Dienekes’ Outrage

Some of the radicalized youth in my group made a post on this blog on their experiences with the Occupy movement in Oakland and in Berkeley – something I had encouraged them to do as I felt other academics might be interested in hearing about it.  You don’t very often see career scientists dedicate a significant amount of their time for social justice causes.  So I figured that there might be some interest in this, as an inspiration for some – or perhaps as a curiosity for others.  As expected the post has been read a lot.  In fact, Dienekes featured a post on his own anthropology blog commenting on my group’s original blog post.

The original post showed pictures of students and postdocs in my group holding a sign arguing that capitalism reduces fitness.  The post then proceeded to argue in favor of this point using the fact that the life expectancy of an African American in West Oakland is 15 years shorter than that of a person growing up in East Oakland.  Dienekes was shocked by this travesty and decided to make a blog post about it.   To my surprise his outrage was not about the social conditions in West Oakland but rather about the loose use of fitness employed in the blog.  He took the statement by my students and postdocs literally  and pointed out that if you include all the different components of fitness, and not just viability, there is in fact no good scientific evidence that the absolute fitness of individuals growing up in capitalist societies is reduced.  You might now rightly wonder about a number of scientific issues relating to this debate.  For example, what is the standard we compare to here?  A feudal society?  Or Vietnam or Cuba perhaps? I am not sure.  But the real question to me is of a more psychological nature: how many years do you have to be locked up in a university to believe that using the word fitness, without including all of its components, is more outrageous than the social conditions in West Oakland?

Most of the students and postdocs in my group are from Europe, and many have not been here for long.  They have perhaps not quite gotten use to American political discourse and may not express themselves in a way that most Americans find convincing.  But at least they haven’t quite lost their sense of empathy and care for other people.  I figure that if I keep them here, in an American academic environment, for a couple of years more they will get cured of that problem and will be able to concentrate fully on their research careers without getting distracted by the economic and social problems they encounter in the neighborhoods around campus on their commute from and to work.  If I push them hard, they may even eventually end up getting real jobs and move up in the East Oakland hills. They will then never have to worry about the problems in West Oakland again, and can spend all their time making sure they include all components of fitness when making blog posts.



  1. ..snide aren’t you ? When you’ve “cured” your “Europeans” perhaps you can find time to discuss the “fitness” of the 53 liquor stores in West Oakland..

  2. i think the issue is that dienekes might think your status as evolutionary biologists might lend credence to your views about “fitness” with the general public. though i’m not sure this is a issue, as the readers of this space are probably other evolutionary biologists anyhow.

    1. Razib – perhaps you are right. Not to delve further into Dienekes psychology – but I think an alternative explanation might be that he fundamentally disagrees with the message of the original post and does not think that the social divide in Oakland can be interpreted as an indictment of the economic order in the United States. He then grasps on to the word ‘fitness’ because it has to do with science, and uses it as a vehicle for ridiculing their message. His last response seems to indicate that he thinks my students and postdocs should all move to North Korea if they really don’t like capitalism.

      Perhaps all the politics does not belong on a science blog – but I felt it was a bit newsworthy that so many from our group went to the Occupy demonstrations in Berkeley and Oakland. I am just sad that their message seems to have drowned in a discussion of definitions of fitness. I guess our lesson is that you have to take care would you put on the web – you risk that other people might read it.

      1. I guess our lesson is that you have to take care would you put on the web – you risk that other people might read it.

        LOL. Tell me about it 🙂 I probably do personally disagree with your lab members’ general political position on this (though it isn’t as if any of you proposed a detailed manifesto, so what exactly are we disagreeing about on the details?). But the reality is that scientists are people too, and I’m not very surprised that nonscientific reality would bleed over sometimes.

        As for Dienekes’ motives, yes I suspect he thought the original post was unsubtle as to the connection between West Oakland and capitalism. I frankly believe that is as well. But, Dienekes also has some strong opinions about science, and how it should mix with politics, or how science should proceed (e.g., recall his vehemence in regards to “closed science”). I think that, and not any putative political disagreement, really drove his vociferous language. If you were an obscure political blogger he wouldn’t care or comment. Rather, it’s the intersection between your lab’s scientific eminence and the politics which set him off, with scientific eminence being a necessary condition. In other words, having read the man for 8 years I doubt that the ultimate motive was due to a nonscientific political disagreement.

        1. In other words, I’m not surprised at Dienekes’ pedantic correction in the original post of the use of the word “fitness.” That’s just how he rolls.

      2. >> His last response seems to indicate that he thinks my students and postdocs should all move to North Korea if they really don’t like capitalism.

        My comments cannot be misconstrued as suggesting that I make any suggestion of the sort you are suggesting (“move to North Korea”)

        It indicates that those who want to know what is different between West and East Oakland, can start by looking at what is different between West and East Oakland, and not by looking at what is common between them, namely capitalism.

        North and South Korea are two countries not having/having capitalism. The same was true for East and West Germany, which also had the same order in life expectancy. And, even in today’s largely capitalist global, indices of economic freedom are usually correlated with higher life expectancy.

        And, this is not a left-right issue at all. I am equally appalled by religious right-wingers who claim that “evolutionary theory leads to atheism”, or with non-religious right-wingers who claim that “evolutionary theory leads to the idea that might is right”.

        Evolutionary theory may, indeed, have political implications, but poor arguments about a 15-year difference in life expectancy in two capitalist regions being evidence of capitalism reducing fitness is not the way to discover such implications.

    2. Razib, it is a public issue, these blogs are widely read. What annoys me is the cheap (often left-wing) politicization of serious health care issues that have genetic bases.
      Here in South Africa the Coloured minority has long been characterized by the Bantu peoples as drunkards, The prevalence of FAS here clearly relates to the Alcohol Dependence SNPs inherited from the aboriginal SAN – http://geneworld.stanford.edu/world/#
      and not as commonly assumed a consequence of “Apartheid” vineyards – noted here http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5228a2.htm

      capitalism reduces fitness? c’mon

      I’m pretty sure West Oakland’s bottle stores were not factored in “The Masters of the Universe”‘s credit default swaps. To draw such a tenuous
      link is academically irresponsible IMO.

      1. Hmm, interesting. So problems like alcoholism and FAS has nothing to due with social problems in South Africa and the after-effects of Apartheid? It is all simply due to some people with faulty genes. I wonder how a good South African would solve that problem?

        1. to be fair to the poster, the coloured community has some privileges in relation to the bantu populations under apartheid, and on most social metrics are between blacks and whites. so if there is a noticeable problem with alcoholism it might not be attributable to apartheid, since black africans were subjected to greater indignities than the coloureds (e.g., i don’t believe coloureds had to carry passes outside bantustans). that being said, it has to be mentioned that the *cape* coloureds do reside in the region of south africa’s best wine country, and most black africans do not. south african wine is getting *hot*

        2. .. run with this..it’s a centuries old “Demand side” problem not a “Supply side” one here, where all social interventions have failed It would suggest to a geneticist that genome sampling of the population of De Aar – a semi-desert town with the world’s highest prevalence of FAS may yield insights into the origin of the disease.

      2. , these blogs are widely read.

        i think this blog is on the radar of people very interested in the research going on in this lab. most of the people who read this weblog

        1) agree with the politics of the posters to be honest

        2) those which don’t, like myself, are used to be in the minority on these issues in the scientific community in any case.

        i don’t see what the big deal is, seeing as how this is primarily a science blog. most scientists have a left-liberal orientation, and if that bothers you so much i wish you best of luck pursuing an interest in science 🙂

        i’ll be moved to irritation when this blog turns into something like pharyngula, where science is a garnish. but if that ever happens, the whole readership would be different anyhow.

        in sum, people can run their space however they want. wasting time quibbling in this regards is a waste of your time and their time.

  3. “…But at least they haven’t quite lost their sense of empathy and care for other people. …”

    Yes, I saw this happen a lot with foreign students from every part of the world, during my days at USC. When they arrived, they were deeply grieved by the plight of the poor blacks in the neighborhoods near the university, and outraged at the racist/capitalist American society that would beat these people down, or even just malignantly neglect them. (One wonders why these students, the majority of whom were non-white, would choose to pursue advanced degrees in such a racist country — but let it go.)

    However, after a few months, or perhaps a year or so, they indeed “lost their empathy and care” — due to their actual observations of low-class behavior. Nearly all of them sounded like Rush Limbaugh after a while… only worse, because they were foreigners and unconstrained by American PCism. Composite quote — “These people have it made — they have American citizenship, they don’t have to apply for visas, English is their first language, they have free schools, and special breaks all along the way — AND THEY TOTALLY SQUANDER IT!!! They wreck the schools, they wreck their neighborhoods.. etc etc.”

    I even heard this sort of thing from foreign blacks — they had no sympathy whatosever for African-Americans, for the most part. Strangely, the only ones who DIDN’T say this, were the Europeans. Europeans mostly bought the PC view of things hook line and sinker — or, if not, were afraid to say so.

    I and my friends saw the same behavioral issues while we were tutoring young Latino kids from the neighborhood. The attraction of the gangster life is so strong, they really aren’t interested in any other career. Breaking into your tutor’s car and stealing his tools, was a point of pride rather than shame, for example. In the Latinos’ case, there was a generational issue steering them towards gangsterism. Latino families are far more likely to be intact, and Latino kids get initiated into the gang, in many cases, by their own fathers and grandfathers who are also in the gang.

    By contrast, in the black community, fathers are almost vanishingly rare, so recruitment into black gangs must take place via a different means, i suppose. However we never got a chance to get an up close view because no black kids wanted to be tutored! They were not, however, illiterate: their gangster graffitti was quite legible and usually spelled right.

    The Vietnamese immigrant kids in the neighborhood, went to the same crappy public schools (trashed by guess who), worked like crazy, and went to college. They seldom needed tutoring, but were glad to accept it if necessary. And they didn’t think highly of their Latino or black classmates’ behavior.

    Different choices, different outcomes.

    The few times I’ve been to West Oakland for business reasons, it seems to be a heavily black and Asian city. Somebody needs to do a study on life expectancy, etc, on Black vs Asian West Oaklanders, controlling for SES, etc. The result might be very interesting. Somehow though, I doubt the Asians have a a 15 year lifespan gap. Asian Health Services in Oakland might be a suitable partner for such a study.

  4. PS… I should add… Not all blacks and Latinos in the hood were like that. Plenty of them were honest people who got jobs at the university campus or the business that served it. Some of them attended our multiracial-multinational church, which had as its mission to combine the campus and neighborhood communities. But yes, there are distressing trends out there, unwise free will choices that a lot people in those communities make, which have negative outcomes. Based on those, a 15 year average lifespan gap isn’t surprising to me at all.

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