Notes from E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology


Termite Mound aka Termitary

I recently came across a copy of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (the textbook, 1977 edition) at the secondhand shop.

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker gives about the best recommendation I can think of for Wilson’s book:

At Harvard there were leaflets and teach-ins, a protester with a bullhorn calling for Wilson’s dismissal, and invasions of his classroom by slogan-shouting students. When he spoke at other universities, posters called him the “Right-Wing-Prophet of Patriarchy” and urged people to bring noisemakers to his lectures. Wilson was about to speak at a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science when a group of people carrying placards (one with a swastika) rushed onto the stage chanting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” One protester grabbed the microphone and harangued the audience while another doused Wilson with a pitcher of water.

Pretty intense for a guy whose career is mostly about ants.

Since it is easier to remember what you have read if you take notes and then transcribe them, and this thing is 574 pages long, I’ll be transcribing some of my notes here as I go along.

The book gives lots of interesting examples of different concepts. For example, in the section on parasitism, there’s an example of a variety of termite that moves into and eats the nests of other termites, thus making a termite mound-in-a-mound, I suppose. To be fair, some termite mounds are about as big as a house and so this is a totally reasonable thing for termites to do.

Chapter 1: The morality of the Gene

Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide.

That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. …

From now on, let’s use “” instead of blockquotes.

Chapter 2: Elementary Concepts

“Genes, like Leibnitz’s monads, have no windows; the higher properties of life are emergent. To specify an entire cell, we are compelled to provide not only the nucleotide sequences but also the identity and configuration of other kinds of molecules placed in and around the cells. To specify an organism requires still more information about both the properties of the cells and their spacial positions. And once assembled, organisms have no windows. A society can be described only as a set of particular organisms, and even then it is difficult to extrapolate the joint activity of this ensemble from the instant of specification, that is, to predict social behavior. …

“Society: a group of individuals belonging to the same species and organized in a cooperative manner. … Yet aggregation, sexual behavior, and territoriality are important properties of true societies, and they are correctly referred to as social behavior. … Since the bond of the society is simply and solely communication, its boundaries can be defined in terms of the curtailment of communication.”

EvX: I have been thinking for a long time about language as effective barriers of culture. Not that culture can’t cross language barriers (movies get dubbed all the time,) but it’s much harder. And since some languages are easier to learn than others, (eg, Finnish is harder than German if you speak English,) cross-language communication is probably easier between some groups than others. The Finns (and a few other European groups) speak non-Indo-European languages, which might make them more functionally isolated within the European context than, say, their neighbors in Sweden.

Back to Wilson:

“Individual: Any physically distinct organism… The distinction between the individual and the colony can be especially baffling in the sponges. … [Hah.]

“Population: A set of organisms belonging to the same species and occupying a clearly delimited area at the same time. This unit… is defined in terms of genetic continuity. In the case of sexually reproducing organisms, the population is a geographically delimited set of organisms capable of freely interbreeding with one another under natural conditions. …

“In sexually reproducing forms, including the vast majority of social organisms, a species is a population or set of populations within which the individuals are capable of freely interbreeding under natural conditions. By definition the members of the species do not interbreed freely with those of other species, however closely related they may be genetically. … In establishing the limits of a species it is not enough merely to prove that genes of two or more populations can be exchanged under experimental conditions. The population must be demonstrated to interbreed fully in the free state.”

[Example: Lions and Tigers can interbreed, yet even in places where their ranges historically overlapped, no one ever reported finding wild ligers or tigons. While they can interbreed in zoos, their behavior is different enough in the wild that it doesn’t happen.]

EvX: And here’s where people ask about Sapiens and Neanderthals. Yes, they interbred. But it looks like they didn’t interbreed much (while they bred plenty with their own,) and it also looks like there’s been a fair amount of selection against Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, winnowing down the genes passed on to us. For example, there’s pretty much no Neanderthal DNA on the Y chromosome, suggesting that any sons of Neanderthal-Sapiens unions were infertile (or didn’t make it at all.) There’s also no (known) Neanderthal mtDNA, suggesting that the matings that did happen involved Neanderthal men with Sapiens women–or if the opposite pairing happened, those children were brought into Neanderthal tribes. At any rate, the pattern is far from complete interfertility.

Back to Wilson:

“A population that differs significantly from other populations belonging to the same species is referred to as a geographic race or subspecies. Subspecies are separated from other subspecies by distance and geographic barriers that prevent the exchange of individuals, as opposed to the genetically based “intrinsic isolating mechanisms” that hold species apart. Subspecies, insofar as they can be distinguished with any objectivity at all, show every conceivable degree of differentiation from other subspecies. At one extreme are the populations that fall along a cline–a simple gradient in the geographic variation of a given character. In other words, a character that varies in a clinal pattern is one that changes gradually over a substantial portion of the entire range of the species. At the other extreme are subspecies consisting of easily distinguished populations that are differentiated from one another by numerous genetic traits and exchange genes across a narrow zone of intergradation.

The main obstacle in dealing with the population as a unit… is the practical difficulty of deciding the limits of particular populations.”

EvX: I would like to point out that humans made up these words to carve up a part of reality that doesn’t always carve that easily. For example, it may be obvious that a wolf species that ranges over thousands of miles is pretty different at the far east and far western extent of its range, but there may be no exact spot in between where the eastern type ends and the western type begins. By contrast, sometimes in human societies you have groups of genetically and culturally distinct people separated for centuries by little more than a road, a wall, a religion, or a language. There is no a priori reason to think that one of these cases fits the definition and the other does not.

But the language we use to delineate groups of ants or wolves or fungi is not the language we use to delineate humans, not just because we wish to be inaccurate, but also because we generally wish to show each other respect. We do so by avoiding language normally reserved for non-humans and using special terms for humans, eg, my offspring are normally referred to as my “children.”

Back to Wilson.

“What is the relation between the population and the society? Here we arrive unexpectedly at the crux of theoretical sociobiology. The distinction between the two categories is essentially as follows: the population is bounded by a zone of sharply reduced gene flow, while the society is bounded by a zone of sharply reduced communication. Often the two zones are the same…

The Multiplier Effect

Social organization is the class of phenotypes furthest removed from the genes. It is derived jointly from the behavior of the individuals and the demographic properties of the population… A small evolutionary change in the behavior pattern of individuals can be amplified into a major social effect by the expanding upward distribution of the effect into multiple facets of life. …

“Even stronger multiplier effects occur in the social insects. … The structure of nests alone can be used to distinguish species within the higher termites.”

EvX: There follows an interesting description of how termites build their mounds, also known as “termitaries.”

“Multiplier effects can speed social evolution still more when an individual’s behavior is strongly influenced by the particularities of its social experience. This process, called socialization, becomes increasingly becomes increasingly prominent as one moves upward phylogenetically into more intelligent species, and it reaches its maximum influence in the higher primates. Although the evidence is still largely inferential, socialization appears to amplify phenotypic differences among primate species.

S”ocialization can also amplify genetically based variation of individual behavior within troops. The temperament and rank of a higher primate is strongly influenced by its early experiences with its peers and its mother.”

EvX: This is a really interesting idea. We hear constantly that ideas like race and gender are social constructs, but what exactly a social construct is we hear far less often. The implication–at least as the phrases are employed–is that they are not real at all, that they are make believe, that we have chosen some random and arbitrary place to carve up reality and that we could use some other random place just as well, but Wilson provides a much better conception: “social constructs” are really amplified ideas about the world around us. In other words, they’re exaggerated stereotypes.

For example, let’s imagine a world in which the average male is taller than the average female, but there’s a lot of variety in height and so there are many individual men who are shorter than a good chunk of women, and likewise many women who are taller than a decent chunk of men. The idea that “men are taller than women” is of course true on average, but also an exaggeration. Men who are particularly short and women who are particularly tall may dislike the fact that they don’t match this Platonic ideal.

Back to Wilson:

“The Evolutionary Pacemaker and Social Drift

“…when evolution involves both structure and behavior, behavior should change first and then structure. In other words, behavior should be the evolutionary pacemaker. … Social behavior also frequently serves as an evolutionary pacemaker. The entire process of ritualization, during which a behavior is transformed by evolution into a more efficient signaling device, typically involves a behavioral change followed by morphological alterations that enhance the visibility and distinctiveness of the behavior.

“The relative lability of behavior leads inevitably to social drift, the random divergence in the behavior and mode of organization of societies or groups of societies. …

“The amount of variance within a population of societies is the sum of the variations due to genetic drift, tradition drift, and their interaction. … Even if the alteration to social structure of a group is due to a behavioral change in a key individual, we cannot be sure that this member was not predisposed to the act by a distinctive capability or temperament conferred by a particular set of genes …

“…Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1973) have suggested that in human social evolution the equivalent of an important mutation is a new idea. If it is acceptable and advantageous, the idea will spread quickly. If not, it will decline in frequency and he forgotten. Tradition drift in such instances, like purely genetic drift, has stochastic properties amenable to mathematical analysis.”

EvX: Good old memes. How I love them.

Adaptive Demography

“All true societies are differentiated populations. When cooperative behavior evolves it is put to service by one kind of individual on behalf of another, either unilaterally or mutually…

“The proportions of the demographic classes [like old and young people] also affect the fitness of the group and, ultimately, of each individual member… a deviant population allowed to reproduce for one to several generations will go far to restore the age distribution of populations normal for the species.”

EvX: By “deviant population” he means a population that has more or less of a particular class than is ideal, like if an ant colony lost half of its workers in an accident or a plague wiped out most of the children in a society.

Nature_trees_dark_night_forest_moon_1920x1200“Only if its growth is zero when averaged over many generations can the population have a chance of long life. There is one remaining way to be a success. A population headed for extinction can still possess a high degree of fitness if it succeeds in sending out propagules and creates new populations elsewhere.”

EvX: Your destiny is the stars.

And with that, I’m taking off for the evening.


Invasive Memes


Smallpox virus

Do people eventually grow ideologically resistant to dangerous local memes, but remain susceptible to foreign memes, allowing them to spread like invasive species?

And if so, can we find some way to memetically vaccinate ourselves against deadly ideas?


Memetics is the study of how ideas (“memes”) spread and evolve, using evolutionary theory and epidemiology as models. A “viral meme” is one that spreads swiftly through society, “infecting” minds as it goes.

Of course, most memes are fairly innocent (e.g. fashion trends) or even beneficial (“wash your hands before eating to prevent disease transmission”), but some ideas, like communism, kill people.

Ideologies consist of a big set of related ideas rather than a single one, so let’s call them memeplexes.

Almost all ideological memeplexes (and religions) sound great on paper–they have to, because that’s how they spread–but they are much more variable in actual practice.

Any idea that causes its believers to suffer is unlikely to persist–at the very least, because its believers die off.

Over time, in places where people have been exposed to ideological memeplexes, their worst aspects become known and people may learn to avoid them; the memeplexes themselves can evolve to be less harmful.

Over in epidemiology, diseases humans have been exposed to for a long time become less virulent as humans become adapted to them. Chickenpox, for example, is a fairly mild disease that kills few people because the virus has been infecting people for as long as people have been around (the ancestral Varicella-Zoster virus evolved approximately 65 million years ago and has been infecting animals ever since). Rather than kill you, chickenpox prefers to enter your nerves and go dormant for decades, reemerging later as shingles, ready to infect new people.

By contrast, smallpox (Variola major and Variola minor) probably evolved from a rodent-infecting virus about 16,000 to 68,000 years ago. That’s a big range, but either way, it’s much more recent than chickenpox. Smallpox made its first major impact on the historical record around the third century BC, Egypt, and thereafter became a recurring plague in Africa and Eurasia. Note that unlike chickenpox, which is old enough to have spread throughout the world with humanity, smallpox emerged long after major population splits occurred–like part of the Asian clade splitting off and heading into the Americas.

By 1400, Europeans had developed some immunity to smallpox (due to those who didn’t have any immunity dying), but when Columbus landed in the New World, folks here had had never seen the disease before–and thus had no immunity. Diseases like smallpox and measles ripped through native communities, killing approximately 90% of the New World population.

If we extend this metaphor back to ideas–if people have been exposed to an ideology for a long time, they are more likely to have developed immunity to it or the ideology to have adapted to be relatively less harmful than it initially was. For example, the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Catholic counter-reformation triggered a series of European wars that killed 10 million people, but today Catholics and Protestants manage to live in the same countries without killing each other. New religions are much more likely to lead all of their followers in a mass suicide than old, established religions; countries that have just undergone a political revolution are much more likely to kill off large numbers of their citizens than ones that haven’t.

This is not to say that old ideas are perfect and never harmful–chickenpox still kills people and is not a fun disease–but that any bad aspects are likely to become more mild over time as people wise up to bad ideas, (certain caveats applying).

But this process only works for ideas that have been around for a long time. What about new ideas?

You can’t stop new ideas. Technology is always changing. The world is changing, and it requires new ideas to operate. When these new ideas arrive, even terrible ones can spread like wildfire because people have no memetic antibodies to resist them. New memes, in short, are like invasive memetic species.

In the late 1960s, 15 million people still caught smallpox every year. In 1980, it was declared officially eradicated–not one case had been seen since 1977, due to a massive, world-wide vaccination campaign.

Humans can acquire immunity to disease in two main ways. The slow way is everyone who isn’t immune dying; everyone left alive happens to have adaptations that let them not die, which they can pass on to their children. As with chickenpox, over generations, the disease becomes less severe because humans become successively more adapted to it.

The fast way is to catch a disease, produce antibodies that recognize and can fight it off, and thereafter enjoy immunity. This, of course, assumes that you survive the disease.

Vaccination works by teaching body’s immune system to recognize a disease without infecting it with a full-strength germ, using a weakened or harmless version of the germ, instead. Early on, weakened germs from actual smallpox scabs or lesions to inoculate people, a risky method since the germs often weren’t that weak. Later, people discovered that cowpox was similar enough to smallpox that its antibodies could also fight smallpox, but cowpox itself was too adapted to cattle hosts to seriously harm humans. (Today I believe the vaccine uses a different weakened virus, but the principle is the same.)

The good part about memes is that you do not actually have to inject a physical substance into your body in order to learn about them.

Ideologies are very difficult to evaluate in the abstract, because, as mentioned, they are all optimized to sound good on paper. It’s their actual effects we are interested in.

So if we want to learn whether an idea is good or not, it’s probably best not to learn about it by merely reading books written by its advocates. Talk to people in places where the ideas have already been tried and learn from their experiences. If those people tell you this ideology causes mass suffering and they hate it, drop it like a hot potato. If those people are practicing an “impure” version of the ideology, it’s probably an improvement over the original.

For example, “communism” as practiced in China today is quite different from “communism” as practiced there 50 years ago–so much so that the modern system really isn’t communism at all. There was never, to my knowledge, an official changeover from one system to another, just a gradual accretion of improvements. This speaks strongly against communism as an ideology, since no country has managed to be successful by moving toward ideological communist purity, only by moving away from it–though they may still find it useful to retain some of communism’s original ideas.

I think there is a similar dynamic occurring in many Islamic countries. Islam is a relatively old religion that has had time to adapt to local conditions in many different parts of the world. For example, in Morocco, where the climate is more favorable to raising pigs than in other parts of the Islamic world, the taboo against pigs isn’t as strongly observed. The burka is not an Islamic universal, but characteristic of central Asia (the similar niqab is from Yemen). Islamic head coverings vary by culture–such as this kurhars, traditionally worn by unmarried women in Ingushetia, north of the Caucuses, or this cap, popular in Xianjiang. Turkey has laws officially restricting burkas in some areas, and Syria discourages even hijabs. Women in Iran did not go heavily veiled prior to the Iranian Revolution. So the insistence on extensive veiling in many Islamic communities (like the territory conquered by ISIS) is not a continuation of old traditions, but the imposition of a new, idealized, version of Islam.

Purity is counter to practicality.

Of course, this approach is hampered by the fact that what works in one place, time, and community may not work in a different one. Tilling your fields one way works in Europe, and tilling them a different way works in Papua New Guinea. But extrapolating from what works is at least a good start.



How to Minimize “Emotional Labor” and “Mental Load”: A Guide for Frazzled Women

A comic strip in the Guardian recently alerted me to the fact that many women are exhausted from the “Mental Load” of thinking about things and need their husbands to pitch in and help. Go ahead and read it.

Whew. There’s a lot to unpack here:

  1. Yes, you have to talk to men. DO NOT EXPECT OTHER PEOPLE TO KNOW WHAT YOU ARE THINKING. Look, if I can get my husband to help me when I need it, you certainly can too. That or you married the wrong man.
  2. Get a dayplanner and write things like “grocery lists” and doctors appointments in it. There’s probably one built into your phone.

There, I solved your problems.

That said, female anxiety (at least in our modern world) appears to be a real thing:

(though American Indians are the real untold story in this graph.)

According to the America’s State of Mind Report (PDF):

Medco data shows that antidepressants are the most commonly used mental health medications and that women have the highest utilization rates.  In 2010, 21 percent of women ages 20 and older were using an antidepressant.  … Men’s use of antidepressants is almost half that of women, but has also been on the rise with a 28 percent increase over the past decade. …

Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults. … Although anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only about one‐third of sufferers receive treatment. …

Medco data shows that women have the highest utilization rate of anti‐anxiety medications; in
fact, 11 percent of middle‐aged women (ages 45‐64) were on an anti‐anxiety drug treatment in
2010, nearly twice the rate of their male counterparts (5.7 percent).

And based on the age group data, women in their prime working years (but waning childbearing years) have even higher rates of mental illness. (Adult women even take ADHD medicine at slightly higher rates than adult men.)

What causes this? Surely 20% of us–one in 5–can’t actually be mentally ill, can we? Is it biology or culture? Or perhaps a mismatch between biology and culture?

Or perhaps we should just scale back a little, and when we have friends over for dinner, just order a pizza instead of trying to cook two separate meals?

But if you think that berating your husband for merely taking a bottle out of the dishwasher when you asked him to get a bottle out of the dishwasher (instead of realizing this was code for “empty the entire dishwasher”) will make you happier, think again. “Couples who share the workload are more likely to divorce, study finds“:

Divorce rates are far higher among “modern” couples who share the housework than in those where the woman does the lion’s share of the chores, a Norwegian study has found. …

Norway has a long tradition of gender equality and childrearing is shared equally between mothers and fathers in 70 per cent of cases.But when it comes to housework, women in Norway still account for most of it in seven out of 10 couples. The study emphasised women who did most of the chores did so of their own volition and were found to be as “happy” those in “modern” couples. …

The researchers expected to find that where men shouldered more of the burden, women’s happiness levels were higher. In fact they found that it was the men who were happier while their wives and girlfriends appeared to be largely unmoved.

Those men who did more housework generally reported less work-life conflict and were scored slightly higher for wellbeing overall.

Theory: well-adjusted people who love each other are happy to do what it takes to keep the household running and don’t waste time passive-aggressively trying to convince their spouse that he’s a bad person for not reading her mind.

Now let’s talk about biology. The author claims,

Of course, there’s nothing genetic or innate about this behavior. We’re not born with an all-consuming passion for clearing tables, just like boys aren’t born with an utter disinterest for thing lying around.

Of course, the author doesn’t cite any papers from the fields of genetics or behavior psychology to back up her claims–just like she feels entitled to claim that other people should read her mind and absurdly thinks that a good project manager at work doesn’t bother to tell their team what needs to be done, she doesn’t feel any compulsion to cite any proof of her claims. Science says s. We know because some cartoonist on the internet claimed it did.

Over in reality-land, when we make scientific claims about things like genetics, we cite our sources. And women absolutely have an instinct for cleaning things: the Nesting Instinct. No, it isn’t present when we’re born. It kicks in when we’re pregnant–often shortly before going into labor. Here’s an actual scientific paper on the Nesting Instinct published in the scientific journal Evolution and Human Behavior:

In altricial mammals, “nesting” refers to a suite of primarily maternal behaviours including nest-site selection, nest building and nest defense, and the many ways that nonhuman animals prepare themselves for parturition are well studied. In contrast, little research has considered pre-parturient preparation behaviours in women from a functional perspective.

According to the university’s press release about the study:

The overwhelming urge that drives many pregnant women to clean, organize and get life in order—otherwise known  as nesting—is not irrational, but an adaptive behaviour stemming from humans’ evolutionary past.

Researchers from McMaster University suggest that these behaviours—characterized by unusual bursts of energy and a compulsion to organize the household—are a result of a mechanism to protect and prepare for the unborn baby.

Women also become more selective about the company they keep, preferring to spend time only with people they trust, say researchers.

In short, having control over the environment is a key feature of preparing for childbirth, including decisions about where the birth will take place and who will be welcome.

“Nesting is not a frivolous activity,” says Marla Anderson, lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour.  “We have found that it peaks in the third trimester as the birth of the baby draws near and is an important task that probably serves the same purpose in women as it does in other animals.”

Even Wikipeidia cites a number of sources on the subject:

Nesting behaviour refers to an instinct or urge in pregnant animals caused by the increase of estradiol (E2) [1] to prepare a home for the upcoming newborn(s). It is found in a variety of animals such as birds, fish, squirrels, mice and pigs as well as humans.[2][3]

Nesting is pretty much impossible to miss if you’ve ever been pregnant or around pregnant women.

Of course, this doesn’t prove the instinct persists (though in my personal case it definitely did.)

By the way, estradiol is a fancy name for estrogen, which is found in much higher levels in women than men. (Just to be rigorous, here’s data on estrogen levels in normal men and women.)

So if high estradiol levels make a variety of mammals–including humans–want to clean things, and women between puberty and menopause consistently have higher levels of estrogen than men, then it seems fairly likely that women actually do have, on average, a higher innate, biological, instinctual, even genetic urge to clean and organize their homes than men do.

But returning to the comic, the author claims:

But we’re born into a society in which very early on, we’re given dolls and miniature vacuum cleaners, and in which it seems shameful for boys to like those same toys.

What bollocks. I used to work at a toystore. Yes, we stocked toy vacuum cleaners and the like in a “Little Helpers” set. We never sold a single one, and I worked there over Christmas. (Great times.)

I am always on the lookout for toys my kids would enjoy and receive constant feedback on whether they like my choices. (“A book? Why did Santa bring me a book? Books are boring!”)

I don’t spend money getting more of stuff my kids aren’t interested in. A child who doesn’t like dolls isn’t going to get a bunch of dolls and be ordered to sit and play with them and nothing else. A child who doesn’t like trucks isn’t going to get a bunch of trucks.

Assuming that other parents are neither stupid (unable to tell which toys their children like) nor evil (forcing their children to play with specific toys even though they know they don’t like them,) I conclude that children’s toys reflect the children’s actual preferences, not the parents’ (for goodness’s sakes, it if it were up to me, I’d socialize my children to be super-geniuses who spend all of their time reading textbooks and whose toys are all science and math manipulatives, not toy dump trucks!)

Even young rhesus monkeys–who cannot talk and obviously have not been socialized into human gender norms–have the same gendered toy preferences as humans:

We compared the interactions of 34 rhesus monkeys, living within a 135 monkey troop, with human wheeled toys and plush toys. Male monkeys, like boys, showed consistent and strong preferences for wheeled toys, while female monkeys, like girls, showed greater variability in preferences. Thus, the magnitude of preference for wheeled over plush toys differed significantly between males and females. The similarities to human findings demonstrate that such preferences can develop without explicit gendered socialization.

Young female chimps also make their own dolls:

Now new research suggests that such gender-driven desires are also seen in young female chimpanzees in the wild—a behavior that possibly evolved to make the animals better mothers, experts say.

Young females of the Kanyawara chimpanzee community in Kibale National Park, Uganda, use sticks as rudimentary dolls and care for them like the group’s mother chimps tend to their real offspring. The behavior, which was very rarely observed in males, has been witnessed more than a hundred times over 14 years of study.

In Jane Goodall’s revolutionary research on the Gombe Chimps, she noted the behavior of young females who often played with or held their infant siblings, in contrast to young males who generally preferred not to.

And just as estradiol levels have an effect on how much cleaning women want to do, so androgen levels have an effect on which toys children prefer to play with:

Gonadal hormones, particularly androgens, direct certain aspects of brain development and exert permanent influences on sex-typical behavior in nonhuman mammals. Androgens also influence human behavioral development, with the most convincing evidence coming from studies of sex-typical play. Girls exposed to unusually high levels of androgens prenatally, because they have the genetic disorder, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), show increased preferences for toys and activities usually preferred by boys, and for male playmates, and decreased preferences for toys and activities usually preferred by girls. Normal variability in androgen prenatally also has been related to subsequent sex-typed play behavior in girls, and nonhuman primates have been observed to show sex-typed preferences for human toys. These findings suggest that androgen during early development influences childhood play behavior in humans at least in part by altering brain development.

But the author of the comic strip would like us to believe that gender roles are a result of watching the wrong stuff on TV:

And in which culture and media essentially portray women as mothers and wives, while men are heroes who go on fascinating adventures away from home.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up in the Bad Old Days of the 80s when She-Ra, Princess of Power, was kicking butt on TV; little girls were being magically transported to Ponyland to fight evil monsters: and Rainbow Bright defeated the evil King of Shadows and saved the Color Kids.


If you’re older than me, perhaps you grew up watching Wonder Woman (first invented in 1941) and Leia Skywalker; and if you’re younger, Dora the Explorer and Katniss Everdeen.

If you can’t find adventurous female characters in movies or TV, YOU AREN’T LOOKING.

I mentioned this recently: it’s like the Left has no idea what the past–anytime before last Tuesday–actually contained. Somehow the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s have entirely disappeared, and they live in a timewarp where we are connected directly to the media and gender norms of over half a century ago.

Enough. The Guardian comic is a load of entitled whining from someone who actually thinks that other people are morally obligated to try to read her mind. She has the maturity of a bratty teenager (“You should have known I hate this band!”) and needs to learn how to actually communicate with others instead of complaining that it’s everyone else who has a problem.


Testosterone metabolization, autism, male brain, and female identity

I began this post intending to write about testosterone metabolization in autism and possible connections with transgender identity, but realized halfway through that I didn’t actually know whether the autist-trans connection was primarily male-to-female or female-to-male. I had assumed that the relevant population is primarily MtF because both autists and trans people are primarily male, but both groups do have female populations that are large enough to contribute significantly. Here’s a sample of the data I’ve found so far:

A study conducted by a team of British scientists in 2012 found that of a pool of individuals not diagnosed on the autism spectrum, female-to-male (FTM) transgender people have higher rates of autistic features than do male-to-female (MTF) transgender people or cisgender males and females. Another study, which looked at children and adolescents admitted to a gender identity clinic in the Netherlands, found that almost 8 percent of subjects were also diagnosed with ASD.

Note that both of these studies are looking at trans people and assessing whether or not they have autism symptoms, not looking at autists and asking if they have trans symptoms. Given the characterization of autism as “extreme male brain” and that autism is diagnosed in males at about 4x the rate of females, the fact that there is some overlap between “women who think they think like men” and “traits associated with male thought patterns” is not surprising.

If the reported connection between autism and trans identity is just “autistic women feel like men,” that’s pretty non-mysterious and I just wasted an afternoon.

Though the data I have found so far still does not look directly at autists and ask how many of them have trans symptoms, the wikipedia page devoted to transgender and transsexual computer programmers lists only MtFs and no FtMs. Whether this is a pattern throughout the wider autism community, it definitely seems to be a thing among programmers. (Relevant discussion.)

So, returning to the original post:

Autism contains an amusing contradiction: on the one hand, autism is sometimes characterized as “extreme male brain,” and on the other hand, (some) autists (may be) more likely than neurotypicals to self-identify as transwomen–that is, biological men who see themselves as women. This seems contradictory: if autists are more masculine, mentally, than the average male, why don’t they identify as football players, army rangers, or something else equally masculine? For that matter, why isn’t a group with “extreme male brains” regarded as more, well, masculine?

(And if autists have extreme male brains, does that mean football players don’t? Do football players have more feminine brains than autists? Do colorless green ideas sleep furiously? DO WORDS MEAN?)


In favor of the “extreme male brain” hypothesis, we have evidence that testosterone is important for certain brain functions, like spacial recognition, we have articles like this one: Testosterone and the brain:

Gender differences in spatial recognition, and age-related declines in cognition and mood, point towards testosterone as an important modulator of cerebral functions. Testosterone appears to activate a distributed cortical network, the ventral processing stream, during spatial cognition tasks, and addition of testosterone improves spatial cognition in younger and older hypogonadal men. In addition, reduced testosterone is associated with depressive disorders.

(Note that women also suffer depression at higher rates than men.)

So people with more testosterone are better at spacial cognition and other tasks that “autistic” brains typically excel at, and brains with less testosterone tend to be moody and depressed.

But hormones are tricky things. Where do they come from? Where do they go? How do we use them?

According to Wikipedia:

During the second trimester [of pregnancy], androgen level is associated with gender formation.[13] This period affects the femininization or masculinization of the fetus and can be a better predictor of feminine or masculine behaviours such as sex typed behaviour than an adult’s own levels. A mother’s testosterone level during pregnancy is correlated with her daughter’s sex-typical behavior as an adult, and the correlation is even stronger than with the daughter’s own adult testosterone level.[14]

… Early infancy androgen effects are the least understood. In the first weeks of life for male infants, testosterone levels rise. The levels remain in a pubertal range for a few months, but usually reach the barely detectable levels of childhood by 4–6 months of age.[15][16] The function of this rise in humans is unknown. It has been theorized that brain masculinization is occurring since no significant changes have been identified in other parts of the body.[17] The male brain is masculinized by the aromatization of testosterone into estrogen, which crosses the blood–brain barrier and enters the male brain, whereas female fetuses have α-fetoprotein, which binds the estrogen so that female brains are not affected.[18]

(Bold mine.)

Let’s re-read that: the male brain is masculinized by the aromatization of testosterone into estrogen.

If that’s not a weird sentence, I don’t know what is.

Let’s hop over to the scientific literature, eg, Estrogen Actions in the Brain and the Basis for Differential Action in Men and Women: A Case for Sex-Specific Medicines:

Burgeoning evidence now documents profound effects of estrogens on learning, memory, and mood as well as neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative processes. Most data derive from studies in females, but there is mounting recognition that estrogens play important roles in the male brain, where they can be generated from circulating testosterone by local aromatase enzymes or synthesized de novo by neurons and glia. Estrogen-based therapy therefore holds considerable promise for brain disorders that affect both men and women. However, as investigations are beginning to consider the role of estrogens in the male brain more carefully, it emerges that they have different, even opposite, effects as well as similar effects in male and female brains. This review focuses on these differences, including sex dimorphisms in the ability of estradiol to influence synaptic plasticity, neurotransmission, neurodegeneration, and cognition, which, we argue, are due in a large part to sex differences in the organization of the underlying circuitry.

Hypothesis: the way testosterone works in the brain (where we both do math and “feel” male or female) and the way it works in the muscles might be very different.

Do autists actually differ from other people in testosterone (or other hormone) levels?

In Elevated rates of testosterone-related disorders in women with autism spectrum conditions, researchers surveyed autistic women and mothers of autistic children about various testosterone-related medical conditions:

Compared to controls, significantly more women with ASC [Autism Spectrum Conditions] reported (a) hirsutism, (b) bisexuality or asexuality, (c) irregular menstrual cycle, (d) dysmenorrhea, (e) polycystic ovary syndrome, (f) severe acne, (g) epilepsy, (h) tomboyism, and (i) family history of ovarian, uterine, and prostate cancers, tumors, or growths. Compared to controls, significantly more mothers of ASC children reported (a) severe acne, (b) breast and uterine cancers, tumors, or growths, and (c) family history of ovarian and uterine cancers, tumors, or growths.

Androgenic Activity in Autism has an unfortunately low number of subjects (N=9) but their results are nonetheless intriguing:

Three of the children had exhibited explosive aggression against others (anger, broken objects, violence toward others). Three engaged in self-mutilations, and three demonstrated no aggression and were in a severe state of autistic withdrawal. The appearance of aggression against others was associated with having fewer of the main symptoms of autism (autistic withdrawal, stereotypies, language dysfunctions).

Three of their subjects (they don’t say which, but presumably from the first group,) had abnormally high testosterone levels (including one of the girls in the study.) The other six subjects had normal androgen levels.

This is the first report of an association between abnormally high androgenic activity and aggression in subjects with autism. Although a previously reported study did not find group mean elevations in plasma testosterone in prepubertal autistic subjects (4), it appears here that in certain autistic individuals, especially those in puberty, hyperandrogeny may play a role in aggressive behaviors. Also, there appear to be distinct clinical forms of autism that are based on aggressive behaviors and are not classified in DSM-IV. Our preliminary findings suggest that abnormally high plasma testosterone concentration is associated with aggression against others and having fewer of the main autistic symptoms.

So, some autists have do have abnormally high testosterone levels, but those same autists are less autistic, overall, than other autists. More autistic behavior, aggression aside, is associated with normal hormone levels. Probably.

But of course that’s not fetal or early infancy testosterone levels. Unfortunately, it’s rather difficult to study fetal testosterone levels in autists, as few autists were diagnosed as fetuses. However, Foetal testosterone and autistic traits in 18 to 24-month-old children comes close:

Levels of FT [Fetal Testosterone] were analysed in amniotic fluid and compared with autistic traits, measured using the Quantitative Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (Q-CHAT) in 129 typically developing toddlers aged between 18 and 24 months (mean ± SD 19.25 ± 1.52 months). …

Sex differences were observed in Q-CHAT scores, with boys scoring significantly higher (indicating more autistic traits) than girls. In addition, we confirmed a significant positive relationship between FT levels and autistic traits.

I feel like this is veering into “we found that boys score higher on a test of male traits than girls did” territory, though.

In Polymorphisms in Genes Involved in Testosterone Metabolism in Slovak Autistic Boys, researchers found:

The present study evaluates androgen and estrogen levels in saliva as well as polymorphisms in genes for androgen receptor (AR), 5-alpha reductase (SRD5A2), and estrogen receptor alpha (ESR1) in the Slovak population of prepubertal (under 10 years) and pubertal (over 10 years) children with autism spectrum disorders. The examined prepubertal patients with autism, pubertal patients with autism, and prepubertal patients with Asperger syndrome had significantly increased levels of salivary testosterone (P < 0.05, P < 0.01, and P < 0.05, respectively) in comparison with control subjects. We found a lower number of (CAG)n repeats in the AR gene in boys with Asperger syndrome (P < 0.001). Autistic boys had an increased frequency of the T allele in the SRD5A2 gene in comparison with the control group. The frequencies of T and C alleles in ESR1 gene were comparable in all assessed groups.

What’s the significance of CAG repeats in the AR gene? Apparently they vary inversely with sensitivity to androgens:

Individuals with a lower number of CAG repeats exhibit higher AR gene expression levels and generate more functional AR receptors increasing their sensitivity to testosterone…

Fewer repeats, more sensitivity to androgens. The SRD5A2 gene is also involved in testosterone metabolization, though I’m not sure exactly what the T allele does relative to the other variants.

But just because there’s a lot of something in the blood (or saliva) doesn’t mean the body is using it. Diabetics can have high blood sugar because their bodies lack the necessary insulin to move the sugar from the blood, into their cells. Fewer androgen receptors could mean the body is metabolizing testosterone less effectively, which in turn leaves more of it floating in the blood… Biology is complicated.

What about estrogen and the autistic brain? That gets really complicated. According to Sex Hormones in Autism: Androgens and Estrogens Differentially and Reciprocally Regulate RORA, a Novel Candidate Gene for Autism:

Here, we show that male and female hormones differentially regulate the expression of a novel autism candidate gene, retinoic acid-related orphan receptor-alpha (RORA) in a neuronal cell line, SH-SY5Y. In addition, we demonstrate that RORA transcriptionally regulates aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen. We further show that aromatase protein is significantly reduced in the frontal cortex of autistic subjects relative to sex- and age-matched controls, and is strongly correlated with RORA protein levels in the brain.

If autists are bad at converting testosterone to estrogen, this could leave extra testosterone floating around in their blood… but doens’t explain their supposed “extreme male brain.” Here’s another study on the same subject, since it’s confusing:

Comparing the brains of 13 children with and 13 children without autism spectrum disorder, the researchers found a 35 percent decrease in estrogen receptor beta expression as well as a 38 percent reduction in the amount of aromatase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen.

Levels of estrogen receptor beta proteins, the active molecules that result from gene expression and enable functions like brain protection, were similarly low. There was no discernable change in expression levels of estrogen receptor alpha, which mediates sexual behavior.

I don’t know if anyone has tried injecting RORA-deficient mice with estrogen, but here is a study about the effects of injecting reelin-deficient mice with estrogen:

The animals in the new studies, called ‘reeler’ mice, have one defective copy of the reelin gene and make about half the amount of reelin compared with controls. …

Reeler mice with one faulty copy serve as a model of one of the most well-established neuro-anatomical abnormalities in autism. Since the mid-1980s, scientists have known that people with autism have fewer Purkinje cells in the cerebellum than normal. These cells integrate information from throughout the cerebellum and relay it to other parts of the brain, particularly the cerebral cortex.

But there’s a twist: both male and female reeler mice have less reelin than control mice, but only the males lose Purkinje cells. …

In one of the studies, the researchers found that five days after birth, reeler mice have higher levels of testosterone in the cerebellum compared with genetically normal males3.

Keller’s team then injected estradiol — a form of the female sex hormone estrogen — into the brains of 5-day-old mice. In the male reeler mice, this treatment increases reelin levels in the cerebellum and partially blocks Purkinje cell loss. Giving more estrogen to female reeler mice has no effect — but females injected with tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker, lose Purkinje cells. …

In another study, the researchers investigated the effects of reelin deficiency and estrogen treatment on cognitive flexibility — the ability to switch strategies to solve a problem4. …

“And we saw indeed that the reeler mice are slower to switch. They tend to persevere in the old strategy,” Keller says. However, male reeler mice treated with estrogen at 5 days old show improved cognitive flexibility as adults, suggesting that the estrogen has a long-term effect.

This still doesn’t explain why autists would self-identify as transgender women (mtf) at higher rates than average, but it does suggest that any who do start hormone therapy might receive benefits completely independent of gender identity.

Let’s stop and step back a moment.

Autism is, unfortunately, badly defined. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one autist, you’ve met one autist. There are probably a variety of different, complicated things going on in the brains of different autists simply because a variety of different, complicated conditions are all being lumped together under a single label. Any mental disability that can include both non-verbal people who can barely dress and feed themselves and require lifetime care and billionaires like Bill Gates is a very badly defined condition.

(Unfortunately, people diagnose autism with questionnaires that include questions like “Is the child pedantic?” which could be equally true of both an autistic child and a child who is merely very smart and has learned more about a particular subject than their peers and so is responding in more detail than the adult is used to.)

The average autistic person is not a programmer. Autism is a disability, and the average diagnosed autist is pretty darn disabled. Among the people who have jobs and friends but nonetheless share some symptoms with formally diagnosed autists, though, programmer and the like appear to be pretty popular professions.

Back in my day, we just called these folks nerds.

Here’s a theory from a completely different direction: People feel the differences between themselves and a group they are supposed to fit into and associate with a lot more strongly than the differences between themselves and a distant group. Growing up, you probably got into more conflicts with your siblings and parents than with random strangers, even though–or perhaps because–your family is nearly identical to you genetically, culturally, and environmentally. “I am nothing like my brother!” a man declares, while simultaneously affirming that there is a great deal in common between himself and members of a race and culture from the other side of the planet. Your  coworker, someone specifically selected for the fact that they have similar mental and technical aptitudes and training as yourself, has a distinct list of traits that drive you nuts, from the way he staples papers to the way he pronounces his Ts, while the women of an obscure Afghan tribe of goat herders simply don’t enter your consciousness.

Nerds, somewhat by definition, don’t fit in. You don’t worry much about fitting into a group you’re not part of in the fist place–you probably don’t worry much about whether or not you fit in with Melanesian fishermen–but most people work hard at fitting in with their own group.

So if you’re male, but you don’t fit in with other males (say, because you’re a nerd,) and you’re down at the bottom of the highschool totem pole and feel like all of the women you’d like to date are judging you negatively next to the football players, then you might feel, rather strongly, the differences between you and other males. Other males are aggressive, they call you a faggot, they push you out of their spaces and threaten you with violence, and there’s very little you can do to respond besides retreat into your “nerd games.”

By contrast, women are polite to you, not aggressive, and don’t aggressively push you out of their spaces. Your differences with them are much less problematic, so you feel like you “fit in” with them.

(There is probably a similar dynamic at play with American men who are obsessed with anime. It’s not so much that they are truly into Japanese culture–which is mostly about quietly working hard–as they don’t fit in very well with their own culture.) (Note: not intended as a knock on anime, which certainly has some good works.)

And here’s another theory: autists have some interesting difficulties with constructing categories and making inferences from data. They also have trouble going along with the crowd, and may have fewer “mirror neurons” than normal people. So maybe autists just process the categories of “male” and “female” a little differently than everyone else, and in a small subset of autists, this results in trans identity.*

And another: maybe there are certain intersex disorders which result in differences in brain wiring/organization. (Yes, there are real interesx disorders, like Klinefelter’s, in which people have XXY chromosomes instead of XX or XY.) In a small set of cases, these unusually wired brains may be extremely good at doing certain tasks (like programming) resulting people who are both “autism spectrum” and “trans”. This is actually the theory I’ve been running with for years, though it is not incompatible with the hormonal theories discussed above.

But we are talking small: trans people of any sort are extremely rare, probably on the order of <1/1000. Even if autists were trans at 8 times the rates of non-autists, that’s still only 8/1000 or 1/125. Autists themselves are pretty rare (estimates vary, but the vast majority of people are not autistic at all,) so we are talking about a very small subset of a very small population in the first place. We only notice these correlations at all because the total population has gotten so huge.

Sometimes, extremely rare things are random chance.

Mitochondrial Memes (Part 2: Aliens Within)

Part 1: Logos

150px-Biological_classification_L_Pengo_vflip.svgBiologically speaking, you are a member of the species Homo sapiens, (subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.) Your genus is Homo–this includes all of our near cousins, like Homo neanderthalensis (with whom H. sapiens interbred,) Homo erectus, and the 2+million year old Homo habilis. Your family is hominidae, aka the great apes–chimps, gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, and us. We cannot interbreed with these groups. Your order is primates. The first primates probably evolved 65 million years (or more) ago; their modern members include apes, monkeys, lemurs, and lemur-like creatures like bushbabies.

Your class is mammalia–all animals with hair,[a] three middle ear bones, mammary glands, and a neocortex, at least according to Wikipedia. Most mammals have placentas and don’t lay eggs, but platypuses and echidnas have to be different. The first mammals appeared 225 million years ago.

From there, we head up to the sub-phylum Vertebrata, or all animals with backbones, then to the phylum Chordates, all animals with a nerve cord running down their back (but not necessarily any bones.) Chordates includes all birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and obscure creatures like salps, squishy, tubular creatures that look like jelly fish, and sea squirts, basically brainless tubes. Chordates appear to be over 500 million years old.

Next we have the kingdom Animalia, which includes all of the squishy things like sponges, jellyfish, octopuses, earthworms, and starfish, and crunchy things like insects, crabs, and spiders, in addition to us. The first fossil animals are 665 million years old, though older animals may simply not have been fossilized, due to being too soft. All animals are multi-cellular.

Above that, we have the domain Eukaryotes. All Eukaryotes have a nucleus and other organelles enclosed within membranes. Eukaryotes are divided into plants, animals, fungi, and protists, which are generally single-cells and include algae and the malaria parasite.

This is an animal cell, but all Eukaryotes are similar
This is an animal cell, but all Eukaryotes are similar, due to their nucleus (1) enclosed within a membrane (2) and other organelles.

There are two other major domains of life, bacteria and archaea, collectively known as prokaryotes. They have neither nuclei nor any other membrane-bound organelles. As distant cousins go, these guys are pretty distant–the common ancestors of eukaryotes, bacteria, and archaea lived over 1.6 billion years ago, possibly over 2.7 billion years ago (it’s really hard to find fossilized algae and bacteria.)


Humming away inside your H. sapiens cells, making energy for you, are mitochondria. You might have heard that your mitochondria can be used to trace your maternal family line, because they 1. Are only passed down from mother to child (eggs have mitochondria but sperm don’t;) 2. Possess their own DNA, referred to as mtDNA or mDNA.

Why do mitochondria have their own DNA?

Because they aren’t human. They aren’t animals; they aren’t even eukaryotes. They’re prokaryotes, like bacteria.

Approximately one or two billion years ago, our ancestor–probably a primitive eukaryote cell–ate a prokaryote. But this prokaryote, by a great stroke of luck, didn’t get digested. Instead it got comfy, settled in, and stuck around. Here’s a helpful graphic to explain the process in more detail:


Yes, chloroplasts are prokaryotic invaders, too.

Mitochondias’ closest living relatives are the other Rickettsiales, an order of proteobacteria, which cause a variety of diseases including Typhus and Q fever. Luckily for us, our mitochondria help keep us alive, rather than kill us.

Part 3: to be named

Is Race a Social Construct?

People mean a lot of things when they say “social construct.” Mostly they mean “made up.”

Luckily for us, Google is very helpful:

I may be abusing the word "luckily"

Dear Google and the NY Times: Not only is that not the biological definition of race, it’s not even the biological definition of SPECIES. This is not what laymen mean when they speak of race, not what racists mean when they speak of race, not what blacks or whites or Hindus mean, and definitely not anyone who actually studies human biology and genetics.

The simple folk definition of “race” is “a group of people who look kinda similar and come from the same large area of the world.” This, of course, absolutely exists. Most people in the world look a lot like their neighbors, especially if they live in their ancestral homeland and their country hasn’t been invaded lately.

Now, the exact details of how you racially classify people–are Hindus Caucasian? How about North Africans and Iranians? What about mixed-race people?–are socially constructed. This mean that a word like “black” may mean something different in Russian than it does in the Dominican Republic than it does in the US.

This does not change the underlying reality–the humans referred to as “black” still possess the quality of looking similar to other people from their ancestral part of the world. Reality does not disappear just because people sometimes disagree on exactly how to use words to define it.

The scientific, biological definition of race gets a little more complicated, since it matters whether we are talking abut chromosomal races, fungal races, or humans. A couple of definitions:

Geographical race
A distinct population that is isolated in a particular area from other populations of a species,[9] and consistently distinguishable from the others,[9] e.g. morphology (or even only genetically[4]). Geographic races are allopatric.[7]
Physiological race
A group of individuals that do not necessarily differ in morphology from other members of the species, but have identifiably different physiology or behaviour.[10] A physiological race may be an ecotype, part of a species that is adapted to a different local habitat, defined even by a specific food source.[11]

Notice that neither of these include, “possessing a gene or cluster of genes common to everyone in the race but to no one outside of it.”

But if you don’t like the Wikipedia, here’s what Biology Reference has to say:

The biological definition of race is a geographically isolated breeding population that shares certain characteristics in higher frequencies than other populations of that species, but has not become reproductively isolated from other populations of the same species. (A population is a group of organisms that inhabit the same region and interbreed.) Human racial groups compose a number of breeding units that in the past remained geographically and perhaps temporally isolated, yet could interbreed and produce viable offspring within the species Homo sapiens sapiens.

The Biology-Online Dictionary has some more definitions.
These races are real things, even if biologists disagree about exactly which race a mushroom should belong to.
The reality on the ground:
There are few truly isolated groups in the world, though the Onge (and most likely the Sentinelese) actually fit the NY Times’s wacky definition of a “race” due to thousands of years of isolation on tiny islands in the middle of nowhere:
Click for full size
From Haak et al.
The Onge are the peach stripe between the olive brown section and the purple section.
Major groups in this dataset, running from left to right (excluding the ancient skeletons at the far left):
Light Green: Brazilian rainforest dwellers who may be most closely related to Melanesians
Light Pink: Aztecs and their relatives
Brown: Canadian Indians
Rose: North-East Africans
Dusty Blue: Bantus
Light Blue: Pygmies
Magenta: Tanzanian hunter-gatherers
Orange/Blue/Teal: Europeans
Orange/Purple/Teal: Middle Easterners
Olive Brown: Inuit (Eskimo)
Peach: Onge
Purple: PNG/Australia (Melanesians and Aborigines)
Light Green/Teal: India
Yellow/Red: East Asia
Yellow: Taiwan
Red: Siberia
Some of these groups have very mixed ancestries; people from eastern Canada or the middle of Eurasia, for example. Others are quite distinct–there is no doubt that the Eskimo and Pygmies are genetically distinct, physically distinct, geographically distinct, behave differently, and do not generally marry each other.
We may argue about whether Turks should be considered “Europeans” or “Middle Easterners,” or perhaps say that all orange people should be grouped together, or all teal or blue, but here geography does its job: Europeans look genetically like other Europeans; Indians look genetically like other Indians; Middle Easterners look like each other (except for Bedouins,) etc.
We may also argue about how many races we want to distinguish–people usually determine races based on whichever people are around, but obviously the world is more complicated than this. Americans generally think of “African Americans” as part of a broader race that includes all Africans, but we have distinguished here between 5 different groups, some of which are quite distinct–the ancestors of today’s Pygmies and Bantus, for example, split apart about 100,000 years ago, whereas the ancestors of today’s Bantu’s and Koreans split about 70,000 years ago (as far as we know.) Most African Americans are genetically Bantu (with a bit of European admixture,) not Pygmy. We might in a folk-sense refer to both of these groups as “Africans” or “black,” but genetically (and behaviorally) they are distinct.
Of course, you do not have to call them “races.” Most people studying human genetics use terms like “population,” “ethnic group,” “ethny,” or “clade” instead, but the practical meaning is the same.
But the idea that groups that are genetically, physically, behaviorally, or geographically distinct or distinguishable from each other do not exist is pure nonsense.