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August 02, 2003
Bloggers on GNXP are mostly "thinkers", not "linkers", but I came across a couple of posts which I thought you might enjoy...
This is pretty much the argument of Susan Blackmore's terrific Meme Machine, with a somewhat political spin.
August 01, 2003
Mouse 'g' Discovered
Nature Science Update reports:
Some mice are cleverer than others, say US neuroscientists. Their rodent equivalent of an IQ test might fuel the controversial pursuit for genes linked to human intelligence.
This discovery should have important implications for research like Tsien's. What also caught my eye about this article was the nice big ad for Jensen's magisterial The 'g' Factor placed in the lower right-hand corner.
Paid to go to church
Minister paying whites to attend his black church. Strange world....
Genes & Math-two subjects & two books
A few weeks ago I read two books in quick succession, Born That Way: Genes, Behavior & Personality and The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan. Below are two short book reviews & summations....
William Wright's book, Born That Way, takes Thomas Bouchard's study of twins raised apart as the jumping off point for an engaging and vicious broadside into the collapsing dogma of the tabula rasa. Unlike Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, this is not a magisterial survey of human nature from the perspective of a scientist & insider, but an enthusiastic journalist's tale of the rise of biology once more in the wilderness of psychology. Wright himself had a passing interest in psychology in college, but abandoned his interest due to what he perceived as the nonsensical anti-biological orientation of most of the professors of the age.
Wright's book seems a big disorganized sometimes, and I felt some chapters had less focus than others, especially the ones chronicalling the rise & fall of Freudianism, where the author's contempt for the field seemed to drip across the pages . The last chapter ends in something of a wimper, as Wright commits the same sins of underplaying the importance of the research that he accuses scientists like Bouchard of doing on occassion. But the author clearly developed a good rapport with individuals like Bouchard, Sandra Scarr and Jerome Kagan, though he does not hide his distaste for what he percieves to be the personal & ideological crusades of Leon Kamin.
The basic sketch of the book is familiar to many GNXP readers-Bouchard found rather high heritabilities for many traits in twins that had not been raised together. The sniping from the critics is also recounted in exquisite detail-in all its folly & dishonesty. Wright explains how a common objection is that twins had some contact, or were adopted by similar families, and that Bouchard et al. respond by noting that studies of twins raised together show very similar heritabilities as twins raised apart-a rather odd coincidence if parental environment is so crucial . The book notes that many of the critics of Bouchard et al. simply ignore this finding and launch into point by point refutations that have been addressed by Bouchard and his defenders ad nauseum. Somewhere the science has ended and the politics have begun.
The technical details are fascinating, but they can be distilled more neatly in a survey of the literature, it is the political machinations that Wright exposes that we might not normally see . Here is an excerpt from a chapter titled Oh So Political Science:
There is plenty of science, biological & social, in this book. From current advances in behavorial genetics, population genetics, the "Jensen furor," the Margaret Mead "controversy," Jerome Kagan's frank acknowledgement of different innate temperaments in infants and a deluge of twin concordances, this book can serve as a good introduction to the neophyte. But the typical GNXP reader? I'm not so sure. If you have some free time, the book is a window into the politics that seems to simmer in American psychology, and certainly it has good play-by-play of the battles that Leon Kamin and his soldiers have been engaging in against the invading army of Bouchard & Scarr (I judge that they are losing this war except on the pages of The New York Review of Books).
The next book I read was about the Indian mathematician Ramanujan. The first thing I would like to note is that this picture:
Is very deceptive-it was taken when he was suffering from tuberculosis and had lost a great deal of weight. The real Ramanujan was a notoriously corpulent man, if not obese because of his strict vegetarian diet.
Unlike most "biographies" of great scientists, it does cover the science of Ramanujan, at least his contributions to number theory. This is good, though as the book winds down, the math gets less play, perhaps because its deepest implications will escape the lay reader. Here is a paragraph from the end of the book:
Yes, the author covers the myriad applications of Ramanujan's math to modern science and engineering, but in the end that is beside the point of the book. The point of the book is the math and the men. When I say men, this is as much a book about G. H. Harding, Ramanujan's mentor and interface with the "normal" world of Oxbridge Acamedia, as it is about the Indian genius. On a scale of 100, Hardy rated himself a 25, David Hilbert an 80, and Ramanujan a 100, when it came to pure mathematical ability. But it is clear that Hardy revelled in his role as John the Baptist and took greater joy in that then in the more prosaic contributions he made to science, foremost among them, the Hardy-Weinberg Equation , which he found banal.
Focused on these two figures, the author, Robert Kanigel, engages in a bit of social science, framing Ramanujan and Hardy's origins both in ancestry and location. The detail that Ramanujan was an Iyengar Tamil Brahmin, Vaishnavites, rather than an Iyer, a Shaivite Tamil Brahmin, seems irrelevant, but this is an author that dots all his i's. Hardy was himself the son of teachers, who were the scions of yeoman farmers, common-folk at the extreme. And yet these two individuals shot like meteors into the world of math, where by accomplishment alone one is judged. They both had their idiosyncracies, Ramanujan was an orthodox Brahmin who believed sincerely in the local godess of his region as the source of his genius, while Hardy had a cultish devotion to cricket and a literary flair that would have served him in good stead if he had become a historian, as he had once considered.
In a way, both were asectic outliers in a conventional world only slowly shaking off the dress of Victorianism, Ramanujan was so absorbed in his math that he did not work for many years and his relationship with his wife was tenuous at best. Hardy remained a "confirmed bachelor" and a likely homosexual, who like many Oxford dons had little contact with women who were not blood relatives (his sister also remained unmarried and the two lived together for many years). While Hardy's parents were teachers, Ramanujan's Brahmin background meant that his social equals praised and valued his "genius," and there was not the sort of pressure to find a trade that might have occurred had he been of another caste. Like the Jews of old, Ramanujan's parents allowed him to cloister himself in his room for years on end, pursuing his passion for math in a fashion reminiscent of a Talmudic scholar searching for kabbalistic wisdom and Oneness with God.
Peculiar as it may seem, Ramanujan's brothers showed no great mathematical skill and became conventional civil servants. His life, and that of Hardy, surely makes one wonder as to the "relative fitness" of those whose minds shine the most brightly on our intellectual horizons. The author notes that a survey of great British scientists of the time indicated that more than 1/4 were bachelors that never married, a rather high percentage in the late Victorian age for men who could surely have afforded a reasonable household. Like a eunuch class they emerged just as other men, but the teleology of their life were not children of flesh, but power embodied in ideas.
There are many mines to tap in the story of Ramanujan. The physicist Subramanian Chandrasekhar held him up as a role model and idol, as did all of India. Ramanujan's mystical & religious beliefs are something the author uses as a cudgel against Hardy's aggressive atheism-while the Indian mathematician's un-tutored and original mind is contrasted implicitly with the horrid Tripos test that nearly drove Hardy from math to history. In some ways, the book reads like a fantasy, except the story is known, and it is true. An obscure clerk who could not summon the concentration to pass any classes outside of math in college without a bachelor's degree became a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Cambridge Fellow, all based on his raw ability, that transcended any piece of paper he had no possession of.
 A contempt that is richly deserved in my opinion nonetheless.
Palaeontology database in the house!
Palaeontology databases will add some computational verve to the intuitive and oh-so-subjective task of interpreting fossils and commenting on the record as it is according to this article in Nature. I have a friend who is doing graduate work in "computational palaeontology," who would have thought that there was such a field ? Additionally, these sorts of tools might be useful against the Creationists in the public domain. After all, have a dispute with a anti-evolution nutter? If you have a public database you could plop him in front of palaeontology.google.com and give him a heavy dose of reality. Finally, many children are introduced to science through a love of dinosaurs and natural history, and this database could be another way of luring young minds to science as they scour it for minutiae on their favorite species (usually T-Rex of course!).
 He's a CIS guy who works in the biology department now.
July 31, 2003
GNXP political orientation?
Sometimes people make assumptions about GNXP's political orientation. If you took the sum of our views and "averaged" them out, I'd suspect that "classical liberal" would be what you ended up with. That being said, there's a fair diversity here, despite the fact that some topics we address that are taboo ghettoize us with the Right. So, to clear things up, I took a political quiz, and invite other GNXPers to take the quiz and tell people the results so that everyone has a good idea where everyone else is coming from.
The quiz I took was here. Here is what it said about me:
And the image produced:
Here's me. I would have probably gone for more regulation if I retook it, but I am pretty close to the center. I campaigned for Gore in 2000. Interesting that there were no foreign policy questions - that is a third axis that separates a lot of people.
My map. Very close to razib (just one 'unit' to the east I think). Adding a foreign policy dimension would be interesting, but there are a lot of areas they could ask more questions in. Anyway, we're all clustered pretty close together so far, but I can't say I'm surprised. Oddly though I classify myself as a left-libertarian where razib seems to think he's a rightie - but we probably draw the line in different places.
Green Tide at the Gates?
I haven't stated a pro or con opinion on this topic because I am not totally sure how I will articulate agreements or disagreements with Randall's position, and many of my concerns are procedural rather than practical, but I think this idea needs to be aired openly, because I believe many Americans, and to a greater extent Europeans, speak of it privately quite frequently. You see this sort of sentiment, expressed in far less measured and reasoned language on message boards, and I believe this sort of thing happens when the punditocracy consciously avoids discussing certain topics, leaving the inarticulate but unvoiced to speak up.
That being said, I know that the first reaction that occurs to many people is that it is fundamentally "unfair" to judge an individual based on group attributes (foreign citizenship). Certainly I have argued against the government making these sort of decisions in the case of citizens . But I do know of a situation where we routinely judge people by their citizenship when they come to this country-asylum & refugee seekers. Back in the 1980s a graduate student that my father knew from Ethiopia got a green\card because his nation was judged to be a tryanny (it was under a Marxist dictator). The individual in question was intelligent and not in fear for his life, but he was from a country where there is a presumption of persecution. In a similar manner, Cubans, or during the Cold War, Soviet Jews, receive considerations that other groups of immigrants do not. What Randall is suggesting is basically the reverse-the presumption that someone should be kept out instead of let in, which means that some individuals will be unfairly targeted, just as many individuals did and do take advantage of the accident of tyranny in the old country to make a case for staying in the United States outside the purview of the law's intent.
 This does not mean that as a legal point it is unfair treatment, non-citizens are routinely treated somewhat differently, I know as I was a green card holder for many years before naturalization.
July 30, 2003
Poor, poor Africa....
Why is Africa so poor? asks an article in Frontpage Magazine. Like many mainstream conservative outlets, they diagnose the symptoms well enough, lack of civil society & clean transparent government, but they neglect to be very specific about a course of treatment (corrupt international agencies & toothless NGOs?). Granted, this is better than much of the modern day Left, which either ignores the issue to focus on "injustice" that can be more directly ascribed to Western perfidy, or simply takes recourse to a blanket accusation of racism hanging over the continent like a mythical penumbra, affecting events far after its direct existence has been excised through decolonization and empowerment of native elites.
If we want most of Africa to step back onto the path of progress-toward-modernity, we need to speak it loud and proud as Jonah Goldberg did years ago, recolonize and take up the "White Man's Burden"! In lieu of indigenous social & political structures, modern nations must provide them so that the native genius can be fully expressed and incubated, just as a secular modern elite was born from the British Raj to lead an independent India that stumbles unsurely but steadily along the path-of-progress. Civilized nations must feed, clothe and educate African elites and erase from their minds a tribal mentality. Eventually, these elites will revolt against colonialism and establish their own independent political structures, but that's the whole point....
Oh yes, you say this has been tried before, but unfortunately it was aborted. Remember that most of Africa was untouched by European colonialism until the turn of the 19th century, while India had at least the benefits of 50 extra years, as well as a receptive indigenous elite which was already literate. The "colonial elites" of Africa were often semi-educated like Patrice Lumumba or illiterate like Idi Amin.
Of course, I don't favor recolonization personally, but that's probably the appropriate course of treatment if you want to cure the infection....
Since even a used edition of Hartl & Clark's Principles of Population Genetics is kind pricey for some, I found this site titled Wyman Nyquist's Notes on Statistical Genetics, with a focus on Animal and Plant Breeding, basically a compilation of course notes & PDFed portions of a text-book. Haven't read it, but the contents look useful if you want to dig deeper into the field of quantitative population genetics. For a soft-landing intro see my post "quantitative genetics".
Go for it!
Today on NPR (audio archive will be available after 6 PM) there was a short interview with an economist who stated that "going for it" on 4th & 1 yard to go in a football game is the rational thing to do. And yet most fans know that coaches generally refuse to "go for it," even if it is "4th & inches"! Why? The economist stated "...we are quite perplexed, because we know that people tend to maximize their benefit...." This is a clear application of rational choice theory and its short-comings, the economist notes that coaches are probably carrying over decision making patterns from other areas of life without reflecting upon it. I believe that rational choice theory has a big role to play in social science, but it tends to put the emphasis on human rationality and choice, neglecting that our evolutionary background probably has a strong effect on our reactions to any given situation. Our software can react dynamically to many situations, but we also have many pre-built modules that simply initialize whenever a familiar context is recognized.
July 29, 2003
Only blacks can teach black history?
This article about a protest over a white teacher possibly teaching black history in the Cleveland area is pretty high in blogdex, so there's a large amount of commentary out there if you want to look. I find it pretty freaky, I do understand that a black teacher probably has some insights into black history that a white teacher could not give, but the reaction is highly disproportionate to the problem in my opinion. This echoes something I saw on CSPAN a month ago, where Diane Ravitch was promoting her new book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, and a black woman rose up and rambled for about 10 minutes how blacks should teach black history and women should teach about sufferage and so forth. Ravitch ignored the ramble and replied orthogonally to the question/assertion. Whites, especially liberals, tend not to hold the same standard of stupidity to minorities that they would their own group, mostly especially with blacks. If a white woman had gone on in a rant about this subject Ravitch would certainly have taken a time out and pointed out that this sort of preoccupation with identity over the core area being studied is part of what leads to political pressure on textbook makers in the first place. It is also a sympton of what I see most well developed in black Americans, but also starting to infuse the thinking of other minorities & women, a preoccupation with your own group to the extent that there seems a neglect of broader learning because it is unnatural and uninteresting. John McWhorter, a black man, has been one of the few to publically comment on this topic, both in Losing the Race and in Authentically Black. McWhorter recalls how some of his black linguistics buddies in grad school teased him for picking a topic relating to Russian dialects to do a presentation on, when he should have perhaps focused on Carribean pidgins or something "more appropriate." He also criticizes well educated blacks like Randall Robinson who have contempt for classical learning that they consider "Eurocentric" but offer little in the way of alternatives .
More broadly interpreted, this gets to a topic that serves as part of Bernard Lewis' overall thesis expressed in What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam, the lack of curiousity about other cultures and exoganous knowledge that seems prevelant in some areas of the world. Whether Lewis is right or wrong about Islamic culture, the broader question is important, and the assumptions that underlay it merit attention. Many non-white elites have traditionally looked to Europe after its post 18th century domination of the world as a model, intellectually and historically, schooled in the classics and well informed of the methodologies that took European the nations to the commanding heights in science and government. This does not mean a neglect of one's own culture-Hindu barristers remained Hindu, Lee Kwan Yew might have been from an Anglophile family, but he remained committed to Confucian values and eventually schooled himself in Mandarin, while the elites of Latin America could both look to Europe for inspiration but maintain their own literary and artistic culture. Conversely Europeans have traditionally evinced a deep interest in the cultures that they surpassed and conquered, it was a European that discovered the relationship between Sanskrit and Latin & Greek, it was the West that rediscovered the ancient Near Eastern anquities lost to the memories of history, the examples are endless. Much of what we know about the breadth and depth of non-European cultures is because of Europeans.
Yet in recent years the rise of identity politics has infused a certain political aspect to much of learning & scholarship, especially outside the natural sciences. Emergent fields like Women's Studies, Black Studies, Asian Studies, and so forth exist more to facilitate political movements and self-esteem than forward knowledge and understanding apart from personal considerations. This has important ramifications on the individual level-as some radical feminists & racialists assert that science is "patriarchal Western masculine thinking" and that those who are not white men who participate in the field are somehow sell-outs. These movements also tend to discourage "oppressed" groups from entering something that they view as Other and the domain of white men. On a milder level, I am regularly asked why I am interested in a variety of topics, how do I know so much about Roman history, Jewish history, Chinese history, etc.? There is no surprise at my scientific knowledge because there is a stereotype that South Asians are good at that in the United States, but my non-scientific background seems confusing to many, who assume that I would not have any interest in things outside my "culture's background." Of course, there is rich irony in this because most assume that I am of Hindu culture based on my physical appearence, when in fact I am from a family that has a strong Muslim identity (my paternal grandfather financed the building of and ran the local mosque in his home town and I was raised to believe that Hindus were snake-worshipping pagans).
I am not saying that background does not matter in any way on the choices one makes when one seeks knowledge, I suspect that as the years pass, more South Asian students will be interested in Indian mysticism than Korean students, and so forth. Race, culture, upbringing, matter, but on an individual level, it is not really that exceptional to transcend one's own experience and knowledge and seek out that which is different and exotic. While I assert that there is much about our biological makeup that is essential and immutable, culture is clearly predominantly voluntary at the root, no matter that parental values correlate strongly with those of their children. One is not tied to the culture of one's birth, moored permentantly in the same familiar waters through some law of physics, rather it is more the inertia of happenstance and the comfort of that which is the same. It is a great irony that those very individuals that might assert the malleability of human nature and reject any role for biology are the ones who are ghettoizing the quest for knowledge and forwarding the narrow idea that you should know only what you are and only you can know about yourself.
 In "Authentically Black" McWhorter has a delicious take down of Robinson's uninformed opinion that black students should learn Swahili rather than French or German. McWhorter responds, rightly, that the West Africans that are the ancestors of most black Americans knew nothing of Swahili and were more likely to hear a European pidgin along the coast then they were Swahili, an East African language. McWhorter then constructively suggests that Wolof is a good candidate if Robinson et al. want to be more authentic. Of course, it is clear that Robinson et al. didn't do their homework and only want to score anti-Eurocentrics points-not be more authentically "African," an identity McWhorter reminds readers is mostly American, as Africans are Ibos, Kikiyu and Zulu first and foremost.
Update from Godless:
An old post seems appropriate at this time.
Validity of Studying Black Topics
I want to respond to the second of his three points on McWhorter. In response to my condescending attitude toward black studies, he says:
This is a load of bollocks. Blacks are part of our society, which means that black history is our history, no matter what our ethnicity. That doesn't mean that we should fall silent before obvious lunacies like Afrocentrism, but at the same time one can no more dismiss a conscientious historian or linguist whose expertise is in the African diaspora than one whose expertise is in French or ancient Greece.
In theory, he is quite correct. The study of the history of Africa or of African Americans is no less defensible than the study of the history of Europe. And truth be told, Ethnic Studies majors and English majors are virtually indistinguishable nowadays in terms of content in the modern university. Virtually every humanities course includes a discussion of "race, gender, and class" from a hopelessly PC perspective. Look at the Stanford course syllabi for yourself if you find this unbelievable.
I suppose, then, that my objection is to the humanities in general - or to what they've become. I consider Stanley Fish and Estelle Freedman to be just as bad as Cornel West. The only thing that sets ethnic studies and feminist studies below the rest is that they can cry "racism" or "sexism" whenever they're under attack by those who know their work to be rubbish. Thus black scholars in African-American studies are held to an even lower standard than Stanley Fish. While postmodernists are open to criticism from the mainstream, ethnic studies professors are simply invulnerable. The Cornel West affair is, obviously, a case in point.
Atlas of the Brain
Just listened to an interview about the "Atlas of the Brain" on THE WORLD on PRI. Check out the atlas' website. You can listen to the full interview here. GNXP readers can pick up a mild HBD angle at around 2 minutes & 40 seconds, when the interviewer asks about the contrasts in the multi-nation survey, Dr. John Maziotta responds that there are "...differences between Asian brains and European brains...brains in Asian populations tend to be spherical...European brains tend to be more elongated...this must be some aspect of evolution and how the genetics of the brain determine its shape and structure...." My initial thought was that Europeans are more dolichocephalic and Asians are more bachycephalic, long-headed vs. short-headed, but this seems like too simple of an answer. Note how even "liberal" mainstream commentators express interest in differences no matter the party-line that race is a sociological construct.
July 28, 2003
Same old thing....
Article titled Genetics can't put races into "nice, neat categories" treads over familiar territory....
Reason has a long interview with the head of a libertarian Islamic think tank-Minaret of Freedom. He has some interesting opinions, though he repeats the old canard that the West would never have had any knowledge of Aristotle without the Muslims, neglecting the influx of Greek scholars into Italy in the mid-15th century with the fall of Byzantium.
HIV for the Queer Man
Infection rates are on the rise in the gay community. As Charles Murtaugh has wondered, if we are having such a hard time educating wealthy (relatively) and literate First World gay men, what does this bode for the Third World straight HIV epidemic where education is the main hope, since widely available cheap drugs and/or a vaccine seem distant prospects.
More whales-it's in the genes
One thing I always find sketchy about ecology are the population estimates for various species which can't be tracked easily (under the sea, in the forests, etc.). In the end, I agree that there have be some aproximations, and they might be the best numbers we can come up with at any given time, but when those numbers are brandished in public policy discussions as definitive and established I get a bit nervous. In any case, I found this news reported in Scientific American very interesting, because it indicates that past estimates of baleen whale populations (on the order of 50,000 or so) prior to their decimation might be wrong, insofar as they do not suffice to account for the genetic diversity found in present whale populations. In fact, the estimates of wild whale populations prior to the 19th & 20th century drives toward extinction might be off by an order of magnitude, think 500,000 rather than 50,000. Still, this is an estimate, but genes have no great reason to lie or be biased in any way. Of course the best solution is to come to the same number from various vantage points. Finally, I am a bit curious as to possible ramifications this might have on our conception of the marine ecology as a whole, as some ecologists assert that penguins and other krill consuming species have benifited from the decline in whale populations. An examination of penguin DNA should indicate a rapid population expansion in the recent past. One implication of this sort of thinking is that the ecosystem has perhaps requilibrated (a higher portion of the biomass being penguins rather than baleen whales) and humpbacks and their cousins have too much avian competition to reach their old numbers again.
July 27, 2003
2003 Human Development Index
New UN Human Development Index Rankings are out. Norwary is #1. Browse the site for more statistics that you'll ever need....
Stupid thing to post about....
This is an FAQ entry to address complaints about the posting material that shows up on GNXP. The title of the blog is GENE EXPRESSION, and its general mantra is to inject biological science, especially evolutionary theory, into public & social policy in as frank, direct and honest way possible (ergo, we break taboos, especially in areas like race). We like to hover around topics like evolutionary psychology, behavorial genetics & population genetics. Neverthelss, sometimes we post on things that aren't quite related to these topics. Why?
This is a vanity site-and though we promote some general viewpoints (as espoused by almost everyone I give an account to)-the importance of biology, the primacy of reason & evidence above faith and political expedience, and so on, the major thrust is to encourage debate and enjoy ourselves. We don't get paid or compensated for our time in any way aside from the enjoyment we take in exchanging ideas with others and establishing a forum for intelligent and often light-hearted conversation. The personal interest of bloggers will show up many times-for instance, I tend to post a lot on religion, history and the like, as well as having an unnatural fixation on what I feel are the distortions and political usages of the AIDS epidemic. Most of these posts fall under the category of "benign neglect" from most GNXP readers who humor my more esoteric inclinations.
On the other hands, posts that deal in "hotties" and the like tended to be objectionable and irritable to some readers, while political topics that are polarizing (church/state separation, immigration, israel, etc.) tend to turn-off many. But again, the site is in large part about the interests of the posters on GNXP. Most of us (not all, but most) are libertarianish males in our 20s or in nearby political & chronological neighborhoods, so our interest in the ladies and politics slips through-though we are centrally tied by our fascination with biology & our species. If you were given a forum to post your thoughts to a non-trivial number of individuals on a whim, you'd probably go "off message" on occasion now and then. To those who find it irritating, you can skip those entries, or leave the site, it's up to you, after all, no one is forcing to click & browse. Most of the other entries you find interesting though in my opinion are not diminished by the lighter fare that we top off this site with.