Thursday, February 8, 2018

"White Trash": the ugly reality and its import

I've been reading the recent book White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg, Penguin Books edition, 2017.  This book documents the history of class divisions in our country, noting that it is not just racial minorities--native Americans and African Americans--who have been an integral part of our nation's history.  The white lower class, who have eked out their livings slaving away (one might say) for the wealthy elite, have been a part of the country since it's founding by European settlers.

The history of our 'democracy', including even our civil war, is one of gross oppression of the many by the few.  In post-WWII times, with industrial-scale materialism, we have distributed material goods and a better standard of living to a wide swath of the population, but the large underclass, that is unable to share in this, is still very much with us.  Somehow, it seems impossible to dispossess those who can afford yachts and private planes and multiple mansions, even enough just to even out the quality of lives of the many who still suffer deprivation here today.

This blog isn't social commentary as a rule, but one can ask about the degree to which genomic promises can be delivered nationwide, when living circumstances are so varied.  Among other things,  Big Data is in vogue, but how can there be large enough sample sizes to relate genetic variants to trait risk when, given so much disparity in access to resources, environmental variation is so great and so essentially unmeasurable?  If there are so many G and E combinations, then the assessment of their statistical correlation with various outcomes will be very shaky, at best.

Of course, in the nature of our history, white trash--the poor white population--was denigrated not just as being disgusting but also as genetically degenerate.  This idea fed the fervid eugenics movement, as Isenberg relates in some detail, which managed to rationalize the poor's situation as due to bad genes, casting the fear that they, being ethically unrestrained, will out-reproduce the rest of us--that is, the good guys.  This was of course just one of the convenient rationalizes that the elites always manufacture to justify the inherent worthiness of their privilege.  It has been thus since Plato, at least.  And we see much the same today, though usually implicit rather than crassly explicit.

The evil of social inequity, visited upon the many by the few, seems inevitably with us in history, and has led to a string of protest movements and even revolutions.  Whether equity is ever actually possible is something social scientists can ponder, but from a genetic point of view, there are some relevant issues, given what we've got.

Returning to bite: Sample size alone militates against biomedical/genomic equity
The promise of genomic miracles for "All of Us", the current slogan from NIH that promises to lead to precision medicine for everyone, sounds so laudable that its risibility may seem surprising. But such a promise is vacuous at best, and cynically self-serving of NIH. But the promise reflects some loss of memory by the Director of NIH.

Once upon a time the NIH, wanting some Big Money for some Big Data for genomics, proposed the HapMap project.  A smallish sample of a few tens of thousand individuals mainly from the majority populations (whites in the US, by some odd chance) would be genotyped for tens of thousands of markers across the genome, and these could be used for statistical association studies for, well, just about any trait you would want to name.

But wait a sec!  What about the needs of the many minority groups in the US and around the world?  How would or how could they benefit from this largely majority population sample?  The HapMap rational was that common diseases--the ones we really are targeting with association studies--were caused by common variants, and would hence apply to all populations; this was known as the CDCV 'hypothesis', though it was never justified on scientific grounds and was mainly a ploy to pry big long-term money out of NIH for the gene worshippers, and as some said quietly at the time, finally to pry funds from the grasping hands of environmental epidemiologists.

The problem, we now know, is that common diseases or even normal traits are due to countless individually minor, usually uncommon (low allele frequency) variants.  What we know now is that even for the 'major' populations (the whites and Asians with money for Big Pharma to collect), causation is not simple, not due to a couple of 'druggable' target genes, even if one should think of these common traits (diabetes, obesity, schizophrenia, IQ, etc) as typically genetic in the first place.

But let us here not be cynical about the implicitly racist or elitist aspects of NIH's Big Data schemes.  Let us think of how the failure of CDCV shows the hollowness of this year's NIH slogan, "All of Us", as any sort of real promise.

If (sample) size matters, than size matters!
Well, does size matter?  If not, if what we need are genetic variants common enough to be useful, then we can scrap the Big Data romance and go back to focused sample sizes in genetic studies.  This was the CDCV rationale.  But if that were true, why then today's push for massive samples, each person genome-sequenced?  Is this just a grab for money, or a way to hide behind a lack of actual ideas about how genomes work?

The nominal rationale is that to identify all the relevant causal genomic sites for a trait, we need very large sample sizes, since individual effects are by now known to be generally weak and rare in the population.  To find them, if statistical testing is our criterion, we need big samples.  That's convenient because it also means Big Data and regally funded projects too big and costly to terminate once started.

The CDCV rationale meant that modest sample sizes and sequence markers rather than whole sequence, would suffice to identify the genetic bases of the common later-onset diseases that we want to deal with (and, as a sort of freebie, other traits normal and otherwise, early and late onset).  And, conveniently, since these were common they would be shared among populations.  But that was wishful thinking.  If we are to include 'All' of us equitably, what would that mean?

First, how do you even devise a sample of "All' of us?  Given admixture and what that means for sampling, the inexact correlation between self-defined 'race' and gene history, differential accessibility of different populations, and so on, how do you get comparable representation of every subgroup in the US?  Whites are easy.  But should the same fraction of Cheyenne and Navaho and Mohawk and Cree be sampled, or just a fraction of "Native Americans"?  And this does not yet consider environments, socioeconomic status, and the like.  And, smaller populations mean fewer very rare variants, but at what point does the unavailability of sufficient samples mean less ability to detect relevant variables?

By the time CDCV failed to materialize, the justification for GWAS that it would be equitable became clearly false, but it was too late to stop the gravy trains of Big Data and 'omics-everything.

White Trash shows the persistent socioeconomic problem of inequity in our country.  It is about the sociology, and the sometimes biological rationales used to ignore or suppress the large fraction of the nation who are not among the yacht-owning privileged.  It discusses the eugenic and other pseudo-biological excuses that have been dreamed up by the privileged classes in the country, to justify or explain as inevitable and inherent in the poor.

GWAS proclamations, like "All of Us", are another reflection--perhaps unintentional, but nonetheless--of privilege and unfairness.  If traits really were genetic in the way being so widely promised (they aren't!), and even if we could accurately measure relevant environmental contributors (we can't), inequity is built into the statistical-significance nature of the game now being played because of sample-size issues that mean we cannot achieve comparable resolution among our different sub-populations.

Of course, clear secular trends in disease and other traits, like IQ and just plain height, show that genomes are not the major determining factor in the first place.  But who would want to give the money back to the greedy environmental epidemiologists?  And who would want to invest in real societal economic equity, to remove or reduce the disease-associated lifestyle factors that we know predominate?

Until we have a better way, we are in a sense in an ethical trap because genomics in its current form cannot deliver equity.  Environmental fairness would be more attainable, in principle, but human history has few if any real or lasting examples of that sort of societal equity.  The book White Trash makes the problem starkly clear, but provides no answers and perhaps rests on the idea that awareness of the problem might awaken some drive towards remediation.  Don't hold your breath.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Pogophilia--60 years ago but as fresh as ever!

For those readers of this blog who are old enough, or aware enough, to know about Pogo, the greatest of all the comic strips ever, I was reading my reprint of strips from 1956*.  Antics galore, of course, with sophisticated word play and subtlety that only Walt Kelly, in the entire history of comic pages, could master.  But in Pogo there was often a political point to be made, and I came across this  strip and thought it so appropriate it was worth putting in a post:

Here we see the always gentle and innocent Pogo (a possum) with the always scowling and grumpy, but ever true-hearted Porky Pine.  I think it speaks for itself, for its time 62 years ago, and for our times today.

*This is from a 2017 reprint of the 1955-56 years: Under the Bamboozle Bush: The complete syndicated comic strips, vol. 4, copyright Okefenokee Glee and Perloo, Inc.  If you like or might like Pogo, this series' 4 volumes to date would be just the thing for you!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

So long 'Crotchets & Quiddities' and thanks for all the ... everything

Since 2001, our very own Ken has been writing thoughtful, illuminating, and mighty thought-provoking essays in Evolutionary Anthropology, and in November's issue he wrote his last.

In it, Ken writes,
I began this series by explaining my curious title for the series: crotchets are eccentric or idiosyncratic opinions and quiddities are philosophical quirks or even intangible ideas. I said that I wanted to “examine some of our assumptions, to simulate thought about them.” I have hoped to stimulate readers to think about things evolutionary for themselves, because I think we are all far too prone to expound neat or convenient stories as if they were true, when Nature often seems to be a lot more frustratingly complex and subtle.
As a young graduate student, when he started the column, I remember thinking how radical his ideas were and wondering how on earth I could ever get to the point of being so creatively curious, of having enough knowledge to provoke so much valuable insight, and enough generosity and audacity to share it with others. It wasn't easy gunning for a glimpse from his point of view while I could barely keep up with my fundamental grad coursework, but Ken's bigger messier reality, compared to the controlled minutia of my paleoanthropological research, was a major part of what kept me going, and what kept me sane too if that makes any sense. You might imagine how rewarding it was for me to eventually co-author two C&Q columns with Ken.

During these many years of C&Q columns, only some of us were lucky enough to regularly have Ken's influence in person in the halls, labs, offices, and classrooms of Penn State's Carpenter Building where the Anthropology Department lives. But the C&Q column extended his spark and spirit out of Carpenter and into our community so vividly that readers must feel like they too can call Ken their professor, their mentor, or their colleague based on the relationships he forged with their brains on those pages. If you somehow missed out, all his columns are archived in one spot for convenience at the end of Ken's last, right here.

It's the end of an era, but not before it was the start of something beautiful, first!

Now, if they don't already, please let C&Q readers know they should continue to benefit from Ken's insight here, on the Mermaid's Tale, with the rest of us. As Ken has written, "It's a thought, at least."

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Trump, Koko the gorilla, and reading alien minds

Despite incongruous hand proportions, Trump has long been compared to one our closest relatives, the orangutan. Even if Bill Maher hadn’t popularized the likeness (about which, Trump sued him), and even if Trump wasn’t tinted like the lovely orange primate, people were going to go there.

It’s what we do. When we’re not photoshopping our leaders into Hitler, we’re calling them apes.

But you don’t see much joking about a primate presidency anymore. Any comparisons to apes now are decidedly unfunny. When Jane Goodall got involved--and she can be hilarious--it got serious.
“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” she told The Atlantic during the 2016 presidential election. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: Stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks." A more aggressive display was likely to lead the male to higher positions in the hierarchy and allow it to maintain its status for longer, she said.Mr Trump's election campaign was littered with bombastic statements and since becoming President, he has issued increasingly aggressive threats towards North Korea.*

It’s easy to see why folks have lost their senses of humor about Trump. For coping, the adage ‘If you didn’t laugh you’d cry’ is so 2016. As I like to sing along with Roger Waters, “You're nearly a laugh, but you're really a cry.” I cry every time Trump grins through the GOP’s favorite tune “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I cried when he took credit for Christmas. And those are just the peccadilloes!

Worse than the peccadilloes are the ape jokes.

As mirrors for humanity, apes are brilliant. There is so much room for humor here, but it’s been the domain of racists for so long that even good-natured silliness about someone’s ape-ness is tainted. If you don’t understand or disagree, then you’re probably white and have no experience as touchstone here. One way to take a peek at what’s going on out there is to Google “Obama ape” and look at the images and their sources. Go ahead and Google “throwing bananas” too. What you see is just a snippet of the sordid legacy of generations upon generations of modern science-inspired racism that has weaponized our shared evolutionary history, humankind’s sacred origins story, against ourselves. [Please join me in exhaling a “fuuuuck youuuu” to no one in particular.] This baggage is grounded in ignorance, misunderstanding, and biased narratives masquerading as facts. So, to be terribly brief, there’s a mound of garbage that comes with calling people apes. I look forward to the day when all humans, no matter their geographic ancestry, can giggle good-naturedly about their ape-ness without even a twinge of a memory of some old fart’s racism. By the way, apes have a leg up on us; they’ve got senses of humor and they don’t got racism.

Yeah. And, as entities in their own right, apes are brilliant. But they’re not brilliant enough to save themselves from our species’ environmental impact, so they are incredibly vulnerable to extinction. So, using them to diss humans, disses them in the process. Joking as if they’re lesser-evolved humans or just plain stupid or stuck-in-evolution’s past is the last thing they need. Charleton Heston’s infamous “damn dirty ape” be damned! This, and the racist context, are the two main reasons why so many folks I know weren’t and aren’t laughing along with the Trump-ape comparisons. [If you’re tempted to tell me to ‘lighten up’, please to go block yourself.]

Now that we’ve all spent at least a year obsessing over everything Trump says and does, it should be clear to anyone who’s spent a lick of time with an ape that there is no ape like Trump.

Though, make no mistake. Trump is an ape. We all are.

Or, he isn’t and we all aren’t.

It’s really a matter of whether you prefer the label or not, whether you think humans have evolved into such a weird ape that we no longer deserve the name any more than we deserve to be called monkeys or fish. For some, “ape” is recent history. To others, ‘ape’ still applies. Either way, everyone agrees that we’re mighty similar. So, despite my reservations about the jokes, I’m resuscitating the Trump-ape theme here, but with a twist.

Here’s why. My social media feed is obsessed with speculating about what Trump is thinking. I empathize because I too would like to know, but also because this relentless, seething curiosity is very much like mine when it comes to Koko the gorilla. If you’re unfamiliar, I’m talking about a world-famous primate, known for possessing rudimentary language skills, who was supposedly raised as a human. I would love to know what Koko’s thinking, and journalism seems to be at odds with my goals. For many, journalism is equally frustrating when it comes to Trump.

About a week ago, the New York Times posted a transcript of an interview with Trump in which he mused on nuclear war without question. And there were so many other topics covered. And it was fact-checked, which resulted in, to no one’s surprise, a bunch of falsehoods. The usual fall-out was everywhere: Is he intentionally lying, covering up his ignorance, suffering from Dunning-Kruger, dim, or insane? Or all of these? A combo? For not finding many or any penetrating questions, folks were up in arms, accusing the New York Times of bad journalism, depauperate standards, failing our democracy, failing Americans. Others defended the newspaper, saying that the transcript of Trump speaking should speak for itself, and powerfully so, no matter how incoherent it is, and precisely for that reason.

There was a time that I would be in the frustrated Ask Trump a damn penetrating question! camp. But now I am ambivalent. And it’s not because I’m hopeless. It’s because of a gorilla who loves kittens, how she’s portrayed and publicized, and what I can read between the lines about what’s going on between her ears.

To be continued…

(Dear reader, I will link here when Part 2 is posted.)

*It’s those most recent threats in last night's Button Tweet that prompted me to post this here, rather than attempt to get it in the Washington Post as originally planned. If I learned anything as a writer in 2017 it’s that while Trump is keeping writers busy, he’s keeping journalists and editors even busier.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Christmas Charivari in Verse, and more

A verse to Christmas 
It’s great to have a holiday, to revel in good cheer,
And  a verse to Christmas is something to hold dear;
The hustle and the bustle, from shop to shop for days,
Cannot dispel the spirit, that the shopping overlays.

The science that we practice, in labs across the land,
Takes Nature from its setting, and puts it in our hand,
To look, to touch, to taste, to hear, its every angle seen,
Experience the place we’re in, to understand its mien.

The world is out there waiting, for all of us to scope,
To parse, and map, and sequence—but shun the facile trope:
It’s great to have a holy day, to show respect forsooth,
But always keeping holy, not promises, but truth!

The gifts we give, the bounty get, divert us for the day,
And let the world take forms we wish, our rev’ling minds a-play:
We wander through the fields of dreams, our cares for now on hold,
Though know we must, tis but a day when dreams we let be told.

If what we want is fantasy, and not the world we’re in,
Then reveling occasions can’t be excessive sin,
But then--back to reality our duty is to steer:
I'm not averse to Christmas, at least one day a year!

-------------- ***** ---------------

Intermission: Even a grump can have good cheer--at least once a year!
(From the mega-wonderful Pogo, by Walt Kelly, representative of Porky's visit every Christmas eve; color added)

Thoughtful good wishes are what count at this--or any--time of year

-------------- ***** ---------------

A turkey talks turkey about Christmas
You talk of peace, of love, and grace
And revel in the innocence
Of newborn mangered babe.
But then when dinner comes, you violent be,
And me de-feather, baste and roast,
And, carving, say a ‘grace’—to love!

I had a life, you know
With verve, and spirit free
We chased around the barnyard all
With no known cause to fear.

If love is truly in your hearts,
And peace, goodwill to all--
A wish to be that which you claim:
Eat Brussels sprouts today!

-------------- ***** ---------------

A sonnet for our times
When, in dispute with favored theory's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf journals with my skeptic's cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hype,
Featured like him, like him with grants possessed,
Desiring that man's genome-promise trope,
With what I most esteem acknowledged least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on Truth, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate;
      For thy sweet troth remembered such wealth brings
      That then I scorn to change my state with Collins.

[after W. Shakespeare, Sonnet 29]


Sunday, December 3, 2017

What do ravens do?

"As behavioral ecologists, we try to reveal rules of behavior as though we were discovering truths.  In reality, the word 'rule' as applied to animal behavior is a verbal shortcut.  A 'rule' means nothing more than  a consistency of response.  It is not adherence to dictum.  Animals adhere no more to rules than we do by showing up at the beach when its 110 degrees but not when it's 30 degrees.  Rules are the sum of decisions made by individuals that are then exhibited by crowds, not vice versa.  Rules are thus a result.  They are the average behavior that we and many animals are programmed with, learn, or make up as we go along."

This is a cogent quote from Bernd Heinrich's book Mind of the Raven (1999, Ecco books), which I was given as a birthday gift.  The idea was that I would like to read about the various capabilities of ravens, relative to our informal and even formal ideas about what 'mind' or 'consciousness' mean and how we might know, and whether these interesting birds might have it, whatever it is.

However, the quote I've given is more than just the author's views on what ravens' internal experiences might be.  It applies to much that we have to deal with in science--at least, in biological and behavioral sciences themselves.  I've used it because I think the observation also applies to something I've been writing about in recent posts--related to what may seem to be a very different topic, whether life is parametric or not.

The physical world seems to be parametric, that is, driven ultimately by some universally true processes, like gravity, that are in turn reflections of underlying, universal, fixed parameters, or numerical values.  Of course, 'numerical values' refers to human-derived mathematics and science, and might, from some wholly different point of view, be differently perceived or characterized.

But to us, phenomena like the speed of light, c, and various quantum phenomena etc., have fixed, universal values.  The value is the same everywhere, even if its manifestation may be modified by local circumstances.  For example, c is specified as in a vacuum.  Whether or not there exists any true total vacuum, the idea--and the belief in its universality--are clear and important bedrock aspects of physics, chemistry, and cosmology.  In some other substance, rather than a vacuum, the speed of light is altered in an orderly way.

But what about life?
We can ask whether, while life is a physical and molecular phenomenon, it is part and parcel of the same parametric cosmos, or if it has exceptions at the level at which we want answers to our basic questions.  That would be analogous to physics adhering to a dictum, in the raven quote.  But maybe life is not analogous to a vacuum.  This, at least, is what I mean by asking whether life is a parametric phenomenon, and expression doubts that it could be so.

An a priori reason, in my mind, is that life is a molecular process of regular molecular activity (genes, proteins, and so on), but it evolves because the specifics are different--they vary.  Without that, there would be no evolution, and organismal complexity, and the underlying genetic and proteinic complexity by which life, and its interacting ecosystems have come about, would not be here.  In that sense, I think it is appropriate to suggest that life is not a parametric phenomenon.

This, to me, is not the same as saying that life is a kind of self-organized complexity. It certainly is that, but the phrase misses what I think is the underlying fact, which is that life is not parametric.  Complexities like the mandelbrot set (figure below) are parametric: they repeat the same phenomenon in an evermore complex but always rigorously.  This is a form of 'complexity' but it is very rigorously regular.  Life is, if anything, rigorously irregular, among individuals, populations, species, and the structures within each of those.

Mandelbrot set.  From Wikipedia entry
Many people have written about life's complexity with analogies to things like the Mandelbrot set and many others of the sort.  But while that sounds as if it acknowledges the complexity of life, it really is an implicit hunger for just the opposite: for regularity, tractability, and 'parametricity'.   I think that is at best an ad hoc approximation but theoretically fundamentally wrong.

The consequences are obvious: we can describe existing data by various statistical and even mathematical data-fitting procedures.  But we cannot make predictions or projections with known 'precision' and indeed that is why I think that rhetoric like 'precision genomic medicine' is strictly an advertising slogan, scientifically misleading (and culpably so), and misunderstood by most people even those who use it, and perhaps even by the NIH that proffer it as a funding or marketing ploy for its budgets.  It is a false promise, as stated (saying instead that we want funds for research to make medicine more precise by including genomic information would be honest and appropriate).

Heinrich's description of ravens' behavior seemed an apt way to make my point, as I see things at any rate, clear by an easily digested analogy.  Some ravens did what they were seen to do, but that was the net result of what some observed ravens did on some occasions, not what 'ravens do' in the parametric sense.  The ravens are not all following a rule and even the 'consistency' of their responses is not like that (different ravens do different things, as Heinrich's book makes clear).

We want rules that explain 'truth' in genetics and evolution.  We ought to be able to see that that may be a misleading way to view the nature of the living world.  And, seeing that, to change what we promise to the public and, as important as what we promise to them, to change how we think.

Or, as quoth the raven: nevermore!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Statistics controversy: missing the p-oint.

There is a valuable discussion in Nature about the problems that have arisen related to the (mis)use of statistics for decision-making.  To simplify the issue, it is the idea that a rather subjectively chosen cutoff, or p, value leads to dichotomizing our inferences, when the underlying phenomena may or may not be dichotomous.  For example, in a simplistic way to explain things,  if a study's results pass such a cutoff test, it means that the chance the observed result would arise if nothing is going on (as opposed to the hypothesized effect) is so small--less than p percent of the time--that we accept the data as showing that our suggested something is going on.  In other words, rare results (using our cutoff criterion for what 'rare' means) are considered to support our idea of what's afoot.  The chosen cutoff level is arbitrary and used by convention, and its use doesn't reflect the various aspects of uncertainty or alternative interpretations that may abound in the actual data.

The Nature commentaries address these issues in various ways, and suggestions are made.  These are helpful and thoughtful in themselves but they miss what I think is a very important, indeed often the critical point, when it comes to their application in many areas of biology and social science.

Instrumentation errors
In these (as other) sciences, various measurements and technologies are used to collect data.  These are mechanical, so to speak, and are always imperfect.  Sometimes it may be reasonable to assume that the errors are unrelated to what is being measured (for example, their distribution is unrelated to the value of a given instance) and don't affect what is being measured (as quantum measurements can do), then correcting for them in some reasonably systematic way, such as assuming normally distributed errors, clearly helps adjust findings for the inadvertent but causally unconnected errors.

Such corrections seem to apply quite validly to social and biological, including evolutionary and genetic, sciences.  We'll never have perfect instrumentation or measurement, and often don't know the nature of our imperfections.  Assuming errors uncorrelated with what is being sought seems reasonable even if approximate to some unknown degree. It's worked so well in the past that this sort of probabilistic treatment of results seems wholly appropriate.

But instrumentation errors are not the only possible errors in some sciences.

Conceptual errors: you can't 'correct' for them in inappropriate studies
Statistics is, properly, a branch of mathematics.  That means it is an axiomatic system, an if-then way to make deductions or inductions.  When and if the 'if' conditions are met, the 'then' consequences must follow.  Statistics rests on probabilism rather than determinism, in the sense that it relates to and is developed around, the idea that some phenomena only occur with a given probability, say p, and that such a value somehow exists in Nature.

It may have to do with the practicalities of sampling by us, or by some natural screening phenomenon (as in, say, mutation, Mendelian transmission, natural selection). But it basically always rests on some version or other of an assumption that the sampling is parametric, that is, that our 'p' value somehow exists 'out there' in Nature.  If we are, say, sampling 10% of a population (and the latter is actually well-defined!) then each draw has the same properties.  For example, if it is a 'random' sample, then no property of a potential samplee affects whether or not it is actually sampled.

But note there is a big 'if' here: Sampling or whatever process is treated as probabilistic needs to have a parameter value!  It is that which is used to compute significance measures and so on, from which we draw conclusions based on the results of our sample.

Is the universe parametric?  Is life?
In physics, for example, the universe is assumed to be parametric.  It is, universally, assumed to have some properties, like gravitational constant, Planck's constant, the speed of light, and so on.  We can estimate the parameters here on earth (as, for example, Newton himself suggested), but assume they're the same elsewhere.  If observation challenges that, we assume the cosmos is regular enough that there are at least some regularities, even if we've not figured them all out yet.

A key feature of a parametric universe is replicability.  When things are replicable, because they are parametric--have fixed universal properties, then statistical estimates and their standard deviations etc. make sense and should reflect the human-introduced (e.g., measurement) sources of variation, not Nature's.  Statistics is a field largely developed for this sort of context, or others in which sampling was reasonably assumed to represent the major source of error.

In my view it is more than incidental, but profound, that 'science' as we know it was an enterprise developed to study the 'laws' of Nature.  Maybe this was the product of the theological beliefs that had preceded the Enlightenment or, as I think at least Newton said, 'science' was trying to understand God's laws.

In this spirit, in his Principia Mathematica (his most famous book), Newton stated the idea that if you understand how Nature works in some local example, what you learned would apply to the entire cosmos.  This is how science, usually implicitly, works today.  Chemistry here is assumed to be the same as chemistry on any distant galaxy, even those we cannot see.  Consistency is the foundation upon which our idea of the cosmos and in that sense, classical science has been built.

Darwin was, in this sense, very clearly a Newtonian.  Natural selection was a 'force' he likened to gravity, and his idea of 'chance' was not the formal one we use today.  But what he did observe, though implicitly, was that evolution was about competing differences.  In this sense, evolution is inherently not parametric.

Not only does evolution rest heavily on probability--chance aspects of reproductive success, which Darwin only minimally acknowledged, but it rests on each individual's own reproductive success being unique.  Without variation, and that means variation in the traits that affect success, not just 'neutral' ones, there would be no evolution.

In this sense, the application of statistics and statistical inference in life sciences is legitimate relative to measurement and sampling issues, but is not relevant in terms of the underlying assumptions of its inferences.  Each study subject is not identical except for randomly distributed 'noise', whether in our measurement or in its fate.

Life has properties we can measure and assign average values to, like the average reproductive success of AA, Aa, and aa genotypes at a given gene. But that is a retrospective average, and it is contrary to what we know about evolution to assume that, say, all AA's have the same fitness parameter and their reproductive variation is only due to chance sampling from that parameter.

Thinking of life in parametric terms is a convenience, but is an approximation of unknown and often unknowable inaccuracy.  Evolution occurs over countless millennia, in which the non-parametric aspects can be dominating.  We can estimate, say, recombination or mutation or fitness values from retrospective data, but they are not parameters that we can rigorously apply to the future and they typically are averages among sampled individuals.

Genetic effects are unique to each background and environmental experience, and we should honor that uniqueness as such!  The statistical crisis that many are trying valiantly to explain away, so they can return to business as usual (even if not reporting p values) is a crisis of convenience, because it makes us think that a bit of different reportage (confidence limits rather than p values, for example) will cure all ills.  That is a band-aid that is a convenient port-in-a-storm, but an illusory fix. It does not recognize the important, or even central, degree to which life is not a parametric phenomenon.