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July 24, 2004
Police Can Keep DNA Samples of Innocents
How much control do you have over your genes? Emerging trends would seem to indicate that whatever control you currently possess is being steadily eroded.
Recall the case of John Moore who sued the The University of California because following a treatment for a rare cancer a university affiliated physician repeatedly induced Mr. Moore to travel to his office in order to withdraw blood and tissue samples with the intent to profit from the cell lines that were being grown. Eventually a cell line based on T-lymphocytes was established and subsequently patented all without Moore's knowledge.
The court judgement makes clear that Moore was not entitled to ownership of his DNA.
Now in Britain, the police are allowed to keep DNA samples from suspects who have been cleared of the crime for which they stood accused.
The law lords dismissed two test cases brought by people who wanted their DNA samples destroyed once it had become clear that they would not be facing criminal charges.
What this high court ruling seems to ignore is that property owners don't need to justify their case for upholding lawful use of their property. Of course, if the property does not lawfully belong to the plaintiff then the case moves in a different direction.
The first appeal was brought by a boy from Sheffield who was 11 when he was arrested for attempted robbery in 2001. After his acquittal, he asked for his fingerprints and samples to be destroyed.
It's interesting that this first case involved a minor for in the normal case of events one would expect his criminal record and his charge to be sealed for they would reflect on his reputation, which is something he would have control over, but because the DNA doesn't belong to the young man, his case is dismissed.
Lord Rodger said too much weight had been attached to what was seen as a greater cultural resistance in Britain to the collection of data about individuals than existed in other European countries.
So, privacy issues and property rights can be rationalized away by appeal to the practices in other jurisdictions. Those who think that American legal tradition will be a bulwark against such reasoning shoud consider the growing appeal to comparativism in Supreme Court rulings.
The trajectory that DNA rights seems to be following is the same as that of plant genetic material which were classed as the common heritage of mankind and remarkably, the UN treaty conferring this status came into effect on June 29, 2004 to little notice.
I won't find it too surprising that soon you'll have no claims whatsoever to your genetic material, and that since every use of it will in some fashion or another be dependent on patentable intellectual property procedures, your DNA will simply be grist for the mill and the information that is extracted will be divorced from the DNA.
Visions of a brave new world? Perhaps.
Along the same lines, check this out:
In a case that bioethicists say could have wide implications, the state Superior Court invalidated a verbal agreement between a woman and her sperm donor and ordered him to pay child support for twin boys born nearly 10 years ago.
Our cells, our lives? Somehow methinks NOW isn't going to stand up for this guy.
Brain Gain for India
Some Indian immigrants to the US are now returning to India and bringing US culture with them. This New York Times article reports:
Others have been drawn back by the tug of family and the almost atavistic pull of roots, or pushed by diminishing job opportunities in Silicon Valley and tightening Americans visa regulations.
A couple of thoughts...
As I've said before, the immigration issue does not benefit from grouping legal computer programmers and illegal day laborers. The only thing they have in common is that they're nonwhite.
Disability Act Follies
The biggest problem with teleological history is that it leads to sloppy thinking. It causes the historian to torture the facts as he has them so that they will fit into the Procrustean bed of the March of History that he is thinking of. From the WWII until very recently, the story of anti-Semitism was often looked to be a teleological narrative culminating in the Holocaust. This approach is changing, especially among medievalists/early modern historians who are now working to make the distinction between religiously motivated anti-Judaism and racially motivated anti-Semitism. Such a distinction may seem like a trifling point, but it is in fact quite significant. To the anti-Semite, the Jew is the "eternal Jew" forever an alien parasite that can never be assimilated. The religiously motivated anti-Jewish polemic, though, allows the Jew to convert and be accepted into the Church/ummah.
The two modes of thought came into direct contact in several parts of Europe during WWII, moste especially when the extreme right wing Catholic government of Slovakia forced its Jews to accept Baptism, but then reacted in horror when the Nazi government ordered them killed anyway. Religious anti-Judaism was dominant prior to the Enlightenment, while racial anti-Judaism didn't pick up steam until the 19th century.
I should of course point out that, the further down from the intelligentsia that the two ideas percolate, the less daylight one sees in between positions. Even so, the distinction is still fairly significant, and even when Catholic Spain went after Jewish converts, it did so because the converts were suspected of not having fully converted.
For this reason, it sets my teeth on edge whenever I hear about "anti-Semitism in the Islamic world." The feelings that the Islamic world has towards the Jewish state, while to some degree nationalistic have, for at least a generation, been primarily religious. Indeed, over the course of the religious revival underway in the Islamic world, the Palestinian issue has become more and more a religious issue, so that one can watch the ideology of the anti-Israel terrorist groups gradually change over the decades.
My point? Well, it is primarily that even a HAMAS or Hizbollah member would accept Ariel Sharon as a fellow believer if he were to acknowledge his error and convert to Islam, though they might of course be suspicion that his conversion was not sincere. It is fairly important that Westerners understand what they are dealing with, since attempting to treat religious anti-Judaism as racist anti-Semitism leads to the wrong approach being taken. Moreover, sloppy terminology regarding such an issue also leads to sloppy thinking.
I have a tendency to harp on this point, but it is an important one. When irreligious people are trying to understand religious people, they ought to at least make an effort to understand the religious people on their own terms rather than trying to cram them into our pre-held templates.
Much of the Middle East, Africa, and parts of South America are strongly religious. And while it is often true that religious and secular concerns overlap, they very often do not. If the secular west is going to have any hope in dealing with those parts of the rest of the world that are strongly religious, its intelligentsia is going to have to actually have a clue as to what is going on.
July 23, 2004
The facts are there, seek them....
One thing I've noted is that there is a lot of data out there on religion in America, but pronouncements by many in the public eye seem decoupled from the reality. For example, from the American Religious Identification Survey:
Here is the table that goes with this text (sorry for the small type):
So all this talk of a "religious revival" that you hear in the popular press is a load of crap, polarization might be correct, but inspirational profiles of those seeking spirituality makes a hell of a lot better copy than of those who lost faith. Additionally, there are those on the Left and the Right who want to promote the idea of a religious revival for political and personal reasons.
From the mouth of slobs
Straight guys find a way to turn everything into a competition....- slob on Straight Plan for the Gay Man
A central tendency?
I just realized something. Years back I read that the diversity of sects and movements increases the closer you get to the "center" of the Muslim world. Here you can see a map of Sunni-Shia distribution. Note that at the antipodes there seem to be few Shia. In fact, the frequency of Sunnis seems to be >99% in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), while almost all Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims are at least nominally Shafi Sunnis. As you move toward the heart of the Muslim world, there is an increase in the percentage of Shia and a proliferation of movements hard to put into a box .
This me struck as rather similar to the pattern you see when you have a far flung population that spreads from an initial region of habitation, that is, the highest diversity of lineages is found at the origin. This is the result of neutral mutations accumulating in a region where a lineage has been present for many generations (while regions colonized later have a subset of the original diversity, that is, they go through a founder effect or a bottleneck). The implication from analogy is that the diversity of Muslim groups in the center is not the result of local conditions as much as the reality that more time has accrued to establish heresy than in the periphery. I could be wrong, and can think of many counter-arguments, but I thought the idea was weird enough to throw out.... (it jives with my conception of religious dogmas and creeds as being randon coalitional markers that emerge periodically from the minds of rational thinkers "gone wild." Now and then theyt stick for whatever reason)
Hell, we know that baby name frequencies float like randomly as if in genetic drift.
Minor addendum: Note that I am suggestiong a mutational random genetic drift model for creeds and mantras and what not, not the basics of religious experience which I think are pretty universal and constrained by practicality and evolution. The reply would be that creeds and mantras have strong functional roles.
 For those who want specifics, for example: the Ibadis dominate Oman, a splinter group from the Khajirites. The Zaydis are prominent in Yemen, who rest at an equilibrium between Sunni & Shia. In Saudi Arabia you have a Salafi elite and an oppressed Shia minority in the east. In Iraq, you have a split between Sunni and Shia. In Syria, you have an Alawite minority whose Muslim status is in dispute. In Turkey you have the Alevis who are similar to Alawites. In Lebanon and its environs you have the Druze, who are even more peculiar than Alawites. Not that there aren't deviant movements in other parts of the Muslim world, but, I sense that the further you get from Mecca, the less likely this seems to be....
Islam and the West
This week's Spectator magazine (UK) has a lead article by Anthony Browne, a well known London Times journalist, arguing that: "Islam really does want to conquer the world. Thatís because Muslims, unlike many Christians, actually believe they are right, and that their religion is the path to salvation for all".
Nothing very surprising here, at least for GNXP readers, but Browne has some good quotes from influential Muslim clerics.
The Spectator is available online here (free registration may be required).
Addendum from Razib: Try username: and password: publicgnxp. Also, note this subheading, "Islam really does want to conquer the world. Thatís because Muslims, unlike many Christians, actually believe they are right, and that their religion is the path to salvation for all." The Spectator is British, so they encounter Christians with balls far less often than Americans. Personally, I was kind of excited for evangelical Christian missionaries to go into Iraq and see if the Muslims and the missionaries ended up inadvertently castrating each other.
Here's the graph of the consanguinity prevalence as a function of geography:
Conversion gets a really bad rap from our press. But from a secularist point of view, as far as I know the most successful/assimilated/Westernized Arabs are the Lebanese Christians. Conversion changes all sorts of behaviors, including the practice of cousin marriage. And the world beating consanguinity rate is surely one of the factors keeping the Arab world down. (Data from consang.net, though their server appears to be down). See for example Bromiker et. al.:
Consanguineous marriages have been described as an important factor contributing to an increased occurrence of congenital malformations and subsequent morbidity and mortality among the offspring. Within the general population, the incidence of congenital malformations spans a wide range. With few exceptions, the frequency of major malformations reported in western countries ranges between 1.0 and 2.4% (1, 2). By contrast, the risk for congenital malformations in the offspring of marriages between first cousins has been reported to range between 2.9 and 8.0%
It's so high, in fact, that geneticists travel to Saudi Arabia to seek out rare neurological diseases:
In some parts of Saudi Arabia, particularly in the south, where Mrs. Hefthi was raised, the rate of marriage among blood relatives ranges from 55 to 70 percent, among the highest rates in the world, according to the Saudi government.
If Christian missionaries were allowed to do their work in Iraq, perhaps this practice could be slowly changed. Fat chance of that happening, of course.
Comment from Razib: My best friend in high school was from a Christian Lebanese background. My family also had many friends of Muslim Lebanese origin when we lived in Western Pennsylvania. Two points:
The Christian Lebanese around Mt. Lebanon, the "Maronites," derive from a theological controversy dating to the 6th century. Eventually they aligned themselves with the Roman Catholic Church. This has had long term consequences, in that their wealth and cosmopolitanism is partly a reflection of the fact that Christian Lebanese have been "hooked in" to the French cultural international for many centuries. This is in contrast to the Shia, Sunni or Druze Lebanese, who don't have the same European contacts.
Second, the idea that the Christian and Muslim Lebanese are disaparate peoples is often asserted by the Maronites and other Christians, that the former are not Arab, and so forth. The fact is that the Muslim Lebanese are almost certainly converts, several memebers of my friend's extended family converted to Islam, so the process continues. Additionally, the area around Mt. Lebanon would probably be the last one where there would have been a movement of Arab tribal peoples during the spread of Islam (the Syrian coast in general is where there are still pockets of Aramaic speakers).
That being said, the rise of religious pluralism and further international contacts through the formation of a Protestantized minority couldn't hurt. And from the secular perspective, in Human Accomplishment Charles Murray seems to hint that Protestantism has a tendency to decay to secularism.
July 22, 2004
Pathogens & polygyny
Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior, was written 4 years ago by Bobbie S. Low. There's a lot of interesting material in there, and she is clearly influenced by a game theoretic model of human societies. She seems to work with the maxim "build from below," starting out with a few initial assumptions that seem theoretically plausible and empirically supported. I'm still working my way through 60 pages of endnotes, but two things stuck out for me in the main text:
One omission from Low's work is recent molecular genetic data that implies:
The Seeds of Star Trek in German Politics
Here's what comes up from a quick news search on genetic engineering.
- Star Trek Enterprise revisits the Eugenics War with a 3 episode story arc guest starring Brent (Data) Spiner.
"Well, it's a very exciting arc. Brent is going to play an ancestor of Dr. Soong, the creator of Data. However, this character is more of a Dr. Frankenstein. He is not a benign individual. He has brought to life 20 embryos from the Eugenics era. So you have Soong who's leading a band of Khan Noonien Singh's, so to speak. He believes that genetic engineering was on the right track! He wants to improve humanity, and he believes that the Eugenics Wars were an aberration, that these individuals are the future of humanity. Of course he's wrong ó they get away from him. They get out of control, and it becomes this three-episode saga that's kind of like 'Apocalypse Now' ó Enterprise becomes kind of like a ship going up river, trying to find these individuals, with Soong on board."
I can already see how they're going to botch this up. Frankenstein, villains, genetic engineering can never be on the right track, megolomania and rampaging Nietzschean Ubermensch all nicely mixed into cliche-ridden hodgepodge. Arghh.
PGD has been illegal in Germany since 1990, when the German parliament passed the Embryo Protection Law.
While the Germans, who have valid historical concerns about genetic engieering, are debating on how to proceed they could take notice of, and avoid, the sinister regulations found in in Canada where children born of IVF must be registered with the government. Bill C-13. p17 reads, "The Agency shall maintain a personal health information registry containing health reporting information about donors of human reproductive material and in vitro embryos, persons who undergo assisted reproduction procedures and persons conceived by means of those procedures." Imagine the uproar of only registering the handicapped or children of designated ethnicity, or for that matter children with red hair.
- The Brits just this week decided to loosen up on their reproductive laws to allow parents to design their babies. They slowly retreating from the same cautious position found in Germany and are now letting couples make the choice of whether to create children who can act as genetically-matched donors for their sick siblings. They're still not at the point of granting people complete reproductive rights though.
Announcing the policy change Suzi Leather, the HFEA chairwoman, said: "Faced with potential requests from parents who want to save a sick child, the emotional focus is understandably on the child who is ill. Our job is to consider the welfare of the tissue-matched child which will be born.
Clearly in the Star Trek future genetic engineering will be considered horrific and our descendents won't have full reproductive rights to help their children. That future seems to be at odds with the developing trends we're currently seeing with respect to IVF and PGD, so do you think that it is safe to infer, despite the many prognostications about Europe's waning power, that the visionaries of the Star Trek future are basing their predictions on the resurgence of the German cultural/politcal elite who will soon become the arbiters on matters genetic and act to reverse the current trends?
While we're talking about German ubermensch, be sure to check out this post on the muscular mutant kid..
Cajun Style Intelligence
Just an FYI....
The 2004 International Society for Intelligence Research conference was just announced and will be held in New Orleans, LA. The keynote address is by Ian Deary, one bad-ass differential psychologist. Also, Thomas Bouchard is going to be interviewed. Bouchard is a very well published behavior geneticist.
As I noted below, I am observing the exchange over at Thebit's blog. The reason I keep a watch over Thebit is that to me he seems a good example of an intellectual and thoughtful Muslim. Haroon is also of that kind. They are intellectual and reflective members of the faith, making references to figures as disparate as Al-Ghazali and Charles Bradlaugh. And yet, note this quote from Haroon: "Firstly, why do Muslims identify headscarves as mandatory? Because they read the texts." Readers know how I feel about "texts" (see here, here and here).
A thought experiment, what if you introduced Haroon & Jim Kalb, a traditionalist Roman Catholic, with the intent that they have a discussion about the merits of their religions? Well, you would probably observe a lot of textual and philosophical references. Kalb would no doubt defend the incarnation, the Triune God and point to the clues in the Hebrew Bible that foretell the rise of Christianity. Haroon would respond with skepticism at the Athanasian formulation of the Triune God, raise questions about the incarnation on textual and philosophical grounds and perhaps make the case that Islam is the "primal" religion. Now, another thought experiment, a Muslim farmer from rural Punjab and a Catholic farmer from rural Spain have a talk about their faith (assume they have a "universal translator"). What would they talk about? I suspect the verbal exchange would be truncated and awkward. The two individuals would know the basics of their faith and how they differ, but I doubt they could discursively analyze the differences between their religions and engage in a debate critiquing each other's implicit propositions.
Honestly, I believe that the emotional experience of god that both the Muslim and Catholic farmers have is basically the same. They might beseech their god in the same manner, for the same reasons, and experience cognate emotions when engaged in communal worship or individual devotions. God is a supernatural agent that has a personal relationship with the individual, a powerful being who offers succor and sense in a complex world.
In contrast, the elite conception of gods are as variegated as human cultures. The Abrahamic god is a being "outside time, all good, all powerful and all knowing." The Hindu god "expresses itself in all of existence," everything is a fragment of god, the ultimate "ground of being." One difference between the Christian god and the Muslim god is that the former is conceived as "one substance" and "three persons." I put quotations because I really don't know what the hell half that is supposed to mean. Atheists have always gotten a lot of leverage out of exploring the contradictions in the various axioms that theologians attribute to god. The connection between the god of the people and the god of the philosophers & theologians seems tenuous at best, why would individuals pray to a supernatural agent as if it perceives time serially if they know that their clerics tell them god is "outside time" and "all knowing" (why verbalize? why even think, as god knows all thoughts that will be?).
Of course religious professionals have clever answers to all questions of logic. After all, god is not responsible for evil even though god created everything because evil is just the lack of good (see, so god never created evil!). Personally, I know far more about the differences between religions than most people, I know the difference between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians, those who adhere to the Nestorian position and the Monophysite position, dualist vs. monistic Hinduism, and so forth. And yet I think that most of the philosophical differences are nothing more than word games inferred from gibberish. I say this because the axioms are almost always slippery gibberish! Otherwise, they would be banal and less than awe-inspiring (demi-gods are comprehensible). Atheists enjoy grappling with the philosophical aspects of religion, it's so easy to expose as internally contradictory, no one really has a good grasp of what it means to be "all knowing," as no one is god (do you know everything at the moment, or you do you keep accumulating it as time progresses, or do you know alll the various paths that time might take since you are "outside of time?").
So what's the point of all of this? These word games are crucial in marking coalitions. The various disputes over Christology might have a meaning to philosophers, but most historians often glean political and social cleavages as the real motivation for a mass movement in favor of a particular Christological position (that is, Monophosytism spread in Syria and Egypt because it served as a counter-point to domination from Constantinople, which adhered to Chalcedonianism). People can assent to mantras and creeds without knowing really what they're talking about, the label and profession is enough to distinguish one from another (ask most Christians about the Nicene Creed and they have only the sketchy basics). It's easy for philosophers and theologians to come to different conclusions based on propositional logic because the axioms are not reallly clear in the first place, so people create their own idea from impressionistic axioms and mold their own chain of propositions. Often it is self-serving (they know what conclusion they will reach), and often they become persuaded by their own rational capacities. If you listen to arcane disputes between co-religionists at the elite levels you will see faux-rationality gone wild. The emotional content of religion takes a back seat to the vicissitudes of language.
For more on this line of thought, see Dan Sperber's article INTUITIVE AND REFLECTIVE BELIEFS. Interestingly, I think it is the reflective, rational and intellectual aspect of god-belief and worship that has been mobilized into murderous Wars-of-Religion.
A bit of Internet Humor
The debate over at Muslim Under Progress goes on.... Randy seems to be carrying the banner for "secularists" while Thebit & Haroon march for the intellectual Muslim perspective. And yet, I feel kind of uninvolved at this point because semantic problems seem to be 3/4 of the discussion, and I was turned off a bit by Thebit asserting that: 'By saying that Indian and Chinese civilisations also produced "secularists" and "atheists" is to stifle what they had to say about themselves, under our own ideas of what these words mean. We might give them such labels, but this is different from saying that they were such and such.'
I understand where Thebit is coming from, many people assume that there is a universal currency to some definitions ("We all believe in the same God," is what a jailer told Bertrand Russell during World War I when he put "agnostic" under "religion"). But the other extreme, behaving as if terms are only intelligible in the context of a particular culture seems ridiculous, after all, if that was true, cross-cultural anthropology or history would be ludicrous disciplines (and some do assert this!). My personal opinion, unquantified and without excessive explication is that human universals imply a common lexicon between cultures, though labels and propositional systems might differ, mutual understanding and analogy is possible. As I noted initially on the above thread, the Indian Carvaka tradition, with its materialistic atheism, is an echo of many sentiments expressed by skeptics in the West (and philosophers like Pythagoras and Plontius acknowledged an influence from Indian thinkers, so cross-fertilization falsifies an extreme conception of unintelligibility). To the east in China the great Confucian Hsun Tzu had a habit of mocking spiritualists and mediums that might have made him the James Randi of his day. Granted, skepticism and atheism have found their fullest expression in the modern Western intellectual tradition (the word "atheist" was originally applied by Romans to Christians who denied the reality of all gods but their own), but one should not assume that this is sui generis.
July 21, 2004
In India, Muslim women can expect to have 3.6 births, while Hindus can expect 2.8 (source). Often birthrate can be viewed as a proxy for a general evaluation of the status of women in a particular subculture. Muslims in India tend to be poorer and less advanced than Hindus. So, it is with some surprise that I saw the following from Conrad Barwa:
The prevelance of dowry among Hindus in comparison to Muslims might go a long way to explaining this difference, but what I want to reflect on is the long term arc of Hindus & Muslims in India in the light of these statistics. I am rather skeptical of group selectionist/functionalist conceptions of social evolution and competition. But, the statistics above are faintly reminiscent of the line of argument presented in Rod Stark's The Rise of Christianity, that is, demographic factors helped drive the rise of Christianity in the pagan Roman Empire as Christian practices were more conducive to long term fecundity. This is somewhat disturbing in light of the empirical reality that Hindu India has been more successful in fostering a liberal political culture than any Muslim country....
Addendum: Genetic evidence seems to imply a long-term history of "hypergamy" in South Asia, with the upward rise of low status women.
Addendum II: Also, I am cautious about making long term projections. After all, Southern Europeans now have the world's lowest birthrates, but a few generations ago were rather fecund in comparison to Northern Europeans. Similarly, the birthrates among Catholics in Ireland and Northern Ireland have dropped a great deal, while Indians in Fiji used to have higher birthrates than Native Fijians while today that situation is reversed.
Surprise, surprise, surprise
God, what is he good for?
The debate below on the utility of religion made me question what exactly people meant by "religion." This is more than a semantic question, history and anthropology abound with cross-cultural confusions despite common humanity. Below I have cut & pasted a poll question that asks readers to prioritize which theory of religion they find most plausible (or if they find some/all or none plausible). I have also added some elaboration on what I mean for each category.
Caveat: I know very well that the various divisions merge into one another and are often nested within lower levels. But for the purposes of communication I've tried to tease them apart.
Functionalism: This is the general "good of the society" or "social glue" theory. Group selection and "mob control" theories (espoused by Jared Diamond) are likely subsumed under this heading. Functionalism tends to emphasize the social scale, and so mass organized religions get all the play on this level.
Mental byproduct: Championed by many cognitive scientists who adhere to the modular mind, religion-as-a-mental-byproduct tends to assert that spiritual feelings on the individual scale emerge from complex interactions between atomic modular units forged during the EEA. Religion is not necessarily adaptive and might even be maladaptive, but nevertheless the benefits of the individual modular units is high enough to compensate for the cost of religious needs and compulsions. This tends to emphasize the individual scale and does not differentiate between various theologies and mass religious organizations.
Proto-science: In this scenario religion is a way for the "primitive" mind to explain the world around them, that is, make predictions by formulating general theories of cause & effect. It is often related to magic and other direct manifestations of the supernatural in the corporeal realm. The idea that religion is proto-science can be conceived of as both on the individual and social level.
Direct adaptation: This posits that religion is a direct adaptation which has benefits in and of itself, usually on the individual level. For example, perhaps religion mitigates the fear of death and so blocks excessive morbid preoccuptations that might draw time away from procreation and status acqusition. This is a flexible approach, and can be fitted into "rational choice" theories that posit religions as baskets of goods and services. It can be stretched from the EEA to the modern world. Additionally, it might fit well with "God Module" theories which tend to finger one primary cause of religion feeling within the brain.
Emotional succor: This is an individual level theory which is related to the mental byproduct model in that religion emerges out of complex cognitive processes. Additionally the emotional succor argument ties in somewhat to direct adaptation as it might just be a proximate phenomenon. It also is proximate in relation to the functionalist paradigm as emotional succor is the glue that binds the society.
Religion is true: Needs no elaboration.
Religion is a meme: This is a theory that posits that religion is a "mental virus" that is a replicator that propogates selfishly. Obviously this theory is less appropriate in the EEA, but rather, like the functionalist model, tends to work better in "modern" societies with mass religions.
I've only touched on the topic in the most clumsy of fashions, but I wanted to get this out there before the previous thread died. Personally, I think all points of view have merit, the issue is to nest the model with the appropriate hierarchy of social organization. That is, functionalism doesn't do too well on the scale of the individual, while religion as a mental byproduct doesn't explain the cultural diversity of mass movements. The levels of organization are important, even if mass religious movements decline, other levels of religiosity, nested within smaller social units (individuals or families) might persist. If some charismatic individuals tend to trigger religious revolutions because of their fanaticism being derived from a hyper-active "God Module," genetic engineering that deletes the "God Module" might result in the removal of mystics and prophets from the scene, but common-place religiosity might still remain. If science explains the totality of the physical universe, religion still remains as an abstract system of ethics, functional social units and an avenue for emotional succor.
I think that individual perspective matters a lot on how we view this issue. Intelligent non-religious people in my experience tend to emphasize functionalism, religion as proto-science and memes. Proto-science and memes are all about ideas and information, something that the hyper-intelligent can understand. More typical emotional needs might be more difficult for some individuals to grasp. Similarly, if they lack the proper conformation of cognitive domains that results in an emergence of religious feeling, they won't be able to intuitively understand the appeal of religion. Finally, when I say that perhaps Islam should be "gelded," I am clearly talking about functionalism, and to a lesser extent proto-science. Religion as an individual phenomenon seems to be pretty difficult to diminish in many people, but the reality of human history shows that powerful, rigid and temporally ambitious mass social organizations grounded in Godly principles can be dangerous. Additionally, history and anthropology seem to indicate they are not natural, that is, they emerge out of our societies because of sociological and historical variables, not evolutionary ones. I have talked before how in some ways how the modern West resembles the EEA more than the baroque traditional agricultural civilizations of Eurasia. In the United States today religion is a strong driver of civil society and is organizationally healthy, yet individuals remain in the driver's seat, and there is a healthy pluralism that blunts the tendency of religious officials to bull their way into the temporal arena. Instead, they tend to provide goods & services to satisfy the private needs of their congregants, with political activites being secondary in importance, though not always trivial....
July 20, 2004
Strange case of "two cultures"
Did you know that Norman Mailer has a degree in aeronautical engineering from Harvard? Weird.
Why I would have voted for Lieberman
A new article in Wapo by him and Sen. Kyl (R) sums up my thoughts perfectly. In it he announces the relaunch of "The Committee on the Present Danger". In it Lieberman set out the CPD III's mission statement;
In this third incarnation, we intend to focus the committee on the present danger our generation faces: international terrorism from Islamic extremists and the outlaw states that either harbor or support them. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks awoke all Americans to the capabilities and brutality of our new enemy, but today too many people are insufficiently aware of our enemy's evil worldwide designs, which include waging jihad against all Americans and reestablishing a totalitarian religious empire in the Middle East. The past struggle against communism was, in some ways, different from the current war against Islamist terrorism. But America's freedom and security, which each has aimed to undermine, are exactly the same. The national and international solidarity needed to prevail over both enemies is also the same. In fact, the world war against Islamic terrorism is the test of our time.
I know many of our Libertarian readers will be disturbed by the reemergence of this group (because in it's previous incarnations, it advocated a large military build-up and not containment), but they shouldn't be, as this group simply seeks to inform Americans about the danger terrorism causes. I also know that our pro-Bush readers will say that only Bush can see to the aims of this group, they are also wrong. The importance of this group during this election cycle is to open debate among the two major party candidates as to which one is truly best in fighting the war on terror correctly.
P.S. Godless has made comments in the past that churches kept Americans eyes open to the dangers of Communism, this is the central group that was responsible for organizing that effort.
Return of the Muslim
A few weeks ago I posted Secular fundamentalist, or realist? in response to this post by Thebit of Muslim Under Progress. He responds to a few assertions. I think it should be noted that I perceive a difference between Muslims who reside in the West and those who do not in the context of whether they should be channeled into the same general path as Christianity. For example, I see some signs that here in the United States Islam is already morphing into another Protestant denomination (following the precedent of American Catholicism and Judaism), though this will no doubt elicit some resistance on the part of traditionalists....
Related: Aziz offers his 2 cents:
I suspect practice is a big part of the problem. It is in practice that a clash of values manifests itself.
I consider Laura of Veiled4Allah to be a role model for the assimilation of muslims into American culture with retention of Islmaic values, but her support for the Dennis Kucinich wing of the Democratic Party neccessarily means that her allies become people like the odious Amy Richards.
But given that Aziz is a pretty reasonable guy, I don't think he's seen this essay by Laura Poyneer:
But wait! Isn't voting haram? Doesn't it mean supporting a kufr system? Muslims who seek to become politically active will hear this one a lot. So let's deal with it head on. Shaykh Muhammad al-Munajjid, a very conservative Saudi scholar, was asked about voting in elections in a non-Muslim country . He replied...
Note: the professed loyalty is to the international ummah and to other Muslims, NOT the USA and Americans. Voting is a kufr thing only to be tolerated insofar as it's good for Muslims - and this is heard a lot . Furthermore, voting is not defended on the grounds of being an American institution and the foundation of our democracy...no, it's defended in cynically tactical terms because it's a way to "prevent harm to Muslims" and "help the ummah".
This can't be the model of assimilation that Aziz is praising...I much prefer Razib, Zack, Aziz, and even Ikram to this sort of anti-democratic, unpatriotic fundamentalism. Only the self-admittedly calculating machinations of a Stephen Steinlight can compare to such blatant, overt, premeditated disloyalty.
PS: I somewhat agree with the rest of Aziz's post, though I'm skeptical that Muslims and the American right can reconcile in the near future. In order for that to happen, Muslims would need to sign up for the Armed Forces in droves and discharge themselves honorably (as did many but not all Japanese during World War 2). The left is considerably more tolerant when it comes to ideology; as long as you have nonwhite skin, you can believe whatever you want and they won't sanction you. (I'm kidding...sort of...)
Comment from Razib on Godless' comment: A few points....
First, I shouldn't be placed in the same category as Zack and especially Aziz. I have never really had strong religious commitments and have been a conscious atheist from the age of 7 (through my own reasoning, not reading books, I didn't know the term "atheist" until several years later). My experience is so atypical and deviant that I doubt it really serves as much of a template. Zack has some attachment to Islam, while Aziz is a sincere believer. I don't know about Ikram.
From a rational egoistic perspective I would do better in a society where people might perceive me as Muslim because of my name and origin, and so suffer some prejudice, than in a Muslim society where my unapologetic atheism might result in ostracism and at the extreme physical harm. So my belligerence to some forms of Islam can be justified purely on self interest, my "Muslim" identity is simply a accident of history that has little relevance in the big picture.
As for Muslims and their devotion to the ummah vs. their nation, what would any religionist chooose, God or country? This is not a choice that most people can really make, so the standard response is to reformulate one of the loyalties so it does not conflict with the other. Catholic Bavarians who fought under the command of Protestant Prussians against Catholic Austrians in the 19th century obviously had reconciled their Catholicism with their German nationalism. Likewise for the fact that the Shia Iraq foot-soldiers remained mostly loyal to the Sunni dominated Iraqi state and fought against Shia Iranians. I doubt that the Bavarians or the Shia Arabs of Iraq thought they were going against their faith in fighting fellow believers, though some might interpret it that way.
American Muslims, who are often first generation immigrants at this point, will either reformulate their religious values so that fighting against other Muslims in the service of the United States (or supporting US action against other Muslims) is not haram, or they will suffer social ostracism and segregate themselves. I suspect they will follow a mixed strategy, with the majority assimilating their religious practice like Reform and Conservative Jews and a minority withdrawing like many Orthodox Jews into their own separate space. Since Muslim immigrants tend to skew toward some level of education this makes sense in a "rational choice" paradigm, Muslims who are professionals or engaged in other ways with the society at large will want to reduce the tension of their faith with their surroundings. The bigger problem might be in Europe, where Muslims tend to be economically and educationally disadvantaged, and so have less impulse to acclimate and accomidate when they are not stake-holders in the general society.
Finally, as for the individual noted above, it should be stated that she is a convert to Islam, so saying she is a good example of "assimilation into American culture" is a bit peculiar, as she is a native born American raised as a Catholic. That is, she started off from a point of assimilation and has had to reach her own equilibrium. White converts to Islam are as atypical of the American Muslim as I am.
Godless briefly comments:
Razib said "I shouldn't be placed in the same category as Zack and especially Aziz.". But I wasn't referring to Razib's religious assimilation, but rather to his assimilation as an American. While I have my differences with Zack and Aziz and Ikram, I consider them squarely within the mainstream of political debate in the US. Notably, all four of them are South Asian Muslims - not Arab Muslims. Poyneer, whether convert or not, is not within the mainstream. If the above piece genuinely represents her views, she is nothing more than an unabashed fifth-columnist.
July 19, 2004
The wisdom of Seinfeld
Here is a synopsis of an episode of Seinfeld titled "The Bizarro Jerry":
Remember that episode? Here is the IMDB profile for the actress whose picture George was showing around. The fact that such a hot woman ostensibly married George triggers something on other hot women, who now give him the time of day. In my own life, there was a girl at my high school who I will call "Tara." She dated the most popular guy in school in 8th grade. I would have rated the girl a "5.5," but inexplicably she had the status of a "hottie." In fact, guys would say she was hot, though further querying on my part tended to evince obfuscation on the issue from my peers.
It is with these obvious truths in mind that I came to reading The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond The Gene by ethologist Lee Alan Dugatkin. The author edited (and was a contributer to) the text Game Theory and Animal Behavior, which I also just read. The Imitation Factor had positve blurbs from Susan Blackmore (The Meme Machine) and Nancy Etcoff (Survival of the Prettiest), so that also got my attention. So what was the book about? If I had to sum it up: guppy see, guppy do!
Dugatkin's general thesis is that imitation is a behavior that can be expressed by extremely simple animals, in this case, guppies. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of imitation in sexual selection. It has been known in many species the females tend to prefer males that other females prefer. But how do you gauge the importance of this factor in comparison to genetic constraints?
There are a lot of experiments sketched out in The Imitation Factor, which in many ways reads like an extended review article aimed toward the lay audience, but the "titration experiment" with guppies stands out.
But what about people? The episode of Seinfeld that I cited above is an illustration of a truism. But Dugatkin recounted a psychological experiment that confirmed what we already knew, that people are highly influenced by the decisions of others. Male and female undergraduates were told about a fictious experiment. An individual that was stated to be unattractive was interviewed by 5 potentional dates. The test subjects were told that 4 out of 5 interviewers stated that they would date the individual that was already stipulated to be unattractive. After this, they were asked a variety of questions that would probe their own attitude toward dating the individual above, and evaluations of their character and personality. Interestingly, both men and women seemed to think the above individual must have been exceptional, with many positive traits, and many seemed to be willing to date the person, even though they were told the individual was not physically attractive. The main difference was that women assumed the individual must have been wealthy! The general tendency probably don't surprise anyone, but where does it come from? Is the "connecting of dots" in this fashion a product of reflective thinking? That is, using induction and deduction to derive a conclusion, or is it an instinct triggered by a mental module? Dugatkin does mention the "modular mind" in passing on the context of maladptive traits, but in general he stays away from deep cognitive issues to focus on behavior. Though I think the question is open, I suspect that the tendency for men and women to behave in such a imitative manner, illustrated above, has basic roots in the EEA. We don't mimic the preferences of others just because it is the most "rational" thing to do, rather, it is a human universal triggered by a "release mechanism" which is rationalized after the fact.
The author's main contention seems to be that ethology, the study of animal behavior, is much richer than many would assume, and that its applicability to human behavior is rather clear. The utility of imitation is obvious: it may require time & energy to gather information that might allow one to ascertain the genetic & physical fitness of a potential mate, and if one is in the presence of others who have those skills more sharply honed and are willing to unwittingly give pointers, then there is a strong inective to "go with the flow." Of course, this often amplifies conventional sexual selection and results in even greater reproductive skew and a smaller effective population (that is, a few males monopolize sexual access to females). "Go with the flow" has an affect on displayers as well, as the example of an Amazonian fish species where males copulate with parthogenetic females of another species just to impress their own females. Other recent popular books, like The Tipping Point, might have benefited from a more explicit exploration of animal behavior. Animals might give us clues into human fads and fashions, or more likely, the constraints upon our capricious cultural creativity.
If you want to explore further, I suggest you check out Lee Alan Dugatkin's publications (all in PDF format).
Dugatkin spends a lot of time contrasting his theory of imitative mate choice with four more directly genetic mechanisms:
July 18, 2004
The Zero and lies of omission
A discussion about the creation of the concept of zero started me thinking about how one can lie by not actually lying. This is important since it is Michael Moore's major tool in convincing his brain-dead zealots.
Ask any college student what civilization created the zero and you will get answers of "Islamic" or "Arabic". Right? No - wrong, dead wrong. It was actually conceived by Indian mathematicians. So how did these kids get that idea in their head? Because a history teacher (intentionally or not) brought them to that conclusion.
We all know the story. A European meets with an Arab trader hundreds of years ago. During their discussion, the trader bends down and writes a "0" in the sand, animated discussion ensues.
From this data, deprived of that crucial Indian info, the student draws the false conclusion that Islam conceived of the zero (because if we got it from them they must have created it). In bringing the student to that conclusion the teacher did not present a lie once...but it is irrelevant, as the student now has new data that is false.
Forward to Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore presents the fact that Bush was Governor of Texas in the 90's (true), that the Taliban met with Unocal about a natural gas pipeline in the 90's (true), and that this meeting was in Texas (true). All this leads the viewer to a conclusion, that Bush had ties with the Taliban (false). All in all a terrible tactic to use in a debate, but one that is becoming more and Moore common on the left.
It would be remiss of me to not point out...
1) The standard left-wing retort is that the Bush administration engaged in exactly the same behavior by mentioning Saddam and Al Qaeda in the same breath, over and over, in the runup to the war. The result is that the majority of Americans thought Saddam was directly involved in 9/11. (I believe this was done intentionally, though I didn't mind it at the time because I thought we'd be sure to find WMD, retroactively justifying any steps we took to go to war.)
2) Being proud of an Indian accomplishment several centuries ago would be problematic for two reasons. First, Razib and I are Americans. Second, it's probably better to point to contemporary advances. The reason K-12 education talks about "Arabic" numerals is because it's been a while since the Arab world got attention for something other than oil or terrorism. (To be fair, the Arabs *did* make seminal contributions to algebra, the idea of the algorithm, etc. - all of which were named for Arabs).
But lack of contemporary recognition is not so much of a problem for India or South Asian Americans, so there's much less psychological need to dwell in the past. Less cows, caste, and curry...more chips, computers, and capitalism.