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October 18, 2003
Carl Zimmer blogs about FOXP2, the "language gene" that has been getting a lot of press in the past few years.
The implications for this sort of research slices across many fields-linguistics, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and palaeoanthropology. As Carl notes, FOXP2 might not be a silver bullet, but it is illustrative of the path we might take to elucidate complex phenotypes and the genes that undergird them.
October 17, 2003
Remember the New England Federalists?
The title is somewhat deceptive as the original Federalist Party circa 1800 believed in a more centralized national government than their Democratic rivals. Nevertheless, this article in Slate makes explicit an open secret, that the parts of the country that vote for the ostensibly anti-federalist party today, the Democrats, subsidize the part of the country that votes for the federalist party, the Republicans.
The Republican officer corps might defend this country, but much of their paycheck comes from the Democratic northeast....
Sexual Selection in Taiwan
A leprechaun pointed me to this site that shows surname distributions in Ireland.
October 16, 2003
Shadows of past greatness
Interesting article in The Economist on the self-perception of European nations in relation to their past history.
In an earlier post here I discussed the educational performance of ethnic minorities in Britain.
This week the Guardian newspaper has a feature report here on education in Birmingham (England, not Alabama) which highlights the poor performance of African-Caribbean children. Despite the active efforts of the education authorities to assist ‘disadvantaged’ groups, ‘the attainment gap between African-Caribbean children and the rest of Birmingham’s diverse multicultural school population remains stubbornly resistant to change, especially for boys’.
Part of the problem is that while African-Caribbean children have shown some progress, other groups have done even better, so the gap has widened. Bangladeshis in particular have shown ‘spectacular gains’ at GCSE level.
American readers may get a strong sense of deja vu from all this!
My earlier post also mentioned the paradox that Black Africans in Britain have relatively poor performance in school, but also a high proportion obtaining higher education (university level) qualifications.
Some light may be cast on this by a passage I have noticed in P. E. Vernon’s classic book Intelligence and Cultural Environment (1969):
‘Another, rather surprising, reason for educational backwardness is that Africans - especially boys - are so strongly motivated towards education. Except among some of the more remote and primitive tribes, it is seen as the avenue to a well-paid job. The office worker or civil servant is likely to earn as much cash in a month as the peasant family does in a year. Great sacrifices are made to pay school fees... Thus not only the parents but the extended family expect to reap the benefits. Primary pupils, therefore, feel a very strong obligation to gain a secondary school place, and secondary pupils to pass the examinations which give entry to a career. They work extremely hard and, with their linguistic difficulties, concentrate all their efforts on memorising the textbook and the teacher’s notes. They take little interest in artistic or practical subjects, or extracurricular activities which do not directly contribute to passing examinations, and they tend to reject any attempts to liberalise teaching as a waste of precipous time. Apart from the few brightest students they do not want to be helped to think.’ (page 179).
To the extent that these traditional attitudes are carried over to second generation African immigrants, they would help to explain both the high propensity of this group to seek higher qualifications, and their relatively slow progress and mediocre achievement in higher education.
October 15, 2003
"Republicans who smoke pot"
Julian Sanchez of Reason makes the case that libertarians should not be reflexive Republicans. I should note that I went to a CATO event this spring where Fareed Zakaria gave a talk based on his book Future of Freedom. Most of the people there were obviously known Republicans (columnists like John Fund or Deroy Murdock) or expressed rhetoric that was more Republican than Democratic if it had any party tilt.
Joe Millionaire II
The Next Joe Millionaire has a bunch of European women. The website is pretty sparse, but the clips I saw tonight for next Monday's preview suggests that the new girls are HOT.
More than g
Wired has a long profile of Linux dictator Linus Torvalds. Note the contrast with Richard Stallman as far as personability. Though Stallman is probably the more brilliant individual, it is Torvalds who is more prominent because of his people skills. The point is that Torvalds is smart, but he combines it with a personality that is often lacking in his social set (brilliant programmers). Stallman, though he is probably even a brighter mind, is an ass.
On a note about Torvalds' saintliness, it might be interesting to note that Finland has been ranked as the least corrupt country for many years now, but this from a nation with is home to Nokia. My point is that Linus is not an anti-capitalist radical (like Stallman), but he is pretty averse to corruption or its perception.
The bright side of things?
One survey in mid-2001 estimated that 2.5 million people had died since 1998 due to the conflict in The Democratic Republic of Congo. King Leopold's policies resulted in 5-10 million deaths in 20 years. If the world community does something that sort of catastrophe can be averted....
PLOS article on skin color. Short, sweet and interdisciplinary.
The sins of the fathers
Honor the Uprooted Germans? Poles Are Uneasy asserts the headline. As the article notes, over 10 million Germans were expelled from the nations of central Europe after World War II. Of course the Germans in places like Sudetenland were no patriots in the nations created from the break-up of Austria-Hungary. Then again, after the creation of the new nation-states in the 1920s a cabal of authoritarian nationalist regimes came to the fore which marginalized ethnic minorities. Before that the Germans had dominated the Poles, Czechs and other peoples politically and culturally. Ad infinitum....
Here is an interesting snippet from the article:
Individualism to my eyes is the escape from the imagined slights of the past. But then, can individualism survive its own freedoms?
October 14, 2003
Cholesterol gene linked to longevity
Cholesterol gene linked to longevity, well, at least in Ashkenazi Jews....
Transit strike cripples L.A.?
They say that everyone in Los Angeles drives everywhere, well, not everyone....
All entries over 14 days old will automatically disable comments now.
October 13, 2003
China & biotech
China Has Tightened Genetics Regulation. I'll believe it when I don't see the Han clone army....
Hugo Chavez has been standing up for the indigenous peoples of the Americas and denouncing 'Columbus Day'. Aside from the political issues, I found there were some ironies in this. According to the State Department the racial breakdown of Venezuelans is as follows: 68 percent mestizo, 21 percent unmixed Caucasian, 10 percent black, and 1 percent Indian. Chavez himself looks to be a mestizo with a great deal of indigenous ancestry. But I suspect that he delievered his speech in the official language of Venezuela, Spanish, in a nation that is over 95% Christian, mostly Roman Catholic.
A few points of history. Disease killed many of the native peoples-there simply weren't enough Spaniards to do all the killing before the invention of machine guns. Also, population replacement and displacement are historical realities and applying 21st century morality to events of past centuries gets dicey, after all, all peoples are guilty of genocide in its most broad definition. Reflecting on these points, the importance of the displacement of the native peoples of the New World was not that they were displaced, but that white people did the displacing. And that is the greatest sin of all....
fn1. With 400 years of admixture the relationship between proportion of ancestry and phenotype can be muddled.
fn2. Venezuela is a Latin American country where Protestantism has made few inroads. The Catholic Monarchs would have been proud!
A type of horoscope that I won't laugh at-basically about people in India getting genetic testing before marriage to rule out high risk combinations.
Here is a long article on the decline of religion in Europe. A few points....
This article is framed in the current context of the tensions in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality. Conservatives regularly look to the African churches to buttress their traditional morality and social teaching. But should they? Note:
While Western conservatives want to take the church back a few decades or maintain the status quo, I suspect the new blood in Christianity is a shift back centuries to an era of magical thinking. See my post Next Christianity for my cynical take of the "browning" of Christianity.
The general tone of the article reminds me somewhat of the last days of Greco-Roman paganism, where the people were ripe for a new religious dispensation and no longer believed in their old gods (or so the monks tell us!). It has been 1400 years since the rise of Islam, perhaps it's time for another world religion, this time coming out of Europe?
October 12, 2003
The Old Master's last laugh
Johannes Kepler has a good a claim as anyone to be the father of empiricism. He was the first to formulate scientific "laws" based on rigorous observation (e.g. Planets travel in ellipses- based on Brahe's meticulous observations of Mars' orbit).
His first book, the Mysterium Cosmographicum, published at age 25 in 1596, singehandedly makes the transition from ancient metaphysical speculation to modern empirical science.
Kepler first posits the idea that the universe is built around the Platonic solids-which form its invisible skeleton, i.e. the five Platonic solids comprise the five intervals between the then known six planets. Illustrations from the work are here (scroll down).
Kepler noted the exact date this flash of insight came to him (July 9, 1595) and as one biographer states: "it determined the course of life, and remained his main inspiration throughout it."
But that was the ancient metaphysics-Kepler later goes on to state: "If [the observations] do not confirm the thesis, then all our previous efforts have been in vain." And modern empirical science is away and running.
Historians of science have noted the falseness of Kepler's inspiration, which nevertheless paved the way for the formulation of his groundbreaking laws. E.g. Koestler writes in The Sleepwalkers: "For Kepler's misguided belief in the five perfect bodies was not a passing fancy, but remained with him, in a modified version, to the end of his life, showing all the symptoms of a paranoid delusion."
How much we have yet to learn from the old masters.
Catching up on the science news of the week, I note that the October 9 issue of Nature features an article entitled: "Dodecahedral space topology as an explanation for weak wide-angle temperature correlations in the cosmic microwave background."
If you're sort of out to lunch-a dodecahedron is a...yep... a Platonic solid!
The gist of it is that observations by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in 2001 to measure temperature ripples in the afterglow radiation from the big bang, have caused Weeks and his colleagues to posit that "space wraps back on itself in a bizarre way... Effectively, the universe [is] like a hall of mirrors, with the wraparound effect producing multiple images of everything inside... According to Weeks, the WMAP results point to a very specific illusion- that our universe seems like an endlessly repeating set of dodecahedrons, football-like shapes with a surface of 12 identical pentagons...If you exit the football through one pentagon, you re-enter the same region through the opposite face and you keep meeting the same galaxies over and over again."
In other words, one of the galaxies in the Hubble Deep Field may be the Milky Way? weird whacky stuff- anyway, i hope they give a shout out to Johannes.
Could Kepler's flash of insight in 1596 be confirmed (to an extent-I won't get carried away) by a 2001 space probe? And what does that portend for what is really the source of scientific knowledge and discovery?