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October 09, 2004
Race & medicine - a matter of life & death?
The New York Times Magazine has a long piece titled The Genome in Black and White (and Gray), which focuses on the possible future use of intergroup differences in the medical world. A few weeks ago Abiola pointed me to a new paper where the authors conclude that "...Our results show that when individuals are sampled homogeneously from around the globe, the pattern seen is one of gradients of allele frequencies that extend over the entire world, rather than discrete clusters. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that major genetic discontinuities exist between different continents or 'races.'" Fair enough. I don't tend to agree because I might define "major genetic discountinuities" differently than they do. Once we reject explicit typological thinking and shift toward conceiving human subpopulations as statistical aggregates who themselves must be decomposed into discrete fragments of DNA (when thinking about them genetically), there are many factors to weight when you make an assertion that something is major or it is not major, a simple assessment demands that you expose your assumptions.
Of late I have expressed some skepticism about the idea of tying certain sociopolitical phenomena to evolutionary concepts. My general opinion is that the theory and empirical evidence is too weak and indeterminate to suggest broad definite conclusions, let alone infer prescriptive policies based on that line of thought alone1. On the other hand, I weight the factors differently when it comes to medicine. To me, the evidence for the utility of population clusters in adding to the information base when making diagnoses or immunological matches is compelling2. Even if there are smooth gradients as a function of geography, two individuals who are from disparate locations that are very distant are also likely to be genetically distant. Additionally, even if this avenue of information acquisition turns out to be unfruitfull, I think we should attempt to follow this avenue of inquiry until our costs outweigh the slim possibility of benefits. I simply don't think the downsides, the putative eugenic uses and misuses of the exploration of intergroup differences is plausible today. Racism and ethnic hatred really don't need a helping hand from biology, they are nurtured by many other vital forces3. This implementation of the precautionary principle is analogous to my position on stem cells: since I do not believe that zygotes are human beings, even if fetal stem cells turn out to be a dead end for research, I think we should exhaust that avenue since the downside in my opinion is marginal4. I really don't care how great adult stem cells are, since I don't see a great ethical conundrum in the use of fetal stem cells.
Of course, others differ in how they weigh the potentional risks, benefits and costs. Note that even those who oppose this line of research admit there is something to the basic biology (see Troy Duster's elaboration on this topic in the piece), they simply don't think the upside warrants breaking the recent taboo on exploring intergroup differences. Their interpretation of the precautionary principle is far different, even if they suspect that racial targetted treatments might not lead to the second coming of the Third Reich, they would rather not take that risk.
In the end "the people" will decide I suppose. I suspect that those of us who argue for the medical utility of populational level differences informationally will win out because we appeal to more direct, salient and individual benefits, while our opponents tend to highlight more diffuse and speculative repercussions.
1 - That does not mean that I do not find the culturalist arguments for a "core ethnic group" uncompelling. I am simply rather agnostic and unconvinced on the kin selective arguments.
2 - If need be, I am comfortable with using some non-racial terms to define subpopulations, or perhaps assemble a constellation of variables that basically map on to races though you don't use that word. As long as medical treatment is optimized, if that is the choice we must make, we should choose it if we have no other options that lead not to death. Race is not the issue in the end, medical treatment is, quibbling with words can wait a day.
3 - I think I have made it clear that I tend to think that racism is an emergent property, not an instrinsic/essential property, of who we are.
4 - As I said, I don't believe zygotes are human. If I thought that there was a 10% chance that zygotes were human, I would oppose fetal stem cell research. I'm not God, so I don't know that they aren't human, but my assessment is that the chance is so low that operationally to me I'm pretty sure they aren't human.
More on HIV and Russia
The subtopic of HIV/AIDS in the former Soviet Union--particularly the prospects for a pandemic--has also received a lot of attention. In this vein, I thought I'd link to Michael Specter's article "The Devastation", online at The New Yorker.
We had returned to [Dr. Olga Leonova's] office, and while we talked she stood at the window, staring at the birch trees. “I worry that aids will send us over the edge—that we will become a country too sick to cope. Most people don’t get it. Many of those who do understand have left. My five closest friends now live in the United States and Israel. My generation has no children. Husbands are dead. And now the young . . . ” Her voice trailed off. Dr. Leonova is an optimist, but she knows that the illness she encounters each day is a sign of an even larger problem—one that threatens Russia at least as seriously today as the Cold War did a generation ago. “We are on the front line of a war,” she said. “This city was under siege by Hitler for years. We lived through Stalin. We have to prevail, and I think, somehow, we will. We don’t have a choice.’’
Even without considering HIV/AIDS, Russia has a particularly bad demographic situation. This brief 1997 paper at RAND, and these two more detailed studies, break down the current Russian demographic situation succintly. Briefly put, until the 1980s fertility rates in the territory of the modern Russian Federation were at replacement levels. However, from the mid-1960s on, life expectancies stagnated, with male life expectancies actually declining. With the dissolution of the Soviet system, fertility rates crashed far below replacement levels while mortality rose. Overall population shrinkage, manifested by an enormous surplus of deaths over births and growing emigration (particularly of ethnic Jews, Germans, Greeks, and others to their nominal homelands), was stemmed only by a migration surplus with the other Soviet successor states and, in the Far East, with China and North Korea.
Russia's demographic structure isn't as unbalanced as it could be, in terms of the crude distribution of its population across the age pyramid. In part, this is because of the enormous surplus mortality among Russian men. Over time, the immense shrinkage of Russia's young population will have serious consequences, as Specter notes.
working-age people are starting to disappear. (In the United States, fifteen per cent of men die before they retire; in Russia, nearly fifty per cent die.) By 2015, the number of children under the age of fifteen will have fallen by a quarter. There will be at least five million fewer people in the workforce. The Russian Ministry of Education projects a thirty-per-cent drop in school enrollment. Russian women already bear scarcely more than half the number of children needed to maintain the current population, and the situation will soon get worse. Between 2010 and 2025, the number of women between twenty and twenty-nine—the primary childbearing years—will plummet from eleven and a half million to six million. Unless there is sudden new immigration on a gigantic scale, fertility will fall even from today’s anemic level.
What will the outcome of the Russian HIV/AIDS epidemic be? We don't know. Even without HIV/AIDS, Russia is pioneering a new demographic model characterized by fluctuating levels of international and internal migration and by death rates substantially higher than birth rates, with overall population aging stemmed only by low male life expectancies and accelerated population shrinkage.
In gross terms, comparing Russia's population and level of economic development with other countries, Russia is most similar to Brazil. The similarities are only superficial. For our purposes here, the most significant difference is that while Brazil has dealt with the HIV/AIDS epidemic since the 1980s and has an HIV seropositivity rate of 0.6%, Russia has only had HIV/AIDS since the early 1990s but already has an HIV seropositivity rate of 0.9% of the Russian population.
When will the spread of the HIV virus in the general Russian population stop? We don't know. Russia is pioneering a new sort of demographic system characterized by mortality rates much higher than anemic birth rates. Most ominously, as Specter notes now and as I noted back in August, the Russian state appears to be both unwilling to and incapable of dealing with the epidemic, owing to a popular attitude that HIV/AIDS affects only disposable people and to a state that does not place HIV/AIDS on its list of priorities.
Why does Brazil, with a comparable population and a slightly lower per-capita income, spend nearly a billion dollars on aids each year when Russia doesn’t spend even a tenth that? It can’t be poverty; Russia is not rich, but it has eighty-five billion dollars in its financial reserves. The Kremlin is certainly capable of spending money when it wants to: last year, for example, the lavish three-hundredth-birthday party for the city of St. Petersburg—Vladimir Putin’s home town—cost $1.3 billion.
Could we see a South African-style pandemic in Russia? It doesn't seem altogether impossible, though as always it's important to note that projecting rates of growth inefinitely into the future is a cheap and unreliable statistical game. It seems to be beyond question, though, that Russia will shortly have rates of HIV infection much higher than those prevailing in the European Union, in North America, in Latin America, or in much of East Asia. A 5% rate isn't out of the question.
More importantly, since HIV is a virus with a long period of latency and the Russian epidemic began at a relatively late date, the number of deaths attributable to HIV/AIDS will rise significantly. Considering the Russian health system's current state, one can legitimately speculate whether it could survive the experience. How an atomized and fragmented Russian society would cope (or not) seems to be open to question, though past trends are suggestively bad.
Will HIV/AIDS alone determine Russia's future? Likely not. Will it shift things in a bad direction? Almost certainly.
Since the debate(s) I've spent a little time following up my minimal interest in contemporary electoral politics in the United States and stumbled upon sites like Hugh Hewitt and Daily Kos. So a question for readers who know more about this stuff:
1) what percentage of the stuff that the partisan authors say (like Hugh Hewitt telling readers that Bush kicked Kerry's ass in the first debate) do they really believe? (or are they doing it for consequentialist ends to motivate and reassure the 'base').
2) do the readers of these sites know what the authors are doing and going along with it? Or do they too "believe the spin"?
3) do the authors know that the readers know? (or don't know)
4) do the readers know that the authors know that the readers know?
I'm not really that interested in the nitty-gritty of political talking points as much as the social psychology of these people. I remember the psychological swarming of the warbloggers pre-Iraq-Invasion (I felt drawn to it in a sporting sort of way) and now I observe the inverse swarming of the quagmirebloggers.
One last thing, those who act and tallk as if the viability of the American republic hangs upon the outcome of this one election seem to me to be the ones who are most depleting the capital of civic cohesion and mutual trust that nurtures the republic. Remember how the father of Oedipus attempted to avoid being the victim of patricide only to guide the hand of fate?
Berkowitz, Elana. "Are You With Him? Why Yes, Want to Date Him?" The New York Times. 2004 October 10.
Related from Razib: Check out my old post The Wisdom of Seinfeld for an angle on this topic from the perspective of ethology.
What is consilience?
I was shocked in the polls below that nearly half of you did not know what consilience was (or what it's supposed to be). A few years back E.O. Wilson wrote a book titled Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Wilson is basically making a plea for the interdisciplinary spirit, though definitely with imperialistic intent on subsuming the social 'sciences' into biology. The standard paradigm can be expressed in the old joke:
Biologists defer to chemists.
(I remember a molecular genetics seminar I took in college where the professor pointed to us biochemistry majors and told us that we should make sure that he "stay's 'honest'")
Wilson is promoting a metaphysical project that is rewarming the spirit, if not substance, of logical positivism. It is offered with emotion and sincerity, and I think some humanists responded to his intellectual aggression with more gravity and seriousness than they should have. Nonetheless, disciplines exist for a reason, and even the natural sciences are segregated in various domains (that is, natural science is broken into the major fields, biology, chemistry, geology and physics, each field has subfields, like organismic vs. molecular biology, and each subfield has specialty areas, like ecology vs. physiology).
My sentiment in favor of the consiliated spirit is two fold.
1) I want to introduce humanists to the power of organismic biology. That's why I write entries like Up from ignorance, I like to think that I know enough about science and history that I can make a plausible case for the utility of the former in the service of the latter without being too imperialistic.
2) Many of my scientific friends are gratuitously uninformed in areas like history and philosophy. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if scientists remained ensconsed in their own sealed intellectual world, but so many of them open their mouths about all sorts of topics, and wed conventional stupidity to scientific conceit. Linus Pauling wouldn't have had so much cachet as a peace activist if he hadn't been the greatest chemist of this century (the only winner in a science and peace Nobel).
My "project," to use a over-inflated characterization of spending a lot of my free time spilling characters on screen, is simply a form of C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" essay (Snow was a writer by profession and a physicist by training). Even if the aim toward a reductionist merging of science & the humanities is bound to fail, I believe that the potential cross-fertilizations that emerge as byproducts are worth it. I do believe that should be very cautious of deriving ought from is, but our wariness needs to informed by the traditional conceptions of what both ought and is are known to be! (while scientists often get pinned with the 'naturallistic fallacy,' what about the 'normative fallacy,' where some humanists assume that there is no intersection between the sets of ought and is, so they ought to make no effort to allow for the constraints of reality, that is, even if is does not dictate ought, it can help in reducing the constellations of oughts that the human mind can concoct)
Related: When I had lunch with Zizka a few weeks ago, he proposed that we simply have three fields of study, that is, majors. Literature, philosophy and history. You can imagine what traditional disciplines would be slotted into each, and even if the concept is too radical, I think it is reflective of a strain of thought that despairs of the alphabet soup of intellectual fiefdoms that have proliferated in the past generation. Instead of being intellectual hubs and points of transition and synthesis, interdisciplinary studies have become the new fortified ivory citadels of our age, atop their hills overlooking their fields and extracting their rents.
Sometimes life interferes and I get busy...and I really can't be bothered to post much of substance to the blog. In these moments I start wondering about the readers, and I like looking at reader surveys, and it's been a while...so, I have a slapdash list below of questions. If you are curious, take a look. We have more traffic than the last time I did this so I'm curious if more people will participate, though I suspect there is only a 'hard core' of ~200 or so "Darwinian fundamentalists" who read this site daily and closely-the "Talented Tenth" if you will.Update: Aziz asked that I insert in a question on "universal truth." I did. I will post full results in a week or so.
October 08, 2004
The precautionary principle
Liberals appeal to the precautionary principle when it comes to environmental issues.
Conservatives appeal to the precautionary principle when it comes to social issues.
Libertarians tend not to heed precaution in either arena.
(I am speaking of American politics and use the terms above in that context)
October 07, 2004
Unearth the Lord of All Men!
So they might have discovered Genghis Khan's "palace", and a possible recovery of his body might now be forseeable. In light of recent research into a Y chromosomal lineage that has spread across Eurasia in the past 1,000 years, with its origin in Mongolia, the discovery of the putative body of Temujin would be a great chance for genetic science to work its magic if they could extract some non-degraded DNA. Of course, many of the elite families of the Khalkha Mongols are descended from Genghis Khan and his sons, so it's not like we don't have samples of his NRY on hand.
Personal related anecdote: My girlfriend made an offhand reference to the fact that my surname, "Khan," is as common as "Smith" among South Asian Muslims (at least from the northern half of the Subcontinent). Now, I know I make an ostentatious disavowal of cultural affinities with "the brown," but I couldn't but take umbrage at the comparison, I had to defend my illustrious pseudo-patrilineage1. I declared, "Smiths are shapers of metal, Khans are shapers of the world!"
A few weeks later I was having lunch with "Zizka" and told him about my exchange with my girlfriend. He smiled and noted, "Genghis Khan's real name, Temujin, means smith!"
1 - I think that there is more of a chance that I am descended from Genghis Khan through the male line (rather than being descended via ancestry along some pathway like most Eurasians) than a Dane with the name Nielsen is is descended from the Irish High King Niall. Nevertheless, I don't think the chance is that much higher, especially taking into account the fact that Niall had an extra 900 years to building up patrilineages.
Michael Fumento demolishes all of the vast exaggerations made about AIDS in his latest article.
About 16,000 Americans died from AIDS in 2002, approximately half the number that die annually from flu. Meanwhile, over half a million die from cancer yearly, with the butcher's bill for incurable pancreatic cancer alone about twice that as for AIDS. According to the CDC, 435,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related disease and another 400,000 from poor diet and lack of exercise. (Though arguably those last two figures are exaggerated.) . . . Dr. Jaffe notes the disparate impact on minorities, that "AIDS cases rates are 10 times higher in African-Americans than in white Americans." But if he tossed away his AIDS tunnel vision he would acknowledge that more than eight times as many blacks die of cancer than of AIDS. In fact, more than four times as many blacks die of cancer annually than Americans of all races die of AIDS.
He then mercilessly attacks the politically correct pandering of Congress:
And that only includes medical research funding. Each year under the "Ryan White CARE" legislation, which Congress unanimously re-authorized in 2000, approximately $2 billion in taxpayer funds are doled out to AIDS patients for medicine, housing, meals, cash payments, dental care, and a vast panoply of goods and services. Victims of no other disease have any such entitlement.
PWNED (sorry, I had to say that... there is no better word for it). He finishes by saying that "to the activists and bureaucrats nothing we say or do or spend will ever be enough. To which we must finally respond: Enough!"
This editorial reminded me of yet another editorial written a few months back by Sebastian Mallaby in The Washington Post about the internationals AIDS conference in Bangkok. Observing the activists, he noticed that
Inconveniently for those who enjoy stereotypes, the Bush administration is far and away the leader in the global AIDS fight. This year the United States will spend $2.4 billion on the pandemic, nearly twice as much as all other donor governments combined; attacking the Bush team for indifference to AIDS is like attacking it for inadequate defense spending. But when Randall Tobias, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator, addressed the Bangkok gathering last week, he had to endure 10 minutes of furious heckling before he could get a word in edgewise.
Daniel Dennett's dangerous assent
Protein Wisdom has an interesting review of whether Daniel Dennett sees evidence of purpose in the evolution of life. As long time followers of these arguments will suspect there are some nasty semantic issues that Andrew Sullivan glossed over when he declared that AN ATHEIST RECANTS! Robert Wright's new site does have some interesting interviews though.
Some of the posts and comments that got lost during the recent server failure were about a paper in Nature on common ancestors.
Here is the abstract:
Nature 431, 562 - 566 (30 September 2004)
Modelling the recent common ancestry of all living humans
1 Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA
If a common ancestor of all living humans is defined as an individual who is a genealogical ancestor of all present-day people, the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for a randomly mating population would have lived in the very recent past. However, the random mating model ignores essential aspects of population substructure, such as the tendency of individuals to choose mates from the same social group, and the relative isolation of geographically separated groups. Here we show that recent common ancestors also emerge from two models incorporating substantial population substructure. One model, designed for simplicity and theoretical insight, yields explicit mathematical results through a probabilistic analysis. A more elaborate second model, designed to capture historical population dynamics in a more realistic way, is analysed computationally through Monte Carlo simulations. These analyses suggest that the genealogies of all living humans overlap in remarkable ways in the recent past. In particular, the MRCA of all present-day humans lived just a few thousand years ago in these models. Moreover, among all individuals living more than just a few thousand years earlier than the MRCA, each present-day human has exactly the same set of genealogical ancestors.
I have read the full paper, and with one qualification the findings seem pretty robust. The crucial issue is whether the migration rates assumed in the model are plausible, and the authors have been quite cautious about these: for example, they assume only 5 migrants per generation between Australia and New Guinea, and only 50 per generation between Arabia and the Horn of Africa and between North and South America.
The necessary qualification, which the authors themselves recognise, is that the results would be invalidated if there are any regions that have been totally isolated for millennia. In the lost discussion Razib suggested the Andaman Islanders as a possibility. I have found this paper on the genetics of the Andaman Islanders. The data imply that many of the islanders, especially on Great Andaman, have some mixture of recent ancestry from the mainland, but there are still some with no sign of recent mixture. So unless there has been earlier migration from the mainland, of which all traces have been lost, there may still be a few islanders who do not descend from the MRCA of the rest of the world.
With this exception, and maybe a few others, the conclusion seems sound that we all have common ancestors in the comparatively recent past. As I mentioned in the lost discussion, this point was anticipated by R. A. Fisher in a letter in 1929, when he said “King Solomon lived 100 generations ago, and his line may be extinct; if not, I wager he is in the ancestry of all of us, and in nearly equal proportions, however unequally his wisdom may be distributed”.
Of course, it does not follow that all of the ’common ancestors’ have contributed equally, or even at all, to the genes of all their descendants. At a distance of 100 generations, a single line of descent from a single ancestor would contribute less than 1 part in a billion billion billion to a descendant’s genome. Since there are only of the order of a billion base pairs in the human genome, this means in practice that he would be very unlikely to contribute anything at all. It is only through multiple lines of descent that a remote descendant is likely to inherit anything genetically.
Cultural group selection
Francisco Gil-White and Peter Richerson have an entry in The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science titled Large-scale human cooperation and conflict (PDF). The authors reject both kin selection and reciprocal altruism as sufficient to explain the size of human groups. They assume that genetic relationships drop off too quickly for kin selection to spread a very wide net (and ask why other mammals do not seem to coalesce into the same complex social groups if kin selection is operative among them) and assert that reciprocal altruism models fail to scale up well beyond a dyad (that is, two interacting individuals).
Their solution? They propose a cultural group selection model which incoorperates gene-culture coevolution into a feedback loop. I emphasize the cultural aspect because the authors make it clear that they are not proposing a genetic group selective model. Some of the same tendencies that we have been discussing in the context of ethnic (genetic) nepotism and tribalism are brought out as proximate mechanisms to facilitate group cohesion (social markers, dress and language), but they also emphasize the importance of imitation in effecting large scale group conformity over a short period of time and maintaining intergroup variance. Once the idea of cultural trait groups is in place they propose that selection occurred between these groups via intergroup comeptition (a functionalist perspective). Additionally, particular behavorial traits that facilitated smooth operation and mobilization of large social unit were favored within these groups , that is, our cognitive biases & social intelligence were shaped by the groups of the EEA. In earlier posts I assumed that reciprocal altruism served as the glue for the 100-150 individuals who bonded into the atomic units, but I suppose that the process that is sketched out in the paper above explains the cohesive action of a Roman century at least as well.
But, they end with this muddle:
Hm. How important has racial conflict on the grand scale of war? I would submit that most conflicts have been aracial in nature. I recall seeing a painting from the late 19th century heyday of white racial solidarity which depicted the European powers (in the form of female valkyries) standing on a cliff's edge and confronting vast yellow hordes. Germany was depicted as attempting to persuade a reluctant Britain to join in the great defense of Europe from racial aliens. Why was Britain reluctant? The caption suggested that was because of the tacit alliance between Britain and Japan! This, during an age when the supposed 'natural' race-loyalty of European man was hitched to an explicit racialist ideology in most of the West!1
Also, let us recall that though we should stand in awe of the British conquest of their Empire, a small island nation ruling 1/4 of the world, much of the conquering was done by local armies who fought under British officers (or sometimes half-caste ones as in India). Some have suggested that lack of racial solidarity is a peculiarly white afflication, but tell that to the Marathas or Sikhs who had to face Bengali and Tamil sepoys who willingly fought for the British East India Company. And tell that to the Bengali and Tamil soldiers who rebelled against the British, ostensibly for the Mughal Emperor, and suffered the wrath of Sikh sepoys who extracted their revenge for humiliations wrought decades earlier.
There are many confusing questions that give rise to more complex ones. I don't know if I'm convinced of any of the models out there at this point. But, if you want to read more about cultural evolution from this angle, that is gene-culture coevolution, check out Peter Richerson's site.
1 - Racial solidarity wasn't the only thing that was difficult to follow through on transnationally, the Ottomans were propped up by the British and French against the fellow Christian power of Russia during this age of muscular Christianity.
October 06, 2004
Genetics of Karnataka populations
Standard caveat, don't read too much into one study!
Of lice & "men"
Carl Zimmer points me to this PLOS article titled Genetic Analysis of Lice Supports Direct Contact between Modern and Archaic Humans (my emphasis). There are two major lice lineages with a coalescence time of ~1 million years. One of the lineages is found in North America, while the other one is worldwide. The skinny of the tale is that the authors conclude of the two lineages suggests that perhaps one was incubated by a non-African Homo erectus population in Eastern Asia (this would fit within the time period that this homonid species left Africa and become separated into subpopulations), and that "direct contact" transmitted these lice to modern Homo sapiens who eventually crossed Beringia into North America. The lice data is most compatible with some sort of short-lived coexistence and interaction between the two human species. Now, the question is, how the hell do you get erectine lice? The most obvious mode of transmission is sexual contact (if you have a one track mind). As for the alternatives, I'm pretty skeptical that a non-sapient hominid species would have garmets you would want to steal, but perhaps on their way through East Asia our species decided that the archaic hominids were easy kills and the lice spread while they were being butchered before being cooked and consumed? Back to the sex though, Homo erectus is generally at least as tall as modern humans, often very muscular and likely hairless. Perhaps sexual fetishess are as old as man (Homo sapiens) and erectine females were live versions of the sex dolls that lonely men purchase today? Even if the two species were not cross-fertile, one could imagine that erectines would suffice to fullfill "proxmite needs."
Pubic lice is probably going to shed further light on these questions.
Related: Carl has a longer entry on this topic. Stephen Baxter's Manifold Origin is a science fiction novel where Homo erectus harems actually pop up. You have to read the book to figure out the context since it sounds pretty bizarre.
Update: PLOS has nice commentary that I missed.
In the thread on ethnic nepotism Steve made a reference to the possibility of an alien invasion uniting the human species. This collective behavioral response is on display in movies like Independence Day.
But what if it didn't turn out that way? In Harry Turtledove's alternate history series, beginning with In the Balance, where an alien species commences their invasion in the middle of World War II the various powers do unite in the face of a common threat...but the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto ally themselves with the aliens and turn against their German enemies. I didn't finish the series, but though the leader of the Jews of Warsaw had qualms about allying himself with reptilian aliens, he knew that heading a puppet government under their auspices was the only chance at life for his people.
Now, listen to this report about the Israeli incursions into Gaza, are you so sure that the woman who asserts that "tomorrow we will get them, slaughter their children like goats" woudn't collaborate with alien invaders to kill as many Jews as possible? In the long term even if alien victory guaranteed that the Palestinians were chattel, would they take the opportunity to exterminate Jews if that was the price to be paid? Of course, one would assume that the Israelis would react to the changed circumstances by offering the Palestinians a "better deal," but the problem with these sorts of changes to the dynamic is that there is a lot of history and distrust to breakdown. 50 years of perceived oppression on the part of some Arabs might not be alleviated by any redress that an Israeli government looking to make a common front would be willing to make.
Of course, that's all science fiction and "what if." What about historical examples? One could interpret the Greek repulsion of the invasion of alien hordes under Dauris and later Xerxes an example of a common front that the Hellenes put forward when confronted with a external threat. After the Persian Wars were over the Greeks went back to their intercene conflicts. But is the narrative so simple? I am not particularly knowledgeable in this period (my recollections of the Persian Wars date to my elementary school days when I had an interest in this area), but I seem to recall that the Macedonians looked the other way as the Persian army marched through their territory and many of the Greek cities of the Anatolian coast sent contingents to conquer their co-ethnics (some of these cities had rebelled against Persian rule). In 5th century Britain the High King Vortigern supposedly invited the Germanic tribes to help repel raiding parties of Picts & Gaels, a case where an alien group is used to rebuff threats from closely related, but traditionally belligerent, peoples.
All in all, my hunch is the proximate behavorial patterns shaped by the EEA which emphasized near kin relationships and some distrust of tribal neighbors (middle grade kin?) does not scale up to a transtribal context. From what I gather the first tendencies of ancient Near Eastern monarchs was to abstract and expand near kinship terms, that is, "brother," "father" and "son" in their diplomatic exchanges, with a sense of nationhood developing later. On his own blog Steve seems to suggest that within the past 10000 years there might have been changes that selected for a more expansive ingroup-outgroup awareness. There might be something to this, though of late I have become more skeptical of this line of thought as I suspect that there might be physiological barriers (symbolized by the Rule-of-150) on how much socially relevant information the human brain can process intuitionally.
Some have postulated that the various tribes of Israel were formed in this very manner. For example, there is some speculation that the tribe of Dan in particular was a latecomer, that it might have been one of the "Sea Peoples" and been of European provenance.
Addendum: Readers should be aware (if they are not) that my persistant argument that South Asian Americans should engage in auto-genocide is pretty self-interested. My personality type and individual preferences do not gel well with the idea of being closely identified with an organized group whose leaders "speak for them." There are others, no doubt for individuals reasons, who take the opposite view. But, perhaps they also believe in "metaethnic" considerations, that is, the train of thought that puts great importance on the idea than an ethnic group and cultural tradition have some independent importance outside of their relevance as conglomerations of individuals.
P2P & Francis Crick
Click here and "control-f" for "Francis Crick."
Ethnic nepotism continued....
Update: Steve has pointed us to a full text of Hamilton's original paper.
After spending some time in Northern California I have a question: do you know anyone who moved to Florida from California for the weather?
October 05, 2004
Debates, what are they good for?
I don't blog much on politics, but as the election comes 'round, and I catch some of the debates and Internet scuttlebutt, I am "surprised" at how much folks emphasize the externals as influencers on political ideology, when there is ample evidence that our political orientation (which is, in part, an outgrowth of personality) is largely influenced genetically, and that there is little evidence for a massive environmental effect, such as a debate might have (see here for a nice general review). While debates might be important in the primaries, where, ostensibly, the candidates from a given party have similar ideology, at the national level, the difference between the two parties is too vast (see, for example) for a debate to do much but provide entertainment value.
While people do switch party affiliations and there might be some that pick their candidate via what they see on the tele, I would wager that a large portion of informed Americans have already made up their mind long before November ever rolls around. Moreover, I would also venture that, sans for times of extenuating circumstances (e.g., war), the way they vote in any given election, will largely mirror both the way they have voted for the past x elections, and the future y elections, as well.
The Neo-con moment
In the VP debates, on Isreal, Cheney admits that one of the biggest benefits of the Iraq war is that Isreal has seen a reduction in terrorist attacks since Saddam is no longer around to fund them to the tune of $25,000 an attack. Truthful, ballsy, admission that Isreal was a major consideration in the war.
But Edwards, the intellectual light-weight, did not go after him on this.
Now I am done with debate blogging.
Update OK, breaking my promise, just want to give my impression of the debate. This is simple: Cheney vs. Edwards is like Churchill vs. a turnip
In Scottm's post on Japanese Ghosts, gnxpers wondered is there scientific proof of ghosts? I argue that we cannot provide it. Any proof offered is corrupted by our innate ability to believe in ghosts. We're wired for it. In his wonderful book, Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer says--
For example, clothes.
Here is Boyer's partial list of "departures from normative reasoning". Note that these mental processes are present in exactly the situations where people "acquire and use information about supernatural agents": consensus effect, false consenus effect, generation effect, memory illusions, source monitoring defects, confirmation bias, and cognitive dissonance reduction. Any and all of these processes will tend to cloud rational collection of empirical data on ghosts.
We are preprogrammed to believe in the supernatural. So it becomes difficult to furnish "ghost proof". How do we become unbiased observers? I think we cannot.
October 04, 2004
In Steve's latest column he refers to William D. Hamilton as "the leading evolutionary theorist of the second half of the 20th Century." My first instinct is to agree with this assertion. But what do readers think? Can you think of someone more prominent in evolutionary biology between 1950-2000 in terms of their impact?
Why Hamilton? Well, during the 1960s he was the central figure that rejected the form of group selection forwarded by Vero Wynne-Edwards and turned toward kin selection & inclusive fitness. Hamilton's influence has been further expanded by Richard Dawkins, the foremost popularizer of evolutionary biology of our age, not to mention shaping the ideas of lesser, but still bright, lights like Matt Ridley.
For the first 50 years of the 20th century I think that the title of eminent evolutionary biologist should go Ronald A. Fisher (though perhaps some will argue for John B.S. Haldane), who was the early Hamilton's hero. But what about Fisher's American rival, Sewall Wright? He lived until 1988, and the later Hamilton looked to Wright as a hero. Perhaps we can acknowledge that Wright was Clyde Drexler to Fisher's Michael Jordan, and he was more a figure of the first half of the century than the latter.
Why is this sort of Ruth vs. Gehrig comparison important? Well, in the past few weeks it seems everyone (me included) has been using Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2 as if it is a sort of Bible. What would Hamilton say?
The Twelve Tribes of American Politics
Beliefnet has a review of a Pew study, American Religious Landscape and Political Attitudes (PDF), which breaks down the American populace into 12 categories. Now, many (most?) people think their own political views are too complex and nuanced to fit into a box or can be labelled, and honestly, I do think that the standard Left/Right dichotomy (or religious/non-religious) can really mislead in many contexts (I will not deny a basic utility, but distortion really creeps into any conversation as the level of complexity increases). Now, if you broke down the electorate into 100 categories based on a various combinations of policy positions, you would be more technically precise, but the utility of such a typology is difficult to ascertain in everyday discourse (though political analysts and consultants could probably make use of it). 12 seems like a manageable number to balance precision and ease of use.
Quite often what is interesting (and useful) about such typologies is not confirmation of truisms, but surprises (or what some might feel are surprises). For example, here are the groups and most & least supportive of "Free Trade" (see the original Pew document for details):
Question: Free trade is good for the economy even if it means the loss of a few US jobs.
Group/Yes to question
(most pro-Free Trade)
(least pro-Free Trade)
What's going on here? You have Jews and Atheists & Agnostics agreeing with Traditionalist Evangelicals, the most 'liberal' and 'conservative' groups. On the other hand, You have "Unaffiliated Believers," which to me suggests a New Agey "Spiritual" type, being extremely anti-Free Trade, along with blacks & Latinos and Modernist Evangelicals. These groups tend to be rather more Democratic than not, but, they are certainly religiously disparate.
Here is what I think is going on. Jews & Atheists & Agnostics are probably the most likely to live in cosmopolitan urban areas that benefit from exchange of goods & services with other economies, if not directly, at least in their capacities as financial transactional hubs. Additionally, these are two groups who are less likely to concentrate in blue-collar occupations which have traditionally born the brunt of "job exportation" over the past generation, even out into their extended families. But what about Traditionalist Evangelicals? Well, I don't know if they have been convinced about the law of comparative advantage, rather, I suspect that perhaps they have been less impacted by the decline in the Rust Belt because they might concentrate in the New South (which has actually benefited from internal comparative advantage because of loose regulations and low wages), and, they are extremely Republican and so might be more amenable to go along with the pro-Free Trade orthodoxy so long as their core cultural concerns are met. In other words, Free Trade is a lower priority concern, and they are inclined to agree with the orthodoxy dominant in their own political camp (I believe this is common with political coalitions).
What about the second group? I think it is pretty obvious why Latinos and blacks are not keen on Free Trade, the history of comparative advantage in the United States does not stand on the side of those skewed toward lower skill occupations, which these groups concentrate in. But what about Modernist Evangelicals & Unaffiliated Believers? I think these two groups are similar in that both are non-traditional but often seriously religious. Though on most issues they cluster with Jews and Atheists & Agnostics, this is one where the Hard Secular/Cultural Creative disconnect is likely more salient. The opposition to Free Trade exists in the context of a worldview that tends to be suspicious of economies of scale, corporate efficiency and materialistic reductionism, they are suspicious of the God of the Market. Holism, localism and naturalism would probably be keywords that would trigger something positive from the liberal religious. Though Modernist Evangelicals and Unaffiliated Believers differ in the details of their religious worldview, I believe they are psychologically cognate groups.
These aren't the only surprising splits you an find in the data. Jews and Atheists & Agnostics are in many ways fellow travellers politically, but when it comes to Israel, the two groups are at opposite ends.
Question: The US should support Israel over the Palestinians in the Middle East.
Group/Yes to question
"Other Faiths" includes Muslims, so I suspect that is a pretty good explanation of the data point. But these numbers seem to justify the arguments of neoconservatives who promote evangelical Christianity in the interests of supporting Israel. If you assume an identity between "What is good for the Jews" and "What is good for Israel," a literal interpretation might argue that conservative Christianity is good for the Jews, and secularism is very bad for the Jews . Here Unaffiliated Believers cluster with Atheists & Agnostics, reflecting perhaps their explicit rejection of any mythological/religious link with a Hebraic past and present, ergo, once this emotional tie is severed Israel becomes just another country rather than a Light Unto the Nations. This might also explain the Israel-skeptism of liberal Christians, whose non-literal metaphorical faith has moved furthest from Old Testament moorings.
 One could argue that the indirect impact of some Christian eschatologies are in the long term more directly harmful toward Israel and the Jewish people than a short term dimishment in the Americo-Israeli alliance.
And now for something a little different...
Diane Sawyer, repoter on Good Morning America, was testing out perfume on men this morning (seeing which scent most appealed to men), her samples were perfumes by Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and one called "Hummer" after the well known SUV. She asked her panel of four men "At the end of the day would you rather have; J. Lo, Britney or a Hummer?". The mostly male crew exploded into laughter for 10 minutes, I don't think she got it.
Of course she had on Robin Williams after the segment, and the rest of the show, and asked him the same question.
October 03, 2004
The Middle Way
Ask and ye shall receive!
Originally printed here
No, this is not a post about social democracy or the New Democrats/New Labour; it's about how Buddhism in the West differs from its Asian forebears. Let's start by taking a look at how the Dalai Lama's positions on abortion and homosexuality differ from those of the "right on" liberals who tend to be Buddhism's most eager proselytes in the West.
[T]he Dalai Lama has denounced abortion as a sin against "non-violence to all sentient beings," opposed contraception and criticized proponents of euthanasia - much as the pope has done. Although he has affirmed the dignity and rights of gays and lesbians, he has condemned homosexual acts as contrary to Buddhist ethics.Hear that, Richard Gere and the Beasties? Gay rights are still OK, but you're going to have to refine your position on a woman's right to choose. I said refine, not switch; read on, and you'll learn how you can have your cake and eat it too (and I don't mean that in a disparaging way, for once).
Unlike the strident and wrenching issue it is in the West, abortion in Korea is uneventful and performed as a matter of course without second thought (except among the very religious) despite its illegality. The operation can be gotten very easily anywhere in the country at most private gynecological clinics (small hospitals) or at larger institutions. A few personal questions are asked very perfunctorily. When pregnancy is positively determined the operation can be performed hygienically and efficiently at relatively low cost even on the first visit....Japan has thousands of temples where aborted fetuses are memorialized....temples or cemeteries like Hase-dera or Purple Cloud Temple described by William LaFleur in Liquid Life where services for aborted fetuses are a major or sole focus of religious activity....Cho Myong-nyol, a Japan-educated faculty member of Seoul's Central Sangha College, writes that "the Japanese acknowledge abortion as an evil misdeed yet mizuko offerings allow the Japanese to dignify and revere life. The rituals provide an opportunity for people who committed abortion (all family members, sympathizers and doctors included) to rise above their suffering rather than be stigmatized as criminals. This practice is both rational and worldly-wise." She notes that "it seems that all religious groups in Korea except the Catholics are publicly silent on abortion. Rather than relying on government policy, the role of religion is to try to provide opportunity for people to raise above the problems of their daily lives through religious belief and to awaken them to an authentic ethics of life."The politically active (on both sides) have a terrible habit of equating "tolerance" with "approval" or even "celebration" (and of equating "disapproval" with "prohibition"). The treatment of abortion in South Korea and Japan demonstrates tolerance of the regrettable necessity of abortion, even though it is still disapproved of and certainly not celebrated as a "freedom." The Dalai Lama's position on homosexuality reflects the same delicate balance: disapproval, but tolerance. Liberty for all requires that each of us tolerate things that we disapprove of. Like dirty hippies bowdlerizing and bastardizing the faith of one's fathers. (If you sense my equanimity being disturbed there, you're right. I know my chances of permanent release from attachment and suffering aren't good.)
Tibetan Buddhism is not a values-free system oriented around smiles and a warm heart. It is a religion with tough ethical underpinnings that sometimes get lost in translation. For example, the Dalai Lama explicitly condemns homosexuality, as well as all oral and anal sex. His stand is close to that of Pope John Paul II, something his Western followers find embarrassing and prefer to ignore. His American publisher even asked him to remove the injunctions against homosexuality from his book, "Ethics for the New Millennium," for fear they would offend American readers, and the Dalai Lama acquiesced.Though shapeless, desultory religious syncretism provokes the same disapproval in me as it does the Dalai Lama, I still tolerate it1 (as does he). It's a small price to pay for freedom of religion. However, I do find His Holiness excessively sanguine about the extent to which other religions share his easygoing attitude on apostasy. *cough*Islam*cough* Stop that giggling, Christians! Until recently, you weren't much better.
And that's why I'm a lapsed Buddhist. Much of central and south Asia used to be Buddhist. There were even a couple of reminders of that heritage until someone blew them up.
set off on this tangent by Beliefnet
1See how this works?
I met a traveller from an antique land
To forgo this fight for righteousness is to forgo thy duty and honour: is to fall into transgression....
We've made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They invade our space, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here!
Question:I am really sorry that I have to ask this type of Question. But Since I grew up in a western country; I rally don't much about our religion. And I can't ask this Question to my parents due to subject matter. Brother my question is, can we have an oral sex before or after the sexual intercourse or can we have oral sex at all? Is it haram?
Question: Is anal intercourse permissible.?Sez you.
About six months ago I gave a list, with links and some comments, of those of my posts over the previous year that I thought might still be worth reading.
I said I would update this from time to time, so here is the first update…
As in the previous list, I will only mention those posts that I think are of more than minor or ephemeral interest.
How much taller? was prompted by recent reports on the long-term increase in adult height. I looked at some evidence on height from the 19th century and pointed out some difficulties in interpreting the data.
Evolutionarily Stable Strategies and the strategy set discussed the meaning of the ESS and emphasised that the ’stability’ of a solution is relative to a defined set of alternative strategies and payoffs. The common statement that an ESS is an ’unbeatable’ strategy can therefore be misleading.
The Nuer Conquest examined the evidence on the spread of the Nuer tribe of the Sudan at the expense of the Dinka in the 19th century. In the recent literature this has frequently been cited as a case of group-selection for a cultural trait. In my post I argued that the evidence for this is weak and has not been widely accepted by experts on the Nuer.
Defining Group Selection: Price’s Equation attempts to understand George Price’s famous equation for multi-level selective processes and its significance for group selection. This is undeniably heavy going, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to try reading it casually on-screen, but if you’re seriously interested in the subject you might find it worthwhile to print it out for closer attention. It includes a derivation of the equation which in my humble opinion is clearer than the others I’ve seen in print.
The importance of kin selection maybe takes a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I had recently read an argument against the importance of kin selection which seemed to me fallacious, and I spent some time showing why. (Incidentally, I did eventually read the offending article again, and I’m pretty sure I was not misrepresenting Dimwit’s argument - but I will maintain his anonymity!)
Territorial rights examined the various grounds that have been used to justify claims to territory. My main aim was to debunk the idea of ‘ancestral’ rights and defend the principle of self-determination by the people actually living in a territory. In comments on this, I don’t think anyone defended the concept of ancestral rights, but there was some concern that the principle of self-determination would lead to the breakup of existing successful states. I tried to answer this concern in Territorial rights: a clarification. I was amused to see that some American readers appeared to be concerned about the prospects of separatism or secession by parts of the United States. As an outsider, I find this a far-fetched anxiety - why would anyone want to secede from the most prosperous and successful nation in world history? But if (hypothetically) a majority of people in, say, California or Texas strongly and persistently wanted to leave the Union, so be it. The history of the United Kingdom shows the difficulty of trying to keep a hostile people in a Union against their will. (So, I suppose, does the American Civil War - the Union was eventually saved, but at a huge cost in human life and lasting political problems. Would anyone now defend the Union cause if it had not incidentally led to the abolition of slavery?)
Regression to the mean and Galton’s Fallacy (not!) attempts to scotch a recently emerged myth about Francis Galton’s interpretation of regression towards the mean. I also took the opportunity to deal with a variety of misunderstandings and fallacies on the subject.
Obstacles to democracy tried to answer the puzzle why there are few functioning democracies outside Europe and peoples of European origin. I emphasised the obstacles to democracy arising from ethnic, religious and economic divisions, which have commonly been underestimated in the process of ‘state-building‘.
A load of Rawls gives reasons for not accepting the late John Rawls’s theory of justice. It’s another long and complicated piece, but at least there are no equations in it!
I think those are the only posts of potentially lasting interest I’ve made in the last 6 months, but if anyone wants to check out the others, click on ‘View all entries’ (right side of the main page), put the entries in reverse order (most recent first) and scroll down .
The slippery slope is real
I have been meaning to write up an article on how free speech is being slowly and systematically curtailed in Sweden for some time. Today though, VDARE.com beat me to it.
The article sums up the situation in Sweden nicely, taking the recent prison sentence of Pastor Åke Green for attacking homosexuality in a sermon as a starting point:
Public prosecutor Kjell Yngvesson explained the conviction:
It goes downhill from there.
In order to stifle any discontent relating to third-world mass immigration, such discontent has, step by step, been outlawed. Personally, I can’t see any reversal of the trend any time soon.
1: When US liberals declare that they only want “Hate Crime Laws”, etc. in order to punish actual criminal acts, not speech, they are most likely lying through their teeth.
2: Thus, on this issue, the slippery slope is real. When anti-incitement laws were first instituted in Sweden, their proponents gave limited, ‘reasonable’ rationales for their use. Then the expansion started, through gradual rewrites of the law, as well as precedent.
In short: Americans have to fight the proponents of “anti-hate” laws before they manage to gain a toehold. Otherwise, you might very well, through the march of precedent, have lost your freedom of speech before you realize it was ever at risk.