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May 31, 2003
Math is boring-not hard?
U-M study helps define why fewer women choose math-based careers, the reason? Women have different priorities than men. This sort of data has been floating out there-I remember reading about a study where they tracked very mathematically precocious early teens and found that the boys were far more likely to enter Ph.D. programs that emphasized math. The girls on the other hand (a minority of the original sample to begin with) focused on medicine, law and other high-powered professions that would earn them more money than becoming an engineering professor.
On a related note, I was talking to a friend recently about how relationship discussions with guys and girls are so different. If I tell a male friend that he should break-up with his g/f because she's not right for him, he will respond with brevity, "OK, sure," or "Dude, shut-up." On the other hand my female friends tend to ask detailed questions about why, when I formed this opinion, what my motivations might be, and so forth. In contrast, when I suggest that a friend needs a wireless card for their laptop, girls will be "OK," or "Can't afford it," but a guy will start to ask in detail what the context is, the various standards, what the ramifications are in terms of the utility of lugging around a desktop replacement, will that entail the purchase of a router, etc.
My point? We're different. As individuals. As genders. As groups. Is that so wrong? Each individual makes decisions and excessive focus on aggregates can get you lost in the forest when the trees are really what's important. The flip-side is that we can't ignore the aggregate if we're looking at social policy. As a libertarian, I tend to favor less public social policy, and more private acts and civil society, but since I have to engage with people on the Right and Left that believe in the utility, the necessity, of government intervention and evaluating groups, I do speak in the language of aggregates.
Backdate from Jason S
One state under liberty?
I'm a big fan of liberty, my personal political orientation is pretty much libertarian, but I have resigned myself to the fact that libertarianism, along with atheism, rationalism, etc. are oddball norms & views that will never really convince the majority . So I'm glad to see that someone is trying to get libertarians to move to a small state and pool their power. Check it out, The Free State Project. Ex-GNXPer and Lady from Gotham Diana Moon once asked sarcastically that all libertarians should move to the Dakotas and we can have our libertopia there. Well actually...I thought at the time, "sure," why not?
This nation, this republic, was formed at a time when fewer than 10% of the eligible males in a population of 2.5 million could vote and intermediary institutions were far more powerful (the Senators were elected indirectly through the state legislature, etc.). I am personally skeptical of the scalability of the republican project to 300 million individuals-especially when evolutionary pscyhology tells us that the average human can't really keep track of more than 150 people as fully-fleshed personalities.
More on this later....
 My political factionalism has waned as my concern for the safety and health of western liberalism has grown.
Props to US NEWS & WORLD REPORT for reporting on the plight of the Mandaeans, also known as the "Christians of John the Baptist," who practice a gnostic flavored faith in southern Iraq. But, shame on them for not using fact checkers, divorce is not forbidden in Islam.
May 29, 2003
Spelling Bee Kids
Hey, this brown kid won the National Spelling Bee. Another brown kid won last year, so I did a quick survey of the ethnicities of the contestants to look for patterns. This is what I found (I clicked to see every image and read up a bit to get clues for the ambiguous):
I put Southeast Asians with the East Asians under the "Asian" category-including Filipinos with Latin last names. Most of the mixed seemed Eurasian. A lot of Asian adoptees (European names) were in among the contestants.
Go see the contestants here.
Update from Jason M: Hey kids, get out your calipers - the New York Times muses on the Geography Bee gender gap:
With students left to their own devices, a geography gender gap has become evident, so wide that with five million students participating in the bee, about 77 percent of the school winners are boys...
...Why the geography gap endures, some researchers say, has something to do with the fact that most schools are still not teaching the subject, and something to do with the toys geared toward boys and other social influences.
But mostly, they say, the gap stems from cognitive differences that give boys better spatial skills than girls. The same advantages that help boys in the geography bee make them, in general, better at navigation and finding their way.
[via Chris Brand]
Real life Mer-men & water-babies?
In the entry under "weird," the Moken "Sea-Nomads" that inhabit the inter-tidal region along the Burma-Thailand coast seem to have better underwater vision. Please note that the Moken might be among the earliest inhabitants of southeast Asia, so they've had a long time to get used to the ocean (perhaps they are the remnants of the southern wave "beachcombers").
Gaming makes you smarter?
This research press release from the University of Rochester is very interesting. Titled "Action-Based Video Games Enhance Visual Attention," here is the introduction:
Some have suggested that this sort of sensory enrichment might account for some of the Flynn Efffect. Slashdot of course posts these sort of stories all the time....
May 28, 2003
MORE ON MEMES
After recent discussion of cultural evolution I realised that I didn’t know much about memes, so I set myself the penance of reading Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine.
It turned out to be a painless penance, as the book is well written and full of interesting ideas. Blackmore doesn’t overstrain the analogy between memes and genes - in fact, she stresses the differences more than the similarities. She believes that the ‘key innovation’ of the human species is the ability to imitate. True imitation is rare among non-human animals, and the range and quality of human imitation are unique. The ability to imitate presumably first evolved because it conferred a genetic advantage, but once the ability had emerged, it created a new selective environment in which genes and memes co-evolve. Blackmore also emphasises that sexual selection would favour the best imitators, and argues that ‘the specific nature of the memes of the time would determine which genes were more successful. The memes began to force the hand of the genes’ (p. 79). Using this concept of ‘memetic
For all that, I still don’t find the book convincing! This is partly because the analysis of specific cultural traits is naive and superficial. For example, before discussing the celibacy of the (Catholic) clergy in print, one should at least read some ecclesiastical history to find out when, where, and how the rule of celibacy was established. In fact, it wasn’t generally enforced until the eleventh century, as part of the medieval Papacy’s campaign to impose central control over church appointments and property. This had more to do with politics and economics than anything covered by ‘memetics’.
Blackmore’s arguments about ‘meme-gene co-evolution’ are also sketchy and hand-waving. Her rhetoric implies that memes ‘drive’ the genes contrary to natural selection, but if this is really what she means, she needs to spell the process out more clearly. There is no problem if she just means that the products of imitative behaviour create new selective pressures for the genes, any more than there is a problem in the fact that once birds start making nests this imposes new selective pressures for nest-building. But she seems to intend more than this. She relies heavily on sexual selection (by female choice) to promote the ‘meme-favoured’ genes, but the theory of female choice is notoriously tricky (see the discussions in P. Bateson (ed.) Mate Choice, and M. Andersson, Sexual Selection). And there is no guarantee that what works with genes carries over to memes.
Consider especially the ‘Fisher’ process of evolution by female choice. First, we assume that a small but significant proportion of females have somehow acquired a genetically-based preference for males with a certain genetically-based trait. Provided there is some degree of polygyny in the mating system, the preference will give that trait a selective advantage. Females who mate with the favoured males will have offspring who often have genes both for the female preference and for the favoured male trait. The male offspring will often carry (but not express) the gene for female preference and pass it on to their own daughters. And since males with the favoured male trait have higher fitness (and therefore more daughers) than those who do not, the gene for female preference will increase in frequency. And so on, and so on.
But a crucial part of this process depends on males carrying unexpressed genes for female behavioural traits. While this is no problem for genes, it is far from clear that the same applies to memes. Genes can be recessive or sex-limited (expressed in only one sex), which on the face of it is impossible for memes. Why should women have the same memes for sexual preference as their fathers’ mothers, and not those of their own mothers or their mothers’ mothers? Yet Blackmore discusses the ‘Fisher’ process without showing any awareness of these problems, and I am not convinced that she has thought the implications through in detail.
Still, it’s an important book, and well worth reading. Overall, it left me with the feeling that memes do need to be taken seriously, but only as one aspect or dimension of cultural evolution. I suggest that in looking at any cultural trait we should consider at least the following aspects of it:
Historical: what do we know about how the trait has actually emerged and developed?
BLOOD AND GUTS
There is an interesting study in a recent issue of Science:
Science, March 7, 2003, vol. 299, pp.1582-85: Daniel Falush et. al.: Traces of Human Migration in Helicobacter pylori Populations (and commentary by Brian Spratt at pp. 1528-9).
Helicobacter pylori is a bacterium that lives in the human gut. It is transmitted mainly by prolonged physical contact, especially from mother to child. Within the gut, different strains of the bacterium recombine freely with each other. The phylogeny of the bacterium should therefore track the phylogeny of the human host population, diverging when different groups are separated, merging when they are united.
Falush et. al. have used analysis of Helicobactor to trace a number of important human migration events: the Polynesian colonisation, the spread of the Bantu in Africa, the occupation of the Americas, and so on. The results are generally consistent with genetic analysis of humans (Cavalli-Sforza, etc.). For Europe, the results are difficult to analyse, because there has been considerable mixing between groups of different origins. The authors however believe the European strains probably originate from two main sources, one from the direction of central Asia and one from the Near East and North Africa.
The commentary by Spratt is cautious about the prospects of resolving controversies about human ancestry with Helicobacter. The method is mainly useful when groups have been isolated for long periods (like the Maoris), but more problematic when populations have mingled. However, Spratt suggests that the statistical tools devised for the analysis may also be useful when applied directly to human genes, and not just bacterial ones.
May 27, 2003
The BBC sponsored a study on British genetics. Here is the BBC site, an NY TIMES article on the topic, and the abstract from Current Biology (Wade in the NY TIMES seems to buy Renfrew's "demic diffusion" of Indo-Europeans with agriculture 8,000 years ago-the article seems a bit more garbled than usual for him).
Converting the Mahometan?
This NY TIMES article about Evangelicals contemplating the conversion of Muslims is interesting. As an atheist from a Muslim background I think that a collision between these two fundamentalisms is all for the good if it damages both. Additionally my personal experience with many Evangelicals is that they are intellectually not sophisticated and their understanding of which ever "Enemy" they have in their sight at the moment is usually shallow (speaking as an atheist, I've been involved in with discussions with theists who barely understand where I'm coming from, but tend to parrot back talking points learned in church when the pastor was preaching to the choir) . Though the article makes clear there is some nuance among Evangelicals in their attitudes toward Islam, the "foot-soldiers" are generally much more blunt and rough-hewn in their conception of the opposition than the theologians, and this lack of genuine clarity (the preconception with stereotypes) will make attempts to convert Muslims pretty futile in my opinion. On a final note, this sort of hubristic attitude toward unbelievers is exactly what I saw in mosques in the United States as a child, though Muslims are very sensitive about Christian missions targeting them, even in the United States, unlike the Hindus and Jews that have been similarly focused upon, they as a proslyetizing faith are being a bit disingenious when they argue for pluralism of belief.
Update: Reason puts the situation in perspective.
 I heard on NPR a few years back a writer who had studied the Christians of the Near East recount how southern Evangelicals who visit the Holy Land sometimes are surprised about the presence of indigenous Arab believers. One of his contacts, a Christian of Armenian extraction who worked as a waiter, always bristled when American Evangelicals with heavy southern accents asked him when he had "converted to Christianity" when they saw the cross he wore. For those not in the know, Armenians like to assert that they were the nation that first accepted Christianity as the state religion, not Rome.
Black gene bank
May 26, 2003
Matt Ridley's new book Nature via Nurture has an interesting title-but the central thesis is rather prosaic, that the "nature vs. nurture" controversy is simply much ado about nothing, the line between the two is fuzzier than one might suppose because of gene/environment interaction. A more accurate title might be "Genome: 2003." Ridley's 1999 book, GENOME, was a meatier work, a bit longer and less fluffed up by the pretentious premise that he was attempting to transcend the nature vs. nurture debate. Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate covers much of the same material, at greater length, though again, he is weighed down by his fixation on the peripheral issues of the "ghost in the machine" (mind-material dualism) and the "noble savage."
Perhaps part of the problem is that books like these are aimed at a very general audience, all the way from science neophytes to those who regularly read books on evolutionary psychology and practicing scientists. The general audience must always be told that though the books might focus on biology-that is not the sum of who we are, but the building block from which we start. For instance, just because this blog focuses on genes, that does not mean that is "all we care about," rather, we wish to spotlight that aspect of our nature that is more difficult to speculate about in coffee shops because Psychologly 101 is much more likely to be in the educational arsenal of the typical person than Genetics 101 . That complex emergent structures like family, clan, society, etc. have an influence in shaping who we are seems so obvious that I find it peculiar when people accuse those of us who speak of biology in the context of human nature as being "determinists," for of course we acknowledge that there are other aspects of humanity. It seems so clear & assumed that I simply don't want to start every discussion of biology with caveat on non-biology, just as every discussion on social/public policy doesn't begin with caveats on economics or other fields of possible interest or concern that serve as limiting parameters on the core discussion.
Ridley puts in his ten cents in one of the first chapters on the issue of human nature, that we are an animal like any other (sort of), titled The Paragon of Animals. He makes clear that man is a beast, a brute, though an exceedingly clever one . Even the religious who believe that we are made in the image of god(s) must acknowledge the face of an animal looking back at themselves when they gaze at their reflections in a mirror-whatever the "soul" animates, the body is flesh and bone. Like his previous books, the aforementioned GENOME, but especially THE RED QUEEN and THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE, the author uses animals to illustrate how behaviors we view as human in fact are rooted in our bestial inheritance. Ridley himself is a zoologist by training so he is on strong ground here, though I would wish he would divulge his own political biases, for he has worked for The Economist as a journalist for many years rather than a practicing scientist, and tends to mirror its neoliberal/libertarian orientation .
After the preliminaries, Ridley starts venturing into more controversial waters. One of the chapters has a rough sketch on Francis Galton, the thinker who triggered the eugenics movement, and he addresses IQ testing and Bouchard's twin studies. Yes, Ridley does go into the heritability of IQ. If you read GENOME this isn't a surprise, he touches upon this a bit, and even hints that there might be average differences between populations, though he does not come down on either side. He goes further in this book (perhaps this makes sense since he's had 4 years to go over the literature). Ridley admits that The Pioneer Fund backed Bouchard's study, but echoes the researcher's claim that it was because only they offered him the grant without strings that pushed for any conclusion after the data was collected. Ridley also mentions two things that make me think that he read a bit of Rushton-he trots out the correlation between head size (a proxy for brain size) and IQ (40%) and the fact that blacks have higher twinning rates than whites who have higher twinning rates than Asians (this last piece of data was what really opened me up to discussions on human biodiversity because it seems more than cosmetic in import). Though Rushton has been villified, milder versions of what he has asserted, that different groups of modern humans might have followed divergent adaptive strategies, seems to be percolating through the works of others now (Calvin and Wells for instance), though all without attribution and stripped away of the most explicit and socially offensive implications.
Much of the middle section of the book is a wide collection of recent studies that relate to biology, environment, and their intersection (developmental biology and epigenetic factors on the molecular level, etc.). Going back to twins, Ridley points out some of the traits that don't seem to have a strong genetic component, humor, food preference, social & political attitudes and religion. None of this is surprising, but one thing that might surprise some people, religious fervor does have a strong heritable component. What does this exactly mean? Well, if one identical twin is raised Evangelical Lutheran and another United Methodist, as adults, they might gravitate toward the fundamentalist sects that split off from their traditions, the Missouri Synod Lutherans and Free Methodists. "Religious fervor" is simply a subset of personality, which often has a strong heritable component . I wouldn't be surprised if radical Leftists and Rightists who were atheists had twins who were Christian fundamentalists-"religious fervor" is probably an indicator for overall "zeal."
Then the author touches upon a topic that interests many people for different reasons: schizophrenia. Ridley explores the various theories and hypothesis that have been offered as causal agents. Scientists have long known of a strong correlation between twins, but since it is not perfect, there must be other factors than genes. Disease, time of year of conception, various prenatal factors, etc. probably all come into play. Ridley points out that many "brilliant" people have a history of schizophrenia, either themselves or in their families, a caution against those who wish to "purge" undesirables from the gene pool. Ridley also touches upon the prevelance of Asperger's Syndrome among geeks, and notes with some sadness that those who have the flip-side of it, lack of technical fluency but greater interpersonal skills, tend not be osctracized by society to the same extent . Many "mental diseases" are probably multifactorial, and combine genetic predisposition with environmental triggers, so that nature & nurture act as a lock & key that open the pandora's box when there is a meeting of both variables. Additionally, Ridley emphasizes prenatal development, something all geneticists have to take into account in biological development as genetic changes dynamically in the womb can alter the mendelian substrate considerably. As the book progresses Ridley throws in issues like the mother's immune response to prior male pregnancies and the idea of "imprinting" in the context of language & incest aversion. Though both language and incest aversion have root genetic causal factors-they must be triggered by a particular social context, in this case, peer groups and close family members during formative years. To say that it is "nature vs. nurture" is obviously a bit much in this case-but rather nature + nuture => human. I find this to be a mundane and obvious point, but perhaps this is revolutionary to many people out there, because that is basically all that separates this book in emphasis from his previous work, especially GENOME.
Along the way there are stop overs at old favorites-Franz Boas, Emile Durkheim, Freud, Skinner & Watson, and so forth. The behaviorists are torn to shreds, the Freudians are laughed at and the neural connectionists are dismissed. Ridley tries to assert that some of these "nurturists" made a proper contribution to the sum of human knowledge-but I always get the feeling that much of what they contributed was either common sense or methodology applied later in a more fruitfull context or paradigm. Just like the old hereditarians were tiresome and simplistic, the old nurturists were also captivated by their one-size-fits-all paradigm, and while the determinists gave birth to fascism, many of the nurturists have assocations with the communists. In the end the sciences of man in the service of the state or ideology can be a dangerous thing-one generation's "scientific wisdom" is refuted in the next. In the context of chemistry or engineering this might be problematic, resulting in chemicals that might cause cancer or machines that malfunction, but when applied to societies the outcome is positively disasterous if it takes a wrong turn.
There are other nuggets of wisdom and tales of studies scattered from front to back. An obligatory chapter on the speculation about the origin of modern humans sits awkardly next to the prior chapters on evolutionary psychology today where they at least have flesh & blood subjects-and a dismisal of racial differences is tacked on in a short and sweet page after discussion on possible genetic differences between modern & archaic Homo sapiens that might have contribued to The Great Leap Forward (Spencer Wells talked about this sort of thing in Journey of Man as well, I suspect that all of these writers have a small cabal of book agents that have a mandatory TODO list). This is not a reference book-the studies will be vindicated or overturned in the next few years, and the prose is a bit less enchanting than that of GENOME (a book that I think doesn't take itself as seriously). Additionally, the "Nature via Nurture" angle isn't very exciting at all. On getting this book I thought Ridely was going to speak of the changes that culture has on biology (genetics) in more detail. He hints at this in GENOME, but doesn't seem willing to go much further. In fact his most explicit reference is a negative in the shape of Konrad Lorenz, prominent geneticist and enthusiastic Nazi, who wondered if humans were becoming "domesticated" and therefore as sickly and infantile as many domestic animals are in comparison to their wild relatives. Well, what of it? Ridley adds a sentence here and there about the possible changes that the Neolithic Revolution and the coalescence of large human population centers might have had on the human personality, or selection for various types of personality, but he does not keep the ball rolling. Is it any surprise that myopia rates are highest among Jews and Chinese, lowest among blacks? To certain people perhaps. To most, no. What are the implications of that fact that different populations practiced different forms of agriculture and engaged in different lifestyles for thousands of years?
Ridley is not craven in that he does not attack those who have attracted to themselves negative press over the years because of their boldness or lack of Oxbridge tact-he echoes The Bell Curve in suggesting that a perfect meritocracy based on abilities would be anything but "fair," as genes (alleles) are distributed unequally in individuals through the population. He points out the peculiarity that nurture, in the form of prenatal and early childhood experience & development, can be fixed so that its effects are unchangeable in later life, refuting the idea that nurture by definition is "malleable" while nature is set-in-stone. This book is an extension of his work over the years, a compilation of studies that have been ongoing and progressed since GENOME, tied together by an interesting premise that's really not that revolutionary.
Let me add also that the typeface is large and at 285 pages it's a quick read-especially if you've read in this area much. The last few chapters are pretty boring-he tries to be a political philosopher & wise man, but he should stick to reporting other people's research, that's what he's good at. The ideas presented in the meat of the book aren't difficult, and an intelligent lay person doesn't need Ridley to organize and systematize their thinking for them.
On a final note, the jacket picture indicates that he's lost a lot of hair since GENOME came out. Probably he finally got a new picture taken. Why does it matter? As James Watson responded when asked why Rosalind Franklin's appearence mattered so much, "because it does."
 We are clever, but language, math, and much that "sets us apart" are emergent properties of our neural hardwiring, in other words, rooted in our animal nature. We are a beast as any other, and just as the baby chick is born able to scurry after its mother if she's there to tug at them with her maternal apron-strings, we are born babblers who have a propensity to talk when placed in the correct environmental context because we have the genetic building blocks and instincts.
 Human nature is what it is-though we might err on occasion in the science, it almost certainly exists. It is not relevant what our politics are, though it might be relevant to policy prescriptions that follow from our norms, so whether we be Left or Right, religious or not, an understanding of the animal substrate from which our emergent properties issue is important.
 I share this position in the ideological typology myself-but in the interests of full disclosure, one should put that on the table. Ridley's attacks on Marxists for instance almost certainly have a bit more bite because he disagrees with the dastardly Leftists on normative grounds as well as their addiction to bad science (from Lysenko to Steve Rose). And of course the Right has also a sweet-tooth for rotten-science at times....
 From a human biodiversity perspective I would be curious to see if there are differences in "religious fervor" between the races. Neuroscientists have found evidence of a "God Module" in the brain, so there are multiple avenues of exploration out there if people choose to follow them.
 But those that have tasted the sweetness of mathematical elegance, and I have only have a small dose of this ambrosia, might accept social ostracism as the price one pays for this particular nirvana.
May 25, 2003
He Brings a Little Culture to Math (login: GNXP, password: evilgenes).
Update: Here is a comment by Thomas Sowell on "late talkers" and their fluency at math.
Update 2: Thomas R. DeGregori details how "ethnic science" is harming India in this article. Posted by martin.