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April 24, 2004
Gene flow through the North African corridor & more
HPGL @ Stanford has a new paper up at their site titled The Levant versus the Horn of Africa: Evidence for Bidirectional Corridors of Human Migrations (PDF). Samples from Egypt & Oman tend to show an affinity with West Eurasian haplogroups with some admixture of Sub-Saharan ones, but the article focuses on the dynamics in northern Sub-Saharan Africa far more than the title indicates. I found this aside interesting:
The combination of periodic male population movements on the macro scale and dominance of exchange of females between villages and localities on the micro scale is something that needs to be systematized more. As usual, the men show a greater tendency toward extremes....
April 23, 2004
Re-equilibrating to the post-Neolithic "optimum"
OK, well, I made a snarky little comment which implied that the demographic dynamic would simply shift, only the proudly pathetic would reproduce, while those who are demoralized wouldn't because of self-loathing. Of course the successful don't have time to have children. A more specific example is the butt-ugly loser who refuses to settle for a "non-hotty" because of "standards." Over time these individuals will cull themselves from the gene pool.
But Randall points to the current situation in the historical context. Frankly, I wonder if a highly stratified society where envy rules might not be a return to the conditions that prevailed before the rise of egalitarian liberalism and more open economic opportunities and after the decline of the EEA hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In other words, the wheel of history might be turning back to the baroque pyramidal social orders that were dominant for 5,000-10,000 years after the agricultural revolution. I don't think the analogy is perfect, as explicit familial connections ("noble pedigree") might be less important than socieconomic and genetic advantages.
One point of interest is the importance of the perception of meritocracy and the reality of social churn. As many have noted, in a social context where all have equal opportunity, that is, a perfect meritocracy, stratification will remain, and perhaps be even more fixed, as only genes are fullly expressed and associated. Reality dictates the importance of the family environment and socioeconomic advantages, but over time, one might hypothesize that these serve only to amplify the advantages of the "natural elite" born of blood. The transition between the non-liberal democratic regimes and our modern age ushered in a period of transition and social churn where many groups rose above their "allotted station." But one can rise only so far, and the curse of the quest for the most perfect station of status is not mitigated by biological well being or material plentitude.
Moving out of the mode of airm-chair EP theorizing, note this recent article that discusses the trend of elite colleges drawing more from the wealthy professional classes. This is bad for the perception of meritocracy, but recall that in the 1960s the Ivy League Schools raised their academic standards and eased out the predominance of blood & breeding in judging who would matriculate. A whole generation of boomers rose as far as their talent could take them. The period of transition might have lulled Americans into thinking that social mobility is a fact of human existence rather than a transient and ephemeral characteristic of a "phase transition" between two socio-historical paradigms.
Update: Derb has a tangentially related column up.
People & porn
People Magazine has a dead-tree article on porn exposure of today's children. This is something I've talked about before, the internet has resulted in the initiation of a vast social experiment.
Where in generations past young teenage boys would scheme, plan and quest for porn, or barring that, a racy edition of National Geographic, kids today are bombarded by grotesque pornography of a nature that I was not even aware of until I was told about it in a church youth group (I am speaking of bestiality). I am always confused when I walk by my 10 year old brother deleting his hotmail "donkey lovin'" spam in the living room. One of the kids in the article notes that not only does he see men & women having sex, he gets a regular stream of inter-species menage a trois in his inbox (thankfully I only seem to be the target of hentai porn).
The statistics of porn exposure, on the order of 70-80%, are specified in the article. But the negative results are always presented as anecdote, which suggests to me that individuals who have psychological weak-points are fingering pornography as a causative agent, rather than their own failings (my Christian evangelical friends who had porn or drug problems tended to pin it on the devil). The article concludes with a father's tale of how brazen and bold his sons have gotten about porn viewing, looking up their bookmarked sites when their mom is cooking, or when their parents go out dinner. Strange days.
John Maynard Smith
The best obituary of JMS I have seen yet is in the Guardian (22 April), here.
All the obits mention JMS's liking for discussions to be - er - lubricated. I can confirm this from personal experience. I met JMS once when he was in his early seventies, after he had given a paper at a seminar on the work of Francis Galton. We continued our conversation in a local pub, and after an hour or so - and several pints - he was in much better condition than I was!
Math, boys vs. girls & hemispheric integration
I was recently directed to this short article titled "Math favors boys over girls." Rather ho-hum, and if you are want a quick primer that explains the differential by emphasizing the greater variance of male IQ, here you go .
But I did track down the original paper (full text PDF at the link) that the piece above was based on, "Interhemispheric Interaction During Global–Local Processing in Mathematically Gifted Adolescents, Average-Ability Youth, and College Student." It was interesting to me that the focus of the paper did not seem to be gender differences, but rather, the importance of an fully integrated and active right hemisphere during mental tasks, especially among the mathematically gifted. Additionally, the researchers note the over-representation of left-handedness among the mathematically gifted (the right brain controls the left half of the body). The article above was in The Times of India, and knowing how negatively South Asians tend to view those of the leftish persuasion, I am not surprised they did not play up that angle.
On a related note, a month ago Diana asked me about the EP reasoning behind the persistence of right-handed dominance. She did not find this article that hypothesized a correlation between right-handedness and left-brained speech ability, a heterozygote advantage that resulted in balancing selection, ergo residual frequency of non-hand-biased homozygotes (some of whom are "left handed"), convincing. But if we want to go out on a limb, what the paper above might suggest is that there is a possible avenue of selection pressure in favor of left-handedness.
It is often said that "naturally" about 10% of the population prefers the left hand to the right. I would be willing to bet that coincidentally that's probably the proportion of the population that prefers mathematical study to more verbally oriented endeavors. Perhaps the 90/10 is just an ESS?
 I recall seeing a study which tracked boys and girls of the same mathematical aptitudes (as measured by tests taken when they were 13), and there was still a strong tendency for the females to go into "people" fields like medicine and law over physical science & engineering graduate programs 10 years later, so the interplay of personal preference & cultural expectations amplify the differences (the two latter factors I assume are bi-directional in their influence).
April 21, 2004
Columbine: Return of the NBK
Slate's "cover-story" today, The Depressive and the Psychopath: At last we know why the Columbine killers did it brings back one of the oft-neglected, and important, characters in the HB-D pantheon: the Psychopath. Writer David Cullen states that the FBI has come to a conclusion about the reason why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their classmates five years ago to this day (+1), and it boils down to a chance combination of two special personality types (if you couldn't tell by the title).
First in a brief table, Cullen lists many of the misconceptions surrounding Columbine and folk wisdom of the killer's motivations. This includes many of the ideas about the kids being "outcasts". In fact they were really very normal and no less popular than the average teen. This is in high distinction to the 'goths vs. jocks' mythology of revenge that still follows this story. Which misleads, not only in the motives of the killers (which was about a masturbatory body-count, not geek revenge or damaged egos), but in how it reinforces biased outlooks on these high-school archetypes.
Next Cullen addresses the FBI conclusion that the Columbine shootings can mainly be attributed to the unique mental condition of Eric Harris. Most of the diagnosis of Harris was made possible through the intimate and disturbing writings in his journal (partially online via alternative news-weekly Westword):
Harris' pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points on Hare's Psychopathy Checklist [Here - JM] and convinced Fuselier and the other leading psychiatrists close to the case that Harris was a psychopath.
The Hare quoted is Robert Hare, the leading authority on psychopathy. Formerly on GNXP, Godless linked to an interesting article about how psychopaths, or "natural born killers", are the most valuable soldiers in the military. It corroborates the Slate piece in at least one important way, the role of Dylon Klebold. The author, who totes the war-time efficacy of the NBK, reassures his military audience that 'atrocity' is not necessarily one of the most likely draw-backs of this personality type:
However, there are drawbacks to natural killers in a unit too. Their highly aggressive nature may act as a catalyst for violence in tenuous situations such as peacekeeping (PK) operations. This is not to say that they will create atrocities, which are generally initiated by overcontrolled personality types in second-in-command positions, not by undercontrolled personality types.
Compare this description of how these two different types of personality combine to create atrocity with Cullen's role for the rage of depressive Klebold:
The partnership did enable Harris to stray from typical psychopathic behavior in one way. He restrained himself. Usually psychopathic killers crave the stimulation of violence. That is why they are often serial killers-murdering regularly to feed their addiction. But Harris managed to stay (mostly) out of trouble for the year that he and Klebold planned the attack. Ochberg theorizes that the two killers complemented each other. Cool, calculating Harris calmed down Klebold when he got hot-tempered. At the same time, Klebold's fits of rage served as the stimulation Harris needed.
Perhaps there is a contradiction in who plays who in the over/under-controlled dynamic but it reflects a similar theme of spark and fan. The article makes clear though that Harris was the much more unique and crucial personality type:
The psychiatrists can't help speculating what might have happened if Columbine had never happened. Klebold, they agree, would never have pulled off Columbine without Harris. He might have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help in the process, and conceivably could have gone on to live a normal life.
One might ask what creates such an "irretrievable" and aberrant "alternate brain mechanism" such as Eric Harris'. Ian Pitchford writes:
Psychopathy is not associated with low birth weight, obstetric complications, poor parenting, poverty, early psychological trauma or adverse experiences, and indeed Robert Hare remarks [In his definitive book on Psychopathy Without Conscience - JM] ‘I can find no convincing evidence that psychopathy is the direct result of early social or environmental factors’ (Hare, 1993, p. 170).
I should note that despite the conclusive language of the article, it still doesn't really explain what it purports to. For instance psychopaths are about 1% of the population (or 3 million people!), and the article admits that most psychopaths aren't killers. So we have the necessary raw psychological materials, and a plausible interaction effect and that's good but . . .
I find it notable that the only two countries I'm aware of where school shootings have happened are America and Germany, and the only three countries I remember hearing about serial killers are America, the United Kingdom, and Germany. What is it about these partially overlapping cultural spheres that brings thrill-killing to a sub-set of a sub-set of personality type? Are the variables too numerous, ill-defined, chaotic and complex to meaningfully contemplate human behavior this specific with a lens this tight?
Update: Hmm, just glanced through some of the journal entries at Westword. I guess Harris called himself NBK. The title was not a reference to that, but to this return to the subject of the psychopath on gnxp since godless' post "Natural Born Killers". Jim in the comments notes that serial killers have been documented in European countries besides those I noted, though I found that 85% have been from America. Does anyone have any good links for cross-cultural comparisons?
 It was interesting in the aftermath seeing how those liberals and conservatives who habitually scapegoat eachother, projected each-other (not just each-other's policies, but each-other) into these archetypes; with Columbine as an allegory of the damage the other party is doing to America. Liberals saw intolerant, elitist social hierarchies (read: homogeneity) creating troubling and unstable climates. No doubt many remembering the wedgies they received back in their formative years. Basically the same story they see in inner-city crime - economic and social outsiders lashing back. Conservatives saw in the killers the pagans and non-conformists (read: heterogeneity) who lack the moral foundations of tradition and authority, making up their own rules on the fringes - in other words the future liberals!
JM Smith dies
The acronym term "EEA" (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness) has cropped up a lot in my recent blog entries, I should start balancing that out with ESS, after all, there are human universals, and universal human differences....
Addendum: Muslim-Christian analogies
I have, as I earlier noted, advised great caution in importing Christian analogues when speaking of Islam. But, I believe that my objection was specifically in the context of the Protestant/Catholic-Sunni/Shia metaphor. Therefore, I think I have dodged the letter of the law as far as my objection goes, since I am making an analogue between Calvinism and the general expression of Islam. But, I think it can be argued I violated the spirit of my previous position-I even make a point of cautioning against over-emphasizing points of similarity between Sunni practice & Protestant practice.
So, let me be a bit more explicit & narrow in my focus:
I wanted to highlight similarities between Calvinism as it evolved in the United States, and the possible future trajectory of American Islam. I make a few references to Europe, but I think any sort of projection by analogy is far more difficult in that context. I do believe that American Muslims are reinterpreting their religion in a Protestantized fashion, and as I have stated earlier, short term compromises often work their way up through systems of belief (that is, superficial Protestantization can lead to more thoroughgoing internalization of Protestant ways of thinking and practicing). In fact, Randy used the American Catholic analogy in his post on Muslims in France, and I think that part of the problem is that I'm not convinced that the American system of religious pluralism and public piety exists in Europe.
Calvinism -> Unitarian-Universalism & Islam
If you read this blog you know that I am of the opinion that some religions are "brittle," and internal change can be precipitated by a "tipping point." Against this is the idea of slow evolution of ideas and groups over time. Obviously all groups evince both characteristics, and words like "fast" and "slow" can be subjective in the context of difficult to measure objects like "culture" or "religion."
I would like to explore these questions by starting with an analogy that others have used, that Islam by its nature resembles Reformation Protestantism, and in particular, the iconoclastic Calvinist strain in Protestant thought. I have expressed serious reservations about mapping Christian typologies over to Islam, but I will attempt to be as circumspect and general as I can in the following treatment to mitigate charges of hypocrisy.
First, I will tip my hat to Stark & Bainbridges A Theory of Religion, in that though I do not accept all of their propositions about the evolution of religious beliefs in a rational choice context, I think they do offer some insights that are worth examining (this is especially true in the American context of religious pluralism and relative state non-interference in conversion). One of their major points is that religious groups often go from high tension with society at large to low tension as a function of time (tension has a strong inverse correlation with numerical strength and social standing of a given sect and its members).
This tendency of religious groups to shift from "high tension," that is fundamentalist, to "low tension," that is mainline, can be seen in many American sects. For instance, American Methodism initially owed its origins to revival movements that today would be more characteristic of Baptists, or even Pentecostals. Similarly, American Presbyterianism was early on characterized by a traditionalist reaction against the liberalism of their Congregationalist theological siblings in New England. Finally, Congregationalism is often said to be the most liberal of American Christian churches, for example the United Church of Christ (the successor national umbrella group to the Congregationalists) ordain homosexuals. But, what many people must recall is that Congregationalists are direct genetic descendents of the Puritanism of the Calvinist settlers of New England! And despite its diverse origins, the post-Christian Unitiarian-Universalist Association in the American context is a direct outgrowth of the early 19th century Congregationalist liberal movement! In such a fashion, one can connect John Calvin in a direct line of ministers to a religious group that accepts pagans within its fold.
Now, there are many conservative Presbyterians, and the Reform/Calvinist movement has produced many traditionalists, from Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantiga, to anti-abortion activist Randall Terry or members of mainline Presbyterian congregations like former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed. But the center of gravity of American Calvinist/Reform believers tends to be less fundamentalist, and more moderate. The Unitarian-Universalist movement is the left-wing outlier, while Christian Reconstructionism can be viewed as the right-wing extreme, even more fundamentalist than Calvin's original "theocracy" in Geneva in their conception of church-state relations. But, there are more explicit adherents to Unitarian-Universalism in the United States than Christian Reconstructionism (630,000 UUs).
This change in the Calvinist/Reform tinged denominations in the United States reflects a few general dynamics.
1) A sect/cult often starts out with fanatic believers, "die hards" who have little to lose.
OK, so back to the real world. How does this apply? In the generality, we might use these concepts to interpret news stories about "religious explosions" the world over. For instance-the high growth rates of Pentecostalism in Latin America, Christianity in Korea or Islam among black Americans. News stories often project these numbers outward in a very naive fashion. The number of Latin Americans who are dissatisfied with the Catholic Church is finite. Additionally, the nature of Pentecostalism changes with new members who enter the faith, so the people it attracts is also something that is dynamic and hard to project forward (that is, imaginings of a fundamentalist Protestant Brazil based on 20 years of growth seems unlikely). It seems in South Korea that the past decade has seen a flattening of the growth of Christianity, and many people who "convert" to Christianity are now switching sects, that is, converting from one church to another within the Christian fold (recall that many fundamentalists have a narrow view of who is "Christian," so a conversion from a liberal Christian denomination to a fundamentalist sect might be thought of as "converting to Christianity" by that respondent). Many of those who were potentional converts have probably converted. Korean Christianity is also now in an internal debate, as its fundamentalism is being challenged by "liberals" (interesting coincidence, but Presbyterianism is the dominant Protestant sect, so you are seeing the same processes that worked in the United States recapitulating themselves).
Finally, let's move back to Islam. This is a big religion, 1 billion people, and because of the dynamics of Muslim polities, "rational choice" really isn't much of an option in many of these countries. But looking at American or European Islam, we can apply some of the same principles. As Muslims rise in social status, they should try to reduce tension with the surrounding society, "re-interpret" their texts to be more liberalism friendly, and their rate of growth should drop as there's less incentive for psychologically deviant individuals to join the confession (since it is now less deviant). Of course, the other direction might also work, where Islam becames the "sect of fanatics" par excellence and as deviants who seek to be at tension with the society around them convert and join, those who want to assimilate drop out, resulting in a tipping point to permanent fundamentalism.
Now, there are some axiomatic issues with Islam, does the interpretation of the Koran as the literal Word of God serve as a block "re-interpretation" and liberalization? I don't think we should neglect this, human minds tend to want to avoid obvious logical conflicts (or at least explain them away easily), and this is a hard point to work around on first blush. Some Muslim liberals are attempting to formulate such a "work around," but they need to make it simple enough to convince the masses. Once this "channel" is opened, then the option of wholesale "cracking" of Islam might be foreseeable because of the faith's weak ecclesiastical structure.
Amen to the last.
Voting closed: extended entries stay
Of 80 people who voted:
Of six people who contacted me via email, one disliked extended entries, while all the others wanted them to remain.
Brian Greene interviewed by Powells
On a related physical science note, I agree with FuturePundit, We Should Develop Defenses Against Large Asteroids, this is an implementation of the precautionary principle that I think the Left & Right can agree on, and hell, even the libertarians over at Marginal Revolution agree.
PUNISHMENT FOR NON-MARITAL SEX IN ISLAM from Religious Tolerance (gist: implementation varies by region).
Update: See Zack's comment, I was probably a bit quick with this post....
DNA: a new twist?
A few years ago in southern England a drunken teenager threw a brick at a truck. The brick hit the driver's window; the driver had a heart attack and died. The police forensic services obtained a DNA sample from the surface of the brick, but could not find a match. The case went cold...
Then last year the Forensic Science Service told the police that the newly developed process of “familial searching” might help. This is based on the reasoning that close relatives of the criminal will have partially similar DNA, and there may be a close relative somewhere in the police DNA records, especially as criminality tends to run in families.
On this basis the FSS searched their databases (containing about 2.35 million DNA profiles in England), and found one profile with an 80 percent match to the sample from the brick. The police listed close relatives of the partial match, identified a likely suspect, and obtained a DNA sample from him which proved to be a perfect match. After initially denying all knowledge of the crime, when confronted with the DNA evidence the suspect pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He has been sentenced to six years in jail.
So-called “civil liberties” organisations are said to be worried at the implications. Personally, I set a higher value on the civil liberty of not having drunken louts throwing bricks at me.
However, the case does raise some delicate questions of methodology. The use of DNA matching depends on a calculation of probabilities. In this case it was said (according to the report in the London Times, April 20) that the probability of a perfect match from someone who was not the true villain was one in a billion. But if the ‘sampling frame’ is constructed by identifying close relatives of people with a good partial match, then the probability of getting a perfect match by chance (i.e. from an innocent person) among those relatives must be greatly increased as compared with the probabilities in the general population. What is needed is the probability that someone identified by this method is the true villain.
I presume that the experts were satisfied that the probability of a perfect match by chance was still sufficiently remote, but as the suspect ‘copped a plea’ the matter was never tested in Court. It all sounds like an episode of CSI - I wonder if the same issue has come up in any American cases?
April 20, 2004
This study of a group of pacific baboons is rather interesting, though I think it is a bit much to call it "cultural transmission." The freak outbreak of disease from infected meat that killed the aggressive alpha males reminds me of the kind of thing that might appeal to someone working within the paradigm of Sewall Wright's adaptive landscape.
(and yes, I know that the "adaptive landscape" has some serious problems)
Update: Here is the full article.
Journey of Man exegesis
Two major points:
1) Wells' book focuses on the Y lineage, that is, the direct male ancestry of modern humans, ergo, the title of the book. Just like Genesis focuses on the patrilineage of humanity, so does Wells' book, neglecting our foremothers.
2) An accessible but more technically oriented summation of much of Wells' work can be found in the paper The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity.
New readers might find my my take on the book from last year interesting.
This group made a substantial contribution to the ancestry, but neglects the possible importance of "demic diffusion" in southern/eastern Europe from a source population in the Levant/Anatolia, as well as isolation of European populations during the last glacial maxima into peripheral regions (Iberia, Ukraine, etc.). There is a reference to the Neolithic migration later, but If Freddy had limited the generalization to Swedes or Finns, I would probably not nitpick.
Well, the genetic evidence here is mixed, my personal opinion is that it is so confused people should not say much about it without great qualification and ass-covering, but Wells has actually offered some of the highest values of "Indo-European ancestry" that I have seen. Here from the paper I have cited:
See here for more. Here is Spencer being interviewed by an Indian website:
I think Spencer over-interprets the Y data here, but that's just me.
Race, Genetics & Disease
"The vote machine is here!"
India is having an election, blah, blah...but check out this audio file about the use of vote machines, there is a funny jingle at the beginning that's really hilarious.
The Mating Mind
I have occasionally mentioned Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind: how sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature (2000). Here is a more considered view.
As the title indicates, Miller’s thesis is that sexual selection has been a major factor in human evolution. In fact, he argues that it is the main impulse behind the emergence of human intelligence, language, art, and morality. This is a radical claim, so it needs to be backed up by scrupulous reasoning and clear evidence.
The book is brilliantly written and exciting to read, despite its length (over 400 pages).
Unfortunately, I don’t believe a word of it!
Well, hardly any. To be more precise, I am not convinced by the main argument of the book. Maybe sexual selection has really been as important as Miller claims, but I don’t see any strong reason to think so. It is easy to be swept along by Miller’s eloquence and enthusiasm, without noticing that the evidence is painfully thin, and the logic shaky...
Miller’s argument has two aspects: negative and positive.
The negative aspect is a critique of the hypothesis that human intelligence and other unique characteristics have evolved by ordinary natural selection. Miller sees several difficulties with this: (a) “large brains and complex minds arose very late in evolution and in very few species... why would evolution endow our species with such large brains that cost so much energy to run, given that the vast majority of successful animal species survive perfectly well with tiny brains? (b) “there was a very long time lag between the brain’s expansion and its apparent survival payoffs in human evolution”, and (c) “nobody has been able to suggest any plausible survival payoffs for most of the things that humans are uniquely good at...the trouble with our unique human abilities is that they do not show the standard features of survival adaptations - convergent evolution, adaptive radiation, and obvious survival utility - and so are hard to explain through natural selection” (paperback edition, pp. 17-19).
The positive aspect of the argument is to show that sexual selection can explain those features of human evolution - such as the striking differences between humans and other closely related species, and the apparently wasteful development of some human abilities - that are puzzling on a conventional adaptive account. Miller then shows that these distinctively human qualities, such as verbal fluency, humour, and artistic creativity, are among the qualities that people (both men and women) look for in their mates. Therefore, though direct proof is necessarily lacking, it is reasonable to conclude that sexual selection was the major factor behind the evolution of these qualities.
So what’s the problem?
First, so far as the negative part of the argument is concerned, it is always dangerous to argue that such-and-such a phenonemon cannot have evolved through natural selection. There may well have been circumstances in early human evolution in which language and intelligence would have had a high selective value. For example, the key breakthrough may have been the point at which proto-humans began to produce effective weapons. Once any individual has the potential to kill any other individual in a surprise attack, the selection pressures on social behaviour and communication are radically changed. Groups (and individuals) would not survive without new rules and customs, notably to regulate access to females. Warfare between groups also becomes a more serious threat. Communication and forward planning become essential for survival.
For another possible scenario, see chapter 12 in Terence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species. This includes a role for sexual selection, but only as one element in a complex process. Deacon also points out that language acquisition is so important for humans that the brain devotes more resources to ‘symbolic representation’ than is on average strictly necessary. This is the ‘failsafe’ principle: by analogy, bridges are designed to bear the highest expected load, and not just the average load. Children nearly always acquire a reasonable command of language, even if they are mentally defective in other ways, whereas the most intelligent non-human primates struggle to learn any language at all. This implies that the human brain has a built-in 'safety margin' for language acquisition. So it is likely that the average brain has ‘spare capacity’ for symbolism which may be used on artistic creation, rituals, myths, and other activities with no obvious survival value. (But see V. Ramachandran’s The Emerging Mind for a possible selective value of artistic abilities.)
I think also that Miller’s sharp distinction between natural and sexual selection is untenable. The characteristics favoured by sexual selection are not entirely arbitrary. (Under Fisher’s ‘runaway’ process they might be, but Miller concedes that this has not been the main process of sexual selection among humans.) On the contrary, they are favoured because they are reliable indicators of fitness. But if they they are correlated with fitness, they may at least in part be due to natural selection after all. The role of sexual selection might be merely to exaggerate and reinforce characteristics that have a survival value in themselves.
As to the positive aspect of Miller’s argument, I think he understates the difficulties with the thesis that sexual selection explains the major human characteristics. One problem is that he makes it responsible for too much: language, intelligence, morality, the arts, humour, etc. Among animals, sexual selection usually favours development along a single track of excellence. Birds with fancy plumage are usually bad singers, while good singers usually have dowdy plumage. You can be a peacock or a nightingale, but not both. Another problem is that strong sexual selection usually produces strong sexual dimorphism, whereas dimorphism among humans for intelligence, etc., is modest. Miller recognises this, but in my view does not fully answer the objection. Perhaps an even more serious problem is that traits produced by sexual selection usually develop only at sexual maturity. But among humans the relevant traits, such as language use, develop from early childhood onwards.
I conclude that in important ways the pattern of distinctive human characteristics is not what we would expect from sexual selection. The supposed explanatory advantage of sexual selection over natural selection is therefore illusory.
But I have saved the strongest objection for last. Miller’s thesis requires that human females choose their mates, after careful consideration, on the basis of such characteristics as verbal and artistic skill, humour, kindness, etc. Now this may be how women choose their mates in modern California (though the size of your... wallet may be more important), but it is not how things work in primitive societies. In most of them women have no choice at all, being married off as children by their relatives. This is especially the case among hunter-gatherers such as the Bushmen and the Australian aborigines. (See the tables in Hobhouse, Wheeler and Ginsberg’s Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples.) Even where women have some choice, they are usually tightly constrained by rules of exogamy and/or endogamy, which means that in small populations the range of choice may in practice be very limited. Miller gives far too little consideration to the anthropological evidence, and in one of the few cases that he does consider - the Wodaabe - I have pointed out here that his account is bunkum.
Of course, it is conceivable that the behaviour of our paleolithic ancestors was very different from that of modern primitive peoples. Maybe they lived in a paradise of free love and women’s rights. Unfortunately we have absolutely no reason to suppose that they did. The Miller thesis therefore requires us to go against the evidence that we have, in favour of an entirely speculative hypothesis.
On reading this through I find that I have got rather carried away by the critical spirit! Despite everything, I think it is an important and valuable book. Do read it. But not everything that glitters....
Nature Wills It!
When I was in high school I was in a short-lived relationship with a girl from a Christian fundamentalist background. One day I asked her, "What if God decided to kill every man, woman and child on the face of the earth and blot them from existence, would that be 'good'?" Her answer was, "YES!" She wasn't a Christian philospher, and wasn't going to give me any complex refutation of the problem of evil, rather, she had in her mind a perfect identity between God and Good.
This sort of mind-set can be seen in some who argue that Nature dictates what is 'good,' a viewpoint that recently in the past century had grave consequences for the human race. I would advise caution to those who make these arguments, Nature does not by its essence take into account human conceptions of morality, nor does it dictate its affairs in a way most congenial to our proper ordering of things (that is, with the needs of logicians & moral philosophers in mind).
Where God(s) issue specific edicts from on high, Nature's laws are more inscrutable, and must be slowly and methodically teased out from the perceived chaos that surrounds us. Even when an injunction might seem straightforward, there is almost always a way to extract enough nuance to justify the converse position from what seems self-evident.
Let me illustrate: recently I think I have made it clear that the negative outcomes of consanguinity can echo throughout a society. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the genetic load, the number of deleterious genes carried within a population, may be lower for Japanese than for American Caucasians , possibly as a consequence of the long term practice of cousin marriage in Japan (via negative selection against the higher frequency of recessive homozygotes). In such a fashion, one could argue that cousin marriage has a long term benefit that outweighs the short-term risks!
Now, I'm not going to make any sort of argument along those lines, but my main point is that just as religion has been used to justify almost any position under the heavens, Nature can be used to verify or refute any norm accessible to the verbal gymnastics of a sophist. Nature may act as the parameters which norms must take into account (a suggestion as to limitations or costs), but one must be not allow it to dictate what the norms themselves are.
 Consanguinity, Inbreeding, and Genetic Drift in Italy, page 17
(update from GC below)
Here is the full text of the paper TJ Jones cited in comments, in pdf. Conclusion:
These results are also relevant to populations undergoing disturbance by humans. Inbreeding of formerly outbred populations occurs in many zoo populations, as well as domesticated populations and populations subjected to severe reductions in size as a result of human alterations of the environment. Extreme inbreeding has been recommended to purge genetic load and force the adaptation of endangered populations to the inbreeding regime they will experience under human management. This assumes that lowered fitness inevitably caused by increased homozygosity during this process will not be too severe or prolonged. The validity of this assumption depends on the severity and dominance of the mutant alleles in the population being inbred. Our results indicate that purging by the most severe inbreeding, self fertilization, could decrease fitness considerably with little recovery under inbreeding, and that fitness is restored only when the inbred lines are intercrossed.
Which is what I said initially. Now, one can come up with scenarios in which the selection is not solely focused against recessive homozygotes, in which case it will be considerably more efficacious (i.e. partial dominance situations where f(AA) != f(Aa) in the single locus case). But the time frame for elimination of recessives is very long if you've got complete dominance, and in the mean time you have to take the *massive* fitness hit of inbreeding depression.
Addendum from Razib: See, I told you there are problems relying on nature! Of course, that doesn't mean that I think biological arguments are worthless, rather, they offer a perspective on the costs that might be necessary if we aim toward a social "good."
April 19, 2004
Fascinating article in The New York Times about genetics and neuroscience. One of the most bizarre things though is how the article concludes:
(Jacqueline's) Internet dating tips
I know some readers of this blog use internet dating services, so here, it can't hurt....
Sex Does Not Exist
According to Eric Vilain, anyway. You can find his article here (free registration required). I found this quote especially laughable:
Sex should be easily definable, but it's not. Our gender identity — our profound sense of being male or female — is independent from our anatomy. A constitutional amendment authorizing marriages only between men and women would not only discriminate against millions of Americans who do not fit easily in the mold of each category, but would simply be flawed and contrary to basic biological realities.
OK, so because there are a handful of ambiguous cases, we should just throw out the concept of sex entirely. In any case, "male" and "female" are far more hard and fast terms than "old" or "young," or "hot" or "cold," yet we don't throw those concepts out or view them as baseless social constructs. The idea that any category that isn't 100% straightfoward is invalid is simply ridiculous, and Vilain's argument is the same basic argument as the "race does not exist" argument with even less justification.
April 18, 2004
Islam in The New York Review of Books
May/June 2004 Foreign Affairs
Philip Longman also has a piece titled The Global Baby Bust (not online) which notes that cultures that have a low fertility rate tend to have parents who do not wish to risk their sons in war. What does this have to do with anything related to this blog? It's all about the EEA, after all, in groups of ~100 anecdotes are more powerful than statistics, and the difference in behavior of parents with 10 children vs. those with 1 child is easy to understand. The latter has important consequences for imaginings of a belligerent China in the 21st century, as the "little emperors" might be too precious for their parents to sacrifice on the altar of national glory.
North vs. South
Steve Sailer has an interesting column up contrasting northern & southern California-the gist being that the Bay Area's "elitism" has been more resilient toward cultural change than the Southland's "populism." I find this interesting because I live in a part of the country, the Pacific Northwest, packed with "progressives," and a state, Imbler, that has "urban growth boundaries" and traditionally a "visit but don't move here" attitude. But this "ecotopia" is also among the least diverse parts of the country.