race I belong to, am I to deny myself the opportunity to succeed in that endeavor? Hell no. Even if that endeavor was not merely a socially constructed thing, such as taking the IQ test or playing a sport or grooving to a rhythm (or whatever other endeavor to which we like to ascribe racial differences), but was something slightly less socially constructed like jumping or running, I personally deserve the opportunity to try and succeed in that endeavor.

    There will never be and has never been complete homogeneity or heterogeneity of our genetic makeup; analogously, the very traits that we place a value on change over time. If we are to say for instance that Negroids are better at a sport and thus Negroids are a better race the obvious rebuttal would be that I just don’t care about the ability to play that sport and in fact no one did before that sport was invented and given mainstream value. Certain kinds of intelligence weren’t even acknowledge at certain points in history and some that used to be given legitimacy are now rendered unimportant. Take for instance social and emotional intelligence, a category of intelligence that we highly value and is now highly built into our evaluations of children in any public school system across the country. We don’t even know yet how that kind of intelligence correlates to racial distinctions. And if it so happens that that particular kind of intelligence correlates to a non-White race, are we to switch allegiances? Of course not. Our allegiance cannot be based on such transient and ephemeral correlations.

    Although I know my argument stands in the face of many of the beliefs and commentary of people on this forum I do hope people will respond in the spirit of critique and intellectual growth here.

    • Chuck says:

      If you want to discuss this issue in detail I will discuss it with you — but such a discussion will be time consuming on both of our parts because we are approaching this issue from very different perspectives and because we are bringing very different levels of background knowledge to the table. To make sense of each others position we will have to bridge many conceptual chasms. But I will engage you — if you are willing to invest the time needed to better understand the topic. Let me know if you are up to this. If so, we can begin an exchange “in the spirit of critique and intellectual growth”.

  6. ho says:

    “(2) if we are to indeed only value one kind of intelligence, are we going to define it based on standardized tests such as the IQ test (which has been consistently revealed to be culturally biased, learnable, and ultimately merely revealing of a person’s ability to take the test, and not of some kind of universal “intelligence” )?”

    How can 1 person be so throughly dumb?

    The IQ test have consistently shown itself to be a great predictor of future success, whether that’s academic, economic or social success (lack of incarceration) It absolutely boggles my mind how you can state old, dusty canards so blatantly.

    Also, if IQ tests are “culturally biased” how come Chinese people, from China, score better on IQ tests (that were made by white people) than whites?

    Face it, you have no idea what you are talking about. The amount of indoctrination you have received leaves creationists and medieval withchunters in the dust.

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