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February 12, 2005



Fame & Victimization: A Toxic Brew

Just a quick follow-up to my previous post on the persecution of UNLV professor Hans Hermann Hoppe. It seems that the professor's accuser has gone public and is reveling in his new found fame as the victim of Hoppe's remarks.

Michael Knight, the UNLV student, was hoping that Dr. Hoppe would have to submit to sensitivity and diversity training as penance for his crime. Knight has a blog where he shares with us his plans for TV news conferences and his other plans concerning the Hoppe Affair. This blog entry has a number of commenters taking Knight to task for his complaint. Very interesting reading.

While I haven't read the entire blog, what amazed me was this kid's preoccuption with, and elevation of, sensitivity and identity validation over concepts like academic freedom and free speech. Of course that's not entirely a surprise, considering the state of many school curricula, which nurture the intellects and values of their students with a steady diet of intellectual pablum, and then send them out into the real world. So, why should we expect any different?

Posted by TangoMan at 09:20 PM | | TrackBack


"Gene expression" might matter

One of the points that seems to come up over & over again in the Larry Summers debate was that men and women are genetically the same, so the differences we observe are not genetic (males are hemizygous in that our Y doesn't have a copy of most genes and so the X has to kick in). This makes for a nice little quip, but one could point out that male and female elephant seals are the same genetically, but the former are 3 to 10 times heavier by adulthood. Such trivial observations could be made about humans in the realm of sexual dimorphism, after all, men tend to be taller on average.1 In other words, the promoters of these views assume a naive understanding of the mapping of the genome to the full development of an organism.

In fact the genome is not an exact blueprint for how the organism will develop, it is not a miniature rescaling or compressed analog record, rather it is more like a series of commands and operations that initiate the cascade toward the processes that result in the construction of the full phenotype. A standard explanation of male-female differences is that the sex hormones mediate the expression of various traits. This is the main argument in The Essential Difference, the level of testosterone looms large in almost every trait difference. The author even suggests that the level of testosterone in females is a crucial metric that might shed light on different behavorial and cognitive tendencies of women at the high end of the distribution tail. But one must remember that there is even evidence that differential expression precedes the release of hormones.

The anti-Summers camp often depicts those of us who are sympathetic to the consideration of a full range of factors as contributors in sex/gender differences as oversimplifying essentialists. Yet here we have a case where they take the simple count of the lack of genomic differences and let that serve to falsify those who argue for biological differences. Implicitly, they are taking an essentialist and static view of the genome, what you see is what you get. There is no cry and call which emphasizes the importance of epistasis and other dynamic aspects of the genome, because in this case it opens the doors up for many models in which a difference on one chromosome could result in a cascade of pathways which alters gene expression, and therefore the final phenotype.

So, either....


  • Biology is complex, we can't make heads or tails of sex differences so we shouldn't attempt any speculation.
  • There is no genetic difference, so it is obvious that there could be no great biological differences.

I happen to think that the first point is closer to the truth, though I think we can make heads or tails of sex differences, more or less. Additionally, many in the anti-Summers camp seem to prima facie assert that the sociological evidence for discrimination is simpler than the biology. I don't necessarily agree.2 Since when was sociology, at least in its subject of study, simpler than biology? Nailing the biology, from the molecular genetic level up onward to the complex phenotypic expressions we see in brain morphology is where we should start, and then we can make a fuller examination of the sociology. While biology influences sociology, sociology does not influence biology (in theory).

Addendum: In the comments to this post I suggest to John Emerson that the "Larry Summers controversy" has exposed a fissure on the Left rather than the standard Left-Right battle. That is why I tend to get annoyed when some who found that Summers' statements were false or over the top try to portray them as standard right-wing cant, after all, Summers worked for Bill Clinton and one of his major supporters, Steven Pinker, is politically a pretty standard Democrat. During my initial roundup, I also missed an interesting comment by Steve Berlin Johnson, educated at Brown in semiotics, later to pursue graduate work with an influential disciple of Jacques Derriba's, and a confirmed Democrat:


Finally, I think it's more accurate (and also more palatable) to describe the differences here in a slightly modified language: not that women are innately worse at math or engineering than men, but rather that they're innately less interested in math or engineering than men. That lack of interest starts early -- boys tend to engage more with inanimate objects, girls with people and animals -- and ultimately spirals into larger differences in skills and experiences, which no doubt get amplified by social bias. But it's not that women are challenged by these subjects; it's that they don't find them stimulating.

The tunnel vision on the dearth of women in the mathematical sciences gets tiresome after a while when considered in the context of the 15:1 ratio of males to females in prison, or the prominence of women in the humanities and social sciences and their rise in the biological sciences. If all the vectors pointed in one direction I would be concerned, but as it is, it is a lot more complex than that....

1 - There might be regions of the Y that code for sex differences.

2 - Overt discrimination, which is a function of explicit legal formulations, is obvious and easy to characterize and remedy (simply nullify the formulations), covert discrimination, which is an emergent property of various sociological variables, is not. Biology is nested within sociology because we are social & cultural animals, the first two modify and shape the latter, but the animal constraints and biases remain.

Posted by razib at 04:07 PM | | TrackBack


Fandom to Obsession: Star Trek Decorating

In comments on the SciFi Blog, Dan Dare points to an apartment that is decorated as though it were on the Federation Starship Enterprise. This was too funny to leave buried in comments. Go here and view the slideshow feature.

Posted by TangoMan at 01:24 PM | | TrackBack

February 11, 2005



Dammit, I want to know what makes Penguins gay!

In comments, Rikurzhen pointed to an essay published in Science that detailed efforts to suppress science:

There is growing concern about the politicization and social control of science, constraining the conduct, funding, publication, and public use of scientific research. For example, human cloning and embryonic stem cell creation have been regulated or banned, activists have been lobbying Congress to remove funding from certain government-sponsored research, and science journal editors have been compelled to develop policies for publication of sensitive manuscripts.

Forbidden knowledge embodies the idea that there are things that we should not know. Knowledge may be forbidden because it can only be obtained through unacceptable means, such as human experiments conducted by the Nazis; knowledge may be considered too dangerous, as with weapons of mass destruction or research on sexual practices that undermine social norms; and knowledge may be prohibited by religious, moral, or secular authority, exemplified by human cloning.

We've all been witness to the Luddite Left's efforts to suppress research on gender issues, and we're already well aware of the career dangers involved in investigating issues related to race. I'm sure that science focused on sexual orientation is just as touchy, but perhaps things are going off the deep end when these luddite acitivists start protesting to keep gay penguins gay.

A PLAN by a German zoo to test the sexual appetites of a group of suspected homosexual penguins has sparked outrage among gay and lesbian groups, who fear zookeepers might force them to turn straight. "All sorts of gay and lesbian associations have been emailing and calling in to protest," said a spokesman for the zoo in the north-western city of Bremerhaven.

He said the zoo had concluded the penguins might be gay after seeing male penguins trying to mate with other males and trying to hatch offspring out of stones.

German media reported that female Swedish penguins would be brought to the zoo to test the theory, but when word got out about the plan, the phones started ringing.

"Nobody here is trying to break-up same-sex pairs by force," the zoo's director Heike Kueck told public broadcaster NDR.

"We don't know if the three male pairs are really gay or just got together because of a lack of females."

Posted by TangoMan at 06:21 PM | | TrackBack


New Strain of AIDS

The panic and foreboding that was present decades ago when AIDS first crept into our consciousness is starting to be felt again for it was just announced that a new strain of AIDS has been detected in a New York City man.

While HIV strains that are resistant to some drug treatments have been on the rise in recent years throughout the United States, city officials said this case was unique and worrisome for several reasons.

First, they said, the strain of the disease was resistant to three of the four classes of drugs used to treat HIV from the moment the patient got sick. Typically, drug resistance comes after a patient is treated with retroviral drugs, often because they go off the prescribed course. And, more often than not, a person is only resistant to one or two classes of drugs.

But the resistance comes in combination with its rapid transformation into AIDS. Each of those things has been seen before, but never together.

In this case, the patient developed AIDS from 2 to 10 months after being infected. Usually, it takes 10 years for the average person infected with HIV to develop AIDS.

At a news conference at New York's health department, where Frieden was joined by nearly a dozen doctors and community leaders, several people recalled having that same worried feeling they had more than two decades ago, when AIDS first started appearing.

Posted by TangoMan at 05:50 PM | | TrackBack


Genetic variation is a fact of life

There are many traits that humans display which are purely genetic in character, that is, they don't display phenotypic variation correlated to genotypic variation because there isn't genotypic variation, and there isn't an environmental component to muddy the waters (though developmental issues can result in some variation, and, importantly signal the "health" of the overall genome because of its correlation to developmental stability). Generally these are traits which have extremely high fitness costs when one deviates from the normal "plan," so mutations can never spread through a population, and the loci remain monomorphic (one genetic variant or allele is present nearly to fixation). On the other hand, there are many traits which are heritable and display a continuous range through populations. Their fitness implications are not as clear cut. For example, take height. There is some evidence that tall men and short women are more fertile than tall women and short men. So why do short men and tall women exist? Why is there is a normal distribution? One important point is that tall men and short women pass on both these traits to their children, so the next generation exhibits a range of heights. Additionally, one could concoct forms of balancing selection and correlated responses with act against extremes of height. Nevertheless, I think it is important to observe interpopulation differences as well. Why are Cambodians shorter than Pathans? Or "Pygmies" shorter than surrounding populations? The obvious response is adaptational constraints were at work,1 and and one height does not point in one fitness direction at all times, in other words, unlike an allele that results in only one finger developing on a hand, an allele that tends to produce a given height has a fitness differential from the mean which changes as a function of time, so it never reaches fixation or extinction because its change in frequency because of selection oscillates positively and negatively.

Humans are not all the same on some rather important traits. Evolutionary psychologists have emphasized the monomorphic nature of loci which shape human nature, but that neglects the reality that personalities tend to differ (a trivial example). This is all set up for this paper....

Heritability and genetic constraints of life-history trait evolution in preindustrial humans:

We found strong positive genetic correlations between female age at first reproduction and longevity, and between interbirth intervals and longevity, suggesting reduced life spans in females who either started to breed relatively early or who then bred frequently. Our results suggest that key female life-history traits in this premodern human population had high heritability and may have responded to natural selection. However genetic constraints between longevity and reproductive life-history traits may have constrained the evolution of life history and facilitated the maintenance of additive genetic variance in key life-history traits.
1 - Yes, nutrition does play a role, standard caveat, but let's be real for a moment....
Posted by razib at 11:15 AM | | TrackBack

February 10, 2005



Feeble Attacks on Pinker

It seems that the Summers' incident has an indeterminate half-life for it is still riling up those opposed to the argument Summers put forth. The latest blog post that I've read is enthusiastically endorsed by the usual suspects and is written by Echidne of the Snakes (which surprised me because I enjoyed her comments when she visited here to debate with Razib during the hottest moments of the Summers' Tempest) guest-blogging at Alas, A Blog.

She takes aim at Steven Pinker for his defense of Larry Summers' remarks. Here is our summary, and linkfest, to that debate. The point of her essay is that Pinker is hopelessly biased and his arguments are illogical and thus his views on the matter are immaterial. So, because her essay is so centered on the issues of bias and logic I thought I'd return the favor and apply the same standards to her essay and see if her analysis of Pinker is correct.

She opens her essay by linking to Pinker's article in The New Republic:

Summers did not, of course, say that women are "natively inferior," that "they just can't cut it," that they suffer "an inherent cognitive deficit in the sciences," or that men have "a monopoly on basic math ability," as many academics and journalists assumed. Only a madman could believe such things.

She starts her rebuttal by focusing on the above quote from Pinker. She writes:

I remember hearing a radio interview with Pinker when his book The Blank Slate came out, and he used the same madman-argument to clear the deck of any accusation that he might be an essentialist. As few researchers would call themselves madmen, this clever trick means that we can now dispense with any exploration of Professor Pinker’s own possible biases, and can go on to study the biases of his opponents.

However, there is much context lost by clipping the quote. Let me do my part to remedy the oversight. Here's the remainder of the quote that Echidne omitted:

Summers's analysis of why there might be fewer women in mathematics and science is commonplace among economists who study gender disparities in employment, though it is rarely mentioned in the press or in academia when it comes to discussions of the gender gap in science and engineering. The fact that women make up only 20 percent of the workforce in science, engineering, and technology development has at least three possible (and not mutually exclusive) explanations. One is the persistence of discrimination, discouragement, and other barriers. In popular discussions of gender imbalances in the workforce, this is the explanation most mentioned. Although no one can deny that women in science still face these injustices, there are reasons to doubt they are the only explanation. A second possibility is that gender disparities can arise in the absence of discrimination as long as men and women differ, on average, in their mixture of talents, temperaments, and interests--whether this difference is the result of biology, socialization, or an interaction of the two. A third explanation is that child-rearing, still disproportionately shouldered by women, does not easily co-exist with professions that demand Herculean commitments of time. These considerations speak against the reflex of attributing every gender disparity to gender discrimination and call for research aimed at evaluating the explanations.

Let's review her logic here. Her premise is that Dr. Pinker's defense of Dr. Summers is not logically coherent because it is ridden with poor reasoning and that Pinker's bias infuses, and thus invalidates, the thrust and conclusion of his article. Rather than tediously repeating the details of remarks that are already quoted, I'll restate them in LogLish (Logical English.)

The {Condition} C of women in {field} S has at least 3 explanations. Reason X, Reason Y and Reason Z. It is posited that Reason X is not sufficient to explain the {Condition} C. If Reason X cannot explain {Condition} C then we should investigate Reason Y and Reason Z.

Echidne dispenses with Pinker's defense of Summers by attacking Pinker's attempt to correct misreporting and not by addressing the logical problem set laid out by Summers or Pinker's treatment of that problem set. Let's look at the LogLish version of Pinker's correction of the prevalent misstatement:

The {Condition} C of women in {field} S is caused by women's lack of Attribute A, Attribute B, and Atribute C. Only a madman would take such a position.

This is an entirely appropriate position to take if you are being mischaracterized by your opponents. State at the outset that you do not hold these beliefs. It does not follow, as Echidne argues, that the remainder of your argument cannot be criticized. The only conclusion that can be reached is that your argument cannot be criticized for the reasons you've pre-emptively disavowed. This tactic removes lying from the arsenal your opponents can use against you. This in no way removes from Pinker's opponents their ability to further explore Pinker's text for bias. Go to town.

Let's continue to explore the essay's poor reasoning.

But Pinker’s summary of the issues is partial: he fails to address all the reasoned responses from feminists and progressives, and he fails to mention the truly outrageous statements on many of the anti-feminist and conservative websites and blogs. This makes the unreasonableness appear solely something that takes place among the liberals and feminists, not something that might even infect careful researchers such as Professor Pinker.

Let's go back to Summers' original problem set:

The {Condition} C of women in {field} S has at least 3 explanations. Reason X, Reason Y and Reason Z. It is posited that Reason X is not sufficient to explain the {Condition} C. If Reason X cannot explain {Condition} C then we should investigate Reason Y and Reason Z.

Let's reframe this into propositional logic:

Premise #1 Reason X partially contributes to Condition C.
Premise #2 Reason Y partially contributes to Condition C.
Premise #3 Reason Z partially contributes to Condition C.
Conclusion: Reasons X, Y, & Z explain Condition C.

Those attacking Summers are putting forth a self identity, something that is a valid statement, true in every case:

Reason X wholly explains Condition C.

They have dismissed Summers'argument and substitued what they think is a true and valid statement in its stead. By doing so, they open themselves up to a test of statement falsification, which Summers and many others feel has already been achieved. So, with the statement being shown to be untrue the issue focuses on which of the 3 premises offered by Summers is incorrect. Those opposed to this argument have completely removed a premise from consideration without a test of falsification. If at this point you think that this essay is begging the question because I'm not offering supportiing links in support of the invalidation of the self-identity you can stop reading and Google the issue for yourself. This is a blog entry, not a journal submission.

So, Pinker need not address all the proffered reasoned responses from feminists and progressives in support of the self-identity that has been argued is insufficient to explain the phenomena. He could give them full hearing and that would still leave the self-identity being invalid. Nor is there any need for Pinker to pay attention to the excesses of the feminist opponents who accept the invalidity of the self-identity and the validity of the 3 premises. The exuberance of these parties has no bearing on the validity of the argument. Similarly, the reasoned support of an invalid self-identity is also immaterial. So, Echidne's argument, as she has offered in this point, for bias on the part of Pinker is invalid. She continues:

In any case, our careful researcher then goes on to summarize various studies which demonstrate gender differences on the average. He doesn’t summarize the studies which don’t support these findings or the studies which address the whole question of what we are actually trying to measure with the various tests. All this reads “biased” in my book.

Again we come back to the test of invalid self-identity versus a proposed argument. Pinker is writing for an audience that holds to the validity of the self-identity and thus he is attempting, for their benefit, to falsify the self-identity. He only cites evidence that demonstrates gender differences in order to remove the self-identity from consideration and that is at the heart of this argument, and Echidne makes a grave error in her analysis by not recognizing this. Pinker, and Summers, are not out to replace one instance of self-identity with another instance, namely that all variance is explained by gender difference and they have no need to bring in all sorts of irrelevencies that only confuse the issue. The countervailing evidence on gender differentiation is not required, as it would be needed to invalidate an alternative self-identity, and does not show bias, for both Pinker and Summers argue a multifactorial causation scheme. If one premise is falsified that doesn't reinstate the already invalidated self-identity favored by Summers' opponents. That dog is already dead.

There are no feminists who believe that women and men are biologically exactly the same, though there seem to be a very large number of anti-feminists who never see the most obvious difference between the two sexes which is the fact that women give birth. Anti-feminists want to have more science to find out what really distinguishes the sexes, all the while letting their eyes glide over the pregnant bellies of their coworkers or the countless young women pushing prams outside.

It's hard to decide what to make of this statement. It's either a disingenuous tactic that by pointing at obvious gender differences seeks to save from criticism the central issue that is at the heart of the Summers' dispute or it's a testament to the fact that Pinker and other researchers have been effective in dispelling the notion that we are Blank Slates but in no way does it invalidate the position that this was a widely held view, and still is when we consider non-obvious biological differences. It seems that Eschidne is out to punish Pinker for being effective in shedding light on the issue. The subtlety of her statement that many anti-feminists are oblivious to the fact that women give birth is lost on me. Perhaps a little more exposition on her part would have been helpful in clearing up her point.

The differences that gender science may find are going to be put to political uses pretty fast. Even if the results are based on faulty methods and data, the harm the political applications will do is real. This is the reason why it is so important to insist on transparency and high methodical competency from all practitioners of gender science, and why it is very important not to have a value bias among this group towards one sex or the other. Currently there is such a general bias, as even a cursory reading of the studies reveals, and that is one of slight misogyny. In other words, not all science is somehow above politics or even above cheating, and all science should be approached with a very critical mind.

This isn't a direct criticism of Pinker, but more of a general smear. The hypocrisy of the statement though, is quite rank, for she in no way acknowledges the extreme bias that is present with existing, wholly environmental, studies. She seems to posit that they are value neutral and bias can only be introduced in the study of genetics. Need I go on?

Actually, I agree with Pinker on one of his arguments: that we should encourage good science on innate gender differences. The real question is how to do this. How would Pinker create a study which would tell us, for once and for all, what the real cognitive differences between men and women are? We actually don’t have the tools to do this today, and this is the main reason why I find Pinker’s elegant impartiality so insulting.

She may find Pinker's impartiality insulting but she surely hasn't demonstrated to her readers that he is biased or that even if bias is present, that the bias invalidates his arguments. In the end, I find her argument to be invalid.

Posted by TangoMan at 09:48 PM | | TrackBack


For all the 'extraverts' on GNXP...

There's some good news and some bad according to this research [article in press] by Daniel Nettle:

[P]ersonality axes such as extraversion can usefully be seen as dimensions of trade-off of different fitness costs and benefits. It is hypothesized that increasing extraversion will be associated with increasing mating success, but at the cost of either increased physical risk or decreased parenting effort. In a sample of 545 British adults, extraversion was a strong predictor of lifetime number of sexual partners. Male extraverts were likely to have extra-pair matings, whilst female extraverts were likely to leave existing relationships for new ones. On the cost side, increasing extraversion increased the likelihood of hospitalization for accident or illness. There was no direct evidence of reduced parenting effort, but extravert women had an increased likelihood of exposing their children to step-parenting. The study demonstrates that extraversion has fitness costs as well as benefits. Population variation related in the trait is unlikely to be eliminated by selection due to its polygenic nature, likely spatiotemporal variability in the optimal value, and possible status- and frequency-dependent selection.

So, good-luck and have fun! But, be careful out there....

Addendum from Razib: GNXP readers might also find Henry Harpending & Pat Draper's 1982 paper, Father Absence and Reproductive Strategy: An Evolutionary Perspective (PDF), of interest. Harpending and Draper suggest that in low paternal investment societies sons tend to be more verbally than quantitatively oriented, while daughters tend to engage in sexual relations at an earlier age. For me, the most fascinating tidbit of information was this:

SAT scores of Harvard freshmen, 1964
Father absent: 668 math, 701 verbal
Father present: 716 math, 653 verbal

I suspect that verbal & mathematical skillsets might have some corelation to an extroversion/introversion range.

Posted by theresa at 11:01 AM | | TrackBack


Good night Parsis?

In light of Pearsall's demographic post I thought I'd link to this article about the decline of the Zoroastrian Parsis of India, Parsis 'building' population hope. It is about the housing incentives that the community is giving to Parsi-only couples willing to procreate. If the working class couple mentioned in the article are exemplars of those who are taking advantage of the pro-natalist incentives, it seems that this might result in the downshifting of the median Parsi income and socioeconomic status, as the wealthy and upper middle class segments of the community don't need housing incentives. Instead, they are probably disproportionately represented in the 1/3 of the Parsis who outmarry.

Addendum: The first leaders of both India and Pakistan had Parsi connections, Muhammed Ali Jinnah married a woman of Parsi origins, and his daughter by that marriage married a part-Parsi Christian (their son lives in India and identifies as a Parsi ethnically and religiously). Indira Gandhi of course married a Parsi.

Posted by razib at 09:58 AM | | TrackBack


Oldies, but goodies

Since GC is abroad & busy I thought I would link to two of my favorite past posts of his.

First, Pattern Classification in Population Genetics, which was a follow up to the Lewontin's Fallacy post. Note that in The Ancestor's Tale Richard Dawkins also states that Lewontin ignored the importance of the correlation structure of the many variables that go into our perception of a particular "race." On a personal note, I am in some ways a living refutation of the analogy between a lactose-tolerant vs. lactose-intolerant and a black & white race. My skin color is firmly within the normal range of African Americans (to give a general impression, I am likely lighter than the median African American, but darker than black-white biracial individuals). Yet I almost never am termed black. When I lived in eastern Imbler I usually had the qualifier sand added to any "nigger" epithet, underscoring that even bigots implicitly understood the importance of correlation structure. Though my skin is dark, my hair is straight and my features are not particularly African, in other words, I fall outside the normal range of correlated features which characterize black Americans.1 I think part of the problem is that the use of the terms "black" and "white" as well as the hypodescent social rule in American culture has tended to transform the explicit discourse into a univariable conversation. Skin color has become the single universal token, even though implicitly most people understand that race is more than just color, ergo, light skinned Japanese Americans are also "People of Color" (though they are more similar in complexion to whites than blacks).

Next, check out Thompson and Gray: Neuroscience, genes, and IQ. Though I think cognitive science and psychometrics have a lot to offer, the real action in the next few decades is going to be the grey space between molecular biology and psychology, in other words, neuroscience which will put more flesh on to the dendrites, axons and their intervening synapses as well as the "chemical soup" which aids and abets in maintaining our mental equilibrium. The 1990s was termed "the decade of the brain," but this will probably be the "century of the mind." The only thing I would add is that there are many interesting phenomena besides IQ in my opinion. The saliency of "nonrational" factors in our decision making might be a hot topic, or the chemical processes and physical structure that bound and shape the "mental modules" which enhance our ability to intuitively understand some concepts but also constrain out perception of the world around us (or, conversely, the falsification of this hypothesis and the emergence of the plastic brain).

Related: A Golden Age of Brain Exploration in PLOS.

1 - When I was in seventh grade a 9th grader came up behind me and asked loudly if I was "from Africa" (I found out he had a book report due on Africa). When I turned around he jumped back and said "sorry." It was winter and I remember that I had a hat on, so all he saw was the patch of brown skin on the back of my neck. In other words, one variable, but when I turned he registered all my other features and switched his assessment. This is conventional human intuition, not rocket science. The ancient Greeks, often ridiculed for their lack of empiricism by moderns, were careful to distinguish between the "wheat colored" people of northwest India and Egypt as similar in color, but different. Similarly, they noted that the "black" people of southern India and Ethiopia were also distinct in appearence despite the superficial similarity of color. So they also had their stock of common sense.

Posted by razib at 01:51 AM | | TrackBack


Tissues & tots

Recently I was pointed to an article titled Multiracial patients have tough battle to find marrow matches in USA Today. This is an issue that I was aware of, I recall reading about a young girl of Thai and European American background who travelled to her mother's homeland to look for a tissue match among that nation's rather large (in comparison to the United States) Thai-European mixed community. My post from yesterday should have made the tissue rejection quandry that mixed-race individuals might face rather clear, if their parents pass on to them combinations of alleles which are disjoint between their subpopulations (that is, present in one, but not present in another) then their own HLA profile might be very rare indeed. As someone who is quite possibly going to have children of mixed genetic background on a transcontinental scale, I have given some thought to this issue. Noting the prominence of the mention of HLA frequency differences on some racialist sites, I also know that some who argue against miscegenation bring this point up as well.

Science can be drafted in the service of many viewpoints. Tissue incompabilities are a salient fact of life. There is also some possibility that miscarriage rates are heightened when there is a sharp immune incompability between mother and fetus. Clearly there is a limit to any benefit that one might receive from antigen profile similarity, otherwise we would preferentially mate with our siblings and likely resemble cheetahs, who are so inbred that one can perform grafts without any worry.

But, if one can posit the downsides in the realm of possible organ failure, why not wonder about the possible benefits of novel heterozygosity or rare phenotype? After all, there is a reason that the HLA loci are so polymorphic! Additionally, focusing on interpopulational differences obscures a crucial point that many HLA alleles seem to be transpecies, in other words, your HLA profile might more closely resemble a Chimpanzee in Gabon than your cousin (this is admittedly a far fetched comparison, but the fact that it is not outside the domain of possibility should give one pause). In the short term, one could wonder if mixed-race children might be less susceptible to diseases endemic in more numerous populations, and in the long term, perhaps they would be more likely to survive any future "superplague."1

In the end I must admit that such considerations are not ones I give a great deal of thought too. I read multiracial sites on occassion and some of the activists in this movement do talk about hybrid vigor and what not, but it is clear that these issuses are secondary and not contributors to their boosterism of miscegenation. Similarly, it seems to me that those who promote same-ethnicity mating as a normative value and bring up opposing talking points to the ones above also consider these ancillary to their ultimate aims. Biological points, from where I stand, are definitely trival in comparison to a personal worldview shaped by proximate experiences and values.2 The science is fuzzy and flexible enough that you can generally extract some "natural" justification for your given normative position. Biology is more useful I suspect in clarifying the plausible paths of implementation, and the obstacles one needs to surmount, via a canalization effect (constraining your public policy prescriptions into the lowest possible of the alternative channels). It still leaves room in the end for a variety of terminal positions.

This is why I get rather frustrated with those who are ostentatiously anti-ethnocentric and those who are racial/tribalist in orientation when they present biological talking points as if they quite transparently support their own stance. Uninterested in the particular details and nuances they generally garble proximate and ultimate, issues of is and ought, and seem to have only a minimal interest in a model of the world as it is when set in all its particular subtle detail next to their own broad-brush vision of what it should be. The temptation to sample bias theoretical points while ignoring others is just too great for mortal men, alas.

Addendum: I have mentioned the high Rh- frequency of the Basques before. This is one quite clear pre-modern reproductive barrier between human populations. The high frequency of Rh- among the Basques, and the reduced fertility of Rh+ males & Rh- female matings, would serve as a asymmetrical barrier to Rh+ genes as opposed to other loci. In other words, if two non-Basque males entered a Basque community, and one was Rh- negative (10-15% of Europeans are), while the other was Rh+, then "non-Basque" alleles could enter the Basque population via Rh- non-Basque males (or to a lesser extent, heterozygous Rh+ males).

Additionally, this might be a case where one could explore a putative model where fecundity/viability barriers between populations might result in selection for different proximate traits. In other words, I am suggesting that Rh- women who preferred "Basque looking men" should be more fecund than women who did not, because the latter were more likely to marry non-Basques and therefore Rh+ men.

In the case of the Basques, I have not seen any great preferences of Basque females toward a particular phenotype (I lived in a part of the country with a rather large Basque community). There might still be sexual selective biases, but they don't seem to be extremely strong. But the "sickliness" of Basques during pregnancy was noted in the pre-modern era, so it seems plausible that natural selection could have shaped in their preferences.

My moderate experience with non-Basque people of Spanish origin (that is, natives of Spain, not Latin America) is that the two subsets intersect a great a deal in "look & feel." In contrast, along much of the east and north of India there is a far sharper phenotypic cline which runs along an altitude barrier above which lowland South Asian agricultural practices are no longer appropriate, and where Mongoloid populations practice a montane lifestyle. In this case there is no obvious biological fecundity barrier that I know of (both populations are nearly 100% Rh+ for example), instead, geographic realities in concert with cultural differences have enforced a genetic barrier so that distinct phenotypes are maintained (though if you know any Nepalese you will notice that even "Indo-Aryan" high caste individuals often have a somewhat Mongoloid appearence in comparison to people from the Gangetic plain). To me, this puts in perspective the relative importance of biology set next to geography and culture when it comes to intermarriage between groups.

1 - In the case of individuals, outmarriage might be very "rational" on a genetic level. Think of the Andaman Islanders, it seems that they have little immunity to high density bred pathogens which Indian mainlanders bring with them. Even if an Andaman Islander takes a personal health risk in mating with an Indian, it might be his/her best chance of having descendents in the long term since their line needs an infusion of alleles which grant them some level of resistance to density born & bred pathogens.

2 - Obviously your biological background has a very important role in shaping your experiences and to some extent even your values! But these inputs are far upstream of the opinions and behaviors one manifests, and the way they map and transform themselves is not, at least to me, as clear as some would assert. And of course, quite often on the individual level they are less than illuminating, as opposed to the populational level where broad patterns are quite clearly discernable.

Posted by razib at 12:51 AM | | TrackBack

February 09, 2005



Race is obsolete...?

No one has pointed this out yet, so I thought I would highlight a few research articles that have been published recently in the battle over race in biomedical research.

Now we have the APA (American Psychological Association) declaring that race is obsolete.

New and sophisticated methods for studying the relationship between human genetic differences, the environment, health and behavior, all made possible by the completion of the Human Genome Project, have made traditional race-based measurements of human differences obsolete, according to numerous authors writing in a special issue of the American Psychologist devoted to Genes, Race, and Psychology in the Genome Era (January, 2005).

Full text of the issue available here.

To which I would respond, then explain this:

Racial groupings match genetic profiles, Stanford study finds

Checking a box next to a racial/ethnic category gives several pieces of information about people - the continent where their ancestors were born, the possible color of their skin and perhaps something about their risk of different diseases. But a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine finds that the checked box also says something about a person's genetic background. . . .

The people in this research were all part of a study on the genetics of hypertension, recruited at 15 locations within the United States and in Taiwan. This broad distribution is important because it means that the results are representative of racial/ethnic groups throughout the United States rather than a small region that might not reflect the population nationwide.

For each person in the study, the researchers examined 326 DNA regions that tend to vary between people. These regions are not necessarily within genes, but are simply genetic signposts on chromosomes that come in a variety of different forms at the same location.

Without knowing how the participants had identified themselves, Risch and his team ran the results through a computer program that grouped individuals according to patterns of the 326 signposts. This analysis could have resulted in any number of different clusters, but only four clear groups turned up. And in each case the individuals within those clusters all fell within the same self-identified racial group.

"This shows that people's self-identified race/ethnicity is a nearly perfect indicator of their genetic background," Risch said.

And this:

Hypertension in African Americans linked to two genomic regions

A first-of-its-kind application of a novel statistical method of analysis to African Americans has identified regions on chromosomes 6 and 21 that likely harbor genes contributing to high blood pressure in that group. The novel statistical method, called admixture mapping, narrowed the search for genes related to hypertension, bringing researchers and doctors closer to finding more effective treatments. . . .

In the U.S., 65 million people have high blood pressure, but it is found more often in African Americans than other groups. African Americans suffer from earlier and more severe hypertension and have a higher rate of death from stroke, heart disease, and kidney failure as a result.

The causes of hypertension are complex. Diet, exercise and stress contribute, but so do genetic factors. . . .

In a fresh approach to the problem, the researchers applied a genome-wide scan that compared how often genetic variations occur in people of African or European descent to how often they occur in African Americans.

As a group, African Americans can trace their ancestry largely to populations from both Africa and Europe. "The statistical technique we used is ideal for groups who have a trait with a higher occurrence--such as hypertension in African Americans--and who stem from two sets of ancestral populations that have differing genetic variations," Rao says.


"The admixture mapping method has distinct advantages over other more commonly used methods for population analysis," says C. Charles Gu, Ph.D., assistant professor of biostatistics and a co-author of the report. "We looked for genomic regions with an 'excess of ancestry' from one of the two populations. In this case we looked for excess ancestry from the African population, because it has a higher frequency of genes contributing to high blood pressure." Excess of ancestry is a term indicating the genomic region in African Americans is derived more often from one ancestral population than the other.

The researchers looked at the distribution of 269 genetic markers across the genome in each of the three groups. Compared to African Americans without high blood pressure, African Americans with high blood pressure were more likely to have a distribution of markers--in the identified genomic regions--resembling that of the African (ancestral) group.

The excess African ancestry among people with high blood pressure enabled the researchers to find two locations, one on chromosome 6 and one on chromosome 21, that stood out with the strongest association to high blood pressure in African Americans. Other markers close by on the same chromosomes also had a strong association with high blood pressure, indicating that the chromosome regions near these two groups of markers probably contain genes responsible for an increased risk of hypertension.

Researchers can now use this information to help locate genes affecting hypertension. "When a specific gene variant associated with hypertension is identified, physicians will be able to test patients for their risk of hypertension to head it off early," Rao says. "In addition, research institutions and pharmaceutical companies can develop new drugs that compensate for the effect of that gene."

References:

Tang H, Quertermous T, Rodriguez B, Kardia SL, Zhu X, Brown A, Pankow JS, Province MA, Hunt SC, Boerwinkle E, Schork NJ, Risch NJ. Genetic structure, self-identified race/ethnicity, and confounding in case-control association studies. Am J Hum Genet. 2005 Feb;76(2):268-75. Epub 2004 Dec 29. PMID: 15625622

Zhu X, Luke A, Cooper RS, Quertermous T, Hanis C, Mosley T, Gu CC, Tang H, Rao DC, Risch N, Weder A. Admixture mapping for hypertension loci with genome-scan markers. Nat Genet. 2005 Feb;37(2):177-81. Epub 2005 Jan 23. PMID: 15665825

Addendum from Razib: PDF of the Risch paper in question.

Posted by rikurzhen at 05:10 PM | | TrackBack


"Phoenicians"

Last fall PBS aired a special, Quest for the Phoenicians, with Spencer Wells. Via this page I find that one of Wells' most interesting discoveries is that the island of Malta seems to exhibit a high frequency of haplotypes which suggest a Levantine origin within the past few thousand years. If you watch this video (control-f "from geneticist Spencer Wells"), note that Wells excludes an Islamic or "Neolithic farming" source for these haplotypes, so by a process of exclusion the Phoenicians seem the most plausible candidates. Seeing that Malta is a small and somewhat isolated island, it should be no great surprise that the frequency of Levantine Y lineages might be higher here than around ancient Carthage in modern Tunisia, which likely had a far larger native substrate and was subject to continuous genetic exchange with the hinterland for thousands of years after Cato's work was done.

Now, someone might want to tell this guy about the origins of his adopted co-nationals.

Posted by razib at 01:27 AM | | TrackBack


MHC, HLA & immune response

Recently, David Boxenhorn and I had an exchange on the topic of immune response and its implications about the history of populations. In short, the relative heterozygosity of Ashkenazi Jews mitigates against an extreme population bottleneck in their history. Nevertheless, I realized that perhaps I should be more specific about immune related issues since I tend to take them as a "given" on this blog.

Tissue rejection is a major problem when it comes to transplants. Because of the advances in medicine transplantation of organs can save the lives of those who would in the past have simply died. But, nearly 100,000 people in the United States are currently on waitlists. The problem is that the body's immune system tags the transplanted tissue as "foreign," resulting in a defense response which damages the organ and therefore the health of the patient. Having a "match" is no panacea, but one study (control-f "Number of HLA mismatches") showed that 68% of kidney transplant patients were alive after five years when they had a perfect match (a 6 out of 6 antigen match) as opposed to 56% of those had zero matches. There are differences between organs, but I suspect most people would prefer 68% over 56% if it meant waiting a little longer and spending more money searching for a more appropriate donor (some organs, like the brain and testicles are relatively shielded from immune responses, though I know of no cases where these have been transplanted!).

The culprit is the "Major Histocompability Complex" (MHC), which serves in a fashion as the body's "anti-viral software," scanning for and tagging foreign pathogens. This site has a rather brief, but graphically oriented (including animation), synopsis of the physiology of the MHC.

For our purposes, we are concerned with the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA), in particular, class I and class II molecules as these do the heavy lifting when it comes to snitching out pathogens and other foreign tissue to our white cells. In the case of tissue typing three genes for class I and one or two for class II control the expression of the antigens which are usually being sought out as matches. The HLA coding region is scattered across a long section of chromosome 6. Since humans are diploid, we have two copies of each gene, and HLA expression tends to be codominant, you have many variables in terms of the characterization of the immune profile.

Now take a look at this list of alleles for class I (loci A, B and C are the ones normally checked for tissue typing) and another list for class II (the DR and DQ loci are the important ones). As you can see, there are many alleles. Why is this so?

That is a topic I broach on this blog frequently, and the two candidates seem to be natural selection in the form of balancing selection or negative frequency dependent selection. In short, the former refers to "overdominance" or "heterozygote advantage," which occurs on a loci if you have two different copies (alleles) of a gene and you are more "fit" than someone who is homozygous (duplicate copies). This preserves a mix of polymorphisms in the population. Frequency dependent selection works by giving an advantage to rare phenotypes, perhaps because pathogens have not had time to evolve a defense because it is so rare in the first place (this seems less popular at this time, perhaps because so many of the polymorphisms seem rather ancient and persistant).

Diversity is very advantageous if this level of polymorphism is a judge, as heterozygosity on HLA A & B loci hovers around ~90% in most populations, in other words 9 out of 10 individuals carry different forms of the gene. I have mentioned before that the variation of the HLA loci seems to be very ancient, and some alleles coalesce to before the split between humans and chimpanzees. Well, I picked up a molecular evolution text I own to double check a few facts in this post and I note that some researchers see a possible coalescence on some alleles before the separation of prosimians and other primates over 65 million years ago. On the molecular level much of the genome is now known to be "neutral" in that random genetic drift is far more important than (possibly to the exclusion of) selection in shaping the character of the sequences, but on portions of the MHC coding region there is strong evidence of positive selection in maintaining diversity via greater substitutions on nonsynonomous (base pair substitutions which impact the type of amino acid coded) than synonomous substitutions (mutations which are silent because the change does not effect the amino acid that is translated).

So, I think I've made the point that extreme polymorphism is likely the result of evolutionary forces. In the case of tissue typing nature has presented us a problem. Consider that the phenotypes generated by five loci are proportional to the combinations of the alleles at these loci. So, if n = number of possible alleles, then n1*n2*n3n4*n5 results in a enormous number of combinations. Add to this that we are diploid, and the loci are codominant, so if you imagine the alleles at each loci as a gene-complex with a specific genotype, and consider that there is always an analogous copy, then the numbers start to multiply very quickly (I believe ([number of gene-complexes] - 1)!/(([number of gene-complexes] - 1)!*2, which results is some staggering back of the envelope calculations).

Now it isn't as scary as all that, each allele is not exhibited at an equal frequency, and a perfect tissue match is not always necessary (see morbidity rates above for kidney transplants), but, a fraction of an enormous number is still rather large. If you are part of a large nuclear family you might be in luck, because these genes are all located on chromosome 6, and crossing over is not common, you are actually receiving one of your parent's two gene-complexes, so your chance of matching up with a sibling is 1/4 (1/2 chance from you mother, and 1/2 chance from your father). Nevertheless, though there is some linkage disequilibrium on this portion of the genome (some alleles across the various loci are more likely to be found together because of natural selection favoring such a conformation), normally the linkage between various alleles is broken up through recombination over time on a population wide scale. Basically, if you don't have a tissue match in your own family, you often have to look far and wide.

This is where interpopulation differences begin to loom large. As I said before, the various HLA polymorphisms are not created equal, some are far more common than others, but this comes into play on a populational level. HLA-A34, which is present in 78% of Australian Aborigines, has a frequency of less than 1% in both Australian whites and Chinese. Though the HLA loci have been shaped by natural selection, because of sharp differences between populations in the frequency of various alleles, they are still used to compare them (HLA alleles are also used in paternity tests because of their polygenic & polymorphic nature). You can compare differences between populations yourself if you are really curious. If you are a member of a not-so-numerous-minority, you might be a little concerned after all I've said about tissue typing. This is, in my opinion, one of the more damaging aspects of the "race & ethnicity do not exist on a biological level" mantra, since mortality rates are real issues that must be grappled with, and a lack of awareness of tissue type differences might perpetuate a sanguine attitude amongst those who think that they have a healthy heart or kidney and don't give much thought to the possibility that one day they too might need to get a hold of a spare organ.

Posted by razib at 12:24 AM | | TrackBack

February 08, 2005



Rethinking maps and national boundries

Stephen Green over at Vodkapundit has been delving into an old passion of his, maps and the true boundries of nation-states. It's interesting that he is basing his mapmaking on the unconventional ideas of migration and "effective" governments.

Here is his North American map

Posted by scottm at 10:43 PM | | TrackBack


Demography and the Future, Part One

Hi, I'm Pearsall Helms, from Pearsall's Books. Razib gave me a GNXP posting account about six weeks ago, but I've not got around to using it until now. I'm cross-posting this from my blog as I think it's a very important topic, and one of interest to the typical GNXP reader. This is the first part of what will be a three-part series. I should have the next two parts finished this week.

Demography and the Future, Part One

The world is getting older. In East Asia and in Europe fertility rates have dropped well below replacement levels. In America the fertility rate remains the highest of any industrialized nation, yet even here it is below the replacement rate of 2.1 children. In Latin America and throughout most of Asia fertility rates have been following the wealthy nations on a downward trend. These same trends can be seen at work even in parts of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, the two areas where more traditionally high fertility rates have held up to a greater degree than anywhere else in the world.

This transformation of fertility presents an enormous challenge to policy-makers in rich nations, because up to now all models for economic growth and for the administration of national pension schemes have been based around the assumption of growing populations. The question that must now be asked is, can the economy grow if the population is shrinking and the percentage of the population that is over sixty years old exceeds 30 or even 40 percent?

The current edition of Policy Review has an excellent overview on the subject from Stanley Kurtz entitled "Demographics and the Culture War," which is a combined review of four different books on the subject of demographics and the "birth dearth". He begins by laying out the essential facts of the matter, before going on to discuss the possible cultural, economic and political effects of declining fertility and a shrinking population. The four books he looks at are The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It, by Phillip Longman; Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future, by Ben Wattenberg; The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America’s Economic Future, by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns; and Running On Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It, by Peter G. Peterson.

"Global fertility rates have fallen by half since 1972. For a modern nation to replace its population, experts explain, the average woman needs to have 2.1 children over the course of her lifetime. Not a single industrialized nation today has a fertility rate of 2.1, and most are well below replacement level.

In Ben Franklin’s day, by contrast, America averaged eight births per woman. American birth rates today are the highest in the industrialized world — yet even those are nonetheless just below the replacement level of 2.1. Moreover, that figure is relatively high only because of America’s substantial immigrant population. Fertility rates among native born American women are now far below what they were even in the 1930s, when the Great Depression forced a sharp reduction in family size.

Population decline is by no means restricted to the industrial world. Remarkably, the sharp rise in American fertility rates at the height of the baby boom — 3.8 children per woman — was substantially above Third World fertility rates today. From East Asia to the Middle East to Mexico, countries once fabled for their high fertility rates are now falling swiftly toward or below replacement levels. In 1970, a typical woman in the developing world bore six children. Today, that figure is about 2.7. In scale and rapidity, that sort of fertility decline is historically unprecedented. By 2002, fertility rates in 20 developing countries had fallen below replacement levels. 2002 also witnessed a dramatic reversal by demographic experts at the United Nations, who for the first time said that world population was ultimately headed down, not up. These decreases in human fertility cover nearly every region of the world, crossing all cultures, religions, and forms of government."

This is an enormous and unprecedented transformation. Never before in history have fertility rates dropped so low and for so long in peacetime. Already nearly 40% of the world's nations, some 88 countries, have dropped below replacement fertility.

And it is as yet unclear as to what can be done to reverse the process. Quite a few countries have attempted to boost fertility rates, through the introduction of incentives for families and the expansion of state-provided childcare, with mixed results. For instance, Singapore has aggressively tried, through both government exhortation and through tax incentives, to combat the problem, yet the fertility rate there is still, as of 2003, at 1.24 children per woman - far below the replacement level. On the other hand, France has seen a consistent rise in fertility since the mid-1990's, an increase attributed at least in part to government policy.

There are several factors driving this worldwide decline in fertility. The primary cause, on the global level, is urbanization. In 1900 only about 10% of the world's population lived in urban settlements, whereas now it is around half. The twentieth century saw mass urbanization, which started in Western Europe and the United States in the 19th century, spread to the rest of the world. As an example, in the United States in the 19th century the urban population went from about 5% to around 40%, and today it's over 75% (including suburban areas). Countries as different as Turkey, Brazil, and China (to name but a few) have all seen tremendous increases in their urban populations over the last one hundred years.

Why does urbanization play such an important part of reducing fertility? In a rural society children are a boon to family productivity. At a very young age they can begin assisting their parents in tasks in the fields and around the farms. Urban children are, in contrast, an expense to be borne. They can not so easily work on the family's behalf, although of course there are many children working in the world's poorer cities, in sweatshops and as street salesmen. It is also easier to provide for larger amounts of children at the subsistence level in rural areas, because rural families tend to have the option of growing some, or even most and occassionally all, of their own food on small plots, a cheap way to fill extra mouths that is not available to city dwellers.

Urban life also has certain psychological impacts that tend to retard fertility. Generally speaking, and with the necessary caveats of course, rural life tends to be more socially and religiously conservative than urban life. This is as true of the new megacities of today such as Tehran and Rio de Janeiro as it was of London and Berlin a century ago. Life in a major city in its atomisation and anonymity is very different from the social closeness of the countryside. Of course, attempts are made to maintain traditional ways of life, but for rural migrants the city inevitably makes its changes. The aspirational nature of city life, the living in proximity to great wealth, the tantalizing possibilities with which the city is associated no matter their availability to the average man, all tend to dampen the urge towards the huge families traditional in the country. The only groups that tend to maintain very large families in such situations are those with a clear religious purpose, small and somewhat insular communities where many of the older social pressures towards big families are recreated in an urban setting; a prime example of which can be seen in Hasidic Jewish communities.

An excellent example of the effect of urbanization on fertility can be seen in South Korea. Between 1944 and today the urban population of Korea went from 13.2% (for the whole of Korea) to 83% for South Korea. In the same period the fertility rate dropped from 5.4 children per woman to 1.56, a drop of over 70%.

The other important factor, especially in the West, but also increasingly in other parts of the world, has been the growing independence of women, especially in regards to their economic destiny. Today, many many many more doors are open to women in career terms, especially for middle and upper class women. Today, having children is a lifestyle choice, as opposed to a necessity - something that is expected. The spread of contraception technology, from condoms to abortion to birth control pills, has given women much greater control over their fertility than was ever possible before. At the same time, women marry much later, if at all, and so do not have children throughout many of the years of their peak fertility. This trend is particularly pronounced among middle-class families, where the general trend to illegitimacy has made fewer inroads than further down the social scale, so that many woman end up working on their careers and waiting to marry to the point at which it is too late to have children, or too late to have more than one.

An example of this can be seen in my father's family. On his father's side he is very close to his cousins. The twelve Helms first cousins, including him, have produced eighteen children, for an anaemic family fertility rate of 1.5 children per woman. Indeed, just three members of this extended family (my father and his two sisters) have accounted for seven of the children. Of the eighteen second cousins only one, so far, has had a child (my cousin Catherine whose daughter Jade is, I must report, shockingly adorable).

The slackening of social expectations in terms of children, of pressures on women to settle down and have families, has also coincided with a sea change in Western societies, and the resounding triumph of materialism and aspirational living. The cost of raising children in the modern West is far higher, proportionally, than it used to be, which leads many to question whether it is really a personal priority. After all, if having children is no longer a familial, cultural, and social necessity, and is instead a lifestyle choice, then is it a surprise that many people decide to put their money towards a different lifestyle choice?

Coming up in the following parts of this series: economic effects, social conservatism, religious revival, and eugenics.

Posted by pearsall at 05:58 PM | | TrackBack


The Science of Snowflakes

I know it sounds like something only a kid would be interested in, but Caltech has a website up that very seriously looks into the Science of Snowflakes. It goes fairly in depth about how they form and why they form such different forms. A fun site that allowed me to draw on my crystallograhy background.

morphologydiagram.jpg

P.S. Someone should have edited the page as this line comes up

Ice Ih is the normal form of ice; ice Ic is formed by depositing vapor at very low temperatures (below 140°K)

Anyone see the problem in that line?

Posted by scottm at 07:12 AM | | TrackBack


Welsh language use

In a recent post I said that about half of the population of Wales speak Welsh.

In comments it was pointed out that this was an overestimate, and the true figure is more like 20%.

I have checked the figures in the 2001 Census (Table 133 in the report for England and Wales). Here are some key results for all people aged 3 and above:

Millions (Percent)

Population of Wales: 2.8 (100)
Born in Wales 2.1 (75)
Not born in Wales 0.7 (25)

No skills in Welsh 2.0 (72)
Speaks, reads and writes
Welsh 0.478 (17)
Other knowledge of Welsh* 0.339 (12)

*Combining figures from 4 categories in the Table.

This gives a total of just under 30% of the population with some skills in Welsh.

If we consider only those born in Wales (and still living in Wales), the corresponding figures are:

Millions (Percent)

No skills in Welsh 1.4 (67)
Speaks, reads and writes
Welsh 0.412 (20)
Other knowledge of Welsh 0.287 (14)

This gives a total of about one-third of the Welsh born population with some skills in Welsh.

So my figure of one-half was an overestimate, but 20% may be an underestimate. Of course, a lot depends on the level of skill involved. For many years, most school children in Wales have been expected to learn some Welsh, so the proportion of people in Wales with at least a smattering of the language may be higher than these figures suggest. The Welsh-language TV station, S4C, claims that around a million people have some knowledge of Welsh.

While checking these points I found this useful webpage.

Posted by David B at 03:50 AM | | TrackBack

February 07, 2005



Holidays for the rest of us...transnationalists

Some of those commenting on "Church & State in Togo" are speculating about possible religious syncretisms. In the spirit of Chrismukkah or, if you prefer, Chrismahanukwanzakah, I offer the following:

Ramadan + Diwali = Ramawali

Hajj + Hanukkah = Hajjnukkah

Christmas + Nawruz = Feliz Navruz

Oh, and happy Basant!

Posted by jeet at 07:31 PM | | TrackBack


The Axiom of Equality at UCLA

We've already reported on the severe underrepresentation of White Christian males at Harvard and now Professor Bainbridge reports on receiving a 206 page book from the UCLA Office of Faculty Diversity detailing how all of the UCLA departments are falling short of meeting the Axiom of Equality's mandate of proportional representation. Read the whole thing. The latter situation is a crisis while the former flies under the radar.

Posted by TangoMan at 07:05 PM | | TrackBack


Breastfeeding - Back to the Future

We're all aware of the medical benefits associated with breastfeeding yet researchers are finding that the prevalence of breastfeeding isn't as high, nor practiced for the recommended amount of time before weening, as they recommend. A report in the most recent edition of the journal Pediatrics states:

Data indicate that the rate of initiation and duration of breastfeeding in the United States are well below the Healthy People 2010 goals. Furthermore, many of the mothers counted as breastfeeding were supplementing their infants with formula during the first 6 months of the infant's life. Although breastfeeding initiation rates have increased steadily since 1990, exclusive breastfeeding initiation rates have shown little or no increase over that same period of time. Similarly, 6 months after birth, the proportion of infants who are exclusively breastfed has increased at a much slower rate than that of infants who receive mixed feedings.

Now I don't think parents are oblivious to this information it's just that they have to make trade-offs and sometimes that means less breastfeeding for the newborn. However, some parents are looking for a way out, and it could very well be that President Bush has shown them the way in his State of the Union address:

President Bush called on Congress to work with him to achieve significant immigration reform that protects the homeland by controlling the borders; serves America's economy by matching a willing worker with a willing employer when no American is willing to fill the job.

It just so happens that in California, (note: The San Francisco Bay Area has the highest number of plastic surgeons per capita in the world) which is part of the Western Region of the US which has the highest proportion of breast augmentation in the country (here are some statistics and before/after photos) and it should be noted that with breast augmentation comes a 3x-5x increase in lactation problems, (more here) that an entrepreneur has mined a neglected practice and modernized its delivery for our times:

Robert Feinstock, 65, the owner of the Beverly Hills, Calif., company, believes his business is one of the few in the United States that offers wet nurses, or women who suckle other peoples' children. He says he provides a needed service to mothers who want their children to thrive on breast milk but for whatever reason are unable to perform the task themselves.

Not to be outdone, the Chinese are fast on our heels in offering the services of a wetnurse.

The Beijing Youth Daily reports that a wet nurse service has opened in the city of Yangzhou, in the eastern Jiangsu Province, aimed at working women and those concerned about their figure.

The service involves one of the 13 wet nurses, aged between 25 and 30, coming to the clients home to breast feed the family's baby.

All the wet nurses are healthy, and reached middle-school or above. The company provided them with accommodation and a special diet, guaranteeing the quality of their milk. They get paid 50 yuan, or about US$ six a day.

While we don't frequently see ads for Wet Nurses on Monster.com this is a practice with long historical roots. Here's the Jewish code, and here is advice from the 1st Century Rome on the hiring of a wet-nurse which you can compare to the contempory advice offered to couples in India: (highlights only)

  • Physical and psychological status of wet-nurse should be taken in consideration as they influence quality and quantity of milk
  • The wet-nurse should be identical in varna (of similar caste),
  • Young (Middle aged)- because very young woman does not have any affection for child and old woman can not withstand troubles as well as her milk also is not nutritious to the child
  • Humble or modest,
  • Not possessing deficient or accessory body parts
  • Non-addict
  • Beautiful
  • Having alive male child
  • Not habituated of sleeping over excrements or used to clean the faeces etc. immediately
  • Not married in low caste
  • Pious
  • The wet-nurse should use daily purifying measures (internal and external)
  • Having hatred from impiousness or uncleanliness
  • Well-behaved or urbane
  • Free from fickleness
  • Non-greedy
  • Neither too obese nor too thin
  • Not having too long or protuberant lips
  • The wet-nurse should be Syama (dark complexioned) because the woman of this complexion possess profuse milk.
  • She should take bath daily and wear white and clean dress.
  • She should not be cranky or greedy.
  • She should not speak ill of others and should not indulge in bad activities
  • Her breasts should be well shaped and nipples well-formed and protruding. The breasts should not be upturned or loose and hanging and should be neither too big nor too small. If the breasts are upturned, the baby's front teeth become protruded. If the breasts are large or hanging, they may press the nostrils and the baby may not be able to breathe well.
  • She should regularly apply sandalwood paste to the breasts.
  • She should wear medicines belonging to Prajasthapana group, namely, Aindri, Brahmi, Durva, Guduci, Haritaki and Katuki in the form of necklace or thread around the waist or as bracelets.

Of course, one could look for more culturally appropriate advice from the LaLeche League found in their guide to Wet-Nursing and Cross Nursing. You can always count on parents to determine what is best for their children, even if they have to reach back to practices that have been dormant in the West for over a century. Is there any doubt that parents would also look to the future for ways to help their children.

Posted by TangoMan at 06:23 PM | | TrackBack


Dutch Flag Prohibited For Dutch Students

Joanne Jacobs points me to this story about Dutch students being prohibited from displaying the Dutch flag on their bookbags. One of the young students was asked whether he was a racist.

Posted by TangoMan at 12:53 PM | | TrackBack


Teacher - Don't Teach

Instructivist points me to this Newsday article detailing how New York City teachers have been ordered to teach for no more than 10 minutes per class session.

Many are ready to overthrow a "workshop model" of teaching that limits lessons to 10 minutes, with the chunk of the 40-minute period reserved for student group work -- with minimal adult interference allowed, some said -- and the last five minutes spent sharing results.

"We are no longer teachers. We are coat racks," said Steve Nathan, a social studies teacher at Russell Sage Junior High School in Forest Hills.

Chancellor Joel Klein last year introduced the workshop model primarily in math and English, but this year, critics said, many more schools across the city have been ordered to follow the model in every subject and every day.

[ . . . . . ]

One rationale is students learn well from peers, but teachers report that students without a clue aren't picking up much from each other during group work.

The result is that instructors, trying to "sneak in teaching," have been written up for workshop model lapses, union officials said. Other teachers have conspired with students to act immersed in the workshop model if an administrator pops into the room.

"Can you imagine trying to teach physics in 10-minute sound bites?" said Jeff Zahler, teachers union representative for Queens school district 30.

[ . . . . ]

Much of the workshop structure was shaped 30 years ago by eight city teachers, including Carmen Farina, now the deputy chancellor for instruction. The method has variations but the lesson time is usually short.

A-HA! Count me as unsurprised that this is the pet theory of some educrat who probably did a make-work doctoral dissertation on this and now that she has the authority, is itching to enforce the implementation of this idiocy. I wonder if she's ever heard of the adage "The blind leading the blind."

Perhaps Deputy Chancellor Farina should have insisted on controlled studies being conducted on her pet theory to test its efficacy rather than relying on her own anecdotal evidence for her own idea. Do you think she had a vested interest in seeing her idea being implemented? Do you think that she perhaps wasn't as objective as she should have been injudging the merits of this radical pedagogy? Do you think that perhaps there is an effort to shape reality to conform to the idealism of such enlightened instruction? Think about it - the old ways are so restrictive and strip the students of dignity for they have to sit and listen to a teacher drone on about matters. Wouldn't it be far more uplifting to the student's dignity if they could free themselves from the shackles of heirarchy and, with their peers, discover the knowledge for themselves. I'm sure that Deputy Chancellor Farina has no trouble in overlooking the dismal failure of this approach for she knows that it is a more progresseive and uplifting approach and if just applied with more diligence it will yield the results that, in her heart of hearts, she knows are possible. She just knows it, and that's all that matters.

If Deputy Chancellor Farina is so enamored of this idea, the best way to validate it is to experiment with pedagogy in a statistical universe of diverse and competing schools. Each school can teach as they see best, the results can be compared and the winners and losers, by whichever metrics you favor, can be compared. Far better to limit the damage of ego-driven idiocy to a few schools that are self-selected by parents and teachers rather than mandating an intellectual crippling of a whole generation of the city's students.

Oh, and don't miss the icing on the cake - at the bottom of the Newsday article is an ad for Sylvan Learning Center.

Posted by TangoMan at 12:01 PM | | TrackBack


Strange Bedfellows

From Saturday's New York Times

Farah Siddique also knows what it means to feel marginalized, and she is grateful to "Postcards From Buster" for helping her feel less so. Farah, 12, lives in a Chicago suburb with Pakistani and Filipino parents who are Muslim. In a telephone interview, she explained why she was happy to appear on "Postcards From Buster," wearing her hijab (a head covering) and studying the Koran.

"It was important to tell people about my religion and everything," she said. "Some people think we're bad because of 9/11 or something, and I'm telling them we are not bad, we're not trying to hurt anyone or do anything wrong."

Asked what she thought about PBS's decision not to distribute the "Buster" episode about the children with two mothers, she said: "We don't believe in that stuff. My opinion is that it is bad or wrong. My sister is 7, and she watches PBS Kids shows. I wouldn't want her to watch that kind of thing."

What if people said they wouldn't want to watch the episode about her because they don't like Muslims?

Without hesitation Farah replied: "Wow, I hadn't thought about it like that. Can I change what I said? If people were judging me because of my religion I would get really sad. Now I think maybe they should show it."

Posted by jeet at 07:04 AM | | TrackBack

February 06, 2005



Church & State in Togo

There is a change of power in Togo as the the last president died (his son is succeeding him). I note that the end of the article about the transition notes this:


State television broadcast nonstop Christian hymns and prayers accompanied by an unchanging photograph of a blue-suited Eyadema, flanked by crosses.

Now, here is info on religion in Togo from The CIA Factbook, indigenous beliefs 51%, Christian 29%, Muslim 20%. The World Christian Database has the following numbers, Christians 45%, ethnoreligionists 35% and Muslims 20%. Togo's International Religious Freedom Report 2004 profiles the dynamics of the society, and it is interesting, though not surprising, to note the general lack of recognition and support from the commanding heights to one of the most numerous religious groups in the nation. Practioners of traditional religions, often labelled "Vodun" (as precisely descriptive as "pagan"), might be numerous (official headcounts probably are low-balls due to the prestige of "world religions") but they have little organized pull in the general society.

I have often made analogies between the late classical world in Europe and contemporary Africa and added that the presence of modern weapons has been a deadly intersection (imagine the Huns purchasing machine guns from rogue elements of the Roman bureaucracy). The state of Togo is in some ways a snapshot of a culture that is likely going to be fully Christianized and Islamicized in two generations. The world religions have the full backing of the elites, who promote it (7 official state recognized Christian holidays, 3 Muslim ones) and are at least nominal adherents. A similar process occurred in the ancient world, where Christian urban areas and manors served as nuclei from which the faith spread across Europe and eventually transformed itself into the Universal Church.

Posted by razib at 10:04 PM | | TrackBack


Ladies' Choice

My New Year's Resolution was to get way more serious, and write elegant, severe posts with lashings of bibliographies. But I have something I must get off my chest first.

Laura visited us last month and said this--

I've been reading gnxp for awhile now and have noticed the on going pattern that occurs on this site. There is much talk of superior intelligence and the contemplatings of much higher things and the deep seeded thoughts of scientific minds then WHAM! some form of women cheese cake is smeared all over the sight followed by various comments of "me like" I find it interesting that despite the higher brow of thought that occurs in this site that men cannot get past/seperate their most desperatly unsatisfied urges. It just goes to show that no matter how much they achive the mind of a man is still a very simple thing.

Heh. We XX are just as interested in sex as our XY contemporaries, but we don't cue our sexual preferences strictly off two dimensional visual offerings. We are also interested in SES and percieved IQ. So here is my version of "man-cheesecake". We will use "intellectual quality" to simulate IQ and SES, and the candidates are drawn from a pool of scientists whose writings should be familiar to the grrls who read here. Without further ado, please vote for Which Intellectual Superstar of Gene Expression Would You Rather Sleep With?

Stephen Pinker-- "reputed to be quite the swordsman"

Pascal Boyer-- "sensitive and gallic"

Spencer Wells-- "bracing and outdoorsy"

Steve Sailer-- "radio-active! rrrrowh!"

LOCAL TALENT SECTION

Godless Capitalist-- "he comes and goes like Zorro" prolly has a price on his head, too!

ScottM aka Scorpy-- "Dark Pleasures"

Razib "Sheik Fever" Khan-- "Beware of Tasp"

jeff.jpg "/>

Jeff "Special Request of Jemima" Percifield-- "Ultimate Transgender Appeal"

Which Do You Prefer?
Stephen Pinker
Pascal Boyer
Spencer Wells
Steve Sailer
Godless Capitalist
ScottM
Razib Khan
Jeff Percifield
  

See Laura? It is sooo much more fun to turn them into sex-objects!

Posted by jinnderella at 04:17 PM | | TrackBack


You Gotta Read it to Believe it

Just a few links that I wanted to pass along.

Joanne Jacobs points to this post on The Blackboard Jungle on immigration procedures in the UK:

Families gain extra credit when applying for leave to remain if they have school-age students, so there can be somewhat of an age disparity in the classes you teach.

An apparently fourteen year old student shows you pictures of her white wedding last weekend.

A twelve year old writing his family biography assures you that yes, every uncle does work in the kebab shop, not a one of them works for wages, though.

A supposedly thirteen year old six foot boy (average height: four to five feet) who sports full beard and the physique of a boxer is sent out of class for acting immature.

You try not to question too harshly.

A public exam revision class for thirteen year olds includes this latter boy, Hasan. He's areputation for being easily bored, disinclined to do work, and a tendency to tell teachers to f*** off if challenged about this.

And the Head of Science, a dour, brittle, no - nonsense squat lady in her late forties has had enough of Hasan's intractibility, and silliness. She tolerates it as long as she can, till she lets rip with the retort "what are you doing here anyway? You're thirty six years old with a family of three kids, aren't you?"

Hasan storms out, furious. Science teacher is rather perturbed - un-PC comments like this are not well received by the borough who employ her.

"Ooh, miss," the other children say, "you shouldn't have said that. You've really upset him now. He's only thirty two."

Kimberly Swygert reports on the decline of reading and writing in public schools, the Houston Independent School District's plan to improve test scores by teaching content to the students and the decline of grammer in schools as well as how poorly teachers master grammar.

Posted by TangoMan at 03:14 PM | | TrackBack


Sailer will get a chuckle out of this...

Current Drudge flash:

"Bush recommending Tom Wolfe's racy new beer- and sex-soaked novel, "I am Charlotte Simmons" to friends... Developing..."

Now, first I'd like to commend the President on his taste in literature - "I am Charlotte Simmons" is indeed quite entertaining. (And clear-sighted social commentary to boot!)

Still, I couldn't prevent my thoughts from wandering to this Steve Sailer article

Posted by dobeln at 01:49 PM | | TrackBack


Hey! Wilting Flowers - Get Out of the Hothouse

It's days like today that I despair for the Academy, for the extreme nurturists hold such sway and the race, gender & culture warriors brook no mention of the verbotten that the life of the academic has been circumscribed to offering forth the equivalent of intellectual pablum for fear of offending the sensitive flowers amongst us.

Today we learn that economist Hans Hermann-Hoppe is in hot water for observing that homosexuals, as a group, have discernable differences in their economic behavior, when compared to married couples with children.

The subject of the lecture was economic planning for the future. Hoppe said he gave several examples to the class of about 30 upper-level undergraduate students on groups who tend to plan for the future and groups who do not.

Very young and very old people, for example, tend not to plan for the future, he said. Couples with children tend to plan more than couples without.

As in all social sciences, he said, he was speaking in generalities.

Another example he gave the class was that homosexuals tend to plan less for the future than heterosexuals.

Reasons for the phenomenon include the fact that homosexuals tend not to have children, he said. They also tend to live riskier lifestyles than heterosexuals, Hoppe said.

He said there is a belief among some economists that one of the 20th century's most influential economists, John Maynard Keynes, was influenced in his beliefs by his homosexuality. Keynes espoused a "spend it now" philosophy to keep an economy strong, much as President Bush did after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Hoppe said the portion of the lecture on homosexuals lasted perhaps 90 seconds, while the entire lecture took up his 75-minute class.

There were no questions or any discussion from the students about the homosexual comments, he said.

"I have given lectures like this for 18 years," said Hoppe, a native of Germany who joined UNLV's faculty in 1986. "I have given this lecture all over the world and never had any complaints about it."

But within days of the lecture, he was notified by school officials that a student had lodged an informal complaint. The student said Hoppe's comments offended him.

A series of formal hearings ensued.

Hoppe said that, at the request of university officials, he clarified in his next class that he was speaking in generalities only and did not mean to offend anyone.

As an example of what he meant, he offered this: Italians tend to eat more spaghetti than Germans, and Germans tend to eat more sauerkraut than Italians. It is not universally true, he said, but it is generally true.

The student then filed a formal complaint, Hoppe said, alleging that Hoppe did not take the complaint seriously.

He said university officials first said they would issue him a letter of reprimand and dock him a week's pay.

That option was rejected by Hoppe's dean and by the university provost, Hoppe said.

More hearings ensued, he said. In the end, the university gave him until Friday to accept its latest offer of punishment: It would issue him a letter of reprimand and he would give up his next pay increase.

Hoppe, a tenured full professor, contacted the ACLU on the recommendation of an attorney friend of his. Hoppe is now their client.

"I felt like I was the victim," he said, "not the student."

I thought we celebrated diversity in university life? Surely, homosexuality is part of the spectrum of lifestyle diversity so why wouldn't it be part of the economic diversity that follows from different life choices and the circumstances that surround such choices? If homosexuality has biological roots why then shouldn't the biology affect behavior?

Human behavioral genetics can be broadly defined as the attempt to characterize and define the genetic or hereditary basis for human behavior. Examination of the history of these scientific enterprises reveals episodes of controversy, and an apparent distinction between scientific and social acceptance of the genetic nature of such complex behaviors. This essay will review the history and methodology of behavioral genetics research, including a more detailed look at case histories involving behavioral genetic research for aggressive behavior and alcoholism. It includes a discussion of the scientific versus social qualities of the acceptance of behavioral genetics research, as well as the development of a general model for scientific acceptance involving the researchers, the scientific literature, the scientific peer group, the mainstream media, and the public at large. From this model follows a discussion of the means and complications by which behavioral genetics research may be accepted by society, and an analysis of how future studies might be conducted.

One only need look at the new field of behavioral finance/economics to see efforts underway to study the biological roots of economic decisionmaking. Here is one of our posts on behavioral economics.

Similarly, behavioral economics is dedicated to investigating the limitations of homo economicus. Experiments have so far revealed a general trend: humans use heuristics to figure out sub-optimal solutions rather than running a full optimization calculation in their head. Such solutions might have been good in prehistoric environments, but can often be disastrously bad in the modern world. In other words, human economic behavior is limited by human biology.

The failure to incorporate biological and evolutionary thinking is, in my mind, a much more systematic and widespread failure in economics than the failure to use mathematics. The guys who can't do math are rightfully mocked; but the guys (especially in micro) who refuse to do laboratory experiments with experimental subjects should get a share of derision as well. One cannot hope to understand the behavior of millions of humans in a non-laboratory setting if one cannot even predict their response to idealized scenarios in a laboratory setting.

Or this post on the behaviors associated with gender which investigated whether women and men have different attitudes to competing.

What this all boils down to is to what extent biology affects behavior. The wilting flowers would have us believe that homosexuality is determined by biology but that behavior is immune to biological influence. While there are commenters who dispute the value of propositional logic it's hard to explain away that conclusion that biology can influence your sexual preferences and not influence how you live your life, how you value the present compared to the future, and the economic trade-offs one is willing to entertain to maximize utility.

The extreme nurturist position holds such sway that even internal logical contradictions like above can be glossed over in order to maintain the primacy of the principles of identity validation and the blank slate. Biological explanations are not to be offered for they are too unsettlling. One need only look at the debate that greeted the publication of Richard Posner's Sex and Reason.

An even more troubling aspect to the Hoppe affair is the severe response of the administration to Hoppe's 90 second reference. One could almost excuse the young student who made the complaint for with youth comes ideological fervor and a desire to cast off traditional forms in favor of reform. If such a student starts with a Blank Slate orientation, and how could they not after being indoctrinated in such for their whole lives, then of course, the assumption of biological causation of behavior would be an attack on their world view, and not being fully inculcated in the values of open discourse, they would of course seek to suppress such ideas for what they see as the greater good. But what excuse can be offered by the administration who should, and most likely do, know better. Sheer cowardice and hypocrisy are my immediate conclusions.

Addendum: David Beito is asking for your help in protesting the attack on Hoppe.

Is it really a surprise that students who are subjected to a pedagogy of 1 + 1 = feelings and being immersed in an environment of social promotion for fear of harming their self-esteem will protest when confronted with ideas they find unsettling. We need only look to Dr. Nancy Hopkins near fainting spell to see what the future holds for academia if this philosophy of education triumphs.

Posted by TangoMan at 01:34 PM | | TrackBack


British or English?

In comments on an earlier post someone asked about the distinction between British and English.

It’s not a question I lose any sleep over, but it prompted me to make a few notes about national identity in the British Isles….

To begin with the basics, the British Isles consist of the islands of Britain, Ireland, and a lot of smaller islands. Within this archipelago there are three political units: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland [see notes 1 and 2]; the Republic of Ireland [note 3]; and the Isle of Man, which is a self-governing possession of the British Crown but not a part of the UK. The Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, etc) off the coast of Normandy are also possessions of the British Crown (by inheritance from William the Conqueror as Duke of Normandy) but not part of the UK.

Citizens of the UK, by birth or naturalisation, are entitled to be called British citizens [note 4]. There is no distinction of territorial nationality within the UK, so there is no legal basis for describing someone as ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, etc., rather than British. But as a matter of history, the island of Britain contains three traditional countries or nations: England, Scotland, and Wales [note 5], which for many purposes have different laws and institutions, and to some extent have different languages [note 6]. Individuals with specific connections to those countries may be called, or call themselves, English, Scottish or Welsh. As there is no legal basis for these distinctions, it is to some extent a matter of taste how people are classified. The obvious criteria are place of birth, place of residence, ancestry, and language. If all the criteria coincide, there is no real uncertainty, but they often conflict. Take Tony Blair: born in Scotland, to a Scottish father and an Ulster Protestant mother; moved to England in early childhood; educated in England and Scotland; speaks with an English accent; currently lives in England. Is he English or Scottish?

Ambiguities of this kind are common. There has been freedom of movement and intermarriage between different parts of the British Isles for centuries, and a large proportion of the population of Britain have connections of blood or residence to more than one of the component countries of the Isles. Given such ambiguities, it is generally easiest to use the more inclusive term ‘British’. Few people born and raised in Britain (as distinct from Ireland) are likely to be strongly offended by being called British, but an English person (by birth) may be offended to be called Welsh just because he happens to live in Wales, and a Scot will certainly be offended to be called English. Within England, some people in Cornwall would describe themselves as Cornish rather than English [note 7].

There remains the problem of Ireland. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland can only properly be called Irish. People born in Northern Ireland are British citizens, but Northern Ireland Catholics will usually prefer to be called Irish, and Protestants will prefer to be called British. ’Northern Irish’ is probably the safest designation for both groups.

Even where individuals meet all the obvious criteria to be described as English, Scottish, or Welsh, they may prefer to be called British. A recent official survey of households in Britain included questions on this subject. (The full report is available here as a 2Mb pdf file.) The survey was conducted in England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. Respondents were asked to select their national identity from a list comprising: English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, British and Other. They were allowed to choose more than one. Some of the key results are:

In all three countries a majority chose the national identity appropriate to the place of interview: 80% chose Scottish in Scotland, 62% Welsh in Wales, and 57% English in England.

People living in England are more likely to describe themselves as British (48%) than those in Scotland (27%) or Wales (35%).

31% described themselves only as British, with 13% choosing a combination of British and either English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. 4% gave an 'other' identity; 1% gave other combinations.

Older people were less likely to describe themselves as British; 36% of those aged 65 and over described themselves as British, compared with 47-52% of people aged less than 55.

People in London were the most likely to describe themselves as having an 'other' national identity; 19% compared with 2-5% in other areas of England, Scotland or Wales.

I’m not sure how much significance can be attached to these results. According to the detailed notes in the report, the first option was ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, etc, according to the place of the interview. The results might have been different if ’British’ were the first option. That being said, I am not surprised that the Scots and Welsh are more likely to choose Scottish or Welsh as their sole national identity than the English are to choose English. This is partly due to the existence of strong Scottish and Welsh nationalist movements, but more fundamentally to the fact that the Scots and Welsh define themselves by contrast to England, while the English define themselves by contrast to the other large nations of Europe (France, Germany, etc), and for this purpose it is natural for them to identify themselves with Britain at least as much as with England. It is perhaps significant that the only strongly nationalist parties in England are the British National Party and the UK Independence Party.

The ‘national identity’ question was also put to non-white ethnic minorities. The main results were:

Of ethnic minority respondents 57% identified themselves as British, 11% as English, 1% each as Scottish, Welsh or Irish, and 37% as ‘other’.

Most of those identifying themselves as British chose this as their sole identity. Only 2% identified themselves as British and English, etc. However, 5% identified themselves as some other combination, e.g. British and some other nationality.

Again, I hesitate to put much weight on these findings. It is not clear how many of those interviewed were actually born in Britain, or were British citizens, which would surely affect their choice of national identity. However, for immigrants to England and their offspring, there is evidently a preference to classify themselves as British rather than English. This may be partly because they associate nationality primarily with legal British citizenship, the British passport, etc. People from the former British Empire and Commonwealth will also be more accustomed to the terminology ‘British’ than ‘English’. In this context it is perhaps surprising that as many as 11% of non-whites do identify themselves solely as English - but note that these may include mixed-race offspring of white English parents.

The survey only asks people how they classify themselves, and not how they classify other people. My impression is that in England (like France but unlike, say, Germany), the most important criterion of nationality is not ancestry but place of birth and education. If someone is born in England there is a presumption that they are English, unless they move away in childhood and become assimilated into another nationality. This is not to say that ancestry is irrelevant. It can affect entitlement to British citizenship [note 4]. If someone’s ancestry within the British Isles is mixed or doubtful, British is a safer description than English. In doubtful cases language and accent could be deciding factors. Someone who speaks with an English accent will be accepted as English even if otherwise their connections with England are weak, whereas someone with a non-English accent will always be doubtful. The reason is probably that accent is a good indicator of where someone spent their early childhood.


Note 1: The United Kingdom consists of the four territories of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland comprises six of the nine counties of the ancient kingdom of Ulster.

Note 2: ‘Great Britain’ is the standard legal expression for the combined territories of England, Scotland and Wales, i.e. the UK except for Northern Ireland. The term Great Britain (with various spellings) seems to have come into use in the 15th or 16th century. In origin it was simply a way of distinguishing the island of Britain from the French province with the same name. The significance of this distinction has been lost in English, as the French province is now called Brittany, but it is retained in French, where it is still necessary to distinguish Bretagne from Grande Bretagne.

Note 3: Until recently, the Republic of Ireland claimed sovereignty over the whole of Ireland, but it has now amended its Constitution (here - an interesting document in several respects) to defer its claim to Northern Ireland until a majority of that territory’s people wish to unite with the Republic. Unification remains an objective. The Republic offers Irish citizenship, passports, etc, to anyone born in Northern Ireland, and the Constitution of the Republic states that its official name is ’Eire, or in the English language, Ireland’. The term ’Republic of Ireland’ is used in the (Irish) Republic of Ireland Act 1948 and is commonly used both by the Irish government and others as a neutral description, to avoid implying a territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

Note 4: Citizenship law is complex, but, roughly, anyone born in the UK, to parents who are themselves British citizens or who are normally resident in the UK, is automatically a British citizen. People born outside the UK to parents who are British citizens are also in some circumstances automatically British citizens. There are special provisions relating to citizens of Britain’s few remaining colonies.

Note 5: the boundaries between the three countries are generally well-defined, except for some antiquarian disputes about whether the county of Monmouthshire is part of England or Wales, and whether the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed is part of England, Scotland, or neither. When Berwick was ceded to England by Scotland in the 15th century the treaty stated that Berwick was ‘of’ but not ‘in’ the Kingdom of England, and many later documents mention it separately from England and Scotland. These include the British declaration of war on Russia in 1853 (the Crimean War). The subsequent peace treaty failed to mention Berwick, leading to the pedantic claim that Berwick was still technically at war with Russia. In 1966 the Mayor of Berwick and a Soviet diplomat signed an unofficial peace treaty, accompanied by much vodka.

Note 6: about half of the population of Wales speak Welsh. Only a tiny minority of Scots speak Gaelic. People from the different parts of the British Isles all have distinctive accents or dialects of spoken English. The strong dialect of Lowland Scotland (Scots, Broad Scots, or Lallans) arguably amounts to a distinct language cognate with English, and is recognised as a minority language by the European Union.

Note 7: the Celtic region of Cornwall was incorporated into the Saxon kingdom of Wessex by the 9th century, and subsequently into the kingdom of England. The Cornish language persisted until the 18th century. Cornish nationalists in the 20th century have tried to revive both the language and a sense of distinct Cornish identity.


Since writing the above, I checked a few points and found useful web pages here and here.

Posted by David B at 03:47 AM | | TrackBack