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September 25, 2004



LTG David Petraeus for President!

Lieutenant General David H. Petraeus, former commander of the 101st Airborne Division and now commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq (and perhaps the smartest and most competent commander we have over there, not to mention a person who I am a pretty big fan of) has a very good editorial in Sunday's Washington Post. One interesting tidbit in it caught my eye:

In the months ahead, the 16,000-strong border force will expand to 24,000 and then 32,000. In addition, these forces will be provided with modern technology, including vehicle X-ray machines, explosive-detection devices and ground sensors.

Once you're done over there, General, why don't you come over here and secure our border?

Note: Most of the links on this post, except for the actual article that Petraeus wrote, were written or posted when he was still a Major General. He has since been promoted.

Posted by Arcane at 10:45 PM | | TrackBack


Are you a Capsaicin non-taster?

Apparantly many people are. It's notable that you can either be born a non-taster or become one through high consumption of Capsaicin.

I wonder what the population percent is for different continents?

Addendum from Razib: Here are my previous related posts, Genetics of taste, PTC taste, balancing selection? and PTC, part II. From what I recall there was some correlation between non-PTC taste and relative insensitivity to capsaicin.

Posted by scottm at 09:37 PM | | TrackBack


The climate of Fear

Political post read it in the extended entry

-A soldier home relaxing from the Iraq war was savagely beaten by a person opposed to the war.

-In Duluth Bush signs are disappearing at a frightening rate.

-Bush supporters are scared to put out signs or bumper stickers for fear of physical retaliation.

I was thinking about this today as I was driving around my old neighborhood, a usually Republican-leaning part of Portland. I saw many Kerry signs but no Bush signs, even in the lawns of people I knew supported Bush. I asked one of them about that and he informed me that he had put one out but it was stolen.

Then I remebered my own experiences. Back in 2000 I had a Bush sticker on my car, it was keyed and eventually replaced by a stranger with a Gore sticker, both acts cost me a few hundred dollars. My sister, a pugnacious conservative, had 5 signs stolen from her lawn in 5 consecutive days, culminating in a sixth one being burned on her lawn.

This is the climate of fear that we live in and one of many reasons I do not like extreme lefties (now, as a note I don't have anything against moderate Democrats, and there are many of them). I believe it comes out of the fact that, being largely non-religious, politics is their religion. The comport themselves with an air of self-righteousness, and believe their political opponets are less than human and are deserving of no respect.

I work in the biological sciences, usually at a University, and I know conservatives and libertarians who are scared to death to let their views be known, since they know they will lose their job. One day, after hearing the most paranoid theories about Bush being bandied about by several co-workers I quiped "Don't you guys ever get tired of the slander?" for which I was nearly brained by a heavy plastic lunchroom tray thrown at my head (which shattered amazingly), after which my red-faced coworker threatened me for ten minutes with bodily harm and had to be dragged off by another coworker.

Can't we just all get along?

P.S I was going to call this post "Fascists for Kerry" but I think that would have been to explosive and ironically actually made my point when the attacks started in the comments.

P.P.S. I realize that this form of political intimidation goes both ways, but the intensity of it coming from the left is off the scale.

Posted by scottm at 08:59 PM | | TrackBack


Men and Women are really different

This article highlights a changing trend in medical science, the realization that men and women are physiologically different, respond to diseases differently, and get diseases at different rates. A quote from this doctor is good news;

"Women are different than men, not only psychologically (but) physiologically, and I think we need to understand those differences," says Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

DeAngelis, who became the journal's first female editor in 1999, says she has made it a mission to publish only research in which data are broken down by sex unless it involves a disease that affects just men or women.

Now they just need to realize and come to terms on the biological differences of race.

Posted by scottm at 08:20 PM | | TrackBack


BBC News: "Africa 'better in colonial times'"

Randall Parker already caught this as of this posting, it appears.

In an astonishing report from the left-leaning BBC News, the brother of Thabo Mbeki, Moeletsi Mbeki, has come out roaring against Robert Mugabe and stated, "The average African is poorer than during the age of colonialism. In the 1960s African elites/rulers, instead of focusing on development, took surplus for their own enormous entourages of civil servants without ploughing anything back into the country . . . " He also made comparisons between Nigeria and China, saying that while China had lifted 400 million (the article states, incorrectly, 400,000) out of poverty, Nigeria had pushed 71 million below the poverty line.

Of course, the BBC article ended with the statement, "[Moeletsi Mbeki] has business interests across Africa." It's as if that somehow makes what he says illegitimate. How can a person who owns businesses and creates wealth possibly care about poverty? This is sort of like what they taught in my African Politics class, where we studied things as dependency theory and world-systems analysis out of Marxist journals such as the New Left Review (which, I will admit, does publish some very interesting stuff).

BBC also links to a neat set of charts comparing poverty levels from 1990 to 2000 on various continents.

See Parker's post for more neat stuff about this. Of course, there are always those who [foolishly] argue the exact opposite about countries like South Africa.

Yes, there is crime, unemployment, and AIDS. But from my perspective on the street, in the heart of it, I don’t believe the problems are as big as the reports make them out to be, or as insurmountable as the naysayers would have them seem. With a black majority that is stunning in its patience, understanding, and willingness to find a way, South Africa will not only survive but thrive.

I don't see how one can be optimistic about South Africa when its president continues to pile up the welfare state and gouge money out the still-small private sector, still questions whether there is a link between HIV and AIDS, refuses to allow the import of AZT, etc.

I could go on, but I won't.

Posted by Arcane at 01:03 PM | | TrackBack


Priorities
Mary Wakefield reviews The Naked Woman: a Study of the Female Body by Desmond Morris

The Naked Woman doesn't contain enough ideas to stand alone as a science book, nor are the photographs quite good enough for coffee tables.

There are photographs?

Posted by jeet at 11:14 AM | | TrackBack


Lightning, Bacteria, Life and Genetics

[Crossposted from GeneticFuture.org] - What do lightning and bacteria have to do with one another? Quite a bit, it turns out...

Global Gravy

To begin with, lightning and bacteria share the important job of providing the fundamental food for all of life on Earth: fixed nitrogen. Plants eat the nitrogen, animals eat the plants, and then the most barbarous of us animals eat one another. Pull nitrogen out of the pyramid, and the whole thing collapses.

nitrogen-cycle.gif

Our atmosphere stores a significant portion of our planet's reserve of pure nitrogen (N2). That said, most plants can't eat nitrogen until it gets fixed in some other compound, such as nitrate (NO3-), ammonia (NH3), or urea (NH2)2CO. As of today, we only know of two mechanisms in nature that facilitate the creation of these compounds:

  • Nitrifying Bacteria - which do the dirty work of turning plant and animal excretions and dead organisms into ammonia. Farther down the line, additional bacteria convert some of this ammonia into nitrites (NO2-) and nitrates (NO3-).
  • Lightning - which, as it blasts a path through the atmosphere, splits apart nitrogen molecules. The resulting promiscuous nitrogen atoms combine with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides (NO3-). Rain dissolves these into nitrates, which then wash to the surface of the Earth.

Lightning and bacteria -- strange bedfellows, don't you think? But wait, it gets weirder yet...

Genetic Partners-in-Slime

If the above recapitulation of the Nitrogen Cycle was yesterday's news for you, then you might find this factoid more interesting: Bolts of lightning appear to be responsible for facilitating gene transfer in soil bacteria. From New Scientist's website:

Scientists commonly use electricity to increase the permeability of bacterial cell membranes, making it easier to insert DNA. Now Sandrine Demanèche's team at the University of Lyon has provided the first evidence that nature may have been wise to this trick all along.

The researchers seeded soil samples with the E. coli bacterium, as well as fragments of DNA containing genes for antibiotic resistance. They zapped the soil with a simulated lightning strike, and found that many of the bacteria had acquired the resistance genes.

Bacteria are already known to take up and use foreign DNA released into the environment when other organisms die. Scientists knew this "horizontal gene transfer" occurs naturally in soil, but thought it was relatively rare. However, recent genomic research indicates that this gene take-up is widespread and has played a major role in the evolution of the bacterial genome.

"This result might help explain the discrepancy between the very low observed rates of gene transfer and the apparently wide distribution of DNA sequences among bacteria," says team member Timothy Vogel.

Yay lightning! Yay bacteria! And yow, what a kick in the pants when you appreciate how little we know about how genes go about spreading themselves. After all, if there is one thing genes "want", it's to get Somewhere Else. As such, the kinds of biological mechanisms genes code for will tend to express weirder and weirder means of gene transference as sex and pollination reach their natural limits...

Thanks to j.kimball's nitrogen cycle summary for the above diagram, and for refreshing my high-school biology understanding on this matter.
Posted by canton at 10:21 AM | | TrackBack


HBU

In an earlier post one commentor mentioned the "overlapping territories of biology in terms of hbd, and history." Eh, well, that post had little to do with human biodiversity, that is, intergroup differences. Rather, I was focusing on what I perceived to be a human universal. This has happened before on this blog, all biologistic topics seem to be slotted into "hbd," when a lot of them don't really fit too well into that category. In the interests of symmetry, I will introduce a neologism, human biouniversality, or hbu. Of course, there is the gray land of intragroup variation. Where you draw the line between hbd & hbu is up to your judgement, but they are definitely two ends of a spectrum.

Posted by razib at 04:14 AM | | TrackBack


A load of Rawls

Long ago, when I made a post on Heroes and Villains, [000188] someone suggested I should deal with some more recent examples.

I remembered this recently when there was a discussion of John Rawls and his famous Theory of Justice. This prompted me to take another look at the book and set out some thoughts on it.

Hero or villain? Read on to find out…

I’m sure everyone has read Rawls’s book (ho, ho), but here is a brief summary. (Page references are to the Oxford paperback edition, 1973, and numerous reprints).

According to Rawls a society is ‘a cooperative venture for mutual advantage’ (4). A set of principles of ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ is needed ‘for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation’ (5). The main ‘goods at the disposition of society’ are ‘rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth’ (62, 92) The principles of justice are to be agreed once and for all, and recognised as binding in advance of their application (4, 11, 12, 99, 115). To determine these principles Rawls proposes an extension of the traditional concept of the social contract: ’they are principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association’ (11). In order that this hypothetical ’original position’ should be genuinely equal, Rawls argues that it is necessary that the parties should be ignorant of their social position, class, natural assets and abilities (including intelligence), and anything else which might distinguish their judgement of their own interest from that of any other party (12, 136-142). This is the postulate of the ’veil of ignorance’. Given these assumptions, Rawls argues that rational people placed in this ’original position’ and acting in their own interest would agree on the basic principle that ’all social values - liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect - are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage’ (62). Since the parties are in a state of equal ignorance about their own prospects, they have no reason to accept any inequality of distribution, unless they can be sure that they themselves will gain from such inequality. Rawls supports this conclusion by appealing to the ’maximin’ principle: in a state of uncertainty, it is rational to choose the option for which the worst possible outcome is the best among all the alternatives (152-57). The practical implication of this principle of ‘justice’ is that income and wealth should be redistributed through taxation (278-80) unless and until any remaining inequality improves the position even of the worst-off (for example by providing incentives to economic efficiency and enterprise).


So much for the theory. Here are what I think are the key objections to it:

1. The original social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke is open to many criticisms, but it does have the merit of offering a solution to a real problem: why should we give up the freedom we would enjoy in a state of nature, and submit to laws and government? The social contract theorists replied that the freedom of the ‘state of nature’ would lead, in Hobbes’s terms, to a war of all against all. It is therefore in the interests of everyone to accept limitations on their freedom and agree with each other to submit to laws, to be enforced by an authority stronger than any individual. It need not be supposed that any actual group of individuals (now or in the past) has literally made such an agreement: the point is that it would be in their interest to do so if the need arose. It is always possible that existing institutions could break down and society dissolve into a ‘state of nature’ - and current events in Iraq show that Hobbes’s ‘war of all against all’ is not as far from reality as his critics have supposed. The social contract theory therefore provides an on-going justification for the restriction of freedom involved in submitting to law and government.

The variant of social contract theory offered by Rawls lacks this merit. His question is not ‘why should we give up our freedom?’, but ‘how should we share the benefits of co-operation?’ Unlike the traditional question, this one does not need an answer in terms of a hypothetical social contract. The decision on how to share the benefits of cooperation can be taken by the participants in such cooperation (or by their elected representatives). People are not obliged to enter into social cooperation: they do so because they choose to, on terms which they find acceptable. To a large extent (in modern western societies) they are free to opt out of the mainstream of social and economic life if they wish to. [See Note A for a qualification.] There is no grand initial contract, but a lot of small ones. Entering into cooperation is not a surrender of freedom, but an exercise of freedom. No-one loses by it, so the question why they should do it requires no fancy answer. Rawls’s 600-page treatise is a pursuit of a giant red herring.

[Note A: Admittedly in modern societies people are compelled to pay taxes for public services which they may not want or need. Some people pay taxes far greater than the value of the services they receive. If it is asked why such people are morally obliged to pay their taxes, the short answer is that they are not, though it may be prudent or expedient to do so.]

2. A more specific objection is to the scope of ‘social cooperation’ in Rawls’s theory. He defines it so broadly as to include all the products of the economy (goods and services). Since in Rawls’s account these are part of the benefits of social cooperation, the resulting income and wealth must be distributed in accordance with the principles of ’social justice’. This implies extensive redistributive taxation.

Many critics of Rawls have pointed out that in a free economy goods and services are not produced by ’society’ or the ‘state’: they are produced by the effort and enterprise of individuals and groups of individuals (including corporations, which ultimately represent groups of risk-taking stockholders). The resulting wealth and income should therefore not be treated as a social product, to be shared among all the members of society whether or not they have contributed to it.

I think this objection is broadly correct, though a Rawlsian might reasonably say that part of the value of all goods and services should be attributed to the favourable circumstances provided by social order, property laws, and so on. However, this part of economic output can be paid for by reasonable levels of corporate taxation.

It should be noted that objection (2) is independent of objection (1). It would be possible to accept that Rawls’s argument is sound for social cooperation generally, when properly defined, (contrary to objection (1)), but to deny that economic activity falls within the scope of social cooperation.

3. Another fundamental objection is to the way that Rawls identifies the principles of social justice with the dictates of self-interest in a certain defined situation (the ‘original position‘). In ordinary linguistic usage justice has nothing to do with self-interest. Justice may happen to coincide with self-interest, but they may equally well conflict, and one of the fundamental principles of ’natural justice’, as generally recognised, is that self-interest should be excluded from judicial deliberation: no man can be a judge in his own case. To identify justice with self-interest would be an abuse of language.

It might of course be argued that in the long term the principles of justice are to everybody’s benefit, even if they conflict with self-interest in particular cases. But Rawls’s approach goes beyond this: he does not merely defend the principles of social justice by an appeal to self-interest, he actually defines his principles of justice by reference to self-interest.

This is more than a verbal quibble. The principles of justice are expected by Rawls to be universal. It would be pointless for people to agree to principles of justice in the artificial circumstances of the ’original position’ if they could not be extended to other, more realistic, circumstances. But the dictates of self-interest cannot legitimately be extended in this way. What is in someone’s self-interest in one set of circumstances may be against his interest in another set of circumstances, and if self-interest is the ultimate criterion of rationality, the individual should constantly reassess his values with changing circumstances. By analogy, in Bayesian inference we might make an assumption about a probability in a state of ignorance, but we need not (and should not) continue to apply that assumption when better information is available and we know that the initial assumption was wrong. Rawls assumes that we are bound by the principles of justice that we would agree to in the circumstances of the ‘original position’ (i.e. behind the ‘veil of ignorance‘), but if ’justice’ ultimately reduces to self-interest this assumption is invalid. Rawls gives no reason, that I can see, why anyone should stick to the ’social contract’ as soon as they see that its terms are against their interest.

4. Rawls’s use of the ’veil of ignorance’ has always been one of the most controversial parts of his theory. Why should people base their decisions on a hypothetical and counterfactual state of ignorance, rather than using their actual knowledge of their own abilities and preferences? Rawls‘s defence of this fundamental assumption is remarkably feeble. He argues, first, that the veil of ignorance is necessary if there is to be any unanimous agreement at all on the principles of social distribution (140). But this is a bare assertion, and it is not obviously true. If people are aware of their abilities and preferences, would they not accept a distribution of social goods in accordance with the market value of their own contributions to society, subject perhaps to a safeguard for those whose market value would not provide a subsistence income? In any case, it is not clear that agreement to the social contract needs to be unanimous. If a majority can agree to a set of principles, the minority of dissenters might be allocated territory in proportion to their numbers and told to ’do their own thing’. Indeed, the population might split up into several different groups based on common abilities and interests, each constituting an independent society with its own rules. Arguably this would be more consistent with intuitive concepts of justice and freedom than the Rawlsian approach, which implicitly reduces everyone to the lowest common denominator. (Incidentally, I don’t think Rawls discusses the problems of territory and boundaries. Does his doctrine require redistribution of income and wealth on a global basis? If not, why not?)

The real reason for Rawls’s insistence on the veil of ignorance is to load the dice in favour of ’equality’: the veil of ignorance ’ensures that no one is disadvantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances’ (p. 12, see also p. 141). But this is really prejudging the main point at issue, which is whether people are entitled to receive the benefits of their natural gifts. Rawls’s approach simply rules this out by a procedural ploy. The point at issue needs much fuller discussion on its own merits than Rawls gives it (or than I can give it here), but there would certainly be a widespread view that people are entitled to enjoy the benefits of their natural gifts, even though they have not done anything to deserve those gifts. Nature is not fair, but we cannot expect human action to redress all Nature’s inequities.

5. Finally, on a more technical level, even if we were to accept Rawls’s approach to the original position, the veil of ignorance, etc, it is not clear that the maximin principle is appropriate as the basis for individuals to assess their self-interest in the ‘original position‘. The maximin principle has acquired a certain unjustified prestige from its use in game theory, but even in game theory a maximin strategy (pure or mixed) is only the accepted ’solution’ in the special case of zero-sum games for two players, where any departure from the maximin strategy by one player is likely to be to the advantage of his opponent. Attempts to apply the maximin principle to decision theory outside the context of games have not been widely accepted (see Luce and Raiffa, Games and Decisions, chapter 13). The maximin principle implies a risk-averse approach, in which people prefer to give up the possibility of major gains if this involves any possibility of losses, however small. It is not clear that this is ‘rational’, and it is certainly inappropriate if we have some information about the relative probability of the different outcomes. It would not be ’rational’ to give up a high probability of a large gain to avoid a small probability of a small loss, but this is in effect what Rawls’s principle requires.

Rawls’s theory is presented on a very high level of abstraction, but it would be a mistake to suppose that it has had no effect on practical politics. Directly or indirectly it has been enormously influential, especially on the ’social democratic’ left. Even those who have never read Rawls derive some comfort and support from the vague feeling that redistributive taxation (aka state theft) is a matter of ’social justice’: Rawls proved it, didn’t he?

So overall, in my opinion, Rawls is definitely a villain. What I find most objectionable is not the fallacies in his reasoning, but the blatant intellectual dishonesty underlying the whole system. As Rawls himself comes close to admitting (141), the terms of the ‘original position’ and the ‘veil of ignorance’ are deliberately rigged to produce the desired result: namely, a moderate egalitarianism. I can respect those who espouse egalitarianism on overt moral grounds, but not those who try to impose it as a dogma by pretentious and artificial philosophical arguments. Ultimately, of course, moral principles cannot be proved or disproved. [See Note B for a qualification.] We can only try to elucidate their assumptions and implications. People must then make their own choice, influenced by a mixture of innate and acquired factors. Egalitarianism probably has some evolutionary basis, but one of selfishness rather than altruism: in the distribution of goods (such as the produce of a successful hunt) individuals do not want to be cheated out of their own ‘fair‘ share. Experiments have shown that even monkeys have a sense of ’fairness’, and are outraged when rewards are divided unequally. But of course people (if not monkeys) also want to be rewarded in proportion to their ’merits’, and will be dissatisfied if rewards are equal when the merits are not. Rawls’s theory is compatible with the first of these tendencies but not the second.

[Note B: as Hume first pointed out, values cannot be deduced from facts: ’ought’ cannot be derived from ’is’. However, there is an important qualification to this. It is generally recognised that there cannot be a moral obligation to do something that is beyond our power to do, such as a physical or logical impossibility. Since what is possible is a matter of fact, not value, it follows that the absence of an obligation can be derived from facts.]

Posted by David B at 04:03 AM | | TrackBack


Dawkins on race

Richard Dawkins has a long piece in The Prospect on the issue of race (based on a section of his new book The Ancestor's Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution). Two points:


  • He rejects Lewontin's Fallacy (more here).
  • He avoids the full implications of some of the statistical assertions he is making about how "informative" racial identity can be.

I will leave it to readers to to figure out what I'm talking about on point #2, partly because I think we should focus on point #1 and be positive, and partly because it would serve you to "read the whole thing."

When arguing about science in public forums, "Lewontin's Fallacy" and the race-is-social-construct meme are really hard to refute, because people don't really care much about the nitty-gritty, they take the word of "world famous evolutionary biologists" like Stephen Jay Gould as the last word. Well, Richard Dawkins just asserted in the above article that "In short, I think Edwards is right and Lewontin wrong." Edwards is the geneticist who authored Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin's Fallacy.

Richard Dawkins is no W.D. Hamilton, J.M. Smith, let alone R.A. Fisher. Nevertheless, he is accepted by the public as an "authority," so his words are precious gems that can to be used like drilling diamonds to bore into the established orthodoxy. I doubt most of the public has read The Darwin Wars or Defenders of the Truth, so they would not be aware that Gould and Dawkins were the leaders of two rival evolutionary biology polemical gangs. Rather, Gould and Dawkins are writers of books you have to have, but never need to read! Dawkins can help nullify Gould & co., and more importantly, for some in the liberal set, since Dawkins is European, and it's always "better in Europe," he trumps Gould!

Update: Dawkins on Race by Steve Sailer.

Posted by razib at 04:00 AM | | TrackBack


Up from ignorance II

My post Up from ignorance elicited a lot of good responses.

First, I would like to acknowledge that my reaction (and formulation of a "solution") was framed by the commentor on Winds of Change, and my perception of his character or intellectual life, or, more properly, the hint of a character that I perceive to be endemic among thoughtful Americans. In Innumeracy John Allen Paulos notes that while many intelligent people can imagine themselves 'curling up' to a biography of Samuel Johnson, a similar picture where one is deeply pondering a multivariable calculus text before a night's rest seems implausible. There are reasons for this, math is hard. In The Number Sense Stanislas Dehaene shows that though humans have an intuitive sense of 'numerosity,' it is an analog facility. The implication is clear that abstract higher level mathematics requires complex cooperation between various cognitive domains in a somewhat unnatural fashion. Robin Dunbar makes a similar argument in The Trouble With Science about the more inductive but still abstraction filled (and counterintuitive) disciplines of natural science.

While there seems to be a niche for 'science popularizers,' who serve as the intermediaries between the scientists and the public (think Richard Dawkins channeling W.D. Hamilton), I don't get the impression that history has the same class of individuals, as professional historians can distill and reformulate their prose and substance to satisfy a general audience with relative ease. After all, it is called history! Humans love a good yarn, and they don't demand fidelity to the methods elaborated by Popper (or Carnap or Feyerabend or Kuhn if you prefer). That is the great temptation, to tell a good story, a tale that titillates the reader's need for entertainment. Of course, popularizers of science can entertain, but they are constrained by the narrow lands which science traverses, and so must make generous use of metaphor and scientific biography so that the nutritious sliver of technique and result can be interspersed into the social and stylistic narrative that acts as sugar and savor.

I think the relative ease with which history passes through our intellectual system (this is a generalization) makes it easy for a certain class of Americans to believe they are "well read" or "learned" in the human sciences even if they neglect more explicitly natural scientific formulations of the human condition. Because history is filled with n 'interpretations' they can simply choose ni that matches their own normative preferences. For some, Bernard Lewis is a salve for their own preconceptions about a "Clash of Civilizations," the mountains of erudition and deftly phrased general analysis cocooning their self-confidence in the "correctness" of their viewpoint.

But, all this said, I obviously was wrongheaded in the way I phrased my entry if I gave the impression that people should always start from basic truths and work their way up. The commenators were correct in that people should shift back and forth, shedding light throughout the spectrum of organization and complexity. What I truly find disconcerting is that many people simply remain at the extreme end of data richness and complexity and never veer back toward technical rigor and modular simplicity. Clearly, often knowledge progresses by:
Data -> Induction -> Hypothesis -> Test/Observation.

The elemental portion is preceded by a period of data collection, which reading narratives of history can fit easily under. It is in the stages of induction & hypothesis formulation that I think the problems crop up. You see a pattern, how do you explain the pattern? I believe too often thinkers not impacted by affinal areas of science are unconstrained in their imagination. There are real physiological and psychological limits and boundaries that are imposed on the human condition. Logic and analysis offer myriad possibilities, almost infinite, so how do you choose between the various plausible options? For example, what about the view that before the coming of Kurgan culture Europe was dominated by matriarchies? I suspect that this is a garbling of Marija Gimbutas' already speculative and tenditious theories, but, it is a view I have noted as implicit in the works of some feminist authors. I think one can look to anthropology, psychology and the biologically oriented subdisciplines within each as to why this "historical question" is a nonquestion. This option is already highly improbable and should be left off the table for consideration and the data should be interpreted in a different manner.

But I think that the possibilities offered by the human sciences are even greater, not only negative, but positive. Recently I have posted on the importance of 150 individuals as the upper bound of human social intelligence. A Roman military historian might find a fair amount of archival evidence where generals note the importance of centurions in winning the loyalities of the troops. What does one make of this? If the historian was aware of evolutionary psychology the importance of the centurions is clear in that they personally know both the generals and the vast numbers of rankers. The data and the model point in the same direction! But without the Rule-of-150 in mind who knows what direction a scholar might go. Additionally, the Rule-of-150 offers the hope of predictive models for what type of bureaucracy is less susceptible to the inevitable process of institutional decay and collapse.

Human intellect can form innumerable models. There have been many hypotheses of how the solar system (or what we now call the solar system) was arranged. Most of them displayed an internal coherence and even fit by rough aproximation the data on hand, but only one of the models was validated by the findings of science over the long haul. Reading Spengler or Toynbee exposes one to a wealth of erudition and an enormous capacity for analysis, but in the end the richness is more entertaining than insightful (Spengler's "organismic" conception of civilizations seems to take group selection too far). Toynbee even crosses over into the world of "alternative history" or counterfactual.

In the end what I would like to see is a genuine algebra of history. I don't know if this is possible, but right now it is very difficult to precisely comprehend what someone means when they say "significant" or "minor influence." Adding some numbers like the Rule-of-150 might be a first step, at least we know the precise number (within a narrow range) of this atomic unit. The size difference between the mean size of a male and the mean size of a female is "significant," but we also know the absolute and relative values. Every scholar has their own internal definition for these sorts of proportional statements, exactitude here and there will allow the audience to calibrate the terms effectively.

Calibration. Precision. Parsimony. Concurrent validation. Building blocks for theoretical models. Those were my real points!

Posted by razib at 03:19 AM | | TrackBack


Now Yezidi, now you don't?*

Tha Beeb has posted an eight-image photo journal about the Yezidis

(i.e. Kurds who resisted conversion to the religion of their Muslim conquerors).

BBC News
Yezidis are an ancient, pre-Islamic sect of uncertain origin.

LexicOrient
Researches [sic] believe that the Yazidi creed has elements from Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Justin Huggler, "Hell's Angels", The Independent, 2003 November 29.
The Yezidi believe that after man's creation, God ordered the angels to pray for Adam, but that one angel refused - there is a similar belief in Islam.
....
Their problems have been compounded by the widely accepted belief that Yezidism was a sect that split from Islam - which makes them apostates in the eyes of many Muslims. The Yezidi deny that their religion is an offshoot of Islam - they say it is centuries old and predates Christianity.

In all likelihood, the story of the angel's refusal was transmitted from Yezidism to Islam or, at least, from a common antecedent, than the other way round. I'd want to drag my copy of The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels out of storage before I go into greater detail.

Yezidism, like Coptic Christianity, is one of the only religious relicts in the Middle East to have survived the rise of Islam. However, looking at its apparently Gnostic aspects, I personally doubt that Yezidism, in its present form, predates Christianity. The Yezidi syncretism also seems to borrow heavily from the pre-Christian Zoroastrianism (one of the Yazidis in the Independent article is named Nawroz Ali) as well as the post-Christian Manichaeism (itself a syncretism in which Zoroastrianism and Christianity, alongside Buddhism, predominated). Perhaps, before the rise of Islam, the region was characterized by a diverse spectrum of every shade of synthesis between Christianity and Zoroastrianism (and, as one moves further east, Buddhism as well, as evidenced by inscriptions referring to "Buddha-Mazda") despite the Sassanids' intolerance of Zoroastrian heresies.

BBC News
Yezidis remain fiercely proud of their traditions and have resisted attempts to "convert" them.

This has led to devil-worshipping allegations and, in some cases, oppression by their Muslim neighbours.

Justin Huggler, "Hell's Angels", The Independent, 2003 November 29.
Muslim extremists turned the Yezidi elopement tradition against them and started kidnapping Yezidi women from the fields by force, then making them convert to Islam.
....
[Majdal al-Hakkari, who runs the local Yezidi cultural centre in Sinjar] and his friends say that, rejected by everyone else, they have come to think of themselves as ethnic Yezidis. One of them proudly reads out a list of demands, for recognition for the Yezidi in Iraq's new government, for UN protection. But the sad truth is that no one is listening.

The Yezidi are almost the only minority in Iraq not to have a seat on the new US-appointed Governing Council. Despite Yezidi representations to the Americans, the powerful Kurdish factions simply announced that the Yezidis were Kurds and should be represented by them - an easy way to boost Kurdish numbers, and therefore, influence.

Without a stake in power, the Yezidi remain at risk as conflicting parties struggle for control of this part of Iraq. Worse, they are in serious danger from the Wahabi Muslim extremist factions that have been growing in power since the fall of the Saddam regime.

In other words, those from whom the nigh-extinct Yezidis are in greatest danger of genocide, are the same people whom John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Naomi Klein and others have praised as the "resistance".

Thanks, ass.

Fortunately the following picture means that I don't have to end on a bitter note.

Could these two be any cuter?

Could these two be any cuter? They might even give Belle's belles a run for their money in the adorability stakes.

* Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. Try the veal, it's fantastic!

Posted by jeet at 01:56 AM | | TrackBack

September 24, 2004



Modern life

lindenen:
Man. Our diet is so crappy.

I will be the first to admit that, serendipitously lazy yet nutritious dishes* aside, mine is too.

There was a debate a few months back that, in a nutshell, pitted absolute standards of living against relative standards of living.

The libertarian gourmand Waddling Thunder contributed, "It's indisputably cheaper to go the grocery store and buy entirely healthy grains and greens than it is to eat some half-garbage from a fast food restaurant. It's at least as fast as well, and I refuse to believe most people haven't got a few hours they now spend in front of a TV to cook food and freeze it for their families. The fact is that they don't want to, and prefer to spend that time doing other things. That's fine, but they don't get to them complain that the supposed rich are eating healthily while they're not."

I agree with him up to a point but share the same reservation as the commenter who replied, "You are right...that it can all be done healthily on a budget, but it's not as easy everywhere as you make it out to be. I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm just saying..."

The fundamental issue here is one of opportunity cost: how we choose to spend the limited resource of our own labor. I enjoy taking a Saturday out to do a week's shopping and cooking when I have the time to spare. But during term with a part-time job on top of studies, I derive more utility from the completion of my coursework than from a home-cooked meal. For many, if not most, of us, time and money are at a premium, meaning that when a trade-off is forced between time, money and nutrition, nutrition is usually the first to give way.

Opportunity cost is also the force that drives one of the few faultlines between free-market libertarians and "family values" conservatives.

Joanna Moorhead, "'For decades we've been told Sweden is a great place to be a working parent. But we've been duped'", The Guardian, 2004 September 22.
(hat tip: Stambord)

The unpalatable fact, she says, is that there are only so many hours in the day and only so many days in the week and whatever else we expect of the UK and EU the one thing their legislation cannot give us is the one thing that working mothers so desperately crave: more time.
....
"The fact is that children are a 20-year project and a career is a 20- to 40-year project and there is an incompatibility there." Over the past eight years, Hakim has written six books and she says, "There's no way I could have done that if I had had children."
emphases mine

The more skilled a woman is, the greater the opportunity cost she and her household pay when she spends time to raise children rather than work. When both parents work, the diversification of revenue sources means that the household is somewhat less vulnerable to economic shocks. Of course, the flip side of that is that the more financial independence wives have, the less willing they are to stay in troubled marriages, increasing the rate of divorce.

Skilled unmarried women will both delay bearing children and reduce the number of children they do bear to minimize income lost. This is a pattern we see not only in in the "North" but even in societies as recently industrialized as Singapore.

Ellen Nakashima, "With Birthrate Falling, Singapore Targets 'Lifestyle Impotency'", The Washington Post, 2004 September 11.

"One of the most radical things you can do in Singapore is be contented with your life," [said National University of Singapore professor Chua Beng Huat]. "That means you won't compete like hell for the next dollar. The ability of the government to maintain its competitive edge economically will collapse." So, he said, people have been conditioned to excel.
....
[Married couple Sarah Wee and James Ng] eat out every weeknight because they can afford to and because Wee is often at her desk until 9 or 10 p.m., make dining at home difficult.
....
"We are so used to a double income," Ng said. "When she becomes a full-time mother, we will become a single-income family. I don't know whether we're prepared for that."

According to [Victor Goh, an obstetrician who in 2002 conducted a study on sexual habits], if the government wants to boost birthrates, it must get people to have children earlier. A woman's fertility peaks in her late teens and early twenties, he said. "It's already a bit late," conceded Wee, who turns 29 in October. But rather than rush into having a child, she said, "we want everything to be perfect."

Ng and Wee, a teasingly playful couple who met through their church, voiced another concern that makes them think twice about having children: the stress placed on children in Singapore's exam-focused schools, what Ng called a "rat race." He bemoaned the way parents compete to see whose child has more spelling worksheets in nursery school and how parents take part in lotteries to get their children into the best grade schools.

Gene Expression readers ought to note that, under this state of affairs, it is the educated classes who are responding most strongly to the procreative disincentive of high income careers. The birthrates of those without the education or aptitude to pursue such careers have not fallen as precipitously. (At this point, I ought to acknowledge the racial dimension to the Singaporean government's concern.)

Those who believe in both laissez-faire and the heritability of intelligence - and I know that among Gene Expression readers you are legion - ought to at least acknowledge the conflict between the two.

* For another serendipitously lazy yet nutritious dish, click here (hat tip: Belle Waring). In addition to being tasty and nutritious, this recipe is also filling, a virtue not to be underrated.

Posted by jeet at 11:37 PM | | TrackBack


Bechamel

etrusco:
Oh you heretic! Ricotta? Bechamel IS an integral part of lasagna....damn americans...;)

Re: The following article

I'd bet good money that what happened to Greek moussaka happened to Italian lasagna. Hegemony, colonization, blahblahblah...

Judith Weinraub, "Back to the Classics", The Washington Post, 2004 August 11.

[In] 1896, when Athens hosted the first modern-day Olympic Games...the food on the very best Athenian tables was French -- chicken in a red wine sauce or a white sauce thick with Gruyere cheese, and boned poached fish with mayonnaise. More traditional regional dishes such as eggplant caviar or the caper, potato and garlic dip known as skordalia or braised wild greens were shunted aside as lower-class.

"The fashionable food of the time was completely French," says Aglaia Kremezi, a Greek culinary historian and cookbook author. "The chefs were French-trained. The menus were written in French, with all French specialties."

Kremezi, whose new book, "The Foods of the Greek Islands" (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), celebrates regional foods, thinks that's a shame. "At the end of the 19th century, they wouldn't have been interested in these [regional] dishes," she says. "They weren't considered fashionable. Even up until the 1970s, no one would imagine cooking these foods at dinner parties or serving them in restaurants. They were considered foods of the poor."
....
[After the emergence of Greece as a sovereign state in 1832] wealthy Greek families returned from self-imposed exiles in cosmopolitan cities all over Europe [bringing] the latest food trends with them. "They knew what the rest of the world was doing," says Kremezi. "They knew that French was the 'in' cuisine. This is what they tried to imitate and cook for guests in their homes.["]

Enter Nicholas Tselementes, a Greek chef who trained in Europe and who wrote what is considered the first comprehensive cookbook in modern Greek. Published in 1910, it became an important resource for fashionable Greek women and sold more than 100,000 copies in 10 editions by the time Tselementes died in 1958.

Although he pointed with pride to the ancient origins of the Greek culinary arts, Tselementes had a cooking style that was unabashedly European, and his influence was pervasive. In his kitchen, traditional regional dishes languished: No garlic for Tselementes -- or as little as possible. No affection for the spicy dishes of the Turks and Slavs either. And no particular pride in highlighting the bounty of the countryside or the sea.

"He really changed Greek cooking -- he destroyed it," says Kremezi, who has been studying his work and its impact for a decade. Instead of olive oil, Tselementes preferred butter. Instead of presenting foods naturally, he preferred them covered with precisely made French sauces, like bechamel.

In fact, his affection for the classic white sauce made with flour, milk and butter transformed two of the most internationally famous Greek dishes, moussaka (usually made with eggplant and ground meat) and pastitsio (pasta and ground meat). Before Tselementes, the casseroles came to the table without their familiar creamy topping. Ever since, they are rarely served in their original naked state.

The many reprints of his popular 500-page cookbook, "Odigos Mageirikis" ("Cooking Instructions") -- even after his death -- extended his reach to several generations. (It is no longer in print.)

"His book made the trend official," says Kremezi, "so people who were preparing the traditional foods were made to feel inferior."

emphasis mine

Posted by jeet at 11:34 PM | | TrackBack


Engines of Creation

For the aphoristically minded: Men created civilization...to impress women.

Posted by razib at 07:25 PM | | TrackBack


...and the bar will rise

The U-California system voted to raise the admissions criteria to having X > 3.0 GPA. The reason? Too many people in the California School system have a GPA higher than the current minimum of 2.8.

Quick, before reading the rest of the article, can you guess the protestors' argument?

Posted by A. Beaujean at 07:09 PM | | TrackBack


EP and Intelligence

David Geary has a new book out on Intelligence and EP (here is a précis).

I won't have time to read it thoroughly until Thanksgiving break, but I have read oodles of Geary's work (as he and I work at the same university, although in different departments) and, traditionally, he has had a nice appreciation of individual differences and doesn't appear to back down too much from the controversial issues (i.e., sex differences). Thus, the book will probably be well worth a read if you can get your hands on it (well, if you can believe Pinker, anyway).

Posted by A. Beaujean at 04:27 PM | | TrackBack

September 23, 2004



Ciao bell'[?]

Italian is probably my favorite language,

judged purely by aesthetic pleasure from both listening and speaking, and my second favorite cuisine (after Malaysian/Singaporean, which I suppose is sort of cheating because it encompasses southeast Chinese and south Indian along with Malay).

Americans' early impressions of Italian cooking, like their impressions of Chinese cooking, were by the specific local origins of immigrants as well as how those immigrants adapted to the pantries and palates of their new hosts. (I, for one, prefer my lasagna with ricotta rather than bechamel. [Ducks bombardment of rotten tomatoes])

If anyone familiar with regional Italian cooking knows if dishes associated with Italian-Americans (e.g. sausage & peppers, cheese steaks, etc.) have original analogues back in the Old Country, well, that's what comments are for.

Stacy Albin, "You Say Prosciutto, I Say Pro-SHOOT, and Purists Cringe", The New York Times, 2004 September 20.

Ann Gustafson can discuss food - especially Italian food. She spent many days in the Bronx with her Sicilian grandmother, Sebastiana Ceraolo, learning how to cook with mozzarella. Only Mrs. Gustafson did not call it "mozzarella.'' She said "mozzarell.''

Wrong?

Not to many New Yorkers or New Jerseyans. (Doesn't Tony Soprano drop his final vowels?) Not to some vendors at the annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy this week. But it makes Italian teachers, the purists who love the language just as Dante wrote it, wince.

They suffer prosciutto (pro-SHOOT-toe) becoming pro-SHOOT, calzone (cal-TSO-nay) becoming cal-ZONE and pasta e fagioli (PAH-stah eh faj-YOH-lee) becoming pasta fasul (fa-ZOOL).
....
Liliana Dussi, a retired New York district director for the Berlitz language schools, said many first- and second-generation Italians whose ancestors immigrated to the United States before World War I were informally taught Italian expressions and the names of food, some of which has ended up part of everyday language in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Posted by jeet at 10:51 PM | | TrackBack

September 22, 2004



Up from ignorance

Over at Winds of Change they are praising neo-GNXPer Jinnderella. Anyway, the conversation took a turn where Jinn & I started recommending some cognitive science to a few commenters. One individual responded that they would get to those works after hitting Bernard Lewis first. Now, I just started reading From Babel to Dragomans, and though I do have reservations about Lewis' imprecise style, I think that he is worth listening to if you have enough background information to parse what he's saying. Nevertheless, I think the commentor's priorities are a bit ass-backwards. Historical narratives tend to focus on macrosociology, if they give any weight to social history at all. I think a rooting in psychology, anthropology and biology are crucial to getting the full picture. Starting from the ground level, you might realize that 150 guards defending Genghis Khan might not have been such a coincidence. The limits to human physiology might be able to more precisely explain how the Mongol soldiers marched straight through the heart of the Central Asian deserts to ambush the armies of the Khwarezm Shah (or economists might give one a perspective on the mobilization of resources on the steppe that allowed every soldier to have half a dozen pack animals). These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the general principle: you need to look at things from bottom to top if you want to move past entertaining stories.

Starting by swamping your brain with historical narratives before understanding the atomic units is like trying to master newtonian mechanics before you learn calculus, you can manage a bit here and there, but you will never have a seamless grasp of the issues at hand. Authors like Lewis, with their florid literary styles inundate you with implicit assumptions and background propositions. Without a thorough understanding of the reality rather than your assumed intuitional hypotheses of the human mind and the evolutionary forces that shaped it, you are lost in a sea of sweet but non-nutritive tales.

Biologists have to study chemistry & physics. Chemists have study physics. Physicists have to study math. And so forth. Obviously human scientists don't necessarily need to learn that much physics or chemistry, but it seems biology and its emergent fields, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics, would be crucial foundations for understanding the constraints and biases of human history. So what's stopping you? The Narrow Roads of Gene Land or Natural Selection and Social Theory are good reads. They are entry points to an enormous bibliography of literature. Hell, non-scholars need to be able to put in perspective their quotes from What Went Wrong?.

Related: To see how science can supplement history, see this article about a brain injury setting the groundwork for the death of the Red Baron. I listened to a radio interview with the lead researcher and he noted how uninterested a historian commenting on the Red Baron's head injury was about the impact it might have had on his flying and decision making. If she had been thinking of the Red Baron as a biological entity she might have considered this crucial contingent factor.

Clarification: I should have specified organismic biology for the nerds out there.

Posted by razib at 12:31 AM | | TrackBack

September 21, 2004



It's Tehran vs. Taiwan in Imbler's First Congressional District

Two immigrants are running for the seat of the 1st Congressional District in Imbler, incumbent Democrat David Wu and Republican challenger Goli Ameri.

(The rest of this post can be found in the extended entry)

Both of these candidates appear qualified and intelligent, both attended Stanford, both have advanced degrees, and both are very active in their community. But the similarities don't end there, both are moderates in their parties (Wu favors prayer in schools and free trade while Goli is pro-abortion), both tout the same issues (education, high-tech, and terrorism). On a personal note both married white American citizens and both had exactly two children.

So it seems they followed the same plan; come to America, get educated, get rich, marry an American, and fit into the great bicoastal 'middle'. While David made a slight left turn in his politics (DLC Democrat), Goli made a slight right turn.

So looking at this you may say, "blah there's nothing to distinguish one over the other" but I disagree.

One thing that Imbler desperately needs (or at least the Portland Metro Area) is an increase in high/bio-tech startups and corporations. The metro area's population is well-educated, the climate is temperate, crime is low, there's a large arts community, everything you would need to attract those companies. So why aren't they flooding in? Because, the state Democrats, while constantly pounding the podium about "the need to bring in tech companies" actually do things that chase them away. With a combination of high business taxes, regulations, and expensive government boondoggles you begin to understand businesses hesitance in setting up shop here.

Imbler is an Democrat leaning state and the metro are is overwhelimingly so, but when a party fails its constituency this poorly for so long, it's time for a change.

P.S. One that does differentiate the two is a source of irony for me. Goli, the Republican, seems to be very proud of her Persian heritage; she has made extensive mention of it early on in commericials, she notes on her site that she is fluent in Persian, and her oldest son is named Darius. David, on the other hand, has not made an issue of his immigration in this election, does not mention his language skills, and his children have the biblical names of 'Mathew' and 'Sarah'. However, he does make issue of his Presbyterianism.

Posted by scottm at 08:08 PM | | TrackBack


International monarchs

The pending divorce of a Prince of Denmark from a woman of British-Chinese-Austrian descent brought to mind a curious fact: Europeans today seem intent on moving toward post-nationalism, but they have for centuries been ruled by cosmopolitan monarchies. As we all know, the French revolution was the beginning of the end for monarchs across much of Europe, with the World Wars being the coup de grace.

But as this site notes, much of Europe is still monarchial. Some peculiar facts.

* The Swedish royal line is descended from a French commoner adopted by the king in the 19th century.
* The Prince Consort of Denmark is of French origin.
* The current wife of the Crown Prince of Belgium will be the first Beglian born Queen of that nation.
* The Queen of Spain was born a Greek princess, but she is almost exclusively of Danish and German extraction.
* Princess Diana was the first English woman to marry the Prince of Wales in centuries.

I simply point this to remind readers that truisms of today are the counterintuitions of the future. At one point nationalism was "progressive". When Latin was the common language of the Europe intellectual class, Hungarian students from Transylvania could study at Oxford without knowing any English at all. These examples of international monarchs & lettered Latinate elites should also serve as a caution: the Liberal Age has been characterized by nationalism. Perhaps it would behoove me to note that it is less Europeans, than European elites, who are pushing the move toward denationalization.

Posted by razib at 12:45 PM | | TrackBack


About town

I will be in Portland, OR, Thursday-Sunday. Mostly hanging around SE, but will be in SW to meet up with zizka at least one day. Email me, razibk-at-gnxp.com, if you want to meet up.

Posted by razib at 11:36 AM | | TrackBack


Social mobility and IQ

I've posted occasionally on social mobility before.

I noticed another recent study on the subject:

K. Thienpoint and G. Verleye: 'Cognitive ability and occupational status in a British cohort', Journal of Biosocial Science, 36, Part 3, May 2004, 333-349.

I can't find a free online version, but here's the abstract:

The relation between individual trait differences, social mobility and social structure is central to social biology. Because genetic variance underlies phenotypic variance in some of these traits, for example IQ, several mechanisms determine the population variance. Polygenic inheritance is the basic mechanism. Social mobility and assortative partner choice distribute the trait variance within generations. This feedback circle is constrained by sociological conditions at several levels of analysis. Fundamental to this theory of social assortment is the relation between social–biological traits and social class on the one hand, and these traits and social mobility on the other hand. The focus here is on the relation between social class, social mobility and cognitive ability. The National Child Development Study is drawn upon, including the last follow-up (1999–2000). By approaching this relationship through various methods, both social–biological and sociological aspects of this research question can be assessed.

Unfortunately the abstract doesn't say what the empirical findings are! (Hint to authors: this is a useful part of any abstract!)

However, the full text says: 'Intelligence exerts by far the strongest influence on educational and occupational attainment. Its influence on occupational attainment goes almost exclusively through education. The path IQ-education-occupation is strong'. The authors also found that social class of the cohort subjects' parents was not an important influence beyond what would be expected from its correlation with children's IQ.

Nothing very new in this, but it adds to the pile of evidence.

Posted by David B at 07:29 AM | | TrackBack

September 20, 2004



Mom & dad off the pedestal

The Nurture Assumption is a good read. Most of you know the general thesis: most of the "environmental" input that shapes your personality is not from your parents but from your peers (to make it short and sweet). I wasn't convinced by all the arguments, but it definitely makes you reconsider your background assumptions. As one reader noted it would have been ideal if Harris framed her thesis in the context of the EEA, but you can't have everything, and though she doesn't do a thorough job in explaining the ultimate origin of the behaviors she describes, I think her characterization of the proximate phenomena in under 400 pages is admirable (the confused results coming out of genetics that point to a more "unorthodox" norm for family life in the EEA might be an important factor in why peers rather than parents were paramount).

In any case, I want to give a specific example, from a section where Harris basically asserts divorce itself does not affect children very negatively (she is making a claim that the effects we see are correlations rather than causally connected):


...The divorce rate was 19 percent among the twins whose parents had remained married. Among those whose parents were divorced, the chances of getting divorced were considerably higher: 29 percent. The chances were just as high-30 percent-for those with a divorced fraternal twin, and they were higher still-45 percent-for those with a divorced identical twin...about half of the variation in the risk of divorce could be attributed to genetic influences-to genes shared with twins or parents. The other half was due to environmental causes. But none of the variation could be blamed on the home the twins grew up in. Any similarities in their marital histories could be fully accounted for by the genes they share. Their shared experiences-experienced at the same age, since they were twins-of parental harmony or conflict, of parent togetherness or apartness, had no detectable effect.

Heredity, not their experiences in their childhood home, is what makes the children of divorce more likely to fail in their own marrige....


I know this sounds kind of bizarre on first blush, it doesn't seem to jive with our intuition, but reality and intuition don't always converge. All I offer are the immortal words: read the whole thing. It is crucial to note that American public policy prescriptions from the Right to the Left are undergirded by "the nurture assumption," the importance of parents. Harris wrote before studies like the correlation between MAOA and propensity to become abusers in reaction to abuse came out, but some of her assertions about immunity of some children from negative input and the tendency of others to be easily led astray are rather prophetic when viewed in this light.

Here is another tidbit from Harris' book:


The researchers focused on children who were considered to "high risk" on the basis of their family income (low), family composition (no father in the home), and race (African American). They found that children with these risk factors who lived in mostly black, lower-class neighborhoods were highly aggressive, but those who lived in mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods were "comparable in their level of aggression" to their middle-class peers. The researchers concluded that the middle-class neighborhoods "operated as a protective factor for reducing aggression among children from high-risk families."

I'm not saying I agree with everything in Harris' book, I don't, there are plenty of nitpicks I could make. But, she offers a whole different tack. If you don't want to buy the book, it is probably in your local library, and Amazon's search function is very handy. The unfortunate thing is that I suspect it will take at least a generation for a Harris' ideas to percolate down to the popular level. Until then, you're screwed up because of your parents....

Related: Jason Malloy's excellent review of the dispute between Judith Rich Harris & Jerome Kagan. Explore her website if you are curious.

Alex's comment:
For a free précis of her book, you can read her infamous Psych. Review article online here.

Posted by razib at 11:04 PM | | TrackBack


Cholesterol and Schizophrenia

Total Serum Cholesterol levels positively corelated to incidence of Schizophrenia one study finds, this provides evidence for the dopamine theory of Schizophrenia.

Addendum
I guess I should have been clearer, but this is what happens when you are used to talking about these subject with trained biologists. Here is what I meant;
The dopamine hypothesis of Schizophrenia holds that increased levels of dopamine can cause symptoms of schizophrenia. It was first proposed back in the 1980's after doctors observed cocaine and meth induced psychotic states. High serum cholesterol levels are corelated to high cellular cholesterol levels. One of the important cellular roles for cholesterol is in the formation of lipid rafts, which are required for exocytosis of dopamine from PC12 cells (which manufacture and store dopamine). So high cholesterol would probably lead to higher levels of dopamine and a greater chance of schizophrenic symptoms. Though it is not an absolute one-to-one causation, there are other factors at work.

Posted by scottm at 09:27 PM | | TrackBack


Norden & southron

In response to the data about male mediated demic diffusion in China along a north-south gradient Steve wonders why this seems a recurring pattern-that is, northern males with southern women.

1) I don't know how robust this pattern is (think Europe's possible J haplogroup Neolithic diffusion from Anatolia).

2) I think this is easily explained as a function of geography. There is just more land in the northern regions of Eurasia. For example, if you look at India, the tapering off of the landmass to the south and the fact that it is surrounded by water suggests that new peoples will have to come from the north, likely the northwest because of the topography. The peoples from the north will have exposure to new technologies and likely be subject to greater competition. An analogy might be the periodic extinctions that would buffet North America whenever Beringia bridged the gap between Old World and New (and on a smaller scale when the Isthmus of Panama connected North to South America and the smaller continent experienced die off as northern species invaded).

This can be examined in light of the southern hemisphere. If this was a climate induced fact one would expect the arrow of migration/domination to flip.


  • In Africa the Bantu expansion began in the region of eastern Nigeria and swept east and south until the Khoisan people who dominated the southern half of the continent were caged within the deserts of the Kalahari and Namib and on the non-tropical Cape.
  • Australia seems to have been subject to several migrations, all from the north, via the tropical zone toward the south (the last major one brought the dingo about 8000 years ago).
  • There is some conjecture that the peoples of southern Patagonia were relicts of a population that was swamped by the waves out of Beringia

True, this is a north-south migration, but it is a tropical to temperate movement, instead of the reverse. The variable that has remained constant is the size of landmass from which the more dominant group originates from. Here is a case where the temperate zones are less extensive, and the peoples who inhabit them are more prone to be overwhelmed by tropical peoples with more well developed information networks because of geography.

Posted by razib at 05:20 PM | | TrackBack


Demic diffusion and China

There is an important new paper on China out, Genetic evidence supports demic diffusion of Han culture:


Here we show, by systematically analysing Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA variation in Han populations, that the pattern of the southward expansion of Han culture is consistent with the demic diffusion model, and that males played a larger role than females in this expansion.

In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond assumed demic diffusion as the Chinese people expanded during the Neolithic due to population growth. But several years before Diamond's book, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza had published data in his magum opus The History and Geography of Human Genes which showed that Northern Chinese clustered with Mongols and Koreans while Southern Chinese clustered with Southeast Asians (using autosomal markers). In The Real Eve Stephen Oppenheimer reaffirms Cavalli-Sforza's finding from his survey of mtDNA & NRY studies that came out after The History and Geography of Human Genes was published, even though he acknowledges that based on phenotype one would have expected a closer relationship (his wife is Chinese, so he devoted a chapter to the topic of East Asian origins, making a few personal remarks and references). But as we noted earlier, neutral markers and phenotype can point in different directions because of selection at functional locii.

Via Dienekes.

Posted by razib at 01:49 PM | | TrackBack


Imprinters Walk Among Us

Umm, this is my first post at Gene Expression, and I think I should explain the rather fanciful style of my writing. I adore faerytales, myths and legends, art and music, great literature and poetry, anime, film, and scifi. So these things always are incorporated into the way I think and write. The basic question for me is, why music, art, and literature? Why should the appreciation of those things be wired for us? Is there a selective advantage? Is it only a side-effect? Why do faerytales, myths and legends persist? Why do we tell the same stories? Why do we remember them?

LOL, I am more full of questions than the Elephant's Child! I hope you Crocodiles will not pull my nose too badly! :)

This is from my blog-- The Hot Needle of Inquiry-- do you recognize the name? (hint: Larry Niven) And, I'll remind you, I've mixed in the scifi, but Matt Ridley brings in the Bard.

Don't let anyone kid you. You never write for anyone else. You write because you have to! So, when I say, I wrote this for Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil, that is only part true! I started it for me, but I finished it for him, and for the Bene Gesserit! Oh, and 'Love' is something way different than I usually discuss with him. :)

Let's be blunt-- sex is the greatest thing in the world. It has to be, to ensure the survival of the species. IMHO, the two greatest works of Science Fiction anywhere ever are the first six Dune books and the Ringworld cycle. If you are unfamiliar with these books, you had better stop reading here and and go read them ! Immediately! All! Just kidding-- but you might want to later. Both of these book cycles have important sexual plot devices. The hominids of Ringworld employ the device of rishathra to make trade agreements or alliances. Rishathra is defined as sex practices outside one's own species, but within the hominids (also useful for birthcontrol). Imagine treaty negotiations between Kim Jong Il and Bill Clinton. Wouldn't that be the schznitz? But it probably won't happen any time soon.

In the Dune cycle, The Bene Gesserit and Honored Matres females control known space with sexual Imprinting. Men become absolute slaves. How empowering is that for XX beings? However, recent advances in the study of cognitive neuroscience reveal that sexual imprinting is actually occurring all the time, and that Frank Herbert was wonderfully prescient in the mechanics. Remember, Herbert wrote "Heretics of Dune" twenty years ago!

From the February 12th, 2004 Economist-- "I Get a Kick out of You":

The scientific tale of love begins innocently enough, with voles. The prairie vole is a sociable creature, one of the only 3% of mammal species that appear to form monogamous relationships. Mating between prairie voles is a tremendous 24-hour effort. After this, they bond for life. The details of what is going on--the vole story, as it were--is a fascinating one. When prairie voles have sex, two hormones called oxytocin and vasopressin are released. The question is, do humans (another species in the 3% of allegedly monogamous mammals) have brains similar to prairie voles? The answer is YES!

Dr Young and his colleagues suggest this idea in an article published last month in the JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE NEUROLOGY. They argue that prairie voles become addicted to each other through a process of sexual imprinting.
Sex stimulates the release of vasopressin and oxytocin in people, as well as voles, though the role of these hormones in the human brain is not yet well understood.

In 2000, Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College, London, located the areas of the brain activated by romantic love. They took students who said they were madly in love, put them into a brain scanner, and looked at their patterns of brain activity. The results were surprising. For a start, a relatively small area of the human brain is active in love, compared with that involved in, say,ordinary friendship. "It is fascinating to reflect", the pair conclude,"that the face that launched a thousand ships should have done so through such a limited expanse of cortex."

The second surprise was that the brain areas active in love are different from the areas activated in other emotional states, such as fear and anger. Parts of the brain that are love-bitten include the one responsible for gut feelings, and the ones which generate the euphoria induced by drugs such as cocaine. So the brains of people deeply in love do not look like those of people experiencing strong emotions, but instead like those of people snorting coke. Love, in other words, uses the neural mechanisms that are activated during the process of addiction. "We are literally addicted to love," Dr Young observes.

Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University, and the author of a new book on love, suggests it comes in three flavours: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment. Jim Pfaus, a psychologistat Concordia University, in Montreal, says the aftermath of lustful sex is similar to the state induced by taking opiates. A heady mix ofchemical changes occurs, including increases in the levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids (the body's natural equivalent of heroin). "This may serve many functions, to relax the body, induce pleasure and satiety, and perhaps induce bonding to the very features that one has just experienced all this with", says DrPfaus.Then there is attraction, or the state of being in love (what is sometimes known as romantic or obsessive love). This is a refinement of mere lust that allows people to home in on a particular mate. This state is characterised by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one's affection, similiar to OCD. Dr Fisher suggests it might, indeed, be possible to inhibit feelings of romantic love, but only at its early stages. OCD is characterised by low levels of a chemical called serotonin. Drugs such as Prozac work by keeping serotonin hanging around in the brain for longer than normal, so they might stave off romantic feelings. But once romantic love begins in earnest, it is one of the strongest drives on Earth. Dr Fisher says it seems to be more powerful than hunger.

What did we learn here? Well, deliberate sexual imprinting certainly is possible. Imagine giving the object of one's affections a special cocktail before indulging. But if Herbert and Dr. Young are the authorities, Imprinting cannot occur without the "act". So, abstinence and/or a management dose of serontonin will prevent the attacks of Imprinters.
Sadly, according to Dr. Fisher, and to my great personal disappointment, there is no insta-cure for unrequited romantic love. *sigh* The only way to avoid the powerful and painful addiction is to prevent the initial infection-- but wait!! A cure could be achieved if only the object of affection could be persuaded to return it-- how likely is that?

Matt Ridley, in Nature Via Nurture says he can do it!
And Shakespeare gives us a direction to try!

Matt sez--
"In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon tells Puck that the juice of a flower will

"...on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees. "

Puck duly fetches a pansy, and Oberon wreaks havoc with the lives of those sleeping in the forest, causing Lysander to fall in love with Helena, whom he has previouslyscorned; and causing Titania to fall in love with Bottom the weaver wearing the head of an ass.

Who would now wager against me that I could not soon do something like this to a modern Lysander or Titania? Admittedly, a drop on the eyelids would not suffice. I would have to give them a general anesthetic while I cannulated their medial amygdala and injected oxytocin into it. I doubt even then I could make either of them love a donkey. But I might stand a fair chance of making them feel attracted to the first member of the opposite sex they see upon waking. Would you bet aginst me?"

No, not I, Matt.

Posted by jinnderella at 01:48 PM | | TrackBack


Are Basques different?

Below, in the Celts & Iberians entry, there was some talk about Basques and their genetics. There is one thing to keep in mind about Basques genetically, which can be illustrated with this table:

Incidence of the Rh Negative Blood Group in Various Populations
Population Incidence
Chinese and Japanese 1%
North American Indian and Inuit 1 - 2%
Indo-Eurasian 2%
African American 4 - 8%
Caucasian 15 - 16%
Basque 30 - 35%
source

Since Rh- negative mothers often have an adverse reaction to carrying babies who are Rh+ (an immune reaction), miscarriage would be a common result (this is before modern medicine). This is a clear case of a genetic barrier in terms of fecundity in cross-population matings. I recall reading a book on Basque history about 5 years ago where it was observed by their neighbors that the Basque women did miscarry more than was usual, and that this was perhaps a sign from God at the disfavor he held them in. There are differences on other locii, this paper suggests that "Significant population differentiation was registered between Basques and all the other Iberian populations and also between Valencia and Northern Portugal." This makes sense since one would except the male lineage to be preserved as Basque elites resist the spread of alien languages. This paper suggests that the Basques also differ somewhat on the mtDNA (female) lineage. But my impression is that NRY and mtDNA lineages are not as variant as the frequency of Rh-. Here is Henry Harpending on the possibility of selection for Rh- among the Basques (source):

Their genes are mostly similar to those of their neighbors except that they have a frequency of Rhesus negative that is greater than one-half. Following Ruhlen (1994) imagine that there has been some small level of gene flow, one percent per generation, into the Basque population from their new neighbors for five thousand years, say 250 generations. Then of the neutral genes in the Basque population today only .99250 eight percent are descended from ancient Basque genes. The neutral parts of the genome have essential been replaced.

But consider the languages spoken by these immigrants. Since they arrive in small numbers they and their children learn Basque and, save for occasional loan words, have little effect on the language. The Basque language has persisted over millenia while the neutral genome has been replaced. Meanwhile, natural selection at the Rh locus is such that the common type is favored. If the original state was all or mostly Rh negative, then there would ongoing selection against any Rh positive genes introduced by the immigrants. In this way, both language and the Rh system preserve deeper history than neutral genes. Rh and language share the property that there is selection for the common type. Sexual selection for external appearence may follow similar dynamics.

Did you follow that? Note that even if the Basque had lower average fecundity because of the their high Rh- frequencies, it might have served to shore up ingroup cohesion if Basque + Basque matings were more likely to be fecund than Basque + non-Basque matings because of Rh incompatibilities.

Posted by razib at 11:13 AM | | TrackBack


Tear down the patrilocality?

Michael Hammer has two new articles out, summarized in this press release. The skinny is that Hammer is throwing some evidence into the pot that contradicts the finding that females are more likely to be exchanged between groups, as implied in more uniform mtDNA lineages. About 70% of modern human cultures surveyed seem to be patrilocal, but who knows if this held in the days of yore? Common chimpanzees are patrilocal (generally), but matrilocality seems to be more common among most social mammals (Bonobos and lions for example). Here is the abstract in Nature Genetics from one of his papers.

Via Future Pundit (who has more comments at the link).

Related: On Hammer's website there is a quasi-abstract that states: "DNA analysis of a tooth found with imported potttery in Bali offers a strong possibility of the presence of a trader of Indian extraction in the late first millenium BC." Modern historiagraphy has tended to downplay the importance of population movements in diffusing culture, so Indianization of Southeast Asia is mostly seem as one of cultural emulation rather than elite migration. But, as the King of Stonehenge reminds us, prehistoric humans could migrate long distances and transfer their high status from one locale to another.

Posted by razib at 04:38 AM | | TrackBack


Banal sex

Hate do another linker post but this was paragraph from a review of Richard Dawkins' new book was just too good to pass up. (hat tip: Butterflies and Wheels)

Matt Ridley, "Meet the concestors", The Guardian, 2004 September 18.
"For particular genes, you are more closely related to some chimpanzees than to some humans." A good example is blood groups: you and a chimp might be group O, while your spouse and the chimp's mate might be group A. Put like that, it sounds banal, but it is a point that goes deep into our animal ancestry - we can swap hox genes with a fruit fly and still grow the right body - and at the same time it is philosophically unsettling. We each have two kinds of globin genes, but they had a common ancestor in the lamprey's concestor, so "every gene has its own tree, its own chronicle of splits, its own catalogue of close and distant cousins... individuals are temporary meeting points on the criss-crossing routes that take genes through history." Sex may unite a species and divide it from others, but the genes, not the species, are the central entities of the evolutionary tale.

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Dye hard

Razib mentioned that Spencer Wells had a National Geographic documentary about the Phoenicians coming out. Mirabilis.ca gives us a little preview.

[National Geographic emerging explorer Spencer Wells and Pierre Zalloua of the American University of Beirut] collected blood samples from men living in the Middle East, North Africa, southern Spain, and Malta, places the Phoenicians are known to have settled and traded. Starting with between 500 and 1,000 well-typed samples, they began looking at the Y chromosome, the piece of DNA that traces a purely male line of descent.
On its own site, National Geographic has an excerpt from their print article on the project.

Posted by jeet at 03:52 AM | | TrackBack


Mixed race & inbred?

Below, Joe Hertzingler asked how Jews could be inbred since their source population engaged in interpopulation mixing, that is, Levantine males + indigenous females (let's assume this is so). This seems to come up, and part of the problem is that we forget that populations, "races," are just the sum of their parts and the hybrid populations aren't really that special aside from having various alleles shuffled in a novel fashion (because two individuals from populations A & B do not often mate for whatever reason, geographical or sociological). Here is Sewall Wright's inbreeding coefficient:

(source)

Fa is the inbreeding coefficient of a given common ancestor while the n are the steps (generations) you take from each parent to get back to that common ancestor. The implications from the equation are obvious, if your parents don't have common ancestors (at least recently), you aren't going to be inbred, no matter what yokels they happen to be (so, people whose parents in the previous generation are from two different subpopulations aren't going to be inbred since two subpopulations are assumed to not have been interbreeding and so sharing ancestors). If your parents share several common ancestors recently, you are going to be inbred (you sum multiple times, and 1/2n is larger). On the other hand, if you share common ancestors far back, pretty soon 1/2n goes to triviality. A good thing, since we all share common ancestors.

Inbreeding is basically a measure of how many genes you have pairs of alleles that are "identical by descent," that is, your mother and father both passed on to you the same allele from a common ancestor (you can also define it in relation to homozygosity & heterozygosity, convenient if you want to calculate the level of inbreeding in a population and have experimental data on hand). The problem with having identical alleles is that sometimes you can get defective copies from both your parents. We all have silent lethal recessives in our genetic background, but if your parents aren't related, you are less likely to encounter problems since the lethals shouldn't overlap (that is, you'll get a "good copy" from one parent. Two individuals can have 10 lethal alleles each, but the individual who has several of these alleles one the same genes is screwed while the other who does not have the alleles so concentrated is safe to live another day).

Now, back to my point, a concrete example, if a white Korean war vet and his Asian wife decide to go live in the backwoods of Montana and their mixed-race kids start breeding with each other, the grandchildren will be inbred. Quite obviously they share common ancestors recently (Fz would be .25 for full sib matings). This of course is a bizarre example, but we have a real one that is less extreme, the Pitcairn Islanders, the descendents of British mutineers and Tahitian women. Here you do have inbreeding problems. Since they had so few common ancestors to start out with, after two hundred years they all share them (Fletcher Christian is great-great-great...grandfather to them all!). So here you have the case of inbred mongrels.

Addendum: The power of genetic drift really kicks in for small populations. Over time allele frequencies can shift toward fixation (that is, allele A can crowd out allele B to the point where the gene becomes monomorphic). Monomorphic populations better have a good complement of genes, because they have no "back up" allele to pick up the slack in the case that one of the pair is defective (that is, they're both the same functionality).

Related: Steve Sailer's article about race as an inbred family might be of interest.

Posted by razib at 02:09 AM | | TrackBack


What a country!

A twentysomething Iranian's response to Fahrenheit 9/11 (hat tip: Johan Norberg)

It sure is a great country, where someone like Moore trashes the president and gets away with it -- and makes so much money!
In addition to being funny, the young man's response raises a good point.

For most of human history, heck, in most countries today, instead of being a rich man, Michael Moore would likely have ended up his cellmate's girlfriend if he was lucky. If the United States were the police state it's so often accused of being, surely Moore would have felt the full wrath of the state apparatus by now. It's not like he's a fugitive who's gone underground or something.

In the West, freedom of speech is a guaranteed right and, as such, Westerners take it for granted. Unlike that Iranian moviegoer, Westerners don't find it absurd that strident denunciation of the state can lead to fame and fortune.

Mr. Moore's words say one thing, but his presently unincarcerated state says another. Nor do his supporters feel the need to conceal their admiration. Ironically, all this reassures me about the United States more than anything else.

"In every Arab country we need one Michael Moore or more[," said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a U.S.-educated Saudi columnist for the Al-Watan newspaper].
And once it has a Michael Moore of its own to dissect the sins of its present (and a Noam Chomsky to exhume those of its recent past and a Howard Zinn to excavate those of its distant past), I'll feel reassured about the Islamic world.

Posted by jeet at 01:15 AM | | TrackBack

September 19, 2004



Johnny comes lately
"The war for Islam's heart", The Economist, 2004 September 16.

Three years ago, it was only Americans who asked Why Do They Hate Us? The same question is now being asked by Indonesians, Spaniards, Turks, Australians, Nepalese, French, Italians, Russians and others whose citizens have fallen victim to jihadist “vengeance”.

The back of the line is over there, behind non-Muslim Indonesians, Sudanese, Nigerians, Thais, Indians, Filipinos and others, who have all been putting up with this since long before September 11th.

Of course, they long ago figured out the answer to the question which you're only starting to ask, so you have an opportunity here to save yourselves a lot of time and trouble.

"They" don't hate you because you're free. And it's not like the peoples I mentioned about have a long history of staunch support for Israel.

So Why Do They Hate You?

Because You're Not Muslim.

And when the targets of Islamic violence respond in kind, does the Muslim media call for understanding or place it into "context" (i.e. excuse it)?*

Egypt's leading newspaper, the government-owned daily Al Ahram, provided a clue recently. On September 1st, it relegated to inside pages the brutal massacre of 12 Nepalese kitchen workers by Iraqi guerrillas, who claimed to be “executing God's judgment” against “Buddhist invaders”. A day later, Al Ahram put on its front-page news that rioters in Katmandu, the Nepalese capital, had attacked a mosque—but did not explain what they were angry about. A slip, perhaps, but the omission reflected a pattern, repeated across the Muslim world, of harping on Muslim injury.
....
With growing stridency, Muslim liberals are saying that it is high time for Muslims to act, to stop their faith from being hijacked and turned into a cult-like vehicle for a clash of civilisations. Their sense is that the violence of a radical minority is not merely ruining sympathy for just Muslim causes in such contested places as Chechnya and Palestine, it is beginning to threaten Muslims' peaceful coexistence with others everywhere.
You think?

Western Leftists used to make a point of standing in solidarity with Third World peoples of color victimized by territorial aggression, but on September 11th, non-Muslim victims of Islamic expansionism outlived their usefulness to the Western Left. If it had been Third World kafirun who had flown those planes citing the US government's closeness to the bigotry-exporting regime in Saudi Arabia, it would be Muslims' plights that the Western Left would be doing its best to ignore rather than theirs.

* During the recent wave of violence in Thailand, the Thai government struck the hardest blow, not the first.

Posted by jeet at 10:58 PM | | TrackBack


Francis Fukuyama's latest article on transhumanism

The Sept./Oct. 2004 issue of Foreign Policy features a symposium titled "The World's Most Dangerous Ideas." In it are eight fairly interesting articles, although some are quite silly (I'll post an entry on Paul Davies' hysteria over sociobiology later). In this symposium, Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future (among other things), has identified transhumanism as one of the "world's most dangerous ideas." Lets take a look at what he has to say.

He begins with this:

For the last several decades, a strange liberation movement has grown within the developed world. Its crusaders aim much higher than civil rights campaigners, feminists, or gay-rights advocates. They want nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints. As “transhumanists” see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species.

Lovely to see him using one of my favorite terms to attack his opponents: "crusaders." And as for the assertion that transhumanists want to "liberate the human race from its biological constraints" and "wrest their biological destiny from evolution," I must say that it's nice for him to concede that behavior may be biologically determined. Let us continue:

It is tempting to dismiss transhumanists as some sort of odd cult. . . The plans of some transhumanists to freeze themselves cryogenically in hopes of being revived in a future age seem only to confirm the movement’s place on the intellectual fringe.

This may well be the future, Mr. Fukuyama. You can either attack the wave of the future and risk being drowned, or you can ride the wave and help make the future. It seems he has chosen the former...

Although the rapid advances in biotechnology often leave us vaguely uncomfortable, the intellectual or moral threat they represent is not always easy to identify. The human race, after all, is a pretty sorry mess, with our stubborn diseases, physical limitations, and short lives. Throw in humanity’s jealousies, violence, and constant anxieties, and the transhumanist project begins to look downright reasonable. If it were technologically possible, why wouldn’t we want to transcend our current species? The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology’s tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost.

The first victim of transhumanism might be equality. The U.S. Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal,” and the most serious political fights in the history of the United States have been over who qualifies as fully human. Women and blacks did not make the cut in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson penned the declaration. Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. In effect, we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.

It seems Mr. Fukuyama has an odd interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. Yes, generally, when we are created, we are equal. However, as time progresses and individuals develop their skills, tune their abilities, and learn, it becomes very obvious that we, as individuals, are not equal. So, I must ask, why is it so horrible if science simply proves what is already obvious? People should be treated as individuals, equal under the law, which is a point that he seems to agree with. That is about the only form of equality that can actually exist without having to impose a totalitarian system. Other forms of equality, such as intellectual, economic, and physical, are not desirable from either a moral or a scientific standpoint. He then says, "Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality." My question is, how does transhumanism eliminate "political and legal equality"?

Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the world’s poorest countries—for whom biotechnology’s marvels likely will be out of reach—and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.

"Enhanced creatures"? Would we not still be human, although in what might be considered to be a "more evolved form"? Why does he assume that the law would change? With countries like China practicing national eugenics programs, perhaps he should ask them. Many of our laws already have preferences for certain groups. So, why is Fukuyama so worried about how we identify people under the law in the future when we already have vast legal inequalities?

Transhumanism’s advocates think they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better. But do they really comprehend ultimate human goods? For all our obvious faults, we humans are miraculously complex products of a long evolutionary process—products whose whole is much more than the sum of our parts. Our good characteristics are intimately connected to our bad ones: If we weren’t violent and aggressive, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves; if we didn’t have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn’t be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love. Even our mortality plays a critical function in allowing our species as a whole to survive and adapt (and transhumanists are just about the last group I’d like to see live forever). Modifying any one of our key characteristics inevitably entails modifying a complex, interlinked package of traits, and we will never be able to anticipate the ultimate outcome.

Here, I admit, these are many of the same questions that I have asked myself when reading up about the transhumanist movement. Many transhumanists have a great flaw: they desire a utopian world, and think that all the problems in the world could be solved by getting to the root of the problem. I don't know how many of you have seen the movie Equilibrium, but I think the movie makes a great point.

In it, a gigantic world war had broken out, and it was believed that if another war were to occur, humanity would wipe itself out entirely. Their solution was to get at what they thought was the root cause of the problem: emotions. So a group got together and formed a totalitarian state centered around a drug called Prozium, which, when taken regularly, eliminated the emotions of humans. Within the state, it is quite totalitarian, yet peaceful, and a gestapo group existed that hunted down "sense offenders," those who could feel. I won't say much more than that, since I think everybody should go rent it, but I will say that what happened was that, in the process of eliminating emotion, they also eliminated freedom. It's a good movie about the dangers of utopian thought.

If we weren’t violent and aggressive, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves; if we didn’t have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn’t be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love.

I agree with him on this. I do not believe in eliminating emotions, and I do not think that completely and utterly eliminating violence would be a good thing, especially if we were invaded by a bunch of aliens while we were wandering around aimlessly in our utopian dreamworld where there was no violence and no war.

It's the utopians whom he is worried about. However, instead of simply attacking the utopian wing of the movement, he has decided that the best way to prevent the utopians much say in this debate is simply to crush the debate altogether and oppose transhumanism, without much thought about legitimate uses of it.

Nobody knows what technological possibilities will emerge for human self-modification. But we can already see the stirrings of Promethean desires in how we prescribe drugs to alter the behavior and personalities of our children. The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.

Has the environmental movement really taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature? We breed all sort of things in nature, animals and plants for our own selfish desires. Here, Fukuyama seems to have it backwards. It isn't the integrity of "nonhuman nature" that has been maintained, but rather the integrity of human nature.

Again, I believe that Fukuyama is making legitimate criticisms of the utopian wing of the movement. However, I believe he is unfairly attacking the rest of the movement because he worries about a select few.

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