A critique of Rushton and Templer’s 2012 paper

The following Letter to the Editor consists of my criticism of Rushton & Templer (2012). I have emailed to the relevant parties, but I post it here publicly in the slim hope that (1) they won’t ignore the issues that I myself and others have raised over the paper and (2) others may see just how bad the paper is.

Dear Dr. Saklofske,

I am writing to express my concern about the following article: Rushton, J. P., & Templer, D. I. (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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.02.015. Given that both Rushton and Templer are deceased and unable to respond to criticism, I am addressing these concerns to you.

Rushton and Templer hypothesize that genes responsible for pigmentation (i.e. skin colour) in humans are pleiotropic for aggression and sexual activity. In other words, having black skin biologically predisposes one to be more aggressive and sexual. The authors argue that Black people have lower IQs, higher sex drives, higher birth rates, higher infant mortality, higher rates of HIV/AIDS, and higher rates of violent crime, and that these traits can be understood as an outcome of evolution.

While I understand that this article proposes a hypothesis without presenting original data, there are nonetheless a number of issues that should have precluded its publication. These include a misrepresentation of research on pleiotropy, misrepresentation of the authors’ sources, cherry-picked citations which misrepresent the state of the literature, and no disclosure of the authors’ conflict-of-interest. Far from being a simple hypothesis, this article is a source of misinformation, which is being weaponized by White supremacists. For these reasons, I believe Elsevier should investigate the publication decision process behind this paper and a formal Editorial Expression of Concern should be written.

Misrepresentation of pleiotropy

The basis of the pleiotropy hypothesis presented by Rushton and Templer hinges on a citation from Ducrest et al. (2008), which posits ‘pleiotropic effects of the melanocortins might account for the widespread covariance between melanin-based coloration and other phenotypic traits in vertebrates.’ However, Rushton and Templer misrepresent this work by extending it to humans, even though Ducrest et al. (2008) explicitly state, ‘these predictions hold only when variation in melanin-based coloration is mediated by variation in the level of the agonists at MC1R… [conversely] there should be no consistent association between melanin-based coloration and other phenotypic traits when variation in coloration is due to mutations at effectors of melanogenesis such as MC1R [as is the case in humans].’ Ducrest et al. continue, ‘variation in melanin-based coloration between human populations is primarily due to mutations at, for example, MC1R, TYR, MATP and SLC24A5 [29,30] and that human populations are therefore not expected to consistently exhibit the associations between melanin-based coloration and the physiological and behavioural traits reported in our study’ [emphasis mine]. Rushton and Templer ignore this critical passage, saying only ‘Ducrest et al. (2008) [caution that], because of genetic mutations, melanin-based coloration may not exhibit these traits consistently across human populations.’ This is misleading. The issue is not that genetic mutations will make melanin-based pleiotropy inconsistent across human populations, but that the genes responsible for skin pigmentation in humans are completely different to the genes Ducrest et al. describe. Unfortunately, this inconsistency was not caught in peer review. If it had been, it would have precluded the article from being published in its current form.

Inappropriate and misleading cross-species comparisons

Rushton and Templer cite examples of animals with darker pigment that are more aggressive, such as silver foxes, rats, and dogs. These cross-species comparisons are presented as evidence in support of their hypothesis. However, such comparisons cannot be considered biological evidence as they are fraught with issues:

(1) The authors ignore that these species have undergone strong artificial selection which does not reflect the natural evolutionary history of humans. In humans, multiple traits are simultaneously under selection pressures, as opposed to one or a few as is the case in animal breeding programs. Thus, correlation of pigmentation and aggression in one species does not mean it will also correlate in another species.

(2) The authors fail to demonstrate that skin pigmentation and aggressive behaviour are pleiotropic in even these species. In fact, pigmentation in silver foxes, rats, and dogs are primarily due to variation in MC1R (Lin & Fisher, 2007; Våge et al., 1997), which, as Ducrest et al. (2008) note, falls outside the scope of their pleiotropy predictions, which concern the agonists of MC1R and not MC1R itself.

Rushton and Templer cite a non-peer reviewed blog post in sole support of their hypothesis (Coren, S, (2011). Are black dogs less lovable? Psychology Today Blogs: Canine corner). Rushton and Templer note, ‘observers rated the black dogs as less friendly, less likely to make a good pet, and to be more aggressive. Assuming that people’s attitudes and beliefs about dogs have some validity, this study provides further support for the pigmentation hypothesis.’ It should go without saying that assumptions do not count as scientific support for a hypothesis. A groundless claim such as this should have no place in a scholarly publication. Furthermore, the only citation for this claim is a blog post, which makes the opposite point: ‘people who work with dog adoption groups argue that these negative ideas hovering in the back of our minds have become a stereotype which is supported by the idea of black dogs unleashing destruction as is often seen in movies, books and television shows. Thus potential pet owners mistakenly assume all black dogs are mean and aggressive’ [emphasis mine]. Again, Rushton and Templer misrepresent the claims of an original source (which was a questionable source to begin with), and this misrepresentation was not caught in the peer review process.

Cherry-picking sources to mislead the reader

In support of their hypothesis that people with darker pigment are more aggressive, Rushton and Templer cite Lynn (2002), who proposes that Black people are more psychopathic than White people. However, the findings of Lynn (2002) have been thoroughly refuted. For instance, Zuckerman (2003) report ‘no consistent racial differences are found in traits closely associated with psychopathy, sensation seeking and psychoticism.’ While Skeem et al. (2003) note that Lynn presents incomplete data and fails to account for non-genetic factors such as socioeconomic status. A meta-analysis by Hall, Basnal, & Lopez (1999) found that ‘none of the aggregate effect sizes [between African Americans/Latino Americans and European Americans] suggest substantive differences from either a statistical or clinical perspective. The MMPI and MMPI-2 apparently do not unfairly portray African Americans and Latinos as pathological.’ Another meta-analysis by Skeem et al. (2004) concludes by saying ‘the research to date indicates no reliable, meaningful differences between Blacks and Whites on the most widely accepted measure of psychopathy.’ Yet another meta-analysis by McCoy & Edens (2006) concluded that ‘the present results offer little support for Lynn’s (2002) theory of race differences in psychopathy.’ These meta-analyses, which present data conflicting with Ruhston and Templer’s claims, are not cited or even mentioned.

To bolster their claims of greater psychopathic and aggressive behaviour in Black people, Rushton and Templer cite a number of papers presenting crime statistics in Black populations (an example one such paper is Taylor & Whitney (1999), which does not even have a Digital Object Identifier). The authors present these crime statistics as evidence that Black crime has a genetic basis (their abstract even states this explicitly). However, crime statistics are not evidence of underlying genetic predispositions, as the authors fail to discuss other variables that could cause higher rates of crime. Here again, the authors ignore several studies challenging the validity of their claims. For example, Centerwall (1995), find that the ‘sixfold differences in Black and White rates of intraracial domestic homicide are entirely accounted for by differences in socioeconomic status between the respective Black and White populations.’ Similarly, Paschall, Flewelling, & Ennett (1998) examine confounding variables between Black and White American populations and found that violent behaviour is only present in Black populations of low socioeconomic status. Moreover, the greater exposure Black populations have to violent crime can further account for Black-White differences in violent behaviour. Lastly, Neapolitan (1998), writing a direct refutation of Rushton’s earlier papers on the subject of Black crime, re-analysed Rushton’s data to discover that he failed to account for numerous confounding variables. Once confounding variables such as socioeconomic status were controlled for, Neapolitan (1998) found there were ‘no significant association between race and cross-national homicide rates.’

Rushton and Templer go on to discuss ‘Rushton’s Differential K theory,’ with Rushton citing a number of his own papers on the topic in support of their pleiotropy hypothesis. However, once again, this work has been refuted by a number of authors. For example, after thoroughly examining Rushton’s claims, Weizmann et al. (1990) concluded that Rushton’s Differential K theory ‘has no foundation whatsoever in evolutionary biology; rather, the theory reflects a number of basic misunderstandings about the nature of evolution and genetics.’ Similarly, Anderson (1991) details how ‘Rushton’s investigations are incompatible with appropriate use of the r/K model,’ noting that predictions derived from the r/K model are only valid when they meet four specific methodological requirements, of which Rushton satisfies zero. Moreover, Graves (2002) examines Rushton’s application of the r/K model to human data and concluded ‘neither Rushton’s use of the theory nor the data that he has assembled could possibly test any meaningful hypotheses concerning human evolution and/or the distribution of genetic variation relating to reproductive strategies or “intelligence”, however defined.’ Such outstanding criticisms are never addressed by Rushton and Templer.

Rushton and Templer briefly discuss testosterone differences in Black vs White populations, claiming that Black people have higher testosterone and citing Ellis & Nyborg (1992) as evidence for this. They argue higher testosterone in Black people would also explain higher aggressive and sexual behaviour and violent crime. However, ethnic group differences in testosterone are contentious. In a cross-sectional study, Rohrmann et al. (2007) found that Black and White American men did not differ in levels of testosterone (only estrogen, which was higher in Black American men). This study challenges Rushton and Templer’s claims surrounding testosterone in Black people, yet it was ignored.

Finally, Rushton and Templer discuss ‘cold winters theory,’ which posits that early humans evolved higher intelligence as they migrated out of Africa towards colder climates 70,000 years ago. They conclude that the (alleged) relationship between darker skin pigment and aggressive behaviour is the result of evolution, citing Templer & Arikawa (2006) as support. However, ‘cold winters theory’ remains purely speculative, and no comparable studies or hypotheses can be found in the ancient human genomics literature, or the evolutionary biology literature more broadly. Templer & Arikawa (2006) was criticised by Wicherts, Borsboom, & Dolan (2010), who concluded ‘causality, either of environmental or evolutionary variables, cannot be inferred from cross-sectional ecological correlations with national IQ without very strong prior knowledge of the processes that created these dependencies. Such knowledge is all but lacking. Therefore, the evidential support that national IQ studies yield concerning evolutionary theories cannot be considered ‘‘strong”… On the contrary, the evidence is weak at best, and irrelevant at worst.’ Interestingly, this is the only point in the paper where Rushton and Templer allude to the existence of criticism of their cited source. However, they still neglect to cite Wicherts, Borsboom, & Dolan (2010), constituting poor scholarly practice.

Please note: every citation I have listed in this section was published prior to the 13th November 2011, when Rushton and Templer submitted this paper. They could have cited any of these papers which challenged their claims, yet they were either unaware of them or deliberately chose not to cite them. Their failure to acknowledge the extensive body of literature pertaining to their work, deliberate or not, amounts to unacceptably poor scholarship.

Failure to disclose conflict-of-interest and funding source

No funding sources are listed anywhere in the paper, nor is there a conflict-of-interest declaration, giving the reader the impression that the authors are unbiased. However, Rushton was a recipient and head of the Pioneer Fund, a non-profit organisation founded by a Nazi sympathiser for the purpose of promoting eugenic policy (Kenny, 2002). Templer was affiliated with the think-tank American Renaissance, a White supremacist organisation which advocates for eugenic policy and the formation of a white ethno-state. American Renaissance has also received funding from the Pioneer Fund. According to Personality and Individual Differences own conflict-of-interest policy: ‘all authors are requested to disclose any actual or potential conflict-of-interest including any financial, personal or other relationships with other people or organizations within three years of beginning the submitted work that could inappropriately influence, or be perceived to influence, their work. See also http://www.elsevier.com/conflictsofinterest.’ Given that at least Rushton was receiving money through the Pioneer Fund, an organization which he was the director of, this constitutes a clear case of conflict-of-interest which should have been declared. Furthermore, this paper appears to be in clear violation of Personality and Individual Differences own declaration-of-funding policy: ‘[authors] are requested to identify who provided financial support for the conduct of the research and/or preparation of the article and to briefly describe the role of the sponsor(s), if any, in study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; and in the decision to submit the article for publication. If the funding source(s) had no such involvement then this should be stated. Please see http://www.elsevier.com/funding.’ Nowhere in the paper does any statement over funding source appear. Were these omissions the result of editorial oversight, or of a deliberate decision making process? Did the journal not acquire these declarations, or did the journal acquire them but not print them regardless? Or were these journal policies only put in place after Rushton and Templer published their paper? I believe a full explanation for why these declarations were omitted is in order.

Spreading misinformation and bolstering White supremacists

The major claims of this paper are false, and yet it’s the single most downloaded paper on the Personality and Individual Differences homepage. Why has this piece of poor scholarship not faded into obscurity? An answer can be gleaned from its Altmetric, which reveals the paper has been shared by ideologically-motivated White nationalist Reddit pages and Twitter accounts (a few examples of which can bee seen here). The paper has also been discussed on alt-right/neo-Nazi websites such as 4chan’s /pol/ and Stormfront. This reception is no accident. Both authors were members of White supremacist organisations. Additionally, the unsupported claims made in the paper directly feed into White supremacist narratives of Black people being biologically prone to criminality and degeneracy, and therefore not capable of maintaining a civilised society. The stamp of peer review from a major Elsevier journal has given the unsupported arguments presented in this paper a veneer of legitimacy. In turn, this has been used by alt-right figures to legitimise their own White supremacist beliefs. Steps should be taken by Personality and Individual Differences and Elsevier to correct the record.

Conclusion

This paper contains numerous issues, many of which should have precluded it from publication. It demonstrates lazy reasoning that cannot be considered serious scholarship. Given the lack of support for its major claims, it is also a source of misinformation, propagating pseudoscientific ideas about race and stoking White supremacist ideology. For these reasons, the paper requires formal investigation into how its flaws were not caught in peer review and if the journal failed to acquire conflict-of-interest and funding declarations. The outcome should be an Editorial Expression of Concern at least.

I would like to end with a quote from Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi in a book you edited, the International Handbook of Personality and Intelligence:

‘The consequences of discussing ideological implications should be more awareness on the part of psychologists to the clearly predictable effects of their work. There is always a human social message in what we write and say as psychologists, in research or in practice. We are all human beings first and scientists later. Our identity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and class — which is a reflection of real interests — must have an impact on our research work and policy decisions. Our opinions as citizens should be expressed, and our interests declared. As these are reflected in our writings themselves and in our non-academic affiliations, they are likely to lead to public reactions. If you accept money from the Pioneer Fund, don’t be surprised if your decision is discussed critically. If you associate with Nazis (which is your perfect right in a democracy), don’t be surprised if such an affiliation is mentioned.’

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

References

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Centerwall, B. S. (1995). Race, socioeconomic status, and domestic homicide. JAMA, 273(22), 1755–1758 https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.1995.03520460037031

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Ellis, L., & Nyborg, H. (1992). Racial/ethnic variations in male testosterone levels: A probable contributor to group differences in health. Steroids, 57, 72–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/0039-128x(92)90032-5

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Rohrmann, S., Nelson, W. G., Rifai, N., Brown, T. R., Dobs, A., Kanarek, N., … Platz, E. A. (2007). Serum Estrogen, But Not Testosterone, Levels Differ between Black and White Men in a Nationally Representative Sample of Americans. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 92(7), 2519–2525. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2007-0028

Skeem, J. L., Edens, J. F., Sanford, G. M., & Colwell, L. H. (2003). Psychopathic personality and racial/ethnic differences reconsidered: a reply to Lynn (2002). Personality and Individual Differences, 35(6), 1439–1462. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00361-6

Skeem, Jennifer L., John F. Edens, Jacqueline Camp, and Lori H. Colwell. 2004. “Are There Ethnic Differences in Levels of Psychopathy? A Meta-Analysis.” Law and Human Behavior 28(5):505–27. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:LAHU.0000046431.93095.d8

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Zuckerman, Marvin. 2003. “Are There Racial and Ethnic Differences in Psychopathic Personality? A Critique of Lynn’s (2002) Racial and Ethnic Differences in Psychopathic Personality.” Personality and Individual Differences 35(6):1463–69. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00362-8

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