The European invention of taxonomy?

One of the temptations of rejecting Eurocentrism in modern scholarship is to confuse the semantic terms for reality. Europeans have reshaped the semantic landscape over the past few centuries, but that does not mean that what the terms were pointing to did not exist in some form before.

Last year Aeon published What is the Muslim world? Islamists and Western pundits speak of ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslim world’ but such tribalism is dangerous colonial propaganda. This led me to read The Idea of the Muslim World. This book did not convince me that colonialists had invented the Muslim world.

Rather, the rise of Europe and the West reconfigured preexistent identities and solidarities.

Today, I noticed Aeon published Race on the mind: When Europeans colonised North Africa, they imposed their preoccupation with race onto its diverse peoples and deep past. The author of this piece also wrote Inventing the Berbers: History and Ideology in the Maghrib. The book actually seems somewhat nuanced. That being said, the Aeon piece is focused on Europeans.

As someone who has read a fair amount recently on the Moorish period of Spain, one thing that is obvious and notable is that ethnolinguistic difference between various Muslim groups. Though 19th-century Europeans imposed a particularly harsh and brutal taxonomy on other peoples, the reality is that to engage in taxonomy is human. The Berbers and Arabs in Al-Andalus were divided due to the fact that Berbers were overrepresent military, while the Arabs had the cultural prestige.

There is an unfortunate trend today to see all past history as a reflection of the present. When you see this, understand that there’s shoddiness…

Open Thread, 09/17/2019

Frank Dikotter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962—1976.

Many of my friends are wary of China. And for a reason. Its government is evil. But I wonder if there is something even more deeply rotten in Westen societies?

No One Can Agree on How to Price California Home Insurance for Wildfires. Every time I go to California I realize why people live there.

Saudi Arabia Set to Return to Normal Oil Production Levels by End of Month.

Who voted (and didn’t) for Hitler, and why?. You’ve probably seen the map before. But it’s striking nonetheless.

The YouTube Revolution in Knowledge Transfer.

My Family’s Life Inside and Outside America’s Racial Categories. I talked to Thomas Chatterton Williams on the Browncast last winter/spring. His new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, is out in a few weeks.

The RAF oncogenes of vertebrates are ohnologs that derive from the two rounds of whole genome duplications early in vertebrate evolution.

A Professor’s Killing Sends a Chill Through a Campus in Pakistan.

Scientific Autonomy, Public Accountability, and the Rise of “Peer Review” in the Cold War United States.

Ancient DNA reconstructs the genetic legacies of pre-contact Puerto Rico communities.

Software as a Service for the Genomic Prediction of Complex Diseases.

A high-quality reference genome assembly of the saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, reveals patterns of selection in Crocodylidae.

Genetic “General Intelligence,” Objectively Determined and Measured.

I got an S10. Anyone else have one? Thoughts on settings to tweak?

The Aryan Integration Theory (AIT)

Over the past week, there have been lots of reactions to the two papers which came out last week, The formation of human populations in South and Central Asia and An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe Pastoralists or Iranian Farmers. The Insight is still on hiatus, but I managed to interview Vagheesh Narasimhan for my other podcast, so check that out. Like many people, Narasimhan is not keen on the “Aryan invasion theory.” Myself, I don’t have a problem with the term, but it turns out that many Indians dislike the connotations of “AIT” quite a bit.

Since I’m not very invested in semantics, I’m going to just move on and propose another term that identifies a real dynamic. I present then the new AIT, the “The Aryan Integration Theory.”

For various reasons, Narasimhan et al. propose that steppe pastoralists who flourished between 2000 and 1500 BCE are the most likely candidates for the “steppe” contribution to modern Indian genomes. In the Swat valley samples, which date initially to ~1000 BCE, the authors noticed over time the proportion of Iranian-farmer-related ancestry decreased over time to give way to steppe and Andamese-related ancestry.

This pattern over time is related to something you see in the geographical and communal distribution of ancestry in the “three-way admixture” you see:

Read More

The fall of man

It is well known that in the 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era the social complexity and economic productivity of the Roman cultural zone underwent a regression. There were two areas in particular where massive transformation occurred. The interior Balkans and Britain were ethnically and religiously changed in totality from their Roman-era state.

Romanian and Vlach dialects today are a testament to the strength of Latin in the interior Balkans, while Albanian attests to indigenous linguistic diversity. But the dominant languages today are Slavic, due to the putative mass migration of tribes under the leadership of the Avars in the 6th and 7th century. These regions also had to be re-Christianized. Something similar happened in Britain, where mass migrations of Germans transformed the language and religion of the whole region.

But we know that genetically the Balkan Slavs and English are actually genetically more like the earlier populations than descendants of migrants. This is not to say that the exogenous genetic material is trivial. It is significant. There was a mass migration of Slavs and Germans. It was just that these did not contribute to the preponderance of the genes.* And yet the language shifted, and the Christian religion faded.

How did this happen?

Late Roman society was defined by specialized economic functions on the production frontier. This was the ancient world’s equivalent of the “just-in-time” economy. In contrast, the Slavic tribes beyond the frontier were arguably even less influenced by Rome than the Germans. These were deeply rustic people. And that was their cultural advantage.

Using a biological analogy, the Late Roman society was like an asexual lineage maximizing short-term gains at the expense of long-term resilience. The “shock” of barbarian incursions in the 5th to 6th centuries totally unraveled the Roman system.

In contrast, small-scaling farming societies organized around clans and tribes, which is how the Slavs were organized, could maintain themselves. Often the Slavs were ruled by non-Slavic groups with origins in the steppes (Avars, Bulgars, etc.), but in the end, the Slavic identity swallowed up their rulers, more or less.

This new setup was successful enough to attract converts from local populations. There is circumstantial evidence that the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex was actually originally British (look at the early names in the genealogy). They may have been post-Roman British aristocrats who “barbarized.” In Merovingian Francia, Gallo-Roman elites were taking to trousers and aping German Frankish style, but, on the whole the cultural balance was tilted toward the “Romans” rather than the “Germans.” Not so in Britain, it seems.

With all this outlined, it not so surprising that a complex urban society could be culturally assimilated in some ways by a simpler agro-pastoralist lifestyle. The further back you go into the past, the more likely it happened, because the less “robust” the cultural technologies of the urban society were.

* The gene flow into the Balkans was greater proportionally than into Britain. In some cases, more than 50% of the ancestry might be attributable to migrants in the northern and western regions.

Open Thread – 09/08/2019

Since the two recent papers on Indian genetics came out, lots of people have suggested that some of the researchers are shading the nature of the results to fit in with Indian politics. To be totally honest I haven’t said much about this because who are we, in the USA, to point fingers? American scientists on Twitter were outraged and offended that some researchers studied the genetic basis for predisposition to same-sex behavior because of social and political consequences.

These are a minority. But the majority, on the whole, didn’t really engage, because they didn’t want to be put in the crosshairs of the militants.

Indian people are pretty interested in, and put a lot of stock in, their origins. Like American scientists, Indian scientists are serving the needs of their constituents. That’s what science is all about now I suppose. If you want the truth in a positivist sense, read the papers, and reanalyze the data. Don’t trust anyone, because they have their paymasters. I’ve been hearing more and more over the years American scientists talking about how they can make their science serve “social justice.” No surprise that scientists elsewhere will serve “Hindu rashtra” or whatever power they’re going to bend before.

China Says Growth Is Fine. Private Data Show a Sharper Slowdown.

Democrats Need to Get More Ruthless. Funny, but true: “Several candidates instead seem to be advocating an agenda that liberals think black, Latino and Asian-American voters support, rather than the agenda that most actually support.”

Rapid detection of identity-by-descent tracts for mega-scale datasets.

Robert Mugabe, Strongman Who Cried, ‘Zimbabwe Is Mine,’ Dies at 95.

The genetic landscape of Ethiopia: diversity, intermixing and the association with culture.

Whole Genome Tree of Life: “Deep Burst” of Organism Diversity.

The role of insect diapause in the divergence of social female castes: Insights from primitively eusocial bumble bee workers.

Selective Sweep at a QTL in a Randomly Fluctuating Environment.

Inferring whole-genome histories in large population datasets.

Britain’s Conservatives Erupt Into Civil War as Unlikely Rebels Defy Boris Johnson.

The day of the Dasa

Unless you have been sleeping today you may have noticed two important papers on South Asian historical population genetics have been published. The simple and short paper is An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe Pastoralists or Iranian Farmers. The longer paper, which is basically a book if you read the supplements, is The Formation of Human Populations in South and Central Asia (and update on a preprint which came out over a year ago).

So the “Rakhigarhi genome” is finally out. She turns out to be an interesting individual: she has some, but not much, Andamanese-related hunter-gatherer ancestry, a lot of Iranian-farmer-related ancestry, and no steppe ancestry. She is very similar the dozen or so “Indus Periphery” samples found outside of South Asia, in the region’s near-abroad (Khorasan and into Turan). Her mtDNA is U2b2. My mtDNA is U2b. So my mother’s maternal lineage dates back to the IVC period. Not a surprise, but still cool.

The major finding that is of great interest is that the “Iranian-farmer” ancestry of the Indus Valley Civilization population was possibly not “Iranian” at all. That is, it seems unlikely that the West Asian-related ancestry in the IVC people was due to a migration out of the Zagros agricultural hearth. The reasoning here is simple. There was ancient population structure in the Near East at the beginning of the Holocene. There were, roughly, there major groups which expanded, Anatolian farmers, related Levantine farmers, and more distantly related Iranian (Zagros) farmers. These groups intermixed copiously during the Holocene. All the farmers of the Holocene in western Iran and even the hunter-gatherers had some ancestry from the Anatolian lineage.

Anatolian heritage is not present in the IVC people. Because Anatolian ancestry is found in Iranian hunter-gatherers at the beginning of the Holocene, the West Asian-related ancestors of the IVC people must have diverged earlier. One option is that there were a set of hunter-gatherer populations in the territory of modern Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (and possibly northwest India) who were related to each other but differentiated due to distance and separation. Modern Iran is bifurcated by some rather harsh deserts between the west and the east. There is no reason the same could not have applied to the Pleistocene. In particular, during the Last Glacial Maximum.

Related to this, Iosif Lazaridis has a preprint out which argues that the difference between the “Anatolian” and “Iran” clusters lay in differential admixture with “Ancient North Eurasians” (ANE) into the latter. The non-Rakhigarhi paper above highlights the role of Turan in mediated interaction and gene flow between northern Eurasia and Iran-Afghanistan-Central Asia region. The difference between the quasi-Iranian ancestors of the IVC people and those of the Zagros, the Iranians proper, may simply be that the ANE-related admixture was stronger further east. Or not. In some ways, the paper opens up a lot of possibilities as to the landscape of late Pleistocene western Asia. It is a reasonable interpretation in the paper that agriculture was spread not through mass migration (e.g., Bantu expansion, farming in Neolithic Europe, etc.) to northwest South Asia, but through cultural diffusion. But the distribution and origin of the quasi-Iranian population need a lot more ancient DNA.

The origin and distribution of Andamese-related hunter-gatherers (AHG), earlier described as “Ancient Ancestral South Indians” (AASI), also needs more elucidation. It has long been known that the various East Eurasian groups seem to have separated very soon after 40,000 years ago. The AHG clade is only distantly related to the Andamanese themselves, who have more of an affinity with the Hoabinhian people of Southeast Asia. Though the diversity of mtDNA macro-haplogroup M is suggestive of long-term habitation of South Asia by some of the AHG, we cannot reject the possibility that they were intrusive from the east during the Pleistocene or Holocene, at least in part.

The awkward construct proposed by Indian researchers to David Reich to term the ancestral populations “ANI” and “ASI” (Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian) was to some extent a political move. It left open the possibility of deep geographical indigeneity of most of the ancestry of modern South Asians. I was moderately skeptical because I suspected the ANI was intrusive from West Asia (the Iranian-farmer and steppe migration models). These results do not support that, and it may, in fact, be the case that ANI-like quasi-Iranians occupied northwest South Asia for a long time, and AHG populations hugged the southern and eastern fringes, during the height of the Pleistocene.

What a lot of these questions need are people with detailed paleoclimate knowledge. The human geography would be much easier to infer if we had a sense of the primary carrying capacity. Hunter-gatherers tend to be very thin in desert areas, so those would serve as natural gene flow barriers. The divergence between western and eastern Eurasian populations is rather stark, so one might suppose that the Thar desert region was particularly difficult during the Pleistocene to traverse.

At some point, I have to come back to the “Aryan question.” These papers strongly point to the likelihood that the Aryans were intrusive to the Indian subcontinent.

From the Cell paper:

Since language spreads in pre-state societies are often accompanied by large-scale movements of people (Bellwood, 2013), these results argue against the model (Heggarty, 2019) of a trans-Iranian- plateau route for Indo-European language spread into South
Asia. However, a natural route for Indo-European languages to have spread into South Asia is from Eastern Europe via Central Asia in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE, a chain of transmission now documented in detail with ancient DNA. The fact that the Steppe pastoralist ancestry in South Asia matches that in Bronze Age Eastern Europe (but not Western Europe [de Barros Damgaard et al., 2018; Narasimhan et al., 2019]) provides additional evidence for this theory, as it elegantly explains the shared distinctive features of Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian languages (Ringe et al., 2002).

From the Science paper:

Our results not only provide negative evidence against an Iranian plateau origin for Indo-European languages in South Asia, but also positive evidence for the theory that these languages spread from the Steppe. While ancient DNA has documented westward movements of Steppe pastoralist ancestry providing a likely conduit for the spread of many Indo-European languages to Europe (7, 8), the chain-of-transmission into South Asia has been unclear because of a lack of relevant ancient DNA. Our observation of the spread of Central_Steppe_MLBA ancestry into South Asia in the first half of the 2 nd millennium BCE provides this evidence, and is particularly striking as it provides a plausible genetic explanation for the linguistic similarities between the Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian sub-families of Indo-European, which despite their vast geographic separation, share the Satem innovation and Ruki sound laws (63). If the spread of people from the Steppe in this period was a conduit for the spread of South Asian Indo-European languages, then it is striking that there are so few material culture similarities between the central Steppe and South Asia in the Middle to Late Bronze Age (i.e. after the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE). Indeed, the material culture differences are so substantial that some archaeologists recognize no evidence of a connection. However, lack of material culture connections does not provide evidence against spread of genes, as has been demonstrated in the case of the Beaker Complex, which originated largely in western Europe, but in Central Europe was associated with skeletons that harbored ~50% ancestry related to Yamnaya Steppe pastoralists (18).

If you look deeper in the paper you see that the authors zeroed in on the period between 2000 and 1000 BCE for a reason. The people of the Eurasian steppe are diverse, and always in flux, and the earlier and later agro-pastoralists were genetically distinct. The Yamnaya culture lacked a “European” element that arrived on the forest-steppe through demographic reflux. The later Indo-European agro-pastoralists, such as the Scythians and Kushans, tended to have East Asian ancestry which is lacking in northwest South Asia. The particular profile found groups such as North Indian Brahmins fits best with the steppe people which were ascendant in the period between 2000 and 1500 BCE.

There is, of course, the assertion by some Indians that Indo-European languages are indigenous to South Asia. If that is the case, then they would have had to expand elsewhere. I won’t address archaeological or linguistic issues. Rather, the problem is that the spread of “steppe” ancestry in the period between 3000 and 1000 BCE across the whole zone of Indo-European speaking languages is so clear that it is the most likely candidate, and the steppe ancestry has origins in the…forest-steppe. Indian counter-arguments are not impossible but tend to be highly complicated.

To me, the more interesting aspect of the story is not the origin of the Indo-Aryans, but how they came into being into what they were as depicted in the Vedas, and later the epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Let me quote from the Science paper:

Taken together, the poor fits at both extremes of the Indian Cline imply that the Indian Cline does not represent a simple mix of two homogeneous ancestral populations, ANI and ASI. Instead, in the Middle to Late Bronze Age both of these groups were themselves part of metapopulations—relatively well represented by the Steppe Cline and the Indus Periphery Cline—that were not completely homogenized at the time they met and mixed. Most groups in India today can be represented as mixtures of average points along the Steppe Cline (we show below that the ANI fit along the Steppe Cline) and the Indus Periphery Cline (the ASI) but there are deviations from this simple model that contribute to the observed patterns.

Between 1500 and 500 BCE South Asia saw the development of Indian genetics and culture in a way that we understand it today, from the north to the south. One of the striking aspects of the Swat valley samples in the Science paper is that AHG ancestry increases over time (along with steppe ancestry). The Swat people seem to have started out a much higher fraction of IVC sorts, very high on Iranian-related ancestry. But after 1000 BCE they integrated more and more with people to their south and east. Meanwhile, in South India, groups like Nadars from the Tamil country are still about 5% steppe in their heritage, and non-trivial fractions of R1a1a is found among these groups.

There is now a good amount of evidence that the Austro-Asiatic Munda expanded into a landscape where unmixed AHG/AASI populations existed. Though the Science paper puts this in the 3rd millennium, I think the period between 2000 and 1000 BCE is more likely, since Austro-Asiatic rice farmers are found in northern Vietnam in 1900 BCE. The existence of unmixed AHG/AASI suggests to me that the expansion and dominance of Dravidian-speaking agricultural societies in much of South India in the form we recognize them today does not predate the arrival of Indo-Aryans by much if at all. Rather than thinking of Indian culture as the application of Indo-Aryan elements atop a Dravidian base, it is more accurate I think to consider them a synthesis that developed simultaneously. Though it is quite likely that the IVC language was related to that of the Dravidians, the impact of the Indo-Aryans shapes most Dravidian-speaking societies both culturally and genetically.

In fact, the Indo-Aryans themselves had changed genetically and culturally by the time they occupied territory within South Asia. They had mixed with people in eastern Iran and Afghanistan, reducing their steppe fraction, and then mixed again with local South Asian populations. The Indo-Iranian soma/homa cult may have been picked up from the culture of Bactria-Margiana.

A major takeaway from these sorts of papers is the uniqueness of humans and the integrative and panmictic power of culture. From a population genetic perspective parameters such as distance and topography matter a lot. Major ecological barriers such as deserts also have an impact. But the spread of Indo-European languages and genes is more than just a matter of diffusion. A powerful cultural organism expanded, assimilated, and in some cases integrated and synthesized, huge swaths of Eurasia. The IVC society was successful for several thousand years. But it is clear that there were plenty of AHG peoples in the Indian subcontinent while they flourished in the northwest. It was the arrival of Indo-Aryans which revolutionized things so that no “pure” AHG community exists in South Asia today.

Ironically, the sons of Indra spread the seed of the Dasa far and wide, from the Himalaya to Kanyakumari.

The golden age of blogging was better

A recent blogggingheads episode pointed me to this piece, Shakesville’s unravelling and the not-so-golden age of blogging. I know Melissa McEwan mostly due to her being hired and fired by the John Edwards campaign in 2007 (word of warning: don’t hire bloggers unless you have “checked them out”).

I won’t comment on McEwan’s blog because I haven’t read it much (really, at all). But the thesis of the piece seems to be that the way the author characterizes the blog can somehow reflect and illuminate the general tenor of the golden age of blogs. She also argues that the things we hate about social media were already there in blogs. There is nothing new under the sun.

Obviously there is something to the argument. People are people. The medium is not “controlling” us. Some blogs became quite cult-like. But what about something like Andrew Gelman’s blog? Can you really compare it to the rants you saw elsewhere?

The production of authors on blogs, like on social media, was always quite diverse. But the difference is that on social media it’s all packaged and bundled together. Sometimes you want to indulge yourself with a cupcake. Sometimes you want to dine on a fine steak. And then there are the instances when you want a simple and elegant salad. On your Twitter timeline, it all blends together into a fine gruel. There’s no disaggregation. You get the sweet frosting with the steak, as well as the tang of arugula paste.

Quantity has a quality all its own. That’s what Twitter teaches us.

Extreme inbreeding is bad

If you read a book like Principles of Population Genetics, or know a little animal breeding, you know inbreeding has some serious consequences. The UK Biobank turns out to have about ~100 individuals who are the products of extreme inbreeding (EI). That is, they are the offspring of parent-child pairings or full-sibling pairings, as inferred from the runs of homozygosity in their genomes (there are lots).

Intuition, theory, and a few results tell us that these individuals will have issues. Genomics confirms. Extreme inbreeding in a European ancestry sample from the contemporary UK population:

In most human societies, there are taboos and laws banning mating between first- and second-degree relatives, but actual prevalence and effects on health and fitness are poorly quantified. Here, we leverage a large observational study of ~450,000 participants of European ancestry from the UK Biobank (UKB) to quantify extreme inbreeding (EI) and its consequences. We use genotyped SNPs to detect large runs of homozygosity (ROH) and call EI when >10% of an individual’s genome comprise ROHs. We estimate a prevalence of EI of ~0.03%, i.e., ~1/3652. EI cases have phenotypic means between 0.3 and 0.7 standard deviation below the population mean for 7 traits, including stature and cognitive ability, consistent with inbreeding depression estimated from individuals with low levels of inbreeding. Our study provides DNA-based quantification of the prevalence of EI in a European ancestry sample from the UK and measures its effects on health and fitness traits.

The two major caveats are I’d put out there is that UK Biobank sample is a bit healthier and better educated than the average British person, and, the rates of individuals who were adopted is considerably higher in people who are products of EI than is the norm. In other words, these people are from an atypical sample, and they are themselves somewhat atypical (since they were given up for adoption they likely had no idea they were the products of EI).

Population genetic structure of the Italian peninsula

A new open-access paper on Italian genetics, Population structure of modern-day Italians reveals patterns of ancient and archaic ancestries in Southern Europe:

European populations display low genetic differentiation as the result of long-term blending of their ancient founding ancestries. However, it is unclear how the combination of ancient ancestries related to early foragers, Neolithic farmers, and Bronze Age nomadic pastoralists can explain the distribution of genetic variation across Europe. Populations in natural crossroads like the Italian peninsula are expected to recapitulate the continental diversity, but have been systematically understudied. Here, we characterize the ancestry profiles of Italian populations using a genome-wide dataset representative of modern and ancient samples from across Italy, Europe, and the rest of the world. Italian genomes capture several ancient signatures, including a non–steppe contribution derived ultimately from the Caucasus. Differences in ancestry composition, as the result of migration and admixture, have generated in Italy the largest degree of population structure detected so far in the continent, as well as shaping the amount of Neanderthal DNA in modern-day populations.

My interpretation of what’s in the paper

– The largest impact on genetic variation across all Italians is “Early European Farmers” who derive from the expansion about of Anatolia. The descendants of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers had a marginal impact and were mostly absorbed.

– A “steppe” component shows a north-south gradient and seems to have arrived in the 3rd millennium. It’s almost absent in Sardinia. It is a minority component, but I believe it brought Indo-European languages to the Italian peninsula.

– Looking at the Tuscan results (more affinity with northern than southern Italy), it seems to me that the genetic impact of West Asians leading to the emergence of Etruscans is now no longer quite so viable. We’ll see. But the demographic impact of the steppe people seems to have been lesser in the Southern European peninsulas than in Northern Europe. Basque survived into the modern period in Spain. Paleo-Sardinian, which persisted into Classical times, was probably not Indo-European. And the ancient languages of Crete seem to have been non-Indo-European. It seems entirely plausible that Etruscan then was a pre-Indo-European survival, though the relationship to Lemnian is still there.

– Southern Italy and Sicily is interesting because of the strong West Asian (“Caucasus”) imprint. A 2017 paper on ancient Mycenaean and Minoan genomes showed evidence of gene-flow from the same area, likely during the Copper or Bronze Age. This could be part of the same migration. Or, it could be part of the legacy of Magna Graecia, the colonization of the region by Greeks during antiquity. Or, it could be due to Roman and later admixtures and migrations.

– The evidence of North African ancestry in Sicily is due probably to the settlements during the two centuries of Islam rule, when Sicily was in many ways part of greater North Africa.

Why non-quantitative public commentary talks about race & gender (& religion)

One of the major problems with the intellectual commentary class is that 90% of them are college-educated (about half probably have some graduate education). In contrast, about 1/3rd of the public is college-educated. About half the employees at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are graduates of elite universities.

This isn’t that much of an issue when you think about who consumes a lot of this public commentary: the subscriber to The New York Times is much more similar to the commentariat class than the American public. The problem is when there are non-quantitative attempts to understand general society. The recent feature on “middle-class” families in The New York Times is a case in point. The families in question had household incomes which ranged from $100,000 to $400,000 per year. The census will tell you that the median household income in the United States of America is $59,000. The median household income in the New York City area is $50,000 (the feature was more about the lower end of the upper-middle-class).

From what I can tell the pundit class and pundit adjacent class have a weak “feel” for this reality of the median American. The successful ones make considerably more than the median and feel under-compensated in relation to other professionals of similar education or stature. Those starting out or marginally employed aspire to career peak salaries higher than the American median and mean per capita of $30,000 and $50,000 respectively.

Though on some level you can judge someone’s income by the type of car they drive, where they live, and the clothes they wear, it is not as visible and present in the room as someone’s race or gender. When I was in graduate school many years ago people who were from lower to lower-middle-class backgrounds would sometimes gripe to me privately about the tone that some of their peers took toward the stipend and benefits of Ph.D. students. In this case, it meant a stipend somewhat higher than $25,000 a year, with relatively good health insurance. Obviously everyone wants to make more money to study what they love, but students from upper-middle-class backgrounds, in particular, expressed total contempt at the level of the stipend. Students from lower to lower-middle-class backgrounds, in contrast, came from families where their parents may not even have made as much as their graduate stipend (with minimal to no benefits). The students from less economically advantaged backgrounds were more dependent on their stipend for obvious reasons (e.g., no family support), but they also felt somewhat aggrieved with the way that those from more affluent backgrounds talked about the money as if it was less than nothing.

The issue here is that graduate students dress and live in a particular way that is not very class differentiated, and class origin is not a visible characteristic. In the United States for various reasons, it is not common to speak openly and frankly to non-intimates about your class background, past or present. At academic seminars, a lack or skew of racial or gender diversity is immediately obvious, even if unspoken. In contrast, the very likely fact of skew of class or social origin is not visible. There are cases where two people are peers, and one of them is married to a professional (e.g., I knew a graduate student married to a CPA), and the other is also married, but has a stay at home spouse with a child (again, I knew people like this). These two peers have very different lives in terms of the economic resources available.

Going back to the bigger picture, the reason that the American pundit class doesn’t talk about class in a non-parochial manner is that it’s not salient. Even though much of the pundit class lives a racially self-segregated life (for example, most of the weddings on The New York Times announcements are racially endogamous), they are self-aware of this fact more or less. They have a feel for how self-segregated they are because the public spaces they often transit through are diverse in a way that their social or professional lives are not.

In contrast, struggling writers in New York City have less of a visceral feel for the reality that their existence as someone who graduated from a selective university and has some family resources to “jump-start” their career by doing things like put down a deposit on an apartment in an expensive area is not typical (writers from deprived backgrounds may not talk about it, especially with their colleagues who talk about their parents’ summer homes). Very atypical in fact. Intuition derives somewhat from experience. Without the experience the intuition is just off.