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May 01, 2004
Not P.C. enough....
Just listened to the BBC, they played Prince Turki bin Faisal talking about the recent bombings in Saudi Arabia. This is the Prince who is head of the security agency, and something of a "hard liner." So I found this interesting, as the Prince stated (about Al Qaeda): "These are people who want us to return to the 8th century A.D." Not "C.E." (Common Era), but A.D., anno domini, the more explictly Christian form, this from a Wahhabi with conservative inclinations! Weird.
Pascal Boyer has an article in the most recent Skeptical Inquirer (not online) titled Why is Religion Natural?. It seems to be a short introduction into the argument elaborated in his book Religion Explained. Though I have not read the book itself, Scott Atran has stated that it is very similar to his book, and the article above seems reminiscent of ideas hinted at in Prehistory of the Mind. The most important point one can take away from the thinkers above is to be wary of a conception of a "God Module" (analogous to a "Language Module"). Below is a selection from Boyer's article:
...religious thought activates cognitive capacities that developed to handle non-religious information. In this sense, religion is very similar to music and very different from language. Every normal human being acquires a natural language and that language is extraordinarily similar to that of the surrounding group. It seems plausible that our capacity for language acquisition is an adaptation. By contrast, though all human beings can effortlessly recognize music and religious concepts, there are profound individual differences in the extent to which they can enjoy music or adhere to religious concepts. The fact that some religious notions have been found in every human group does not mean that all human beings are naturally religious. Vast numbers of human beings do without it altogether, like for instance the majority of Europeans for several centuries.In other words, religion seems to have a heritable component, as the cognitive domains that it is rooted in have heritable components (phenotypic variation do to genotypic variation), and is unlike the capacity for language (as opposed to eloquent fluency in), which shows no great inter-individual variation sans a serious disease.
How much taller?
Jason recently posted an extract (Tall Tale) from a New Yorker article on trends in the height of different populations. Europeans are still growing taller while Americans have stopped. The Dutch are said to be now the tallest people in Europe, with an average adult male height of over 6 feet, while (according to the New Yorker) in the 19th century they were ‘the shortest people in Europe’.
I don’t doubt that the Dutch are tall, but I am surprised at the claim that they were previously the shortest in Europe. I can’t think of any reason, either genetic or environmental, why they would have been shorter than similar populations in northern Germany or Denmark. So I thought I would check it out...
My first source was Adolphe Quetelet’s ‘Physique Sociale’ (1869) and ‘Anthropometrie’ (1871). Unfortunately, on a quick skim I couldn’t find anything on the Dutch. Quetelet does give figures for France (military conscripts aged 20) with average height of 1.642 m (5ft 4½in) and Belgium (conscripts aged 18-20) with average height of 1.643 m. The dates of the samples are not given, but presumably around mid-19th century.
I then tried A. de Quatrefages’ ‘The Human Species’ (2nd edn., 1879), with more success. This gives a table of average heights from around the world, including the Dutch. Some relevant figures (in meters, then in feet and inches to the nearest half-inch) are:
If these figures are reliable, then in the 19th century the Dutch were already among the tallest people in the world, and certainly in Europe. Unfortunately the origin and nature of the samples is not indicated. The main source is given as a book by A. Weisbach. I have not been able to consult this, but I found another work by the same authority: A. Weisbach, ‘Korpermessung verschiedener menschenrassen’, in Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie, Band 9, Supplement, 1878. This gives average heights for almost every people except the Dutch! Some relevant figures (in meters) are:
It will be seen that none of these are as tall as the Dutch according to Quatrefages. In fact, Quatrefages’ figure for the Dutch is about 2½ inches taller than the nearest rivals (the Norwegians), which makes me suspect that there is something wrong with the figures. But certainly there is nothing here to suggest that the Dutch were ‘short’ - quite the contrary. I know that GNXP has some Dutch readers, so maybe they can track down a good historical source for Dutch heights?
Before leaving the subject, I would point out that all statistics for adult height in the 19th century (or even later) should be treated with caution. The fundamental problem is the difficulty of getting a representative sample. You cannot just grab a random sample of individuals off the streets. Figures are therefore either rough estimates (based e.g. on people walking past an object of known height), or measurements taken from non-random samples. The nearest thing to a random sample comes from military inspections in countries with universal conscription. But even here there are two problems. One is that conscription is seldom truly universal: some categories, e.g. priests and chronic invalids, are often exempted without examination. The other is that conscripts come from a narrow age group, usually from 18 to 21. In recent times this would not be a major problem, because most men have stopped growing by the age of 18, or 20 at the latest. But in the 19th century this was not the case. Puberty and the adolescent growth spurt started on average several years later than now. Many men were still growing at age 18 and even after 20. Quetelet (Anthropometrie) gives the following data for Belgium (in meters):
The average growth between age 18 and age 30 is over 2 inches. To get a figure for mature adult height from military conscript data, it is therefore necessary to add at least an inch, and possibly two, depending on the age range of the conscripts. If this is not done, 19th century adult heights may be seriously underestimated.
"Regional variations" in secondary sexual characteristics demand....
I was going to label this post "ass vs. tits," but I thought that would be a bit much for more conservative readers. In any case, in following up on Jason's previous post, here is an article on regional variations in cosmetic surgery. It's a short & succinct piece, but I'll sum it up anyway:
1) Butt implants are proportionally more popular in Brazil in comparison to breast implants than in the United States.
2) Large breasts in the Northeast do not equal large breasts in the "Sun Belt."
Perhaps Blue Staters rent more porn because of a real life deficit of artificially enhanced busty babes?
April 29, 2004
Hot or Not?: Genes vs. Culture & Taste
Culture and individual taste do not play large roles in who people consider attractive.
At least according to Nancy Etcoff in her book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. Here's a portion of the sub-chapter entitled Universal Beauty:
Despite racism, misperceptions, and misunderstandings, people have always been attracted to people of other races. Today the world is a global community where international beauty competitions have enormous followings (although many complain that these contests favor Western ideals of beauty). There must be some general understanding of beauty, however vaguely defined, since even three-month-old infants prefer to gaze at faces that adults find attractive, including faces of people from races they had not previously been exposed to. In recent years scientists have taken a deep interest in the universality of beauty.
Pages 137-139. Inspired by a conversation in this thread.
Within and between cultures, individuals may display variance in response to specific features, but will respond in a similar manner to the features as a whole. We should thus expect similar judgements in response to attractive/unattractive faces. They presented males from 4 ethnic-cultural groups in 13 countries with Asian, black, Hispanic, and white female faces. The average correlation between racial groups in their rating of attractiveness was r = .93, exposure to Western media had no influence on the ratings. Males in all cultures were attracted to female faces displaying large eyes, small noses, high cheekbones, small chin and a large smile; body shape preferences did differ though with black males preferring 'heavier' bodies.
I'm not well read
Abiola points me to the list below of "Great Books." Not surprisingly, I've hardly read any of them (the ones I have are in bold), and most of that is due to high school English teachers. When I read fiction, I read genre "literature" (to my girlfriends' chagrin), and Cosma summarizes my reasoning well....
Also, how come Beowulf, The Iliad Homer and The Odyssey are on the list, but the King James Bible isn't?
Update: Check out Michael Blowhard's list.
Author - Title
April 28, 2004
A press article on the "ban" on teaching evolution to primary & secondary school kids. Though I think it's good to get the general paradigm in your head, it seems some people who oppose the ban are being a little over-dramatic (Italians, over-dramatic, no!), for instance, one scientist asserted "...that waiting until high school to teach the concepts of evolutionary theory could be too late" (evolution will continue be taught in high school). This isn't like learning a language.
Scholarship competitions & cymru genes
Here is a fluffy piece about Welsh beauty genes. I remember the first time I saw Catherine Zeta-Jones, it was the summer of 1998, and was walking through the living room of my apartment in college, and my doped out roommate was passed out on the floor. Then I saw a T.V. advert. for The Mask of Zorro, and wondered who that Mexican chick that put Salma Hayek to shame was (that is, C.Z.J.).
Update: Poll below on who is hotter, Salma Hayek or Catherine Zeta-Jones....
Well, Robert Caldiani has done a lot of work on "persuasion," and one thing that is important is that if you like someone that wants to convince you about something, the sell is a lot easier (duh!?!?), so no matter the rational and intuitional correlates that Derb refers to, the fact that person X & Y are friends, and X & Y agree on Z, means that Y is much more likely to go along with X on position point A if X is hard-core about it. More starkly stated, a Blue State American will be more easily convinced about the non-looniness of immigration reform by Roy Beck than Sam Francis. A Red State American is going to be less hostile to an illegal alien amnesty coming from G. W. Bush than if Bill Clinton tried to sell them on it. As they say, Nixon could make peace with China because he had the Cold War bonafides.
Living longer, staying healthier
In my post All is vanity... I mentioned that there is recent evidence that people are not only living longer but staying healthy for longer, so that the cost to health services of an ageing population is less than has been feared. I have found a good reference for this point here.
DNA: another twist
In my post DNA: a new twist? I mentioned that forensic science services in Britain were extending their techniques for DNA 'fingerprinting'.
The London Daily Telegraph today (28 April) mentions another new development under the headline 'Serial rapist's DNA is traced to West Indies'. A serial burglar and rapist has been operating in the London area for about 12 years, breaking into the homes of elderly women, robbing them, and sometimes raping or assaulting them. As he wears a mask and attacks in the dark, the victims have been unable to describe him.
However, DNA samples have now been identified as of West Indian (Caribbean) origin, using markers of genetic ancestry. (The press report doesn't give details, but presumably this uses mito or Y-chromosome DNA.)
Well, at least that narrows the suspects down to about 250,000 people...
"Hard Seculars" vs. "Cultural Creatives"
A few quick off-the-cuff observations to follow-up on my post The "Secular" Party. As I note, outright god(s)-deniers/doubters are a small minority within the liberal/Left/non-traditional/non-religious sector of the American demographic. Socializing with people on the Left part of the political spectrum, Blue America that is, you can discern some of the divisions if you look for them.
I suspect that a large number of the people who would be characterized as part of the "Secular" coalition are the Cultural Creatives, in other words, the descendants of the 1960s counter-culture. Many of these people would disavow the appellation "religious," but would embrace "spiritual." From my own personal experience those who identify as atheists or agnostics avoid the term "spiritual," and though there exists a modus vivendi with the "Cultural Creatives," we (atheists & agnostics) tend to look at them much as the coporate elite of the Republican party might look at the social conservative foot-soldiers-political allies, but not totally all there.
The chasm between "Cultural Creatives" and genuine seculars, who I will call "Hard Seculars," is more salient than conservatives might imagine. For example:
All of the above are fuzzy on the edges, but I think people can recognize the generalities of which I speak. In the final analysis, I think "Cultural Creatives," or the broad spiritual majority of the "Secular Coalition," are a genuine cultural force with their own internal system of values and ways of interacting and speaking. They are a feminist-liberal counterpoint to evangelical/traditional Christians in the United States. On the other hand, "Hard Seculars" are peculiar oddballs, and don't really have numbers to create a mass movement, rather, they are the aggregate of individuals one end of the bell curve of "spirituality" who act as an annoying reality-check on flights of fancy.
There are few specific issues that I think that "Cultural Creative" and "Hard Secular" values clash. For example, biotechnology. Here the "Cultural Creatives" are Rifkinesque and have a Romantic aversion to tampering with Nature, while "Hard Seculars" are strictly consequentialist. While reason guides the "Hard Seculars," the heart is the compass of the "Cultural Creatives."
Some of these issues are pre-figured in The Politics of Architecture, a piece that points to peculiar socio-political confluences in American life.
April 27, 2004
Assortive mating in action
A high rate of marriage among deaf individuals can explain the increased frequency of connexin deafness in the United States. The article highlights the importance of assortive mating, as it notes that "85 percent of individuals with profound deafness marry another deaf person." So the result of this is that though the frequency of this particular recessive allele within the total population might not have increased, you no longer have a random mating population, and the frequency of recessive homozygotes is increasing (possibly).
Evolutionary psychology at work
A few months ago I put in a plug for Scott Atran's new book, In Gods We Trust, but I didn't realize that he has tried to get some of his ideas applied. Here is an abstract of an op-ed that he wrote after the Madrid bombings where he argues that we are not facing an ideological superstructure, but a de-centralized movement that taps into normal psychological needs. The idea that Al Qaeda isn't centralized isn't new, but Atran has a background in suicide bomber psychology research, and he argues that the phenomena isn't manifestation of socio or psycho pathology, but rather, it is drawing upon banal but evolutionarily derived needs (for instance, community). These conclusions are unoriginal, but they now stand on many pillars (that is, from sociology, anthropology, historiography, etc.).
The "Secular Party"
First Things has an article up that argues that the Democratic is informed by a "Secular" paradigm, just as the Republicans are now the party of traditional Christians. Two points:
1) There's "Secular," and then there is secular. I've never seen a survey that indicates more than 5% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, usually only 1-2% will identify with those labels. So the "Secular" term is actually a larger catchall, and as the authors of the First Things article state, seculars have "overarching religious worldview of their own." Rather than defining them in terms of a negation of a "religious" worldview (that is, traditional Christianity), perhaps it would be better to reconceptualize the "secular" outlook as a liberal neo-pagan spiritual sensibility (most Americans who say they have "no religion" do believe in God or some "Higher Power").
2) The Beliefnet blog points out that they neglect African-American Christians, who are the large evangelical block in the Democratic Party.
 I say "pagan" because in a Christian monotheistic culture, many of the spiritual values espoused by non-trads, pluralism, syncretism, immanent theism and nature worship, superficially resemble ancient pre-Christian European paganism.
McDonald on the Green
The rest is far gentler....
P.S. The Communists weren't real atheists, the War of Religion fanatics weren't real Christians and the Nazis weren't real neo-pagans.
April 26, 2004
Italian anti-evolutionism (it's not always better in Europe!)
It seems that Italy is dropping evolution from primary & middle school curricula. Panda's Thumb points me to this usenet summation. The author seems to have an anti-laissez-faire orientation that suffuses his critique, but neverthless, I think it is interesting to note that the Vatican has made peace with Darwin, but there still remains a feeling of anti-evolutionism among a segment of the Catholic masses.
This to me is an illustration of the layering of Catholic religiosity, in that the elite view tends to be different from the lay view. The ecclesiastical hierarchy is intellectually nimble enough to dovetail new findings in science and the theological superstructure of their faith, but some of the common people within the church have the same difficulties with these issues that Protestant and Muslim fundamentalists do. The only difference is that the Catholic Church embraces both groups within its umbrella, while other religions tend to enter into periodic schism, "resolving" the segmentation among believers.
Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen asks Is the welfare state good for growth? (via ParaPundit), and comes up with a even-handed & nuanced answer. Speaking of nuance and subtlety, those are qualities that libertarians are often accused of not possessing, and frankly, often they (we?) are guilty as charged! A few observations:
1) Non-libertarians often conflate libertarians (often unsociable and obnoxious) with libertarianism, to the detriment of the latter.
All is vanity...
I notice that I’ve been posting on GNXP for just over a year now. Naturally a lot of the posts have been minor or ephemeral, but in my vanity I think some of them are still worth reading. So for the benefit of new readers here is a guide....
If the links don’t work, try the search engine or the ‘View all entries’ option.
I have not tried to revise or update the posts, but I will make a few comments as I go along. My introductory post on Heroes and Villains gave a general idea of ‘where I’m coming from’.
I followed this with a series of long items on ‘cultural evolution’. Biological versus cultural evolution sets out some reasons for not confusing the two. Cultural evolution by group selection examines the idea that cultural traits evolve through their effect on the survival and prosperity of the societies in which those traits are found - a very dubious idea, in my opinion. Altruism and group selection is not concerned with cultural evolution but with the idea that genetically-based altruism is a product of group selection, as proposed e.g. in Eliot Sober and D. S. Wilson’s book Unto Others. I am sceptical about the importance of this, but for those who like the idea, I draw attention to my ‘chessboard’ model for the aggregation of altruists. In a post on Clarifications (and a bit more) I responded to some comments and possible misunderstandings. In Cultural evolution: the meme is the theme I looked at Dawkins’s idea of ‘natural selection of memes’. (A few months later, in More on memes I commented on Susan Blackmore’s book on the subject.) The culmination of this series of posts came with Is culture useful?. The short answer is, ‘not necessarily’. Anthropologists, sociologists, and evolutionary psychologists all, in different ways, tend to assume that cultural traits must provide some kind of benefit, whether for society as a whole, for interest-groups within it, or for individuals. I argue that there is no good reason for this assumption. By analogy, learning, in general, is a good thing, but there is no guarantee that everything we learn is true or useful.
Since writing these posts, I have read a lot of recent academic work on these issues. I hope to give a survey of this literature some time.
My next major series of posts concerned issues about population. Comments in the media on population often show serious misunderstandings, potentially leading to bad policies, such as encouraging immigration to relieve the burden of an ageing population. Population fallacies, Part 1 dealt with the common misconception that in the ‘old days’ few people lived beyond the age of 50 or so. Actually, life expectancy at birth was low because of high infant mortality, but those who survived childhood lived almost as long as we do. Population fallacies, Part 2 explores what is meant by birth rates and fertility rates, and points out that current estimates of fertility in western countries are distorted by trends in the age of child-bearing. Population fallacies, Part 3 does a similar job on death rates. Afraid of growing old? argues that the ‘burden of the elderly’ is much exaggerated. Since I posted this, there has been further evidence that people are not only living longer but staying healthy for longer, so that the cost to health services is less than has been feared. Finally, The future of the birth rate gives reasons from evolutionary theory for expecting birth rates to rise again after a generation or two of birth control.
With population issues still in mind, I gave a breakdown of English ethnic groups in English population patterns, based on the 2001 UK Census. The most interesting point was the large increase in immigration to the UK from elsewhere in Europe. In More Census gleanings I gave some more data from the Census, this time on the educational and economic achievement of different groups. I drew attention to the puzzle that some minority groups seem to do better in higher education and employment than would be expected from their performance in school. Several people asked me if there was any data on the IQ of different groups in the UK, and I tried to answer this in IQ comments. While researching this, I came across some similar data for the Netherlands, which I described in Dutch treat. In both the UK and the Netherlands, the IQ of immigrant groups has partially converged on that of the native population.
These discussions of IQ issues made me more attentive to comments, on GNXP and elsewhere, about IQ comparisons between different countries, deriving directly or indirectly from Lynn and Vanhanen’s book IQ and the Wealth of Nations. Many of these comments seemed to assume that differences in IQ between nations had a genetic basis. In my post IQ comparisons I pointed out the dangers of this assumption. Even if heritability of IQ within populations is high, this is consistent with quite large differences between populations for environmental reasons, and the Flynn Effect (the long term increase in IQ in all developed countries) shows that such differences do occur. In Once more into the breach I followed this up by calculating the correlation between national IQs and an indicator of environmental quality (infant mortality rates). I showed that the correlation was strikingly high, and discussed possible explanations for this. Contrary to some assertions, a significant correlation does indicate a causal connection, but it does not tell you the nature or even the direction of causality. However, we know from the Flynn Effect that differences in economic development can cause differences in IQ levels, whereas we do not know (with any confidence) that differences in IQ cause differences in economic development. I am still quite proud of this post, as it involved more real work than any other, and produced a striking result. (If any competent academic wants to work the idea up properly and publish it, feel free to do so, but a footnote acknowledgement would be nice!) I followed up the point about the Flynn Effect with In like Flynn, which drew together information from various sources suggesting that the cumulative increase in mean IQ in the UK and USA since 1900 was over 25 points, and possibly as much as 30 points. This implies that the IQ of white Americans and Britons in 1900 was below that of some black African countries today. Some people didn’t like this conclusion, but not liking a conclusion does not invalidate it. I returned to some methodological aspects of the problem more recently in Loose ends.
I mentioned early in these discussions of IQ that I had not then read Lynn and Vanhanen’s book, as it was not easily available. A reader alerted me to a library copy, and after trekking off to the library I discussed the book in IQ and the Wealth of Nations I pointed out that Lynn and Vanhanen are in fact quite non-committal on the extent to which IQ differences between nations are genetically determined, and they accept that at least one environmental factor (nutrition) has important effects.
I turned to another aspect of IQ issues in a series of posts about social mobility. Intelligence and social mobility described some recent British studies confirming the link between individual cognitive ability and social mobility (upwards or downwards). A reader drew my attention to another study, which I discussed in Intelligence and education . As I mentioned in the first of these posts, the evidence suggests that rates of social mobility are rather similar in most developed countries, and do not seem to have changed much in the last century. This may conflict with the claim (e.g. by Herrnstein and Murray) that there is an increasing concentration of wealth and ability in a ‘cognitive elite’. I discussed this in A new cognitive elite?
This year I turned with relief from IQ issues to something I find much more interesting: the mind-body problem. In Changing the subject I argued that there was a contradiction in the scientific world-view: on the one hand, it is assumed that the properties of the mind, including such subjective sensations as pleasure and pain, have evolved by natural selection, which implies that they influence physical survival and reproduction. But at the same time is is widely supposed by ‘scientific’ thinkers that subjective sensations have no causal efficacy. In No pain, no gain I developed the argument that subjective pleasures and pains are adaptations produced by natural selection, and therefore must have causal efficacy. In The World Riddle I considered whether there was any escape from this contradiction (none that I can see!) These posts proved highly controversial, which some excellent comments on both sides of the case.
Apart from these clusters of related posts, at intervals over the past year I have posted on several topics related to sex and sexual selection. Sex ratio fallacies dealt with the idea that families ‘trying for a boy’ could increase the ratio of males born. Are men doomed? challenged various pop-science claims that ‘maleness’ was in decline. Adam’s Curse critiqued the arguments on these lines in Bryan Sykes’s book of that title, and I showed in particular that his ‘prediction’ that male fertility would decline to zero within 5000 generations was fundamentally unsound. The Handicap Principle gave a fairly enthusiastic account of the Zahavis’ book of that title. Honest signals gave further references to recent work on sexual selection and signalling theory. Animal signals reviewed a book by John Maynard Smith and David Harper. They make a useful distinction between ‘handicaps’ - signals that are reliable because they are costly to produce - and ‘indices’ - signals that are inherently difficult to fake. Still on the theme of sexual selection, I recently posted two items related to Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind. Wodabout the Wodaabe? examined Miller’s account of the Wodaabe tribe of North Africa and found it wanting, and The Mating Mind looked at Miller’s book more generally.
Finally, from time to time I have posted items that don’t fit into any particular theme but may still be worth a look. Celts and Anglo-Saxons analyses the historical evidence for the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England.
The Shifting Balance describes some recent work on Sewall Wright’s evolutionary theories. Cuckoldry and correlation explores the implications of allegedly high levels of 'misascribed paternity'. Family Connections pursues the Galtonian theme of talent running in families. Scots Wha Hae discusses the curiously neglected question of why the Scots speak English.
Well, that’s all I think is worth mentioning. I will revise and update the list every month or so, assuming that I have anything worth adding.
April 25, 2004
Affirmative Action Around the World
Commentary has a review of Thomas Sowell's Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study. Speaking for myself, when I first began to read Sowell's books back in the mid-90s, I experienced a literal mind-quake, and nothing has been the same since.
Gene controlling brain size
Got a forward about this article, Reconstructing the evolutionary history of Microcephalin, a gene controlling human brain size. Abstract & excerpts below.
Reconstructing the evolutionary history of Microcephalin, a gene controlling human brain size.
Evans PD, Anderson JR, Vallender EJ, Choi SS, Lahn BT.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA; Committee on Genetics, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.
The defining process in the evolution of primates and particularly humans is the dramatic expansion of the brain. While many types of genes could potentially contribute to this process, genes that specifically regulate brain size during development may be especially relevant. Here, we examine the evolution of the Microcephalin gene, whose null mutation in humans causes primary microcephaly, a congenital defect characterized by severe reductions in brain size without other gross abnormalities. We show that the evolution of Microcephalin's protein sequence is highly accelerated throughout the lineage from simian ancestors to humans and chimpanzees, with the most pronounced acceleration seen in the early periods of this lineage. We further demonstrate that this accelerated evolution is coupled with signatures of positive selection. Statistical analysis suggests that about 45 advantageous amino acid changes in Microcephalin might have fixed during the 25-30 million years of evolution from early simian progenitors to modern humans. These observations support the notion that the molecular evolution of Microcephalin may have contributed to brain expansion in the simian lineage leading to humans. We have recently shown that ASPM, another gene linked to primary microcephaly, experienced strong positive selection in the ape lineage leading to humans. We therefore propose that genes regulating brain size during development may have the general propensity to contribute to brain evolution in primates and particularly humans.
"The human microcephalin gene spans 14 exons and has a deduced protein-coding region of roughly 2.5 kb (21). It contains three so-called BRCA1 C-terminal (BRCT) domains, one at its N-terminus and two at its C-terminus. This domain is found in the tumor suppressor gene BRCA1 as well as multiple other eukaryotic genes, and is implicated in protein-protein and protein-DNA interactions. Apart from the BRCT domains, however, the biochemical function of microcephalin is unknown. Expression of microcephalin is found in a variety of human and mouse tissues (21). The most prominent is found in the developing forebrain, within regions of active neurogenesis ( i.e. the walls of lateral telencephalic ventricles). Such an expression pattern is consistent with the role of this gene in regulating brain size during development. (21) "
"Curiously, the BRCA1 gene has been shown to exhibit signatures of positive selection in the human and chimpanzees lineages after they diverged from each other (37,38) It may be a mere coincidence that both Microcephalin and BRCA1 - which share the BRCT domains in common - are subject to positive selection during primate evolution. Indeed, the BRCT domains in both genes are highly conserved and are themselves not subject to positive selection. However, it is also possible that Microcephalin and BRCA1 have similar functions in regulating cell cycle and are therefore subject to similar regimes of positive selection. Consistent with this possibility, BRCA! knockout mice show profound defects in nervous system development such as failure of neural tube closure and severely retarded growth of the forebrain. These results indicate that BRCA1, like Microcephalin, has a critical function in the proliferation and differentiation of neural progenitor cells (39), raising the possibility that positive selection on BRCA1 was actually directed towards its activity in brain development rather than its function in tumor suppression. "
I highly recommend Cosma Shalizi's Notebooks if you have a few hours to kill (a link under "Science Blogs"). You can find entries on signal processing, Chuang-Tzu and Economics. Certainly one of the most prominent Afghan-Tamil-Italian American thinkers on the web!
Layers of civilization
Aziz comments on the civilizational gap between "the West" (defined as the cultures who worship the One True God of Abraham) and those of "the East" (in particular, the Confucian East). Though I think Aziz highlights a real difference, the article which he references about the wrath that the recent Japanese hostages found when they returned to the home islands is shocking in its contrast with American culture, for I think that the dichotomy is not between those who worship the One True God and the people of the East, but between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world. More specifically, I believe the argument laid out in The Geography of Thought a proper descriptive framework, that the Anglospheric countries are the most "individualistic," while most of the world behaves on the principles of group conformity and "shame" (with Continental Europe somewhere in the middle). The reality of Arab "honor killings" (and the past of Anglospheric culture, that is, the Victorian era) shows the importance of shame, and conformity to group norms (or the perception of conformity), even when a people putatively have a personal relationship to God (one might assert that American culture makes such a fetish of non-conformity that they conform to non-conformism!?!).
But there is an underlying problem with these civilizational categories-it neglects the internal dynamics of a society, and takes the perception of one slice as the norm. For instance, when it comes to religion (often the marker used to delineate civilizational boundaries), I think this rough diagram illustrates what I mean:
At the center of religious belief are basic hard-wired "human universals." These are elaborated into complex rationalized faith systems by those who are prone toward rationalization. But there is a spectrum of belief, not just in intensity, but in conception. The intellectual class works out explicit axioms, rules and norms, and it is this class that serves as the clerics and thinkers who act as religious and civilizational spokesmen. But on the level of of the "common man" things are much simpler, and the religious practice and core beliefs of Muslim, Hindu and Japanese peasants might be more similar to each other than they are to the elite practioners of these cultures. To illustrate of what I speak, the filioque controversy helped spark the rift between the Eastern and Western Churches during the Dark Ages, but on the level of the common European, this had little impact (and in the grand tradition of rationalization, it almost certainly was rooted in political machinations rather than a genuine theological disagreement that could brook no compromise). Though Hinduism is "officially" pantheistic, the devotion of Indian peasants to their local godesses resembles that of Chinese peasants to Guaynin or Latin American peasants to the Virgin.
The counter-intuitive implication here is that the chasm between civilizations is on some level increasing as literacy and "elite values" spread throughout the world. But, the elite values that are spreading are particular to any given region, rather than trans-cultural "McWorld" ideals. This explains the rise of "reformism" and the decline of "traditionalist" beliefs among the Javanese urban class, and the coalescence of lay movements like Muhammadiyah and the expansion of the santri (orthodox) segment of Indonesian Islam. In a similar fashion, portions of the "paganized" elements of Roman Catholic Latin American peasantry are converting to a more "rigorous" Protestant Christianity, while many Japanese are shedding religion in general and simply becoming "Secular."
What is implicit and instinctive is common to humans as a whole, and local custom, ritual and tradition will often reflect this (that is, local peculiarities often reside within set parameters that define the conventional human range of practice and belief). But, what is explicit and rational is more likely to be dictated by its own internal logic, and once man cedes his will to reason, we may drift from the "equilibrium channel of religious practice" that characterizes most human cultures (and wander into strange territory like the "Death of God" theology). One tension that surfaces with this spread of elite values is that much of the populace can not master the rationalized systems that undergird elite religious formulations, ergo, the rise of hyper-simplistic messages and "fundamentals" that can communicate a few basic axioms without taxing intellectual capacities. Because these "rational" systems of belief are based on a chain of propositions that might be disputed, they drift into very different directions even though core human spirituality might be rather similar from person to person, and this diversity is preserved as the various Truths in the debased "fundamentalisms" that are proliferating in the modern world. The final result seems to be the rise of the possibility of a genuine "Clash of Civilizations," as opposed to the mobilization of societies on behalf of the selfish interests of the elites under self-serving ideological banners. It is no surprise that there is a contrast between the The City of God, written for the educated Christian and pagan elite of the 5th century, as opposed to Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict, written for the broad evangelical masses in the late the 20th century.