Biosocial Interactions

Jeanne Altmann • Dalton Conley • Noreen Goldman • Douglas S. Massey • Yu Xie


Jeanne Altmann’s research focuses on life history approaches to behavioral ecology and with non-experimental research design. Most of her empirical work has been carried out on the baboons of Amboseli National Park, Kenya, for which longitudinal studies have been conducted since 1971. Altmann and her team of researchers emphasize an integrated, holistic approach by carrying out concurrent studies of behavior, ecology, demography, genetics, and physiology at the level of individuals, social groups, and populations.


Jeanne Altmann’s current research centers on the magnitude and sources of variability in primate life histories, parental care, and behavioral ontogeny. For baboons, she and her researchers are analyzing sources of variability within groups and examining patterns in their stability among groups and populations and across time. In one series of studies, the researchers are interested in the extent to which various life-history and developmental parameters are food-limited. In others, they are examining empirically and theoretically the effects of social structure within groups on demographic processes within and among groups and across generations. Recently, Altmann and her collaborators have been conducting studies that relate endocrine and genetic data to demographic and behavioral information for the same individuals in the Amboseli baboon population.


Jeanne Altmann co-directs the Amboseli Baboon Research Project (ABRP) with Susan Albets (Duke University). ABRP is one of the longest-running studies of wild primates in the world. Focused on the savannah baboon, Papio cynocephalus, ABRP is located in the Amboseli ecosystem of East Africa, north of Mt. Kilimanjaro. They track hundreds of known individuals in several social groups over the course of their entire lives. They currently monitor around 300 animals, but over the last four decades they have accumulated life history information on over 1,500 animals. Research at ABRP has long centered on processes at the individual, group, and population levels, and in recent years has also included other aspects of baboon biology, such as genetics, hormones, nutrition, hybridization, parasitology, and relations with other species. http://amboselibaboons.nd.edu/


Dalton Conley, Benjamin Dominque (Stanford University), Daniel W. Belsky (Duke University), Amal Harrati (Stanford University), David Weir (University of Michigan), and Jason Boardman (University of Colorado) published, “Mortality Selection in a Genetic Sample and Implications for Association Studies,” in International Journal of Epidemiology. Mortality selection is a general concern in the social and health sciences, but has received little attention in genetic epidemiology. They tested the hypothesis that mortality selection may bias genetic association estimates, using data from the US-based Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

They tested mortality selection into the HRS genetic database by comparing HRS respondents who survive until genetic data collection in 2006 with those who do not. They next modelled mortality selection on demographic, health and social characteristics to calculate mortality selection probability weights. The authors analyzed polygenic score associations with several traits before and after applying inverse-probability weighting to account for mortality selection. They tested simple associations and time-varying genetic associations (i.e. gene-by-cohort interactions).

They observed mortality selection into the HRS genetic database on demographic, health and social characteristics. Correction for mortality selection using inverse probability weighting methods did not change simple association estimates. However, using these methods did change estimates of gene-by-cohort interaction effects. Correction for mortality selection changed gene-by-cohort interaction estimates in the opposite direction from increased mortality selection based on analysis of HRS respondents surviving through 2012.

The authors concluded that mortality selection may bias estimates of gene-by-cohort interaction effects. Analyses of HRS data can adjust for mortality selection associated with observables by including probability weights. Mortality selection is a potential confounder of genetic association studies, but the magnitude of confounding varies by trait.


Ofer Tchernichovski (City College, City University of New York), Marissa King (Yale University), Peter Brinkman (Google Inc. New York), Xanadu Halkias (University of the South, Toulon-Var, La Garde, France), Daniel Fimiarz (City College, City University of New York), Laurent Mars (City College, City University of New York), and Dalton Conley wrote, “Tradeoff between Distributed Social Learning and Herding Effect in Online Rating Systems: Evidence from a Real-World Intervention," which was published in SAGE Open. The authors investigated how social diffusion increased client participation in an online rating system and, in turn, how this herding effect may affect the metrics of client feedback over the course of years. In a field study, they set up a transparent feedback system for university services: During the process of making service requests, clients were presented with short-term trends of client satisfaction with relevant service outcomes. Deploying this feedback system initially increased satisfaction moderately. Thereafter, mean satisfaction levels remained stable between 50% and 60%. Interestingly, at the individual client level, satisfaction increased significantly with experience despite the lack of any global trend across all users. These conflicting results can be explained at the social network level: If satisfied clients attracted new clients with more negative attitudes (a herding effect), then the net increase in service clients may dampen changes in global trends at the individual level. Three observations support this hypothesis: first, the number of service clients providing feedback increased monotonically over time. Second, spatial analysis of service requests showed a pattern of expansion from floor to floor. Finally, satisfaction increased over iterations only in clients who scored below average.


Dalton Conley’s Marketwatch.com opinion piece, “Dating and Mating — Decided by Your Genetic Profile?” states that the art of mating has undergone many technologically-induced changes from the liberation that young lovers found with the invention of the automobile to the swipe-right ease of matching on Tinder. Another technology is afoot that few people know about but that will upend the way people match and reproduce in years to come: the polygenic score. This is a single number that sums up someone’s genetic potential—risk for disease such as diabetes or predicted height or even the genetic portion of her IQ. OkCupid, meet 23andame.


In “What Both the Left and Right Get Wrong about Race,” published in Nautilus, Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher (University of Wisconsin) set the scientific record straight on race, IQ, and success. The authors state that race does not stand up scientifically, period. To begin with, if race categories were meant primarily to capture differences in genetics, they are doing an abysmal job. The genetic distance between some groups within Africa is as great as the genetic distance between many “racially divergent” groups in the rest of the world. The genetic distance between East Asians and Europeans is shorter than the divergence between Hazda in north-central Tanzania to the Fulani shepherds of West Africa (who live in present-day Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Guinea). So much for Black, White, Asian, and Other.

Armed with this knowledge, many investigators in the biological sciences have replaced the term “race” with the term “continental ancestry.” This in part reflects a rejection of “race” as a biological classification. Every so-called race has the same protein-coding genes, and there is no clear genetic dividing line that subdivides the human species. Another reason for using the term “continental ancestry” in lieu of “race” is improved precision for locating historical and geographic origins when we look at the genome. Thus, continental ancestry allows for more genetically accurate descriptors.

The near impossibility of a definitive, scientific approach to interrogating genes, race, and IQ stands in contrast to the loose claims of pundits or scholars who assert that there is a genetic explanation for the black-white test score gap. That said, the consideration of genetics in racial analysis is not always pernicious. The ability to control for genotype actually places the effects of social processes, like discrimination, in starker relief. Once you eliminate the claim that there are biological or genetic differences between populations by controlling them away, one can show more clearly the importance of environmental (non-genetic) processes such as structural racism.

As genetic data become more available to the population, the mismatch between race and genetic ancestry (continental and subcontinental) should lead to a revision of racial discourse. When many whites realize that they have African ancestry and many blacks discover their European ethnic origins through DNA testing, the one-drop rule might crumble and racial dichotomies could soften into more complicated nuances of admixture. On the other hand, as the sociologist Ann Morning has argued, “even with a familiarity with racial mixture that led people to put categories like ‘quadroon’ and ‘octoroon’ on 19th-century censuses, the one-drop rule hardly crumbled. In fact, it was reinforced in reaction to that awareness.” It may be that scientific knowledge has more power and authority to complicate matters than firsthand, intimate knowledge of racial mixing did. But it may not. Either way—as in the cases of marital sorting, class mobility, and fertility—social genomics reveals hidden dynamics of race that belie our intuitions. We cannot be afraid to look.


O. Tchernichovski (Hunter College), O Feher (University of Edinburgh), D. Fimiarz (The City College of New York), and Dalton Conley published, “How Social Learning Adds up to a Culture: From Birdsong to Human Public Opinion in Journal of Experimental Biology, which investigates the question of what features can sustain polymorphism, preventing cultures from collapsing into either chaotic or highly conforming states? The answer is sought by integrating studies across two disciplines: the emergence of song cultures in birds, and the spread of public opinion and social conventions in humans.


Dalton Conley explores the latest findings from the intersection of genomics and social sciences in his new book The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History & the Future, along with co-author Jason Fletcher (University of Wisconsin, Madison). For a century, social scientists have avoided genetics like the plague. But the nature-nurture wars are over. In the past decade, a small but intrepid group of economists, political scientists, and sociologists have harnessed the genomics revolution to paint a more complete picture of human social life than ever before. The Genome Factor describes the latest astonishing discoveries being made at the scientific frontier where genomics and the social sciences intersect.

The Genome Factor reveals that there are real genetic differences by racial ancestry—but ones that don't conform to what we call black, white, or Latino. Genes explain a significant share of who gets ahead in society and who does not, but instead of giving rise to a genotocracy, genes often act as engines of mobility that counter social disadvantage. An increasing number of us are marrying partners with similar education levels as ourselves, but genetically speaking, humans are mixing it up more than ever before with respect to mating and reproduction. These are just a few of the many findings presented in this illuminating and entertaining book, which also tackles controversial topics such as genetically personalized education and the future of reproduction in a world where more and more of us are taking advantage of cheap genotyping services like 23andMe to find out what our genes may hold in store for ourselves and our children.

The Genome Factor shows how genomics is transforming the social sciences—and how social scientists are integrating both nature and nurture into a unified, comprehensive understanding of human behavior at both the individual and society-wide levels.


Charlotte Chang (Center for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences), Michele L. Barnes (James Cook University, University of Hawaii, Manoa), Margaret Frye, Mingxia Zhang (Center for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences), Rui-Chang Quan, (Center for Integrative Conservation), et al. published, “The Pleasure of Pursuit: Recreational Hunters in Rural Southwest China Exhibit Low Exit Rates in Response to Declining Catch,” in Ecology and Society. Hunting is one of the greatest threats to tropical vertebrates. Examining why people hunt is crucial to identifying policy levers to prevent excessive hunting. Overhunting is particularly relevant in Southeast Asia, where a high proportion of mammals and birds are globally threatened. They interviewed hunters in Southwest China to examine their social behavior, motivations, and responses to changes in wildlife abundance. Respondents viewed hunting as a form of recreation, not as an economic livelihood, and reported that they would not stop hunting in response to marked declines in expected catch. Even in scenarios where the expected catch was limited to minimal quantities of small, low-price songbirds, up to 36.7% of respondents said they would still continue to hunt. Recreational hunting may be a prominent driver for continued hunting in increasingly defaunated landscapes; this motivation for hunting and its implications for the ecological consequences of hunting have been understudied relative to subsistence and profit hunting. The combination of a preference for larger over smaller game, reluctance to quit hunting, and weak enforcement of laws may lead to hunting-down-the-web outcomes in Southwest China.


“Children's Education and Parents' Trajectories of Depressive Symptoms,” published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior by Chioun Lee (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Dana A. Glei (Georgetown University), Noreen Goldman, and Maxine Weinstein (Georgetown University) used five waves of the Taiwanese Longitudinal Study of Aging (1996–2011). They investigate (1) the association between family members’ education and the age trajectories of individuals’ depressive symptoms and (2) gender differences in those relationships. Their examination is guided by several theoretical frameworks, including social capital, social control, age as leveler, and resource substitution. Nested models show that having a more educated father is associated with lower depressive symptoms, but the relationship disappears after controlling for respondent’s education. Including spouse’s education attenuates the coefficient for respondent’s education. A similar pattern appears when children’s education is added to the model. Among all the family members, children’s education has the strongest association with depressive symptoms, with a similar magnitude for both genders, although its strength gradually weakens as respondents age. The findings suggest the importance of the transfer of resources from children to parents and how it may affect mental health at older ages.


Douglas Massey and Brandon Wagner (Texas Tech University) contributed their chapter, “Segregation, Stigma, and Stratification: A Biosocial Model,” to Section II. Pathways from Stigma to Health in The Oxford Handbooks of Stigma, Discrimination, and Health. This chapter reviews research on segregation’s effect in generating concentrated poverty and stigma, and it explores the biological consequences of exposure to these conditions for health and socioeconomic status. High levels of segregation interact with high levels of poverty to produce concentrated poverty for African Americans and Hispanics in many metropolitan areas. In addition to objective circumstances of deprivation, the concentration of poverty also brings about the stigmatization of the segregated group. The differential exposure of Blacks and Hispanics to concentrated neighborhood disadvantage and its correlates, in turn, functions to shorten telomeres, increase allostatic load, and alter gene expression in deleterious ways. In so doing, it compromises health and cognitive ability, the two critical components of human capital formation, thus systematically undermining the socioeconomic prospects of African Americans and Hispanics in today’s post-industrial, information economy.


Yu Xie and Siyu Yu (New York University) published, “Preference Effects on Friendship Choice: Evidence from an Online Field Experiment,” in Social Science Research. Observed friendship choices are constrained by social structures and thus problematic indicators for underlying personal preferences. In this paper, they report on a study demonstrating the causal effects of preference in friendship choice based on an online field experiment. Specifically, they tested two important forces that govern friendship choices: preference for shared group identity (operationalized as the desire to befriend others sharing the same place-of-origin identity) and preference for high status (operationalized as the desire to befriend others from high-status institutions). Using an online field experiment in one of the largest social network service websites in China, they investigated the causal preference effects of these two forces free from structural constraints. The results of their study confirm the preference effects on friendship choice in both of the two dimensions they tested.