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July 19, 2003
The Washington Post reports that a gene variation makes some people more vulnerable to clinical depression after a major trauma (e.g. divorce, job loss). The article utters nary a word about IQ or testosterone, but offers this tidbit:
"Moffitt's study, being published today in the journal Science, involved Caucasian patients, specifically a group of New Zealanders of mainly English, Scottish and Irish descent. There has been limited study of such genetic variations in other ethnic groups, Moffitt said, although preliminary studies indicated that groups in West Africa, as well as African Americans, were more likely to have the protective form of the gene. Small studies in Japan, Korea and China found a higher frequency of the gene that increases vulnerability, she said. Neither Moffitt nor Weinberger knew of any studies examining the question in Hispanics or Native Americans."
I am all for letting other cultures develop at their own pace-but I also think we should be honest about their differences from liberal democracy. Chris Mooney points out what "Islamic Democracy" usually means in practice. Here is an excerpt of a recent post:
What Chris is pointing out is that not all democracies are liberal - and that majority rule can sometimes lead to the curtailment of individual freedoms, something that Americans forget too often (and often fall prey to as well, for instance, the movement for the Flag Burning Amendment). This is the central theme of Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Future of Freedom. We should also note that these restrictions on "universal freedoms" are not just limited to Islamic countries-censorship is accepted in much of the European continent, and to a lesser extent in England (blasphemy laws), when there is an overwhelming perception of detracting from the social good (particularly in areas of "hate" or defamation of character more broadly interpreted). Even in the United States, the First Amendment was not generally applied to state laws until this century, and even when it was broadened, the material still had to have some "redeeming social value."
Apologists for Islamism as an acceptable form of political organization among the Western intelligensia are clearly among those who I consider "the enemy." Though as a practical matter I do not believe we can change the world in our image (the Western, and more specifically Anglospheric & American) by force of arms, ceding the moral high ground is tantamount to admitting defeat. It's an assertion of equivalence between liberal democratic regimes which serve as immigration magnets and repressive societies mired in neo-feudal stagnation and only now stumbling towards the Enlightenment (this last empirical point is telling, for though majorities often wish others to be controlled, they themselves yearn for freedom of action). To be more specific, I do admit that perhaps in this generation the women of Islamic countries may have neither control of their bodies/sexual lives nor equality before the law and society...but just because there are practical issues involved does not mean that I do not believe that one day all humanity will bend the knee before the principles of equality before the law and justice for all.
What would Voltaire do?
I don't agree with Christopher Hitchens on many issues, but this line from a profile in Frontpage Magazine hooked me:
The interpretation of this line, the actualization of the intent, is problematic & disputatious, but there are those on the Feudal Right and Relativist Left who would would hestiate or dissent from advocating the values of the Enlightenment. Those of us who draw inspiration from the Enlightenment project, its intent if not execution in all the details, often lack the zest and zeal that neo-Feudalists and hard-Leftists bring to their revolutions & reactions. Perhaps we can never equal the irrational rage and fury on the margins of the political spectrum, but we can name them, and we can brand them, and we can know them to better battle them. They are the enemy, of that I have no doubt.
July 18, 2003
Africa & AIDS
From The Economist:
"Brother Qaddafi" has a sick sense of humor. Read the full article in the extended entry....
Fight over the thinning disease
A comedian signs autographs for his fans
Get article background
A “PEACEFUL virus”, is how Colonel Muammar Qaddafi described HIV to the African Union this week. Along with malaria and sleeping sickness, the Libyan leader said, it is God's way of keeping white colonisers out of Africa. That raised a laugh. Other African leaders take the awful threat of AIDS more seriously. But not as seriously as they should, particularly in South Africa. By the government's own estimate, 1.7m deaths could be prevented by 2010 if all who need anti-AIDS drugs could get them. But the only reason we know this is that the study containing this estimate, which was finished in April but not published, was leaked this week.
Using cheap generic drugs, the report's authors estimated the cost, including doctors' time, would be at most 21 billion rand ($2.6 billion) over the next seven years. This is a big sum for a middle-income country, but affordable, easily so if the government could bring itself to accept some of the money that the UN-sponsored Global Fund keeps offering it.
Officials talk blithely of acting with the “utmost urgency”, but the report's findings have not even been discussed by the cabinet, which has met only once in three months. This fits a pattern. Figures that show infection rates worsening among pregnant women have not been published. And for the past 18 months, President Thabo Mbeki has stymied a plan to allow universal access to anti-AIDS drugs, though money is already earmarked.
What explains this reluctance to act? In part, Mr Mbeki's scepticism about the safety and usefulness of anti-retroviral drugs. His health minister calls them “poisons”. Another reason is that many South Africans are suspicious of western drug firms, who they fear want only to profit from sick Africans.
Meanwhile, a World Bank study gives warning of a “complete economic collapse” in South Africa if there is no effective response to AIDS. That is probably an exaggeration, but most economists agree that the disease hampers growth, so the cost of not treating it may be higher than doing so (see article). A number of South African firms give drugs to infected workers because, they say, it saves money in the long run. The government may finally be coming round to this view. An adviser to Mr Mbeki says the cabinet will review the leaked report “within weeks”. The delay, it is said, was to “ensure that cabinet is ready to take a decision.”
Article (free) in The Economist about the doom & gloom over the greying of Europe. One thing that the article points out, at current rates of societal aging, immigration can't make up the balance and save the pension systems of many European countries. This doesn't even take into account the dangers of supporting white Christian Old Europeans with brownish Muslim nouveau Europeans. Of course the article does not touch on transhumanism. A 100 year timescale to me is long enough that I suspect that the human race will be in a very different place sociobiologically or our current socioeconomic structure will have collapsed under the burden of its incompatibility with our biological heritage.
The key for Europe seems to be the matter of women-"partial emancipation" in places like Italy means that though women have the right and expectation to work, they are also assumed to be primary care givers for children & adult men. This of course dimishes their inclination to be involved with adult men or children. Perhaps one thing that males have to reflect upon is that legal liberation of women has more subtle consequences than we might realize-the burdens & freedoms that women have taken up have an effect on the other side of the equation, as males must take up some of the burdens that women must let go to enter the public sphere. The only way the equation seems to be balancing right now is that children are being removed out of it.
Cause we are living in a material world...
Excerpt from Tony's Blair's speech to the U.S. Congress yesterday:
"The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defense and our first line of attack. And just as the terrorist seeks to divide humanity in hate, so we have to unify around an idea. And that idea is liberty. (Applause.) We must find the strength to fight for this idea and the compassion to make it universal. Abraham Lincoln said, "Those that deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves." And it is this sense of justice that makes moral the love of liberty."
That's a lot of idealism for one paragraph. Is Tony Blair really just pushing the same supernatural claptrap as the Pope with a different spin (e.g. just substitute 'Christ's love' for 'freedom' and 'salvation through Christ' for 'liberty' above)? What is "liberty" in a material world?
July 15, 2003
Muslim, pregnant & unmarried
This interview of a liberal Muslim journalist is very interesting. She is more "religious" than I am, but I can relate in some ways.... (aside from the being pregnant out-of-wedlock part)
Faux Indians, Native Americans
The Great Leap
This New York Times article on the "Great Leap Forward" is a pretty good survey of the issues at hand. As stated, "anatomically modern humans" existed in Africa 100,000 years ago, but it wasn't until ~50,000 years B.P. that there was a ratchet up toward the hallmarks of modern sapiency. The breakneck speed of cultural evoution and the profusion of forms & styles that characterize our species seems to have lagged our outward humanity by tens of thousands of years.
What was the catalyst? Some theorists posit that an important regulatory gene-FOXP2-played a crucial role, in particular, in the development of the capacity for language. I'm pretty agnostic on this issue. Dr. Henry Harpending has indicated that it might be that not all modern humans made the cultural transition in toolkits that characterizes the "Great Leap," suggesting that if modern humans are genetically very similar (the result of a radiative expansion from African 50,000 years ago), it is more than just an alteration in in the FOXP2 gene in the African context.
Dusty Baker pt II - Entine Weighs In
Let's review Anthropology 101. Population groups have distinct body types. Elite football players, dependent on speed and jumping ability, are disproportionately of West African descent. Why? Because, as dozens of studies have shown, they have (on average) smaller and more efficient lungs, higher oxidative capacity, more fast-twitch muscle fibers, and a muscled but lean body type.
*Choice quote: "We've been lectured for years that "race is only skin deep," that the only differences between races are surface features evolved to adapt humans to local climates. Now, though, a new dogma appears to be emerging - that race isn't even skin deep!”
BRITAIN'S NON-WHITE PRIME MINISTER
The politically-correct British media often complain that there are too few people from ethnic minorities in senior political roles. This is contrasted with the position in the United States, where Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are near the top of the tree. The complainers often ask rhetorically: when will we ever see a non-white Prime Minister?
I was therefore pleased to discover recently that (on a broad enough definition) we have already had one.
Lord Liverpool (Robert Banks Jenkinson, 1770-1828) was Tory Prime Minister from 1812 to 1827. He was descended on his mother's side from British merchants in India who had intermarried with the local population. I don't know the exact proportion of Indian ancestry, but it was less than a quarter, so probably not noticeable. But it was no secret, and Lord Liverpool himself referred to it in his speeches.
It is interesting that the Tory (Conservative) party seems to have been more adventurous in its choice of leaders than its opponents. Apart from Liverpool, they include the Jewish Benjamin Disraeli (admittedly baptised as a Christian, but Jewish by name, ancestry and appearance), a 'confirmed bachelor' (Edward Heath), a woman (Margaret Thatcher), and the son of a trapeze-artist with a very colourful love-life (John Major). The present leader of the party (Iain Duncan Smith) is one-eighth Japanese, and his main rival for the leadership is a half-Spaniard with an admitted gay past (Michael Portillo).
So I'm inclined to predict that within 30 years we will have a black lesbian Prime Minister - and she will be a Tory!
within 30 years we will have a black lesbian Prime Minister - and she will be a Tory!
I shall refrain from making the obvious Condoleeza Rice reference...
Charles Murtaugh points out that Peter Duesberg isn't always wrong-and that his heterodox HIV-does-not-cause-AIDS schtick probably retarded acceptance of a hypothesis that might have some validity in relation to the cause of cancer. The bad of science? Personality and politics are important. The good of it? Overwhelming evidence will always drag a slow-poke tortise theory weighed down by extraneous baggage over the finish line. Evidence is more important in the end.
July 14, 2003
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIUM?
This is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one.
From the mid-70s up to about 1990, there was controversy about the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution. You could hardly open a scientific magazine like New Scientist or Scientific American without finding some new argument.
But from 1990 onwards interest in the subject seems to have declined. Am I right about this, or have I just developed a blind spot?
I’m aware that shortly before his death Stephen Jay Gould published a vast book on The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which I haven’t read, but judging from the reviews it was just a rehash of everything he’d said before. The general lack of excitement at its publication suggests a loss of interest in the controversy.
If I am right about this, what is the explanation? Have biologists reached a consensus on the merits of the case? Or have they just got bored with it?
I have no strong view on the issue myself. What I found annoying about Eldredge and Gould’s approach is the way they exaggerated the novelty of their theory. In particular their treatment of George Gaylord Simpson was outrageous. Their own theory could well have been presented as an extension of Simpson’s idea of quantum evolution, but instead they chose either to ignore him or to mention only their disagreements with him. Of course, the controversy also got entangled with Gould’s crusade against adaptationism, and his flirtation with macromutation.
But on the substance of the issues, I think there is quite a lot to be said for punctuated equilibrium. I could even live with a bit of macromutation if necessary.
Ultimately the prevalence of a punctuational mode of evolution is an empirical matter. The controversy dragged on for so long because the fossil record is seldom good enough to trace in detail the transition from one species to another.
But it strikes me that the controversy took place in the era before DNA sequencing. Surely the new technology should transform the terms of the debate? By comparing the genes of closely related species, isn’t it possible in principle to reconstruct the course and timing of the genetic divergence between them? On a broader scale one could do the same with genera, families, etc.
Maybe a lot of work like this is going on, but if so I don’t think it has yet filtered through to the general scientific public. There has been a good deal of work aimed at resolving disputes in phylogeny (like the relationships of the various invertebrate phyla), but this is not quite the same issue. What I have in mind are questions like: how long did it take for (e.g.) lions to diverge from leopards and tigers? How many gene substitutions were involved? Were they genes with major phenotypic effects, or were there a large number of small changes? Is it possible to estimate the size of the populations during the transition? Were the changes concentrated in the period when the species became reproductively isolated from each other, or were they spread out over a longer period?
As always, I hope someone can point me to relevant work that I wasn’t aware of.
July 13, 2003
How race is lived in ... Latino America?
Caste & quotas
Poor Brahmins want quotas too! One thing the article does not mention is that caste is so complex that it might be hard to generalize from the region in question that is highlighted, Rajasthan, to the rest of India. To make it simple, there is only one upper caste in most of the southern half of India, Brahmins, and they form less than 5% (around 1-2% normally) of the population everywhere. In contrast, in the north, which is where this article is focused, Brahmins can form as much as 10% of the population, and adding other twice-born castes, who do not exist in the south, upper castes can form as much as 30-40% of the population . The last census with caste was taken in 1931, so we draw much of our data from that period-though the current census has resumed the practice.
Update: Pinko-brown guy Tejas corrects me, they decided against registering caste in the recent census.
 A very simplistic summary, Brahmins, Kshatriyas & Vaisyas are upper-castes, or twice-born. Sudras form the lower caste, while Dalits are outcastes. Of course, each of these broad groupings has more relevant sub-levels of organization, most importantly, jatis. And, these categories were traditionally more fluid before the British began taking regular surveys in the 19th century. Government recognition and affirmative action have crystallized the divisions and barriers between groups. The book Castes of Mind is an excellent overview of the issues at hand.