Friday, June 19, 2020

Cleansing the scientific literature ... again

J. Philippe Rushton (Wikicommons). Eight years later, one of his studies is being “removed” from the scientific literature.

Seven years ago I wrote about Danish psychologist Helmuth Nyborg and the attempts to "unpublish" a study he had already published. At first thought, the idea seemed strange to me:

I was initially stumped by the ruling that Dr. Nyborg must withdraw his study from the scientific literature. How can one withdraw an already published study? Then the penny dropped. Most journals are now published online, and cash-strapped university libraries have been phasing out their paper subscriptions. (Frost 2013)

I and many others complained to the Danish minister responsible for that decision, and it was reversed.

Now, the same thing is happening again, in the heart of the Free World:

An article claiming that skin pigmentation is related to aggression and sexuality in humans will be retracted, Elsevier announced today. The study, "Do pigmentation and the melanocortin system modulate aggression and sexuality in humans as they do in other animals?" was published online in Personality and Individual Differences, an Elsevier journal, on March 15, 2012. The study's authors, John Rushton and Donald Templer, both deceased, hypothesized that skin color was related to aggression and sexuality in humans. It has been cited just nine times in eight years, according to Clarivate Analytics' Web of Science. (Retraction Watch 2020)

According to Google Scholar it has been cited fifteen times. Anyway, a study’s worthiness isn't decided by a show of hands, either now or in the future. Opinions change, and fringe science may eventually become mainstream. Or vice versa.

That brings me to another point. For eight years that study was legitimate. Now, it no longer is. Thanks to George Floyd.

Actually, his death was only a pretext. The mob feels no differently today than it did before May 25. What has changed is its ability to get what it wants ... with no pushback. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a power grab by people who already have much power over the most important aspect of human culture—the flow of information. If you control a few chokepoints, you can get most people to believe almost anything.

“Power” may not be the right word. The aim is not simply to control institutions but rather to control how we perceive and understand reality. These are people who believe that ideas matter, and they want control over ideas, even in the scientific literature (!).

I don't wish to judge whether Rushton and Templer were "right." Once a study has passed peer review and been published, that judgement belongs solely to the reader. Personally, I feel they were right in some respects and wrong in others. They were right to argue that darker-colored animals tend to be larger and more aggressive, this being true not only between species but also within species:

Ducrest et al. (2008) reviewed data on over 40 wild vertebrate species showing that within each species, darker pigmented individuals averaged higher levels of aggression and sexual activity than lighter pigmented individuals, with a larger body mass, more resistance to stress, and greater physical activity when grooming. The relationship between coloring and behavioral dominance was robust across three species of mammal (African lion, soay sheep, and white-tailed deer), four species of fish (mosquito fish, guppy, green swordtail, and Arctic charr), four species of reptile (asp viper, adder, fence lizard, and spiny lizard), one amphibian species (spadefoot toad) and 36 species of bird.

In captive Hermann's tortoises (Eurotestudo boettgeri), another reptile species, Mafli, Wakamatsu, and Roulin (2011) found darker shell coloration predicted greater aggressiveness and boldness. Darker individuals were more aggressive in male-male confrontations and bolder towards humans, independent of body size and ambient temperature. (Melanin based color traits are a criterion in mate choice.)

Validation of the pigmentation system as causal to the naturalistic observations was demonstrated by experimentally manipulating pharmacological dosages and by studies of cross-fostering (Ducrest et al., 2008). Thus, melanocortin hormone levels predicted the amount of testosterone and other sexual steroids along with concomitant increases (or decreases) in aggression and sexual behavior. Placing darker versus lighter pigmented individuals with adoptive parents of the opposite pigmentation did not modify offspring behavior. (Rushton and Templer 2012)

Yes, melanin does correlate with aggressiveness, especially male aggressiveness. Unlike Rushton and Templer, however, I don't believe the correlation is causal, at least not wholly. It probably began as an accidental association: newborns are generally less pigmented, and this has resulted in a mental association of lightness with weakness and immaturity. Conversely, darkness is associated with strength and maturity. The age difference in pigmentation has been amplified by sexual selection in many species, particularly polygynous species where males have to compete against each other for access to females

We humans make the same mental association, particularly darker-skinned humans. Among them, the contrast between infant and adult pigmentation is striking:

There is a rather widespread concept in Black Africa, according to which human beings, before "coming" into this world, dwell in heaven, where they are white. For, heaven itself is white and all the beings dwelling there are also white. Therefore the whiter a child is at birth, the more splendid it is. In other words, at that particular moment in a person's life, special importance is attached to the whiteness of his colour, which is endowed with exceptional qualities.

According to the same concept, it is also claimed that a newborn baby is not only white but also a soft being during the time between his birth and his acceptance into the society. Furthermore, during this entire period, he is not considered a real person, and this may go so far that parents and society may do away with him at will for reasons that are peculiar to each social group. Having been done away with, these beings are considered to return automatically to the place where they came from, that is, to heaven. (Zahan 1974, pp. 385-387)

This mental association may have become a factor in the struggle by men for mates. In highly polygynous societies, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa, darker-skinned men would be seen as more masculine, and threatening, by other men ... and by women.  Among human populations, darkness of skin correlates significantly with the polygyny rate, even after adjusting for latitudinal variation in skin color (Manning et al. 2004). It looks like selection has favored a darker color in adult males, particularly in a context of intra-male rivalry for mates, and this selection has probably occurred in many species.

I may be wrong. Perhaps Rushton and Templer were wrong. Perhaps nobody knows the truth on this point. That's why we don't unpublish scientific studies. No one has the last word in intellectual debate, and that's how things should be.

Elsevier is aware of the taboo it's treading on:

It is a general principle of scholarly communication that the editor of a learned journal is solely and independently responsible for deciding which articles submitted to the journal shall be published. In making this decision the editor is guided by policies of the journal's editorial board and constrained by such legal requirements in force regarding libel, copyright infringement and plagiarism.  An outcome of this principle is the importance of the scholarly archive as a permanent, historic record of the transactions of scholarship. Articles that have been published shall remain extant, exact and unaltered as far as is possible. However, very occasionally circumstances may arise where an article is published that must later be retracted or even removed. (Elsevier 2020)

Until now, unpublishing wasn’t even “very occasional.” I know of a few cases where a paper was retracted shortly after publication. But eight years after? That just wasn’t done. Now it’s been done. The taboo has been broken, and we're going to see more and more "removals."


Elsevier (2020). Article withdrawal.

Frost, P. (2012). Dark coloration and male aggressiveness: Is there a link? Evo and Proud, March 31

Frost, P. (2013). Cleansing the scientific literature. Evo and Proud, November 23

Manning, J.T., P.E. Bundred, and F.M. Mather. (2004). Second to fourth digit ratio, sexual selection, and skin colour. Evolution and Human Behavior 25(1): 38-50.

Retraction Watch. (2020). Elsevier journal to retract 2012 paper widely derided as racist. June 17

Rushton, J. P., and D.I. Templer. (2012). Do pigmentation and the melanocortin system modulate aggression and sexuality in humans as they do in other animals? Personality and Individual Differences 53(1): 4-8 

Zahan, D. (1974). White, Red and Black: Colour Symbolism in Black Africa. In A. Portmann and R. Ritsema (Eds.) The Realms of Colour, Eranos 41 (1972): 365-395, Leiden: Eranos.


Anonymous said...

yes, we are entering a new dark middle age of political correctness. galileo galilei today would have to retract his assumption of earth as a planet circling around the sun, if this would contradict liberal 'anti-racist' views of all humans being equal :)

Truth Seeker said...

Something extreme is going on and people are capitulating to the far left "Woke" mob en masse. Several points here need to be discussed. One is that white liberals have radicalized as a group, for unknown reasons "In the past five years, white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter." The arsonists and BLM protesters have been white leftists, an underreported fact. Second, the psychosis is enabled by technology i.e. social media. Twitter plays a big role in creating memes and shaping public conversation. What I find incredible is that the media has completely taken up their side. I think that something happened to liberals and they've suddenly radicalized. Maybe the evolutionary costs of being liberal are less than they used to be, so their numbers aren't kept down like before. Will there be a response to all this? I see the madness increasing, with more people than ever in favor of abolishing the police, borders, etc.

Truth Seeker said...

...just to add to the above. The chronology of this is that Trump was supposed to represent a response to the leftist PC culture, which is why he was elected in '16. But paradoxically the radical left skyrocketed with Trump in the White House. Trump hasn't counteracted it, he's only accelerated it (unwittingly).

Peter Frost said...


We're moving from soft totalitarianism to the hard stuff. One reason is a realization that soft totalitarianism has "failed." Another is the echo chamber that many people now live in, and the intellectual radicalization that results. If no one criticizes antiracism, it will inevitably become more and more radical, not only in the actions it provokes but also in its ideas.

Truth seeker,

With the extinction of Christianity, a new religion is taking its place. And it really looks and acts like a religion.

Trump is a weak man. That may sound surprising, given his "tough guy" image, but it's just that, an image. He's weak not only in his actions but also in his thoughts. He is too easily influenced by the people around him. That wasn't so bad when Steve Bannon was around, but now he's surrounded by idiot conservatives.

Anonymous said...

@Truth Seeker

I agree, and one of the biggest frustrations is wokeness getting in the way of HBD.
Both white supremacists and "Woke" people subscribe to the same racist myths but only reinterpret them differently. One thinks white people are superior for having white skin while the other thinks white people are mutants for the same reason.

But can we find out the answers to the above? The question of why Europeans have colored eyes and hair will not be given serious study, nor evidence will be collected, is because any leads point to answers that are not acceptable. (I am aware of Peter's theory, it's an example of what won't be accepted even if it's true.)

Sean said...

"The taboo has been broken, and we're going to see more and more "removals." As Alasdair MacIntyre said, taboos always appear arbitrary when deprived of their original context. According to Leopardi:-

"WHAT was destroying the world was the lack of illusions. Christianity saved it, not because it was the truth but because it was a new source of illusion.”

Credo quia absurdum. Not 'in spite of it being', but because it is. Bannon is an ideologue, which would be fine in a multilateral world of cooperation, but rivalries between states are becoming more fraught. Trump is leading a state and as such he is mainly concerned with making the US strong in relation to other states. He was elected because America realized it faces an enormous country in a blur of dynamic growth, and it's looking increasingly likely that China's growth cannot be stopped without military pressure. So America must go to the Spartans' solution to rising Athens, but a myth everyone subscribes to is helpful for cohesion. In WW2 Japan the practice of Shinto meant Japan punched above its weight. Worshipping ancestors worked and exocrating ancestors will work too. What will probably happen if America continues to try and combat China through negotiating new terms of trade is the US will be economically hollowed out by China with assistance from uber-Global South Korea (supplies the microprocessors for Huawei 5G).

Sudden belocosity from North Korea immediately after COVID-19 caused Western disgust with China shows that Kim is acting as Xi’s sock puppet in order to make China-as-mediator indispensable to the US. Even if Trump had already achieved everything he wanted in relation to the economic dealings with China that would change nothing because it would not stop the growth of Chinese power relative to the US. I think that America--conceived in geopolitical terms as a living thing--is preparing new theory of exceptionalism. Content of the belief is beside the point, being united in diversity (or anything) makes a state stronger, and Black Lives Matter is a domestic re-set in preparation for what is ahead. Towards an imbalance of terror? may prove to be prescient.

John Lilburne said...

The people who are pushing the floyd myth, that he died of white oppression(Floyd died from a concentration of Fentanyl in his blood three times the fatal dose. Fentanyl is a dangerous opioid 50 times more potent than heroin) are not the ones doing the rioting. It is the tribe that dominates the media and the people like Soros that fund BLM and Antifa.
Multiple murders and attacks by Blacks on whites in every country where there are blacks and whites are ignored and go down the memory hole. Only the reports the oligarchs want to promote are given publicity. Its the control of their empire by divide et impera.

Peter Frost said...


"He was elected because America realized it faces an enormous country in a blur of dynamic growth"

That reason might have been in fourth or fifth place. Americans voted for Trump mainly because they were worried about the rapid demographic changes taking place in their country. They were also concerned about the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries. China was one of them, but there were others.


There have been other recent cases of a police officer killing an unarmed person. Four years ago, a man (Daniel Shaver) was killed even though he was begging for his life.

That killing was deliberate, whereas the Floyd killing was arguably accidental (or due to fentanyl). Yet there were no riots, and media coverage was more low-key. It didn't meet the right criteria. I get the impression that the media pounce on incidents with the right victim and the right scenario, while showing much less interest in incidents that are worse but don't meet the right criteria.

Michel Rouzic said...

It's amazing how anthropology has simultaneously entered a dark age and a golden age. A golden age mostly thanks to the leaps forward that advances like gene sequencing enable, and a dark age because we have to be very quiet about what we find. Our understanding of mankind's history and of modern human evolution has become dramatically clearer and better verified in just a few decades while at the same time orthodoxy both academic and in the general population has gone in the opposite direction, progressively rejecting formerly well-accepted concepts despite their vindication by the latest research. People who claim to place science above all else refuse to hear about what science tells them because it goes against their preconceptions of a world in which genes and thousands of generations of separate evolution can't possibly create innate behavioural differences. We've never understood so much about the world and yet simultaneously we've never rejected so much about reality, we're constantly reaching new heights of knowledge and wilful ignorance at the same time. That's not what I thought a dark age would look like.

Peter Frost said...

A dark age happens when there is a systemic collapse. What we may see, in North America, is a degradation in all areas of life: standard of living, mean wages, technological and scientific progress, etc. It will be the opposite of the long postwar boom from the 1940s to the early 1970s.

The free marketplace of ideas was what made progress possible. And now that marketplace is being destroyed by people who cynically use the language of freedom.

TomR said...

I suppose it (the censorship) not about influencing knowledge and beliefs but about MAKING DECISIONS. Information is an input to making a decision, you need information to make a good decision.

Some people or institutions want us to make wrong decisions for us, but that benefit them, so they cut off information necessary to make decisions beneficial to us via censorship and leave available only the one that leads to decisions beneficial to them.

This also includes information necessary to make democratic decisions, so such censorship is fundamentally against democracy. There's no democracy with artificially limited availability of information.