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Neanderthal sex and lesbian albatrosses: the perils of populist science

Michael Brooks on the misinterpretation of eye-catching research.

Early human beings had sex with Neanderthals. Sex! It grabs the attention so easily, that story. So easily that even biologists believed it for a while. Now, though, they are trying to rein themselves in a bit.

This story, which first broke a couple of years ago, was based on an analysis of the Neanderthal genome. It produced some interesting facts. Some Neanderthals had ginger hair. Some were lactose-intolerant. And, most exciting of all, some of their genes live on in modern non-Europeans. The whole costly, time-consuming effort to sequence the genome had paid off. Our ancestors had sex with the Neanderthals. Sex! Sex with our evolutionary cousins! Hardly a newspaper across the world failed to carry the story.

Hardly any of them reported the small print, though. The disclaimer was that, being evolutionary cousins, our two species share a common ancestor, and so they could have common genes for that terribly dull reason. Now a paper published by the US National Academy of Sciences has poured further cold water on the sex-between-species hypothesis. Its analysis of the genetics says there is no evidence that the Neanderthals, who lived in Europe, were seduced by the early human beings who moved out of North Africa. The scandal is off.

Yet there is hope (and let’s face it, we want it to be true). New technology can tell us how recently a gene evolved. It turns out that the shared genes almost certainly emerged after the Neanderthals first came on to the scene. They cannot be from a common ancestor. The research hasn’t been published yet, so a little caution would be becoming, but it seems we can soon get back to being the result of humans and Neanderthals having sex. Sex!

We do like stories about sex. Ideally, they will be about illicit practices or deviations from whatever constitutes the norm. Hence the success of the Fifty Shades series. Hence the success of certain newspapers (“Five Times A Night!”). It gives us a context in which we can gauge our own contribution.

We could wring our hands about our unreconstructed nature but sex is at the centre of human thought, and always has been. Some of the earliest cave art has erotic themes. We didn’t get where we are without genetic programming that makes us value eating, drinking and having sex.

Add to that our inbuilt compulsion to tell stories and draw lessons from them, and you have a heady mix. When science investigates matters of sex, the discoveries don’t belong to science for long. From female fruit bats that perform fellatio on their partners to same-sex couplings in the Laysan albatross, science’s discoveries are powerful. That is because we can bend the scientific facts to our own ends.

Cheap tricks

The Sunday Times once heralded a study of sheep neurobiology as something that “could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans”. New Scientist has occasionally gone for reader entrapment, writing up a paper titled Female-Limited Polymorphism in the Copulatory Organ of a Traumatically Inseminating Insect as “Bat bugs turn transsexual to avoid stabbing penises”. It’s a cheap trick, but it gets a click.

Those two examples are not chosen at random – they come from a paper published in Nature this month. In it, two biologists offer cautionary advice to scientists researching sexual behaviour in the animal kingdom: if you talk to journalists in terms that might remotely be applied to human beings, be sure that that is how they will be applied. There’s no such thing as a lesbian albatross, but when you pit science against sex there can be only one winner. Sex!

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.