Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fuller full of himself   posted by Razib @ 1/31/2006 12:30:00 PM

The Guardian has a piece titled Steve Fuller: Designer trouble, in reference to testimony that the aforementioned professor gave to the Dover court. After reading the article I have to say that I'm not surprised that he testified, he seems to not be of any camp aside from that of Steve Fuller, and oh how he loves himself. Fuller notes that "It is not like people love you for doing this" in reference to his pro-ID testimony at Dover. Sure, but it gets you 1400 word write ups in The Guardian, along with putting "social epistemology"1 on the map that has to make you somebody.

Addendum: Fuller repeats the common assertion by many that monotheism is a necessary condition for the initiation of science (see Rodney Stark's recent books for a strong form of this argument). I've seen this contention before, and I'm not convinced, though I don't discount it. Of late my main problem has been the tendency of some historians and sociologists to make inferences from perceptions and assumptions about mental states when I sense that these scholars aren't up to speed on the latest work in cognitive psychology which tells you to be cautious about conclusions you derive from introspective common sense.2 This sort of abduction should be treated with care, but my impression is that Fuller has used the Christianity ~ science connection in debates several times. That makes his defense of Intelligent Design all the more irritating, because the high standard of proof and certitude that he holds evolutionary theory to doesn't extend to his own views, which in this case seem to be far more tendentious.

Update: Since I mentioned Rodney Stark's work, here is a somewhat overwrought review in TNR of his newest book. Stark's contention that the Greeks didn't have science and that only Christianity has theology are provocative (depending on how you define "science" I could accept the former, though the TNR reviewer points out Stark's tendency to vary the definition depending on how it fits his thesis that Christianity was directly, fundamentally and necessarily responsible for the modern world as we know it). Unfortunately, he has started to take a progressively more polemical tone recently. This does not necessarily invalidate his thesis exposited in his recent books (One True God and For the Glory of God make the same argument), but it does undermine his pretensions toward scholarship (as does dismissing those who disagree with him as believing in "nonsense!"). His claim to erudition was definitively burst for me on page 130 of For the Glory of God where he repeats established orthodoxy of the 1960s in regards to the great "stirrup controversy", as if that is the state of knowledge presently, a few pages after claiming to have immersed himself in the historical literature and criticizing other scholars for relying on out of date models! (he could be selectively using this out of date material to back up his thesis of course, but then he is guilty of what he decries) Though I fully grant that the propogandistic arguments of secularist scholars (see David Gress' critique of Will Durant in From Plato to NATO), there is no reason now to veer to the other extreme in the interests of "balance."

1 - If Wikipedia is to be believed a lot of social epistemology is pretty sensible (and some not). Some of my more off the wall posts definitely assume a sort of social epistemology framed by a transhumanist teleology. It just goes to show you that it is how you use a tool, not the tool itself, that is problematic.

2 - Example (roughly adapted from Stark) - Chinese believe in an unknowable essence, Christians believe in a comprehendible personal God, ergo, Christian universe is comprehensible, making science possible. Chinese universe is unknowable, it just is, making science impossible. Leaving aside the assertions about the character of Chinese and European religious worldviews for a moment, I am skeptical that Chinese and European intellectuls really had a non-nominalist sense of what these terms meant and cognitively represented higher powers any differently. I believe in these generalizations as much as I do in Max Webers work where he predicted that East Asia would never develop economically because of Confucian values (now Confucian values are the reason for development!).

Perception of change, reality or illusion?   posted by Razib @ 1/31/2006 09:06:00 AM

Over at my other weblog I have posted an item titled Blogs of the Union in response to a call from Radio Open Source (listen live to see if Brendan notes my BOTU). The gist of it is that I believe we are the last generation of the old human, and might be the first generation of the new. JM Keynes said of Newton "He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago."1 I believe somethings similar applies to humanity as a whole in our age. Roughly, my contention is that in the information saturated universe, where obesity is starting to be seen a worldwide problem, mass culture is finally decoupling itself from the sensibilities that have grounded us in a common human experience for the last 50,000 years. True, a minority of humanity has always lived apart, whether it be in monasteries, or in unimaginable luxury, or the case of the likes of Newton, minds whose virtuosity bears no comprehension. But the mass consumer society is taking novel change to the people and consuming them. Roughly, I believe that the rate of the rate of change is increasing (i.e., derivative of change, change', is > 0).

Of course, this could all be an illusion, a conceit held by every generation. Let me offer two rejoinders, one somewhat esoteric, the other mundane. First, we are not a particularly unique sample of humans who are that privileged at being born when we are,2 a large fraction of the individuals who have ever lived are alive today, 1 out of 20 to be precise.3 Second, walking on a college campus is a surreal experience, gone are the days when a stroll between buildings entailed a possible encounter with a stranger, eye contact with humans of unknown provenance. Rather, it is a time when you withdraw into a familiar cocoon and pull out the cell phone to talk to those who are near and dear. This wasn't so 10 years ago. It wasn't so 100 years ago. Or perhaps nearly 1,000 years ago at the University of Paris.

So do I live in a dream world? Do I simply not know what I think I know? Do you share RPM's unbelief? As I tell Michael Vassar, I don't go to church often, I don't know the scripture and the portents, but I do believe....

Tigers of the future, Why the inflection.

1 - Keynes' assertion was made after his purchase of Newton's papers, he knew of what he spoke, for he had seen into the dark mind of the mad genius.

2 - Certainly those of use born into the first world are the lucky subset, but, I would argue that an age where famine is an aberration means even those who live in Bangladesh (for example) are graced.

3 - Due to the world wide drop in fertility we are also near the mode of the probability distribution of the likelihood of a human to be alive at in any given age. I believe that 100 years from there humans as we know it probably won't exist, or that that those who remain will be less numerous than those at the mid-21st century peak (for whatever reason, ill or good).

Monday, January 30, 2006

Horse, donkey, and zebra karyotypes   posted by Razib @ 1/30/2006 09:56:00 PM

Evolutionary movement of centromeres in horse, donkey, and zebra:

Centromere repositioning (CR) is a recently discovered biological phenomenon consisting of the emergence of a new centromere along a chromosome and the inactivation of the old one...Even more surprisingly, five cases of CR have occurred in the donkey after its divergence from zebra, that is, in a very short evolutionary time (approximately 1 million years).These findings suggest that in some species the CR phenomenon could have played an important role in karyotype shaping, with potential consequences on population dynamics and speciation.

I though this was interesting because a) I don't know much about higher order genetic changes (chromosomal rearrangements, etc.) b) we've talked about chromosome # differences between wild and domestic horses before (they are full interfertile). Anyway, I know aneuploidy is usually the problem, but I think there will be some really interesting stuff coming out of this area (I wonder if RPM could offer more?).

Volokh on Rape   posted by TangoMan @ 1/30/2006 01:51:00 PM

Imbler Volokh does an admirable job of correcting the math regarding rape statistics and demolishes the claim, made by the Women's Center, that 2,000 rapes occur every 5 minutes.

What he didn't touch on, I will, and that is the demography of the victims. I'm quite sure that John Derbyshire must have had these FBI statistics in mind when he made his "salad days" comment that touched of a firestorm of knownothing commentary from people who are always inclined to think the worst rather than do a minute's checking to see what other implications arise from one's comments.

This site highlights data from the National Victim Center, which in 1992 published Rape in America: A Report to the Nation.

60% of the women who reported being raped were under 18 years old
29% were less than 11 years old
32% were between 11 and 17
22% were between 18 and 24
7% were between 25 and 29
6% were older than 29
3% age was not available

Derb seems to have been off by about 4 years, in that it's not 15-20, but 15-24, that sees the bulk of sexual attacks. If we look at the rapes that occur to women over the age of consent, (which I'll assume to be 18, simply so that this analysis can make reference to the crime statistics) and which amount to 35% of all rapes, less than 17% of rapes of adult women are of women over the age of 29.

I don't really have an overarching theme that I want to develop here other than to point out the startling incidence of rape on young women, especially pre-pubescent girls. Even if we account for accurate reporting of statutory rape and under-reporting of adult rape these numbers are startling. The other point that should be clear is that rapists are driven to targeting young women rather than old women, or in other words, women in their salad days.

The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics   posted by Razib @ 1/30/2006 07:25:00 AM

I have a long review of The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics at my other blog. The take home message is that scientists are dumb, just not as dumb. Remember, evolution does not shape perfection, just good enough....

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Boy Crisis in Education and Serial Monogamy   posted by TangoMan @ 1/29/2006 06:12:00 PM

I've been cruising through the feminist blogosphere of late and in the past few weeks there have been three stories on the Crisis in Boy's Education that have captured their interest, the first from The New Republic, the second in Newsweek, and the last in The Boston Globe. The tone has ranged from outright hostile mocking of the Boston story, which involves a boy suing his school for discriminatory bias against boys, to outright denial that the problem even exists. Tied closely to both poles of this spectrum of criticism are the outright dismissals of the sociological shifts which are likely to follow, such as the often quoted prediction of the shortage of marriageable men. The odd thing about these commentaries is that they are simply dismissals rather than refutations. I haven't read one blogger tackle the "marriage issue" head-on and argue why it is nonsense, it's simply laughed off as naifish attempt by social conservatives to put woman back into the kitchen.

Now, because none of the commentary took on the issue in a serious fashion, I have no idea how feminists are framing the issue. I imagine that any thought they've actually given to the demographic issues probably centers on an outlandish framing which sees a generation of professional women actively out there scouring their community for suitable mates and this is clearly dismissed as ridiculous. If this is the vision that they're dismissing, then I'll join them in their mocking of the supporters of this vision.

These women will have their choices constrained by a few factors. The first, is obviously, the lack of men in their generation who share their educational achievements. The second is whether these women are going to be able to reorient their mate selection preferences towards men who are great at playing videogames but not so great at pursuing a professional career. The third constraint would be their willingness to remain single, and possibly childless. And the last constraint is whether they're willing to engage in subtle poaching of suitable and desireable men who just happen to be married.

Of the constraints facing them, I think the obstacle of the man being married to another woman will be the easiest to surmount for this surge of educated women will prove to be an incentive for older, successful men to take the opportunity to remarry. Afterall, if the woman is successful in choosing this strategy, she benefits and so does the man. The main loser, in this game of musical chairs, is the older married woman who just had her family torn apart.

Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma St.   posted by Razib @ 1/29/2006 12:55:00 PM


An ancient story   posted by Razib @ 1/29/2006 12:05:00 PM

I've talked about MHC before. 1 It is important because it has a key role in the adaptive immune system and is illustrative of an important dynamic in evolutionary genetics, balancing selection, which perpetuations extreme polymoprhism within populations. Over time a functionally constrained locus which has an important fitness effect should fix toward the most advantageous allele. Polymorphism, where the modal allele is exhibited at lower than 95% frequency, suggests a population in transition. One can imagine such a scenario in a newly admixed population which has not had time to fix in populations. But MHC is different, many of the alleles on this locus persistent across species and have extremely deep evolutionary roots. There are two standard reasons given for this, a) heterozygote advantage or b) frequency dependent selection. No matter the details of the case, the importance of MHC and the persistence of polymorphism across many lineages and deep back into time is one of those truisms that thankfully takes a little of the territorial sloppiness that is habitual in much of biology. But assumptions need to be tested, so I pointed you to this paper, MHC class I genes in the tuatara (Sphenodon spp.): Evolution of the MHC in an ancient reptilian order). Here is the interesting part:

Preliminary analysis of variation among individuals from an island population of tuatara indicates these loci are highly polymorphic....

The Tuatara is an extremely ancient reptilian species on a lonely branch of that class of animals.

1 - MHC also might play a role in inbreeding and outbreeding avoidance.

Intelligence in UK declining?   posted by DavidB @ 1/29/2006 03:33:00 AM

Today's London Sunday Times (January 29) has an article in the Education section on new research which claims that British children's 'intelligence' has declined dramatically in the last 30 years. If the link works, the article is here.

The research is by Profs. Adey and Shayer of King's College London. Adey claims, based on a sample of 25,000 children, that 'the intelligence of 11-year-olds has fallen by three years' worth in the past two decades'.

Naturally this is of interest in the context of the Flynn Effect - the long term trend of rising IQ scores. Several recent reports suggest that the Flynn Effect has halted or gone into reverse.

I haven't been able to find any further details of the research than those in the ST article, and I suggest a need for caution. The tests used do not appear to be standard IQ tests but rather tests of 'scientific reasoning', which combine general intelligence (g) and more specific mathematical and physical concepts. In IQ terms, a fall of 3 years in average mental age at chronological age 11 would be massive: if we suppose the baseline 30 years ago is IQ = MA/CA = 11/11 x 100 = 100, the new IQ would be MA/CA = 8/11 x 100 = approx. 73. I don't think mean IQ can possibly have fallen by 27 points in 30 years! The school at King's College is also known for unorthodox views on the nature of intelligence, including the belief that 'thinking skills' can be radically improved by fairly small amounts of direct 'thinking' teaching.

I also note that there is no mention of the ethnic composition of the samples, which must certainly have changed in the last 30 years. However, in IQ terms the fall is far too large to be explained by compositional changes of this kind.

[Added: The last point should be sufficiently self-evident, but let me expand on it for the benefit of the innumerate. In 1975 the proportion of non-whites at age 11 in Britain was around 5%. In 2005 it was around 15%. (These are very rough figures, but good enough for the present purpose.) Let us suppose that in 1975 the mean 'intelligence' of white 11-year-olds, by standard IQ tests or any other valid instrument, was 100, while that of non-whites was 85. This is about the size of the black-white differential in the US, or the difference between whites and the offspring of recent non-white immigrants in European countries. It probably overstates the differential between whites and non-whites in Britain, since non-whites in Britain include large numbers of Indians and other high-achieving groups. Assume that white and non-white IQ is unchanged between 1975 and 2005. These assumptions gives us mean population IQ of 99.25 in 1975 and 97.75 in 2005 - a fall of less than 2 percentage points. This is far too small to account for the kind of decline reported by Adey and Shayer. To explain such a large decline by changes in the composition of the population, either the magnitude of the compositional change, or the differential between the different components, or both, must be much larger than is at all credible.]

Despite these reservations, this is clearly interesting research, and I will try to follow it up.

Added: I found a more informative account of the research in the Guardian here. The full report will be published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology next year.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Peter Frost, dark men & fair women   posted by Razib @ 1/28/2006 10:55:00 AM

Since very few of you have likely read Fair Women, Dark Men: the Forgotten Roots of Racial Prejudice by Peter Frost, I'd like to you point you to his website, where he introduces many of his ideas in a series of essays. Steve also has an essay on based on Frost's ideas, and you might find this paper by Frost, European hair and eye color A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection?, of interest.

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Disease & ethnicity   posted by Razib @ 1/26/2006 04:42:00 PM

In the news...Parkinson's gene of large effect found in Jews and North African Arabs and group differences in lung cancer rates controlling for variables (or are they?). I am more intrigued by the Parkinson's result because my understanding is that North African "Arabs" are Arabicized Berbers by and large. There is some implication that the Parkinson's Disease gene might be found in common because of phylogeny, that is, both derive from common Middle Eastern stock. But if most North Africans are simply Arabicized Berbers their Middle Eastern origin should be pushed rather far back in history, probably at least greater than 6,000 years before the present (some evidence suggests that post-Neolithic Demic diffusion occurred). Some of the interpretations are based on founder effect being the culprit, but we can't ignore selection, can we? (though if you do a search on PubMed note that there are papers out there that do assert that North Africans seem to be highly substructured and it is difficult to establish a rhyme or reason,)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Harvard vs. MIT   posted by Razib @ 1/25/2006 03:52:00 PM

I was in Cambridge for a weekend, and I made up this saying (after consultation with friends who are grad students at Harvard and MIT):

Harvard students know how to seem smart
MIT students know how to be smart

And while I'm at it, I just thought of this:

Know the name of your enemy
But nothing else about them

Addendum: The point about Harvard vs. MIT wasn't that MIT students are endowed with a non-trivially higher quanta of general intelligence. What I was trying to get at is a point I was discussing with a friend of mine who admires the humanities, but is himself a physical scientist at MIT, one can make humanities majors difficult, but it is not a necessary corollary of that course of study. This was brought home to me when I was discussing grading with a friend who is an instructor at Harvard in a humanities field who expressed frustration at the bullshitting tendencies of his students. He wanted them to work harder and express real thoughts instead of what he assumed they assumed would get them the A with the lowest amount of effort. Being verbally exceptional and always expecting and getting the highest grades, there was a lot of pressure to give those grades out no matter the substance of the material (the impression I got is that the style and presentation were always top notch and reflexively produced). In contrast, in the sciences you either fail or you don't, you can't really bullshit your way out of solving a heat flow problem if you forgot your differential equations. The sciences, especially those requiring a lot of mathematics (physics, engineering, etc.), impose a floor of minimal competency which is capable of taxing normally bright individuals (i.e., ~140 IQ).

10 questions for Judith Rich Harris   posted by Razib @ 1/25/2006 12:42:00 PM

Judith Rich Harris is author of The Nurture Assumption and the forthcoming No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. My questions are in bold.

1) One criticism some of my readers made about 'The Nurture Assumption' is that it did not take evolution into account enough, will we see more evolutionary-historical considerations at play in 'No Two Alike'?

Yes, there is quite a lot about evolution and evolutionary history in No Two Alike.

2) Do you believe cognitive psychology has any insights into why people seem to have a strong bias in asserting the overwhelming role of family in the character of a child? Or do you believe that this is a cultural innovation?

Cultural factors are certainly involved. Americans didn't always have this strong belief in the role of the family - in particular, the role of the parents - in shaping a child's personality and behavior. That belief became popular around the middle of the 20th century. Prior to that, when children were troublesome or otherwise disappointing, the general consensus was that they were "born that way."

But there may be a cognitive component as well. There is a cognitive bias that makes people overestimate their own importance and their own ability to influence how things turn out - not just in child-rearing but in everything they do.

3) In 'The Nurture Assumption' you argue that children's peer groups are more influential on their behavior than their parents. One of your key illustrations of this is the fact that children of immigrants quickly acquire the language and accent of their non-immigrant peers. But it might be objected that this is a special case, as children have a specific 'language instinct', in Pinker's sense, which governs their language acquisition. What would you reply to this objection, and do you have any equally good alternative examples of peer-groups prevailing over parents?

The language instinct can explain why the child of English-speaking parents learns to speak English, but it cannot explain why, if this child goes outside and discovers that the people out there are speaking a different language, he not only acquires that new language but comes to favor it over the language his parents taught him - a language he still speaks at home.

But I can give you some examples that don't involve language. Robert McCrae found that there are personality differences between people reared in different cultures. For example, North Americans are somewhat more outgoing and less agreeable, on average, than Asians. McCrae gave personality tests to Asian-Canadian college students, the children of immigrants from Hong Kong. He found that the students who had recently arrived in Canada had personality profiles similar to those of the people back in Hong Kong, but the Asian-Canadians who were born in Canada were similar to other Canadians. Those who had arrived in childhood were somewhere in between. So the culture of the home - the culture the parents brought with them from Hong Kong - wasn't what determined the offsprings' personality. The children who were raised in Canada became Canadians.

My second example has to do with neighborhood effects on behavior. Researchers studied two groups of African-American school-age boys. These children all came from the same kind of home: low-income, headed by single parents. But some homes were located in black, poverty-level neighborhoods, and others were in neighborhoods that were predominantly white and middle-class. The researchers found that the African-American boys living in poverty-level neighborhoods were highly aggressive, but that those living in middle-class neighborhoods were no more aggressive than their white,middle-class peers. In both cases, these children had adapted their behavior to the local norms.

4) In your 2005 response to the Edge Question, "What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?," you alluded to two things, 1) selection for light skin 2) hairlessness by parents in infants. When you pointed to these facts, did you do so in light of recent genetic work which suggests that dark skin might have evolved in humans as a response to loss of body hair? In other words, one trait would never been selected for if not for the other.

No, I hadn't heard of that work. But it doesn't matter. All humans have more or less hairless bodies, so I assume that the characteristic of hairlessness is at least as old as our species - at least 100,000 to 200,000 years old. Racial differences in skin color, on the other hand, are no more than 50,000 years old. If humans turned dark-skinned as a response to hairlessness (a theory I find dubious), then an explanation is still needed for why their skin turned white again so quickly when they inhabited Northern Europe, thousands of years later. My response to the 2005 Edge question offered a possible explanation.

By the way, I've expanded that essay into an article for a journal called Medical Hypotheses. It will be published in a few weeks.

5) Research that compares correlations of adoptive/biological families (mostly done by a handful of American behavior geneticists) typically finds low shared family influence, but research that compares means of adoptive/biological families (mostly done by a handful of French sociologists) typically finds big roles for genetics and shared family. Is correlation a reliable method for saying there is no shared family influence, might means need to be given more weight by behavior geneticists?

You're talking now about the effects of adoption on IQ. First, let me make it clear that all these studies showed a big role for genetics. Second, I agree that American behavioral geneticists might have underestimated the influence of "shared environment" (the environment that siblings raised in the same family have in common) - not because they've ignored means but because the adoptive homes these researchers looked at tended to come from a narrowed range: adoptive parents are generally middle- or upper-middle class. The French researchers, on the other hand, made a special effort to include lower-class families in their studies, and hence found a larger influence of shared environment. These results, by the way, are consistent with those from the behavioral genetic study of reared-apart identical twins: no influence of shared environment on personality (the correlation between the reared-apart twins was the same as that between the reared-together twins), but a small influence of shared environment on IQ (the IQ correlation was higher for the reared-together twins).

But I have a quarrel with the way you phrased your question: you said that correlational studies typically find "low shared family influence." What the researchers actually find is low influence of the shared environment. The environment shared by reared-together siblings doesn't just include the family: it includes the neighborhood, the school, the ethnic group, and the socioeconomic class. Sometimes siblings even belong to the same peer group. In other words, reared-together siblings share a culture or subculture.

My interpretation of the IQ data can explain both the means and the correlations. Here's how it goes. The family does have an effect on IQ during childhood. If the parents use big words or do various other things that increase a child's vocabulary, the child will score higher on IQ tests. But research has shown that this advantage - measured as an effect of shared environment - is temporary: it gradually fades away and is gone by late adolescence.

What isn't temporary is the advantage given by a culture (or subculture) that fosters intellectual activity. At higher socioeconomic levels, there tends to be a greater awareness that things like reading and going to science museums are good things to do and might pay off in the long run. So socioeconomic class does have a long-term effect on IQ. This is a cultural (or subcultural) effect and results in a difference in means: adoption tends to raise a child's IQ because most adopted children are raised in middle- or upper-middle-class neighborhoods.

A similar cultural effect can explain the gradual increase in average IQ scores that has occurred in the last 75 years all over the world. All over the world, socioeconomic levels have gone up and people are more aware than they used to be that intellectual activities might pay off in the long run.

6) Has behavior genetics declared the death of shared environment prematurely without considering levels of "shared environment" that occur above family - neigborhood, city, state, country, etc? Also if these things matter (which seems indisputable) and are mediated by shared family (which seems indisputable), again are the correlations hiding important details of parental influence?

No, not at all. Most behavioral geneticists are well aware that "shared environment" can mean the environment siblings share outside the home, rather than (or in addition to) the family environment. For example, behavioral geneticists have found an effect of shared environment on teenage delinquency. But, as behavioral geneticist David Rowe showed, the evidence suggests that the relevant environment is the neighborhood or school shared by teenage siblings. Siblings close in age may belong to the same peer group, and Rowe found that the shared environment effect on delinquency is larger for siblings close in age.

I see no justification for saying that the effects of shared environment are "mediated by the shared family." There are things that may in fact be mediated by the shared family - cooking styles and religious denomination spring to mind - but for most of the things that behavioral geneticists have studied, the shared environment should not be equated with the family environment.

You ask if correlations might be "hiding important details of parental influence." Perhaps what you're getting at here is the notion that parents might influence one of their children one way and another child in a different way. For example, the parents' child-rearing style might cause one sibling to become more outgoing and bold, the other to become more timid. If the direction of the effect depends on the preexisting (genetic) characteristics of the child, then what you've got is a gene-environment interaction. There's a whole chapter (Chapter 3)in No Two Alike devoted to gene-environment interactions. I show why they can't account for twin and sibling differences in personality.

But perhaps when you ask whether correlations might be "hiding important details of parental influence," you are talking about sheer unpredictability: the notion that parents do have an effect, but there's no way to predict in advance what the direction of the effect will be. Developmental psychologist Ellen Winner used this notion to explain away the behavioral geneticists' findings, in her response to the 2005 Edge question. "To demonstrate parents' effects on their children," Winner said, "we will need to recognize that parents may influence their children to become like them or to become unlike them." Winner suggested that researchers should study adult adoptees "and look at the extent to which these children either share their adoptive parents' values or have reacted against those values. Either way (sharing or reacting against), there is a powerful parental influence."

It's a heroic attempt to preserve the faith in parental influence, but a futile one. What does it mean to say that parents do have a powerful influence but that the direction of the influence is unpredictable? Is there any way to prove or disprove that statement? Does it have any scientific value? For that matter, does it have any practical value? Would parents be satisfied to be told, "Yes, your parenting will have an effect on your children, but we can't tell you what that effect will be"? It would mean that books of child-rearing advice would have to begin with a disclaimer: "If you follow this advice, your children might turn into happy, successful people; on the other hand, they are just as likely to turn into miserable failures."

7) OK, to something serious, east coast vs. west coast, is there any comparison in weather?

Not according to my older daughter, who lives in Berkeley. Whenever I complain about the snow, ice, or cold here in New Jersey, she points out that where she lives, the weather is "sensible."

8) How far do you go with 'modularity' in 'No Two Alike.' I ask because one of the questions of interest in behavior genetics is variation within a population. On the other hand evolutionary psychologists tend to emphasize human universals and the 'psychic unity of mankind,' often rooted in a paradigm of massive mental modularity which assumes that cognitive organs are fixed genetically (monomorphic) and not subject to non-pathological variation.

I go pretty far with modularity. I don't think it's possible to give a satisfactory description of social and personality development in childhood without thinking in terms of a modular mind. Simple theories of social development don't work because the human mind isn't simple!

You're right that the behavioral geneticists are mainly interested in human differences, whereas the evolutionary psychologists are mainly interested in human universals. But that distinction is starting to crumble. In his book The Blank Slate, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has a chapter (Chapter 19) devoted to individual differences.

As for the idea that "cognitive organs are fixed genetically...and not subject to non-pathological variation," I think it's nonsense. There is variation in all our essential organs. Why should my language acquisition module be identical to yours if there are differences in our hearts, lungs, kidneys, arms, and legs?

9) If you had to pick one thing, what do you think has been the most important finding from cognitive neuroscience which psychologists have had to take into account in formulating their theories?

In cognitive science, I would definitely pick modularity. But in psychology in general, I think the most important finding is the behavioral geneticists' discovery that the environment doesn't work the way everyone expected it to. Shared genes, as expected, make people more alike; but shared environment, to everyone's surprise, hardly ever makes people more alike. To put it another way, having different environments - growing up in different homes, being reared by different parents - isn't what makes people differ from one another. So what does make them differ? That's the mystery I try to solve in No Two Alike.

10) If you could have your full genome sequenced for $1000, would you do it? (assume privacy concerns are obviated)

I'd jump at the chance, and I wouldn't give a damn about privacy concerns - I'd want the information to be made freely available. My father spent his adult life crippled by an autoimmune disorder called ankylosing spondylitis. His father died young of an autoimmune disorder called pernicious anemia. And I have been ill most of my adult life with an autoimmune disorder that has launched attacks on several different body systems. So I think my genes might have something interesting to tell medical researchers.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Nick Wade   posted by Razib @ 1/24/2006 10:09:00 AM

Nicholas Wade did an interview with PLOS Genetics a few months ago. You might be interested, as he has a new book coming out, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of our Ancestors. I am doing a review for a magazine so I have a copy, and the galley has a lot more in it than the history of our ancestors (think his sequence of articles over the past 5 years). I suspect it will be marketed like Spencer Wells' book, but this is a different beast altogether.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Beyond SNPs - Structural variation in the human genome   posted by the @ 1/23/2006 03:59:00 PM

Nature Reviews Genetics has a review of the emerging evidence for massive amounts of structural variation in the human genome.


The first wave of information from the analysis of the human genome revealed SNPs to be the main source of genetic and phenotypic human variation. However, the advent of genome-scanning technologies has now uncovered an unexpectedly large extent of what we term 'structural variation' in the human genome. This comprises microscopic and, more commonly, submicroscopic variants, which include deletions, duplications and large-scale copy-number variants - collectively termed copy-number variants or copy-number polymorphisms - as well as insertions, inversions and translocations. Rapidly accumulating evidence indicates that structural variants can comprise millions of nucleotides of heterogeneity within every genome, and are likely to make an important contribution to human diversity and disease susceptibility.


* Structural variants in the human genome include cytogenetically detectable and submicroscopic deletions, duplications, large-scale copy-number variants, inversions and translocations.
* The ability to detect and characterize structural variants in the 1-kb to 3-Mb size range in a robust manner across the genome has not been possible until recently.
* New developments in genome-scanning technologies and computational methodologies, and the availability of a reference sequence for comparison, have made possible the large-scale discovery of structural variants.
* Many studies are revealing that the total content of structural variants in the human genome could equal or exceed that of SNPs.
* Structural variants often coincide with low-copy repeat DNA (also called segmental duplications), as these highly related sequences are more likely to undergo non-allelic recombination and subsequent rearrangement.
* Structural variation in the genome can directly or indirectly influence gene dosage through different mechanisms, and therefore influence phenotypic variation and disease.
* The cataloguing of structural variants and their frequencies in populations will be important for disease-mapping studies and for proper interpretation of clinical diagnostic-testing data.

We've mentioned some of these large scale variations before.

Uncertain scales   posted by Razib @ 1/23/2006 12:44:00 PM

There has been talk about cannibalism on this weblog before. A school of anthropologists have been trying to argue for a few decades that legends of cannibalism are simply myths that are used to dehumanize the "Other." Some scholars, like Jared Diamond, disagree with this assessment very strongly and assert that the analysis is not only faulty, but biased by the tendency of some anthropologists to see noble savages where there aren't any. The cannibalism-is-a-myth thesis has some appeal, Martin Gardner, contributor to The Skeptic, found the idea plausible. I say "found" because I suspect that Gardner was convinced (I don't know if he's commented on the topic of late) by the genetic evidence which suggests selection for prion resistence could be detected in many human populations. This is a nice way that genetic evidence can be used to supplement the discourse in other disciplines, especially in fields where the exchanges are somewhat value-laden and emotionally explosive. Another example would be the likelihood that the crypto-Jews of New Mexico might actually have non-trivial Jewish ancestry. The contrarian skeptical bent in cultural anthropology was to explain these stories as myths generated by particular social biases and the relicts of attempts by Seventh Day Adventists to convert Latinos in the American Southwest in the early 20th century (ergo, Jewish ritual traditions). This explanation received featured space in The Atlantic Monthly in the late 1990s, and I accepted it simply because it seemed less sensational than the alternative.

Nevertheless science doesn't have the surety of God. A new paper disputes the findings in about the history of cannibalism in regards to the magnitude of the practice, though I think the general thrust (that cannibalism is not a myth) remains standing from what I can see (link via Abhi). I've uploaded the file as "cannibal" in the forum, jump to the discussion to see what I mean by rejecting the extent but leaving open the plausibility of this practice locally.

Related: Researchers Find Mutation In Lincoln's Family.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A note on "Science Blogs"   posted by Razib @ 1/22/2006 08:04:00 PM

Some of you have probably read the recent article about "Science Blogs" in The New York Times. I announced that I was starting a sister blog to this weblog about a week ago. A few points of note:

1) There will be many posts that you can find there that you won't find here. Though the content and linking will intersect, there will be a great deal of material exclusive to either weblog (this is a group weblog, the other one is not, so that should be obvious)..

2) With that in mind, I would ask that you:
  • Add the other blog's RSS feed.
  • Or, bookmark it.
  • Or read it regularly
3) If you are a weblogger, I would appreciate it if you would add a link to that weblog as well as this one, as John Hawks did.

As I said a few weeks ago, I don't know where this is all going, so I will update you if I receive a vision from God as to how to differentiate the two weblogs more clearly. Right now there just hasn't been much lineage sorting. And if you care about that sort of thing, I suspect I will be posting much more on both weblogs in the near future for a bit.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Evolution, religion and psychology   posted by Razib @ 1/21/2006 06:38:00 AM

As some of you might know, Intelligent Design and evolution are becoming issues in Utah. Before we move on, this from Ron Numbers The Creationists might be instructive:

...in 1935 only 36 percent of the students at the Mormons' Brigham Young University denied that human beings have been "created in a process of evolution from lower life forms." By 1973 the figure had risen sharply to 81 percent....

What's going on here? First, you have to know that the Mormon Church has taken different views in regards to evolution and there isn't a strict stance on the issue. This article in Deseret News makes the diversity clear. For one prominent Mormon perspective, see Orscon Scott Card's recent essay (I won't try to rebut and respond to his meanderings). But in light of the recent Vactican restatement supporting1 evolutionary theory what's going on in regards in this tango between Darwin and God?

In regards to the Mormon numbers one hypothesis that I think is plausible is that the shift in BYU students' perceptions of the theory of evolution is a function of Mormons tracking the conservative Christian subculture in the United States. Though Mormons lay outside conventional Christianity in terms of theological orthodoxy, their mores and non-theological beliefs have tended to be aligned with the conservative end of the sociocultural spectrum, and so they have absorbed a concomitant dose of Creationism from the zeitgeist.2

Recently I read several entries of interest from The Oxford Companion to the Bible and I noted that only a faction of Protestants adhere to a literalist stance in regards to the text of scripture. This is reflected in the historical literature where Roman Catholic apologists argued against Reformation literalists during the debates the 16th century. But the the variance in belief is rather high in Protestantism, so just as there are fundamentalists, there are also groups like Congregationalists (in the United States) who are apt to take an even more allegorical tack on the scripture than Roman Catholics. In any case, the key point is that defenders of the viability of evolutionary theory are empirically correct when they commonly assert that most Christian denominations have no problem with accommodating descent with modification and an old earth. And yet half of the American public has rejected evolutionary theory in all its forms for decades, and there is often a tacit assumption that "genuine" Christianity necessarily rejects evolutionary theory.

Even though Roman Catholics tend to be far cooler to Creationist and quasi-Creationist narratives than Protestants in the United States, a substantial minority still adhere to a Creationist model.3 As a young adult I actually entered in conversations with many individuals who professed Roman Catholicism and Creationism, and here are the flavors I encountered:

  • A subset asserted that Creationism was a necessary implication of their religious beliefs, and some averred that it was Church teaching.

  • A subset didn't know what the Church taught about evolution (if it taught anything at all) and simply expressed their intuition that "Creation made sense."

The first position was easy to rebut in light of the statements on evolution going back to the 1950s by the Pope. Even in the pre-internet era they weren't hard for me to reference and point too. If the individuals in question did do the follow up reference check they were discomfited but would usually reluctantly switch their position, and least assume a more agnostic stance. This suggests to me that a proportion of the deviation from the American norm by Roman Catholics in regards to belief in evolution is a function of Church teaching, and perhaps even the imprimatur of religious respectibility given to it when it is taught in parochial schools. But where did these individuals get the idea that the Church taught something it didn't? I think the answer likes in the interface between psychology and culture. In Searching for Memory psychologist Daniel Schacter recounts how people often do not model the past appropriately in regards to the beliefs they claim to have held, e.g. southerners whose views on racial issues were surveyed in both 1970 and 1984 had changed a great deal. But, when asked what their views were in 1970 in 1984, the individuals simply asserted that they'd held the same views as they had in 1984 even though the researchers could see that they hadn't (they'd recorded their answers). This isn't a function of pathological deception, memory reshapes itself. Similarly, in hindsight I am now no longer sure that the Roman Catholics who claimed they Church taught that Creationism was valid were stupid or lying to me. The town I grew up in was very conservative and there were many evangelical and fundamentalist churches. My hunch is that these individuals somehow encountered literature and tracts from these churches and conflated them in their minds with Roman Catholic doctrine as it was normative in that small town for religious people to reject evolutionary theory.

As for the second subset, they rarely, if ever, followed up my references because these beliefs weren't a major part of their worldview, and they weren't even very religious people. Just as the first group absorbed particular biases and assumptions from their milieu I believe something similar happened here too. But at this point, we have to move beyond culture, as many of these individuals weren't the types to need to conform to the conservative religious subculture. Why were they Creationists, or at least tepid ones? I suspect the answer lay in psychology, the default model of the world that our brains come preloaded with tends to be strongly biased toward Creationism of a sort. Creationism just "makes sense," just like astrology and holistic medicine, it is not embedded in an arcane social model and a esoteric system of abstraction which is removed from human experience and common sense.

Which brings me back to the Mormons. Often people have a perception that culture is an all-powerful force in reshaping how you view the world, but I think that this is fallacious, the mind has biases and structural impediments to paradigm perception. Sometimes, as in the God concepts, people simply square the circle of contradiction between culture and psychology by operating on two levels, the conscious-verbal-reflective and the reflexive subconscious level of intuitive mental representation. Certainly the tendency of Mormons to sympathize with the social priorities of conservative Protestants, and their free exchange with that subculture (at least from their perspective, for example they lionize conservative Anglican C.S. Lewis), is a plausible explanation for why they would be biased toward accepting Creationist accounts even if their Church never made an explicit push in this direction. But I think the psychology is important as well, not only were the cultural variables aligned, the psychological system was already loaded and ready to go. A given psychology may not be a sufficient condition for a particular set of beliefs, but they are often a necessary condition.

This of course moves me to to question of why are there international variations in acceptance of evolutionary theory if Creationist accounts are intuitive? Let me remind you that children raised in non-Creationist households still tend to prefer Creationist explanations when young, so something happens later in life. Culture obviously does matter in this regard, but, I think it matters in the way that many form explicit "beliefs" about God. The vast majority of the world's Christians accept the Athanasian Creed, and can express a relatively cogent belief in a Trinitarian God, but they can not truly conceive of intuitively in a Trintarian God, it is a verbal token and affirmation. And so I think a similar process is at work in evolutionary theory, the vast majority of people, and this even includes most biologists I suspect, are making a verbal affirmation of a concept that they don't intuitively understand. The fact is, even if you have reasonable fluency with The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, which at least offers a precise and analytic theoretical framework, I am skeptical that you (and I of course) truly conceive of the timescales required for much of evolution to work its "magic" in the same way we can imagine last year, last decade, or even last century. We have to have faith in the scientific system, and trust the theories and data which are one or many removes from our intuitional preconceptions.

Of course, most people have a weak grasp of Newtonian physics, and they don't go around rejecting it. So cultural dynamics are important, my overall point is simply that neglect of psychological substrate allows you to miss the totality of the system. It isn't that many Americans accept a model because they are stupid, it is that they refuse to move beyond their default assumptions or at least give a tacit nod to elite-specialist knowledge.

1 - Or at least the perception, again, I think that these releases need to be understood in the context of a Thomistic worldview, but that gets left out.

2 - Though the academic expositers of Intelligent Design disavow Creationism in its crass form, my impression from conversation and the literature is that the populist support for Intelligent Design is actually just a proxy support for Creationism. This was on display in the Dover case.

3 - This is not heresy obviously, as in many ways evolutionary theory is orthogonal to Roman Catholic points of faith and doctrine.

Cheap genome, part II   posted by Razib @ 1/21/2006 06:26:00 AM

The Harvard Crimson reports on George Church's attempt to develop super-cheap genomic sequencing, though this time he's giving a $10-20,000 price point quote instead of $1,000. Scientific American has a subscription only piece.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Omega-3 affects IQ and behavior   posted by the @ 1/20/2006 08:42:00 PM

Another research group is reporting a correlation between consumption of omega-3 PUFAs during pregnancy and the IQ of children.

Looking at the effects of omega-3 intake on 9,000 mothers and their children, the team found mothers with the lowest intake of the essential fatty acid had children with a verbal IQ six points lower than the average.

A new finding, as far as I know, is that low omega-3 intake is also correlated with antisocial behavior:

Low intake of the crucial fatty acid also appeared to lead to more problems of social interactions - such as an inability to make friends. Research leader Dr Joseph Hibbeln said "frightening data" showed 14% of 17-year-olds whose mother had eaten small quantities of Omega -3 during pregnancy demonstrated this sort of behaviour. This compared with 8% of those born to the group with the highest intake, he said.

I note and so does the economist that this study is looking at correlation, and so the possibility of confounding is a problem. In particular, I can easily imaging that omega-3 intake is correlated with maternal IQ, and thus some or all of the omega-3 intake to IQ correlation could be mediated by genetic transmission of IQ. However, I do know of one supplementation study with good internal controls.

Update: BBC News story

Thursday, January 19, 2006

GNXP Frappr   posted by Razib @ 1/19/2006 01:38:00 PM

I made a GNXP Frappr site.

Nuclear Waste Revisited   posted by DavidB @ 1/19/2006 03:43:00 AM

A while ago I posted on the old GNXP Politics board on the subject of nuclear waste. Among other things I said:

the trump card of the objectors is that plutonium will still be dangerous for millennia... Extraordinary (and costly) measures are therefore needed to ensure that it cannot in any conceivable circumstances leak out, even in the very distant future. This seems to me wholly misconceived. It is absurd to worry about what may happen in future millennia, but there are two broad alternatives. Either civilisation will have collapsed, possibly due to nuclear war, in which case a bit more plutonium will be the least of our descendants' worries. Or civilisation will have survived, in which case our descendants will be able to look after themselves. The responsible approach is not to bury plutonium inaccessibly deep in the ground, or in the ocean bed, but to keep it securely stored, in such a way that it can be dealt with by the appropriate authorities whenever they wish to, using future technologies we cannot yet imagine.

So naturally I was pleased to see an article in today's (January 19) London Times, by their Science correspondant Nigel Hawkes, which includes the following:

Forget the idea that we must produce a site safe for a million years without human intervention... Setting the bar that high makes the best an enemy of the good... What, people say, would happen to an engineered burial site if mankind reverts to savagery and can no longer look after it? That's a stupid question. If man reverts to savagery, nuclear waste in a deep hole in the ground will be the least of his problems... We just need a strategy that makes it safe for a period of history that falls within the human imagination. I reckon 200 years is enough. The store should be inaccessible to the malevolent but readily accessible to those responsible for curating the waste. It will be a legacy, but our descendants will be well able to cope.

Great minds think alike. Or something.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Update 3   posted by DavidB @ 1/18/2006 07:27:00 AM

From time to time I look through my old posts to see if any of them are still worth reading. The last update was in April 2005 here.

Since then I haven't posted very often, but a few items may still be of interest.

[Added: I find that for some reason the more recent archive links don't work. I suggest that if you are interested in the topic you use the search engine on the sidebar.]

[Added later: Razib has fixed a glitch, and the links should all work now. But in some posts you may find some odd symbols. These are probably meant to be apostrophes or quotation marks. Apparently when text is cut-and-pasted from a WP program into another system these symbols may not be properly recognised.]

The most substantial items were two long posts on Measuring Genetic Diversity, here and here. Many writers on population genetics make claims about the extent of genetic diversity within or between populations (for example, Lewontin's famous claim that 85% of human diversity occurs within each racial group), but they seldom explain how diversity is measured, or discuss any problems of interpretation. My posts attempt to provide a guide to the main measures of diversity, and point out some of their strengths and weaknesses. One important point to note is that the most commonly used measures (Wright's FST and Nei's GST) treat 'between group' diversity as a residual after 'within group' diversity is subtracted from a total which cannot exceed 100%. This means that 'between group' diversity is bound to be low if 'within group' diversity is high, even if in fact the groups are extremely different from each other.

Two posts were concerned with recent game-theoretical research on 'altruistic punishment'. Punishment 'for the good of the community' is an important human social institution, but it isn't clear why anyone should take the trouble to punish others if the cost or risk exceeds the individual benefit to the punisher. In the jargon, such punishment is 'altruistic', though presumably it doesn't seem that way to the punishee. The posts are here and here. The second post takes a sceptical view of recent trends in evolutionary game theory, which in my view often start from false assumptions about what primitive societies are like. The post incorporates my own interpretation of the key features of hunter-gatherer societies, with references to the anthropological literature. In one of the posts I also remarked that explanations by means of group selection should be a last resort. As this point was questioned in some comments, I expanded on it here.

In comments on the subject of Intelligent Design someone used the tired old argument that the theory of natural selection is tautologous. Here I give seven reasons for maintaining that the theory involves empirical matters of fact, and is therefore not tautologous.

An alert reader of an old post of mine on kin selection pointed out an error, which I have corrected here.

Several posts were concerned with sociological issues that happened to catch my eye. Two posts, here and here, are concerned with social mobility. One post is about trends in the birth rate. Two posts, here and here, are about whether geographical segregation of ethnic groups in the UK is increasing or declining, which turns out to be quite a complex question.

One post, on Medieval Jewish Achievement, is my small contribution to the debate on the causes of the high level of Ashkenazi Jewish IQ. It is commonly supposed, on rather weak evidence, that Ashkenazi IQ is higher than that of other Jewish groups, lumped together inaccurately as 'Sephardim' (a term which should properly be confined to Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent). My post points out that in the Middle Ages, and down to the 17th century, the Sephardic Jews showed great intellectual distinction, and were socially superior to the Ashkenazim.

A post on the Flynn Effect aims to establish whether James Flynn, or someone else, deserves the main credit for discovering the long-term rising trend of IQ scores in most developed countries. My conclusion is that other psychologists, such as Phillip Vernon, had from time to time remarked on the rising trend, but that Flynn does indeed deserve the main credit, as originally stated by Murray and Herrnstein when they proposed to designate the trend as the Flynn Effect.

A post on Genetics in the Movies is just a bit of fluff, but may give some harmless amusement.

A post in August on Interracial Marriage discussed reasons for and against interracial marriage (or other mating). I concluded that there are theoretical arguments on both sides, but little empirical evidence that it is important either way. I did however express caution against any large and sudden change in the gene pool, as the effects are unpredictable and would be difficult to reverse. In passing I also wondered whether the distinctive achievements of different civilisations had anything to do with distinctive combinations of genes. A later post on Genes and Civilisation considered this further, from a generally sceptical point of view. I promised a further post to look at the issue with particular reference to the history of European and Chinese science. This was rather rash, as I soon realised that I didn't know enough about Chinese science to comment on it. Since then I have tried to remedy my ignorance, by readings in Joseph Needham, G. E. R. Lloyd and others, but I can't say if I will ever get round to the promised post.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

One lucky leprechaun   posted by Razib @ 1/17/2006 10:57:00 PM

By now all of you have probably heard about the Niall of the Nine Hostages study in The American Journal of Human Genetics. The short of it is that it seems a Genghis Khan dynamic has been operative in Ireland, descendents of this mighty king have spread their seed far and wide. Now, I take Henry's point about the Haplotype Tracers, and to some extent he has been important making me sensitive to this issue for a long time, but the stuff about Niall and Genghis Khan is still pretty cool, and it's straight genealogy, which is how this sort of data should be read (i.e., inferring a patrilineage from from a patrilineally transmitted locus makes a lot more sense than inferring the entire history of the population as is commonly done). But I stumbled onto this piece which asserts that "as many as one in twelve Irish men could be descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages." Well, actually, since the study is focusing on a father-son patrilineage, it seems plausible that every Irish person is desdended from Niall through some genealogical line, and probably many times over. In Gilgamesh it was discovered that that true immortality was only attainable through glory echoing in memories of those who come after you, but to some extent the genome of the Irish people is a reflection of the genome of Niall of the Nine Hostages. But in any case, I just wanted to remind you guys out there that you are all the distant sons of supermen, our foremothers might not have been queens, but even the lowest slave amongst us issued from the loins of kings. Why are some of us still losers? Geoffrey Miller would have you believe that it is due to variance in the mutational load across the population (the total genetic load being maintained by mutation)....

"Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science"   posted by the @ 1/17/2006 02:50:00 PM

A refreshingly honest discussion about the impact of distributional gender differences on science in PLoS Biology

Some have a dream that, one fine day, there will be equal numbers of men and women in all jobs, including those in scientific research. But I think this dream is Utopian; it assumes that if all doors were opened and all discrimination ended, the different sexes would be professionally indistinguishable. The dream is sustained by a cult of political correctness that ignores the facts of life-and thrives only because the human mind likes to bury experience as it builds beliefs. Here I will argue, as others have many times before, that men and women are born different. Yet even we scientists deny this, allowing us to identify the "best" candidates for jobs and promotions by subjecting men and women to the same tests. But since these tests favour predominantly male characteristics, such as self-confidence and aggression, we choose more men and we discourage women. Science would be better served if we gave more opportunity and power to the gentle, the reflective, and the creative individuals of both sexes. And if we did, more women would be selected, more would choose to stay in science, and more would get to the top.

It's open access, so read the rest.

Where were the Girls?   posted by TangoMan @ 1/17/2006 01:46:00 PM

A new world record was set last Saturday, when Leyan Lo unscrambled a Rubik's Cube in 11.13 seconds. Yahoo!News brings us the details.

Here are the scoring details on this competition, and if you'd like to see videos of Cubes being solved you can find them on this site. Most startling, mainly to the anti-Summers lynch mob, is that girls are involved in this activity as well, as these pictures show.

My question for the anti-Summers mob is why there is such a huge male-female disparity in top scores? Is it discrimination?

Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Inclusive fitness, yes!   posted by Razib @ 1/16/2006 11:34:00 PM

I've made a few comments about inclusive fitness/kin selection that have expressed caution recently, but this paper in Molecular Ecology points in the other direction and reaffirms the power of W.D. Hamilton's theoretical framework. But one must remember that some of the review literature suggests that kin selection might have been a sufficient condition for the initial evolution of eusociality enabled by haplodiploidy, it may not be a necessary one for its persistence. The ideal model holds that since males are haploid, the coefficient of relatedness between sisters who share a father and mother will be 3/4, greater than the 1/2 coefficient of relatedness between mothers and their daughters. Following Hamilton's Rule, B > C/r, where B ~ benefit, C ~ cost and r is coefficient of relatedness, you get the perfect recipe for altruistic behavior driven purely be gene level selection. The reality though is that sisters within many hymenoptera species have been found to have been fathered by different males (reducing their relatedness depending on how related the males were), and some eusocial insects may even have multiple queens who are not not related resident in the colony generating unrelated progeny. This diversity across the taxon, to the point where B > C/r might not hold on average across a colony, suggests that other factors are at play. One hypothesis is that once eusociality evolved via kin selection the proximate mechanisms which fostered and enabled it eventually became efficient enough to perpetuate eusociality (the standard idea of tit-for-tat reciprocal altruism usually is considered for more "intelligent" taxa). In other words, the eusociality enabled by kin selection altered the characteristics of the species to forgo the necessity of inclusive fitness as an all encompassing umbrella as new adaptive vistas were brought into view by the initial behavioral innovation. The point is that evolutionary biology is complicated. A weakness within a model does not imply that one should discard the model as totally lacking in value, rather, one should proceed judiciously.

One question to ponder....   posted by Razib @ 1/16/2006 10:19:00 PM

Excuse a moment of blog navel gazing, but a few minutes ago I was curious how high the "10 questions" I've been asking have made it up on google. I was surprised, 10 for John Derbyshire, 9 for Armand Leroi, 8 for Dan Sperber, and 3 for Warren Treadgold. That is, all interviews are on the front page of google if you query their names. Ken Miller at 41 is the odd one out here. I have an interesting person in the pipeline who I think GNXP readers will be very excited about, so "watch this space."

Might be on E! by mistake   posted by Razib @ 1/16/2006 09:42:00 PM

Lisa Loeb has a new show, # 1 single, on the E! network. Anyway, she was at the Angelika Film Center on a date with some dude having coffee, and I wandered into the shot while checking out some cupcakes at the counter. Later, she walked toward the screens and cameras were pointed straight at me, and I looked up from reading Simon Blackburn's Think and glared. I don't know if it will making to the show, but Loeb's series starts on the 22nd of this month. The dude she was on a date with had lank brown hair and was kind of not too hot (sorry if you somehow read this googling dude). I'm wearing a red jacket.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

For those looking for info on Iraq...   posted by Arcane @ 1/14/2006 09:55:00 PM

Over the past several days I have been asked by more than a few people as to where they could find raw statistics and information to give them an idea of what is happening in Iraq. As a result, I have decided to take just a few minutes and write up this short post describing where everyone can find a horde of fairly objective stats and info.

The best place to go is the homepage of the Iraq Index, published by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Studies. It is updated and published on a bi-weekly basis in Adobe .pdf format and contains lots of data compiled from a myriad of news sources. Just be warned, like every other think tank around, the Brookings Institution has a political bias (it leans to the center-left).

Secondly, the Department of State publishes the Iraq Weekly Status Report in .pdf format every Wednesday. I don't think it's as useful or as comprehensive as the Iraq Index, but it still has some fairly good information. Of course, it takes a pro-administration position.

And finally, here's Emily Hunt... I'm linking to her for no particular reason other than the fact that she's a hot and seems to know a lot about terrorists, which I think makes her even more hot.

Hope this helps a bit. This post was about giving readers information, not debating the war, so please don't bless us with political hackery on the issue; let's leave that to the talking heads.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Founding mothers of the Jews   posted by Razib @ 1/13/2006 09:28:00 AM

The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a Recent Founder Event:

Both the extent and location of the maternal ancestral deme from which the Ashkenazi Jewry arose remain obscure. Here, using complete sequences of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), we show that close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only 4 women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansion(s) in Europe within the past millennium.

Related: Blood of the Jews.

More Family Connections   posted by DavidB @ 1/13/2006 05:48:00 AM

As I have previously written about the family connections of the Darwins, I was interested to see (via Steve) that Skandar Keynes, one of the child stars of that Narnia film, is a great-great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and a great-great-nephew of the economist John Maynard Keynes.

Skandar's ancestry can be traced as follows. His father is Randal Keynes, author of a delightful book on Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie. Randal is a grandson of the distinguished surgeon Sir Geoffrey Keynes, who was the brother of John Maynard Keynes. The Darwin connection comes in through Geoffrey Keynes's marriage to Margaret Darwin, daughter of Sir George Darwin, the mathematician and astronomer, who was the second son of Charles Darwin. So Skandar is indeed a great-great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and derives 1/32 of his ancestry from him. Of course, there are many lines of ancestry not mentioned here, such as that of Maud Du Puy, the American wife of Sir George Darwin. The name Skandar is said to be a Turkish form of Alexander, but I don't know if this indicates any Turkish connections. [Added: I see from Wikipedia that Skandar's mother is of Syrian descent.]

But all this is really an excuse to celebrate Sir Geoffrey Keynes (1887-1982), one of the most remarkable figures in the whole tribe.

Sir Geoffrey's day job was as a surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, from 1913 to 1951. During that time he pioneered several important innovations. He was largely responsible for introducing the use of blood transfusion in Britain, and designed the transfusion equipment that was standard for about 20 years. He later specialised in surgery of the thyroid and thymus glands, and pioneered the surgical treatment of Myasthenia Gravis. But in hindsight his most important contribution was probably his advocacy of 'conservative' (minimalist) surgery for breast cancer, in combination with radiotherapy and measures to promote early diagnosis. During Keynes's period the prevalent treatment for breast cancer was radical mastectomy - complete removal of the breast and much surrounding tissue. Keynes considered this unnecessary and barbaric, and showed through follow-up studies that simple removal of the breast or just of the tumour itself (lumpectomy), with radiotherapy, was often sufficient. As he later said, 'I was sure that I had initiated an important advance in practice by trying to eliminate what I regarded as surgical malpractice - the performance of a grossly mutilating and illogical operation, when similar or slightly better statistical results could be obtained by conservative surgery supplemented by radiotherapy'. Keynes pursued his own approach with success from the 1920s onwards, but it was generally regarded as heretical, and not widely adopted in Britain until the 1950s. Resistance was stronger in the United States, where the Keynesian approach was not widely followed until some 50 years after he introduced it.

A career like this should be enough for anyone, but Keynes was actually better known in his lifetime for his 'hobby' as a literary scholar and historian. He was a passionate book collector, and as an extension of this began from an early age to produce bibliographies of major authors. A scholarly bibliography is far more than just a book list: it involves the identification and careful description of all the editions of an author's work, which is indispensable for serious historical and literary study. Keynes's bibliographies are often substantial books in their own right, and include studies of Jane Austen, William Blake, Rupert Brooke, Thomas Browne, John Donne, John Evelyn, William Harvey, Robert Hooke, William Petty, John Ray, and Siegfried Sassoon. Keynes's first love was for the works of William Blake, which were still neglected at the time. Keynes became one of the world's leading Blake scholars, and edited many editions of Blake's poetry, including the Oxford edition of his complete works. In addition to strictly bibliographical work, in retirement from surgery Keynes wrote the standard biography of William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood. To cap it all, at the age of 93 Keynes wrote his own highly readable autobiography, The Gates of Memory, which includes his reminiscences of figures such as Henry James, Rupert Brooke, Eric Gill, Siegfried Sassoon, and Diaghilev.

It's a hard act to follow, isn't it?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Science blogs   posted by Razib @ 1/12/2006 10:59:00 PM

An announcement, just wanted to tell people that I'll be blogging a lot over at Science Blogs, sponsored by Seed Magazine, soon. There is now an iteration of gnxp that will be hosted over there. After a few last minute technical details, there will be two streams of gnxp on the web for you to keep track of. I wish I could tell you what this means, but I really don't know, but imagine two subsets with a non-trivial intersection. I'm not going to have a tried & true formula for what goes on over there vs. what goes over here (like Evolgen), we'll see what evolves, so to speak. "Gene Expression" has developed as a group weblog with a specific personality over the last 3+ years, and I'll try to craft a more individual "voice" with the Seed iteration.

Since I'm on semi-vacation in Brooklyn, that's all I have to say now...more later.

Talk Like a Man   posted by Jason Malloy @ 1/12/2006 10:07:00 PM

Fellow language evolution enthusiasts may be interested in the latest review by Simon Fisher and Gary Marcus in Nature Reviews Genetics now available in gnxpforum (PDF).

Carl Zimmer's earlier discussion of Pinker vs. Chomsky, here and here, is also related and worthwhile.

Green pigs and journalist's scientific illiteracy   posted by Scorpius @ 1/12/2006 01:38:00 PM

I'm sure by now everyone has heard about the fluorescent green pigs produced by Taiwanese scientists. It's a relatively simple technique, all one has to do is: transfect a plasmid containing the GFP and (maybe) am antibiotic resistance selector into very early embryonic stem cells, select using the antibiotic1 and the GFP, (That's the easy part, the real trick is dealing with altered cells after transfection due to the funky, black box biology of stem cells) and allow to grow to term through implantation. This would give the uniform green "glow" that characterizes every cell of the animal.

As the article states, this has the potential of tracking how stem cells (used for therapy) can proliferate through an existing organ structure and the organism. In my mind, it also has the potential to better understand early development through the use of GFP mutants (CFP, YFP); though that is speculation on my part.

But I digress, sometimes my biology geek nature gets the best of me, the real reason I started this post was to nit-pick and complain once again over the sorry state of scientific literacy in the field of Journalism. In the article from the BBC, they make a mistake that even a freshman biology student would not make:

Because the pig's genetic material is green, it is easy to spot.

Now, the pig's "genetic material" is not green, it is the product of the genetic material, the protein.

Also, I do not think (though I could be wrong) that this part is correct:

So if, for instance, some of its stem cells are injected into another animal, scientists can track how they develop without the need for a biopsy or invasive test.

I don't see how if stem cells were injected to repair a kidney or heart muscle how they would track their proliferation without some kind of invasive technique; the excitation wavelength and the resulting fluorescence would be blocked by the layers of the epidermis.


1 This, at least, is how I have created stably-transfected mammalian cells with GFP-tagged proteins.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Derbyshire on evolution   posted by Razib @ 1/11/2006 03:14:00 PM

John Derbyshire has a small exchange over at NR relating to ID. Might be of interest to readers.

10 questions for Ken Miller   posted by Razib @ 1/11/2006 11:36:00 AM

Ken Miller is author of Finding Darwin's God. My questions are in bold.

1) Looking at the opinions of the more sophisticated proponents of the new Creationism (i.e., Intelligent Design), like William Dembski, they clearly aren't the Biblical Fundamentalists of the days of yore. Ultimately it seems that what they have in their sights is 'methodological naturalism.' Philip Johnson was the first to elucidate this idea of an explicitly theistically informed science.

My question is simple, do you believe that the proponents of this new type of science really believe in their own talking points? Do they actually imagine that 20 years from now laboratories will be run on a stance that rejects methodological naturalism? Or is this part of an overall culture war which is waged for greater ends?

Yes and yes. I certainly feel that they do believe it, and a few of them have struggled (unsuccessfully) to produce scientific speculations on the basis of "design" thinking. I certainly don't see any productive science emerging from ID at all, but I am convinced that its proponents certainly believe that it will.

And, yes, this certainly is part of a great cultural war. Both Johnson and Dembski have been explicit about this. In a seminar at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on March 23 Dembski said: "These issues of Intelligent Design and creation really cut to the heart of worldviews, what we are about, how we're putting life together and what's ultimately meaningful, what morality is based on." The proponents of ID routinely assert that evolution is responsible for society's moral ills, including divorce, crime, abortion, and homosexuality. So the movement is clearly part of a greater culture war.

2) An idea I have been considering recently is that rejection of evolutionary biology is partly innate and derived from our intuitive sense of folk biology, which comes with a conception of essential kinds. Cognitive psychologists like Paul Bloom have recently reported on research which suggests that children raised in non-Creationist households often prefer the Creationist narratives when offered choices. Another vantage point is that the large number of Americans who reject evolutionary theory is mostly a function of lack of public education on the topic, so given enough time and energy on the part of scientists evolution will become the natural default paradigm for the man on the street. What is your take on the tension between these two stances?

I am an eternal optimist, and I am convinced that the American people, given the chance to fully explore scientific and non-scientific alternatives, will pick science every time. It's just a matter of improving on the very poor job that we scientists do of explaining and popularizing our work. The good people of Dover, Pennsylvania, saw this issue very clearly in November of 2005, and voted out their pro-ID school board. I am confident that the Dover reversal can take place in any community where the issues are clearly presented.

3) Do you have any opinions on the ideas of Simon Conway Morris as elaborated in Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe?

I have not read the book. However, I have read several of Conway-Morris' essays and lectures on the same subject. In general I agree with his ideas, and find them scientifically sound and philosophically sensible.

4) A recent survey of evolutionary biologists suggested that ~90% do not believe in God. Larry Witham and Edward Larson's surveys from the 1990s suggested that the majority of biologists rejected a personal God, while the overwhelming majority of National Academy of Science members rejected a personal God.** Peter Atkins would likely offer that these results necessarily follow from the nature of science as a materialist enterprise. As a Roman Catholic I suspect you would disagree with this assessment. What do you think accounts for the lack of belief in traditional religion that seems normative among the majority of working scientists?

First of all, let's quote the results fully. The results you cite were actually reported in a paper with the title "Scientists are still keeping the faith." The survey reported in Witham & Larson actually reported that the percentage of practicing scientists who expressed religious belief had remained surprisingly constant over the past 90 years. They compared their results to a similar survey of scientists taken in 1916 this way: "about 40 percent of scientists still believe in a personal God and an afterlife. In both surveys, roughly 45 per cent disbelieved and 15 per cent were doubters (agnostic)."

The level of belief is indeed lower among scientists than the American population, but I strongly suspect that this may be the result of the hostility than many religious groups have shown towards science rather than any anti-theistic character to the scientific enterprise.

5) Do you accept that the existence of a personal God can be deduced via rational reflection? If so, which of the various "proofs" do you find most compelling? (i.e., ontological, cosmological, etc.).

I don't think that the existence of God can be proved. There's a reason, after all, why it's called "faith" and not "certainty." Rather, I find that the hypothesis of God helps me to make sense of life and of the world around me, and I find that hypothesis congruent with science, not dependent upon it.

6) Do you think "Evo-Devo" is going to revolutionize biology, or do you think that the hype is outrunning the real prospects of novel insights?

Anything with a catchy name has a bit of hype attached, but the evolutionary analysis of development is the real thing. And it is already revolutionizing our understanding of biology.

7) Has bioinformatics touched cell biology yet?

"Touched it?" It's all over it! After several days at the ASCB (cell biology) meetings last year, I was staggered by the extent to which information technology has become a major research tool in the field. The use of bioinformatics to explore signaling pathways, gene expression, and protein function has infused cellular and molecular biology at every level.

8) Cellulose is ubiquitous, why don't you think the ability to metabolize it is found in more organisms?

Quite probably because the beta 1,4 linkage is much more difficult to break chemically than the alpha 1,4 linkage.

9) If you had foreknowledge of your life as it has unfolded to this point at the age of 18, what changes would you make in terms of your educational priorities as an undergraduate?

I would have worked a little more at foreign languages. I speak German reasonably well, but would have studied at least one more language if I had it all to do over again.

10) Would you be willing to trade a month's salary for your full genome sequence?

Nope. Maybe a week's!


Guessing Game - no, not her!   posted by DavidB @ 1/11/2006 05:45:00 AM

A while ago I posted about a gossip column 'blind item' which asked:

"which Oscar-winning Hollywood superstar's doctor claims she was born a hermaphrodite, with undescended testes where her ovaries should have been? (and no, it's not Jamie Lee Curtis)".

It appears now to be officially confirmed that Angelina Jolie is pregnant, so unless there is some elaborate con going on, we can rule her out!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Cooperation & defection   posted by Razib @ 1/09/2006 03:53:00 PM

Interesting paper in The Journal of Evolutionary Biology caught my attention today, here is the abstract:

The Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) constitutes a widely used metaphor to investigate problems related to the evolution of cooperation...Recently, compelling evidence has been accumulated on the strong heterogeneous nature of the network of contacts between individuals in populations. Here we describe the networks of contacts in terms of graphs and show that heterogeneity provides a new mechanism for cooperation to survive. Specifically, we show that cooperators are capable of exploring the heterogeneity of the population structure to become evolutionary competitive. As a result, cooperation becomes the dominating trait in scale-free networks of contacts in which the few highly connected individuals are directly inter-connected, in this way contributing to self-sustain cooperation.
Here is the full PDF free.

The evolution of cooperation and biological sociality was the central problem which haunted W.D. Hamilton during the first part of his career. Hamilton Rule, B*r > C (benefit to the other multiplied by the genetic relatedness being greater than cost to self), pithily expressed the logic behind kin selection and inclusive fitness. In this way the genetic rationale behind the evolution of altruism could be modeled by selfish gene level thinking. Robert Trivers' reciprocal altruism was a model which broke out of a gene-centered box, as did Hamilton's later work in collaboration with Robert Axelrod which used a more game theoretic paradigm, and all the various iterations of tit-for-tat. David Sloan Wilson has attempted to resurrect multi-level selection, and anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd have thrown every tool including the kitchen sink at the "problem" of human culture.

In regards to the complexity of human societies it seems, to me, that using any one particular line of conceptualization (i.e., kin selection, reciprocal altruism, rational choice, etc.) will fail to capture the textured complexity of social processes. In a similar fashion behavior genetics alone, or evolutionary psychology alone, will fail to satisfactorily model humanity as it manifests itself. Variation as a function of time and space seems to be characteristic of our species and that is a shame for grand meta-narratives. I have already noted before that the literature over the past few years has been suggesting strong caution at the utilization of kin selection even among hymenoptera, the taxon which Hamilton used to empirically test his a priori models (hymenoptera are ideal because sisters are more closely related to each other than they are to their own offspring). Of course, this does not mean that we give up and put our faith in gods and mysterious essences which generate order from the chaos.

Update: To get an overview of the controversy over kin selection in the context of eusocial insects, see this paper Kin selection is the key to altruism (PDF).

It needed to be said   posted by Scorpius @ 1/09/2006 02:22:00 AM

Victor Davis Hanson has a very good "Letter to the Europeans" up which captures the feelings that many on the right have towards The Continent. As he says in the piece, we cons don't hate Europe, we are frustrated at their suicidal course. And this is not a racial thing, but a frustration over watching a great civilization turn away from what made it great in favor of what makes it feel good in the short term; much like watching an accomplished man abandon his greatness for the temporary thrill of the bottle.

A very good read.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

$1,000 full genome sequence?   posted by Razib @ 1/08/2006 10:45:00 PM

$1,000 genome sequencing in 2008? Hmmm....

Update: John Hawks has MANY paragraphs more.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Tay Sachs carriers   posted by Razib @ 1/07/2006 12:40:00 PM

To my knowledge no one has tested Cochran et al.'s prediction that Tay Sachs carriers will be have higher cognitive aptitudes than those who are non-Tay Sachs carriers all things controlled (i.e., compare sibs for instance). Before I went to sleep last night I started thinking about this, and I wondered if there was a quick & dirty way we could try to get a grip on the possibility of Tay Sachs vs. non-Tay Sachs cognitive performance. And I had a thought: a Jewish student organization at a very elite university could do a survey for Tay Sachs status amongst its members. Presumably Tay Sachs heterozygotes would be overrepresented 1-2 standard deviations above the Jewish American cognitive median.

Thermodynamics blog trial balloon   posted by Razib @ 1/07/2006 10:45:00 AM

I recieved this email this morning re: thermodynamics:

I think this is an excellent idea, and I think GNXP can help make it happen. I would like to request a GNXP open thread specifically to explore the possibility of a group blog on this and related topics - information theory, probability and statistics, maybe even fluid dynamics... There is a whole universe of topics which could flow together in such a blog, it's just a matter of getting an initial combination of people and topics that will subsequently be self-sustaining.

If you do decide to make such a post, feel free to quote this email.

I actually think that basic physics and chemistry are pretty important, so if someone is willing to start up a weblog on this topic and it finds a niche that isn't already taken up in the 'blogosphere' I will certainly link immediately. But unlike something like evolutionary theory, cosmology or psychometrics I have had little long term success in keeping anyone's attention on these topics in personal conversation since they often have no strong opinions a priori and are happy to stay that way.

Update: OK, the discussion on topic should move to Phase Transitions.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Readings....   posted by Razib @ 1/06/2006 08:28:00 PM

Below are the top books that people clicked via this website, and the top books purchased in 2005....

  1. Survival of the Prettiest - 1183
  2. Why Sex Matters - 1114
  3. The Journey of Man - 1075
  4. The Seven Daughters of Eve - 870
  5. The History and Geography of Genes - 840
  6. Consilience - 746
  7. The Real Eve - 736
  8. The Red Queen - 717
  9. Religion Explained - 616
  10. The Nurture Assumption - 561
Top purchases (with number of clicks):
  1. The Journey of Man - 6, 1075
  2. A History of Byzantine State and Society - 4, 496
  3. Guns, Germs and Steel - 4, 521
  4. Race - 4, 4
  5. Evolution - 3, 156
  6. Handbook of Prayers - 3, 0
  7. The Biology of Peace and War - 3, 30
  8. The Essential Difference - 3, 547
  9. The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople - 3, 87
  10. The Seven Daughters of Eve - 3, 870

John McWhorter 24-7   posted by Razib @ 1/06/2006 07:58:00 PM

John McWhorter has a new book out, Winning the Race, so he's making the media rounds. He was just on Talk of the Nation, News & Notes with Ed Gordon and On Point. Keep an eye (and ear) out for him.

An old debate....   posted by Razib @ 1/06/2006 04:41:00 PM

A few passages from The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 -

page 231: "Moreover, Albert did nothing to diminish or conceal the "naturalistic" tendencies of Aristotelian tradition. He acknowledged (with every other medieval thinker) that God is ultimately the cause of everything, but he argued that God customarily works through natural causes and that the natural philosopher's obligation was to take the latter to their limit. What is remarkable is Albert's willingness to adhere to this methodological prescription even in his discussion of a biblical miracle-Noah's flood. Noting that some people wish to confine the discussion of floods (including Noah's) to a statement of divine will, Albert pointed out that God employs natural causes to accomplish his purposes; and the philosopher's task is not to investigate the causes of God's will, but to inquire into the natural causes by which God's will produces its effect. To introduce divine causality into a philosophical discussion of Noah's flood would be a violation of the proper boundaries between philosophy and theology."

One page 235, there is a section on a radical faction of Aristotelians who went beyond St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, "Boethius thus yielded in the end to the articles of the faith, but in the meantime he displayed an intensely rationalistic orientation. He argued that there is no questional capable of rational investigation that the philosopher is not entitled to investigate and resolve. 'It belongs to the philosopher to determine every question which can be disputed by reason; for every question which can be disputed by rational argument falls within some part of being. But the philosopher investigates all being-natural, mathematical, and divine. Therefore it belongs to the philosopher to determine every question which can be disputed by rational arguments.' Boethius went on to argue that the natural philosopher cannont even consider the possibility of creation, because to do so would introduce supernatural principles that are out of places in the philosophical realm. Likewise the philosopher denies the resurrection of the dead, becauase according to natural causes (to which the natural philosopher limits himself) such a thing is impossible."

You can read Aristotle's Children, a popular history of the Aristotelian Renaissance of the 13th century, to see how the arguments of the nominalist (as opposed to the Thomist) William of Ockham also gave rise to scientific reductionism (without intention). My only point here is to note that history does repeat itself, and so does intellectual history obviously. Methodological naturalism is a new word for a very old idea, which likely emerges inevitably from the interface of the rational human mind given leisure to explore the ordered world around us.

Please note though that the Roman Catholic Church adheres to Thomism, and this Aristotle flavored philosophy needs to be kept in mind when reading their opinions on matters such as Intelligent Design. For instance, in First Things Christoph Cardinal Schonborn notes:

In science, the discipline and methods are such that design-more precisely, formal and final causes in natural beings-is purposefully excluded from its reductionist conception of nature.

The reality is that in this world very few people are familiar with the Four Causes of Aristotle. Schonborn admits in the essay that he assumed his op-ed to The New York Times would be misunderstood, but it seems he wanted to throw out a challenge both to reductionist science of the sort he defines above and fideism, which is central to many Protestant theologies (including ones espoused by central figures in Intelligent Design). Though I am personally not optimistic that the Roman Catholic Church's broad understanding of philosophy will gain much traction in the forseeable future, I suppose it has to start somewhere (my own impression, perhaps misguided, is that the average educated American Catholic is less aware of the details of Thomism than they were 50 years ago).

A larger problem in the religion vs. science circus that crops up whenever a neo-Scopes surfaces in the public eye is that the texture and detail of the various positions in the debate get obscured. Within the "anti-evolution" camp the current intellectual stars like William Dembski and Michael Behe seem to espouse an extremely attenuated philosophy which accepts macroevolution, which is at radical variance with the position of the half of Americans who are their natural supporters. I am in fact confused as to what difference William Dembski (sympathetic to Eastern Orthodoxy) Michael Behe (Roman Catholic) would have with Kenneth Miller (Roman Catholic) in regards to evolution in the details, as opposed to points of emphasis and meta-scientific philosophy. There are surely deep philosophical nuances I'm missing, but their eruption into the public square inevitably results in the details being swept up in the vortex of greater social forces.

Addendum: I want to note something, Schonborn uses Will Provine as an case of someone who connects evolution to atheism. He points out that he could assemble many more quotations. That is the problem with arguing with people about whether evolutionary theory is an ideology with metaphysical baggage necessarily attached, if you present the argument in an essay format and you have 10 slots to support your thesis you will easily fill them. That is why I shrugged off the declaration by a GNXP reader that they could point to many instances of an ideological bias by those who claim that evolutionary theory invalidates theism, the absolute number is far less relevant than the proportion, and I am skeptical that most people who study and examine evolutionary theory in a scientific context really have a deep interest in the intersection between their science and philosophical or socio-ethical concerns. Some might contend that "evolutionists" should police their "own," but the whole point is that there isn't a Church of Evolution. Of course humans have a confirmatory bias, so you see what is sensational and what you want to see. Life is a big sample space. Select from it as you will.

Sperm competition, part n   posted by Razib @ 1/06/2006 03:08:00 PM

The incidence of superfecundation and of double paternity in the general population:

It is estimated that at least one dizygotic (DZ) twin maternity in twelve is preceded by superfecundation (the fertilization of two ova by sperm from different coitions). Presumably this parameter varies from population to population eg. with coital rates and rates of double ovulation. Sometimes superfecundation occurs by two different men. The frequency with which this occurs must depend on rates of infidelity (promiscuity). It is suggested that among DZ twins born to married white women in the U.S., about one pair in 400 is bipaternal. The incidence may be substantially higher in small selected groups of dizygotic twin maternities, eg. those of women engaged in prostitution.

How frequent is heteropaternal superfecundation?

A newly discovered case of heteropaternal superfecundation (HS) is reported. Three HS cases were found in a parentage test database of 39,000 records. The frequency of HS among dizygotic twins whose parents were involved in paternity suits is 2.4%. Although the study population appears similar to the general population with respect to twinning data, inferences about the frequency of HS in other populations should be drawn with caution.

Related: Sperm competition.

Razib abroad   posted by Razib @ 1/06/2006 12:56:00 PM

I will be in New York City between the 12th and 20th & Cambridge (Mass.) on the weekend of the 21st-22nd. I am planning on meeting up with some gnxp people already, but I am open getting together with other intelligent readers. If you are interested, email me at razibabroad - at - gmail.com....

Update: FYI, I plan on putting together a small cc: list and just setting up a 'meet up' style thing, probably somewhere in the lower half of Manhattan.

Darwin Texts   posted by DavidB @ 1/06/2006 04:07:00 AM

It's a while since I posted anything, as I've been busy with other stuff. I don't have anything substantial to offer at the moment, but here is a link to a website I just found which has online texts of nearly all the works of Charles Darwin.

Apologies if this has been linked before, but if so it can't do any harm to repeat it!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Sending the kid out to fill the gas tank.   posted by TangoMan @ 1/05/2006 12:26:00 AM

Now that a settlement in the Russia-Ukraine gas war has been achieved we'll never know if the Ukranians would have been as innovative as the Chinese at tapping into illicit natural gas supplies.

Photo Courtesy of National Geographic. The accompanying article is here.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The End of Insight - monkeys lost in their own castles   posted by Fly @ 1/03/2006 11:16:00 AM

This article relates to the nature of belief. When science explanations are beyond the comprehension of intelligent adults, science becomes unsatisfying dogma.

"In my own field of complex systems theory, Stephen Wolfram has emphasized that there are simple computer programs, known as cellular automata, whose dynamics can be so inscrutable that there's no way to predict how they'll behave; the best you can do is simulate them on the computer, sit back, and watch how they unfold. Observation replaces insight. Mathematics becomes a spectator sport.

If this is happening in mathematics, the supposed pinnacle of human reasoning, it seems likely to afflict us in science too, first in physics and later in biology and the social sciences (where we're not even sure what's true, let alone why).

When the End of Insight comes, the nature of explanation in science will change forever. We'll be stuck in an age of authoritarianism, except it'll no longer be coming from politics or religious dogma, but from science itself."

In the near future Google will determine what we "know" or "believe". Asking the Internet will be as easy as asking our own memory and the answers will be more reliable. We won't "know" why; we will only know that the Google answers are right. Google will be the modern oracle.

Perhaps we can avoid this fate by expanding human intelligence and consciousness. Or perhaps a complex universe just won't fit into a human brain.

Real science has curves   posted by Razib @ 1/03/2006 10:29:00 AM

In a discussion thread below the character of scientific 'revolutions' is mooted. John has a few comments in regards to organic chemistry. I would like to throw out the possibility that an intersection with innate cognitive intuitions and biases are necessary preconditions of a science being sexy. So, organic chemistry, or anatomy, for example, won't be generating a 'popular science' arm to leverage discoveries because there aren't widely dispersed ideas about organic chemistry or anatomy lodged within both cognitive and cultural substrates to engage. In contrast, evolutionary biology directly contradicts aspects of folk biology. Neuroscience addresses our sense of self and challenges dualist biases. Newtonian physics overturned some of the intuitions of folk physics. Cosmology and particle physics point toward the domain of culturally mediated and cognitive ontologies. This is not to say that the pre-scientific paradigms are all innate, but the likely intersection of human social systems and our cognitive hardware might 'canalize' our adult viewpoints toward a particular state which modern science would have to address. I recall Michael Ruse once noting how most of philosophy of biology is actually philosophy of evolutionary biology, which suggests that the 'deep' questions that philosophy attempts to address also derive from intuitive starting points. Scientists take advantage of these biases, The Genographic Project tries to sell the public on a scientific narrative which can sketch out their geneologies, even though the real results are far less world changing.

Of course, that doesn't make organic chemistry or anatomy irrelevant. Fundamentally we know that these are both important fields. Consider one GNXP reader waxing on about how they considered it far more important that the public understood the basics of the laws of thermodynamics than evolutionary biology (probably true), all the while posting copious comments on a weblog devoted in large part to evolutionary biology (I suggested that they start a weblog about thermodynamics!). Even though cosmology, evolutionary biology and particle physics might be less practical in the proximate sense than organic chemistry, chemical engineering or even an understanding of compound interest, they address ultimate questions whose significance derives from pre-existing notions.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Don't pretend, believe....   posted by Razib @ 1/01/2006 06:35:00 PM

I haven't said much about Islam recently, though it has been one of my interests which I have pursued periodically. In large part this is due to ennui in regards to this topic, as well as my perception that focusing on science tends to bring much quicker results in terms of cognitive satisfaction. Human beings often develop the conceit that our ideas are particularly special and nuanced in relation to the median, and I am no different. On the whole I tire of those who would minimize the genuine challenge that modal Islamic values pose to the Western consensus, and contrarily claim that the rise of Islam in the West is a good thing because it adds another thread to the fabric of diversity. Yet, I also tend to feel that many of the people who sense the danger that Islam poses to the Enlightenment project are not particularly well informed on the details of the history that they attempt to marshal to support their intuition. Of course, human beings are given only a finite allotment of time, so fluency with a particular topic is not always possible and one must make decisions based on the set of facts on hand if those decisions can no longer be deferred pending more data. Nevertheless, the encapsulation of thought into prose for the purpose of communication raises the bar, and gross historical errors or lack of fluency with the context of facts tends to weaken the force of the argument. Process matters a great deal to me, and if someone agrees with me because of fallacious arguments I am not necessarily excited about that agreemant.

When the riots in France broke out I wasn't surprised. Something restive and sinister in European Islam has clearly been simmering under the surface for several years now, as illustrated by the Madrid and London terror attacks, or the stabing of Theo van Gogh, etc. etc. But the details that the riots were multiracial (i.e., black Africans, both Christian and Muslim might have been involved) and that many of the youth might not have been particularly religious were confusing. Some on the American Right seemed to take the opportunity to attack France by utilizing the inevitable accusation of racism, while many on the Left seemed to be taken aback as the mental model of "it is always better in Europe" was now being challenged by the reality that the "race problem" was more problematic across the Atlantic. Some individuals made the call for affirmative action and multiculturalism in contravention of the republican tradition of equality before the law, socialism with a more color conscious face. Others argued for free market economics and looser labor laws.

After the past few years it seems that Sam Huntington's observation in The Clash of Civilizations that Islam has bloody borders is on first glance obviously correct. Though this truth can be mitigated by observing that the geography of the Dar-al-Islam facilitates inter-civilizational conflict (the higher perimeter:area ratio vis-a-vi other clusters), the recurrent problems with Muslim minorities across many nations suggests the robusticity of the observation. A common dismissal of Huntington as a racist or shoddy scholar are in my opinion simply dodges of the truth at the heart of his contention. Islam is a genuine problem. The scope of the problem may be disputed, but that does not negate that the problem exists, sometimes manifesting in very a personal manner.

The problem of ideal types

There about ~1 billion Muslims. Within Islam there are 4 primary schools of Sunni sharia as well as dozens of Shia groups and heterodox sects. The religion spans much of the Old World, and cuts across hundreds of cultures. Even within the immigrant communites newly settled in the West there is a great deal of ethnic and religious diversity. The classic problem with discourse on the Islamic question can be highlighted as follows:

  • Person A points out the problem with "Islam"
  • Person B points out that there are Muslims who behave in contradiction to said problem
  • Person A responds that these individuals are not true Muslims, or do not represent most Muslims
  • Person B responds that the individuals who are not problematic are the real Muslims, and there are many interpretations
This sort of discussion might seem idiotic, but in the generality it is often recapitulated in forum after forum. I used the term modal very specifically above, after all, there are out gay Muslims, that does not make them typical. When we use a term like "Muslim" we (non-Muslims) are expressing the gestalt understanding of the averaged traits of a group. The problem with this term is that the background assumptions vary from person to person, and the diversity is often great enough that if you neglect to state the background assumptions individuals will use it as an opening to offer evidence that refutes the Platonic ideal you have putatively espoused. When Muslims refer to Islam they are often simply substituting their interpretation of Islam for the totality of the religion (i.e., there is a wide variance in modesty norms across Islamic subcultures, but those who hew with a rather stringent standard simply conflate their own particular religious sensibilities with the only true form of Islam). I have discussed Salafis in particular because they are the locus of the particular problem of transnational terrorism. Using some narrow terminology is important in cutting through the shit since very few people will defend violent Salafis.

But, once the point about Salafis is accepted, I think it is important to address the issue of what defines a Muslim and hit the reality that the problem can not simply be cordoned off to a particular sect, whether they are a natural development or an aberration is to some extent a matter of semantics. After 9-11 many Muslims (and non-Muslims) made statements about "what Islam" is and whether the 9-11 terrorists could be true "Muslims." Using deductive inference from "truths" they made various assertions about the character of Islam and attempted to match individuals up to the predictions implied by the axioms. In actuality I think that it is important to acknowledge, at least in intellectual discussion, that definitions of many religions come close being nominal assertions, which make deductive inferences parlor games. Nominalism is view that concepts exist primarily as names rather than terms that identify with real ideal types. One could assert for example that a Christian is deductively defined by adherence to the Nicene Creed, but the problem is that there are self-identified Christian sects (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses) who reject the Nicene Creed. The most parsimonious definition of Islam revolves around the Five Pillars of Islam, yet there are groups that are tentatively accepted as Muslim whose adherence to these axioms is nominal at best. I have argued before that much of theology is quasi-propositional, though it mimics the forms of propositional logic and deductive inference, it is socially mediated. The evolution of an isolated form of Chinese Islam is I believe empirical support for this contention, when separated from the consensus of the learned ulema, Chinese Muslims developed practices and theories radically at variance with the rest of the Islamic world, though they began from the same source texts and axioms.

The problem of source

The human brain is a peculiar device, and it doesn't always operate the way it perceives itself to operate. Humans commonly engage in fabulation where they attribute reasons and causes for opinions and behaviors which seem to be the domain of reflective intellect. Studies of implicit memory show quite clearly that there are many "under the hood" cognitive processes which influence how we behave and interact with other individuals and our social matrix are hidden from our consciousness. Laboratory subjects can be "primed" to be biased through artiface in selecting a particular set of offered choices. When asked to give reasons for why they behave how they behave individuals can concoct very plausible narratives with a coherent logical structure. This problem is more commonly illustrated with "split brain" patients, whose verbal Left hemisphere is disconnected from the visual Right hemisphere, but in some ways all humans exhibit a great deal of disconnect and modular subconscious processing of inputs. Not only do individuals have difficulty gleaning the causes behind their actions during the present, they are shockingly unable to accurately offer up the trajectory of their own cognitive evolution in regards to a particular topic. In his book Search for Memory the psychologist Daniel Schacter recounts studies which show that individuals who were tracked over a 15 year period simply tended to back-project their opinions of a given time into the past when in fact their opinions had changed. In Schacter's case it was attitudes toward racial and political issues which had shifted during the period between 1970 and 1985. Subjects in the 1980s seem to have recalled that they had the same opinions on racial and political issues in 1970. The psychologists had tested them in 1970 and observed that in reality the individuals opinions tended to match their social matrix at any given momemt, so when the social matrix shifted so did their opinions (of course, they knew that in 1970 society was less racially egalitarian in outlook than 1985, but they perceived themselves to have been ahead of the curve). This makes much more sense of the oft-noted fact that surveys of voting patterns are not explicable in terms of the data that we have in election returns. Many fewer people claim to have voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 than actually did, while many more individuals claim to have voted for John F. Kennedy than the close 1960 election would suggest.

The way this relates to Islam is obvious, don't trust terrorists when they give you their reasons for why they behave how they behave. If a terrorist says that the "Koran says x," be careful. There is a strong likelihood that the behavior they attribute as legitimized by the Koran is not legitimized by the Koran, and they have not even read the Koran in its original classical Arabic, a language which is highly allusive and prone to subjective interpretation. It is natural for us in the post-Freudian Age to seek the root causes in personal trauma or childhood events, but we should be cautious about such an individualistic explanation. Likely, on average, there are a host of intersecting parameters which result in the developmental path that induces one to behave in such a violent fashion toward "kafirs." But the actions of individuals are not fully intelligible outside of their social matrix, and that matrix not only feeds inputs into the individual mind but it buffers and smooths that mind's development over a period of time. That social matrix can also offer convenient fabulations which can rationalize and justify their behavior (i.e., "they were unclean dogs, animals, not humans"). An especially egregious example in the context of Islam is the historical enslavement of fellow believers. Since only non-Muslims can be enslaved by Muslims, the slavers got appropriate instruction from religious notables that the Muslims enslaved were actually apostates because of trivial infractions (or perceived infractions). This sort of ingenuity makes a mockery of the idea that texts serve as any sort of constraint upon capricious intent when there is no social buffer that interprets the law in the spirit it was intended (of course some law is better than nothing, as there is an overhead in suborning said law through verbal gymnastics, there was a reason that Paul was vocal about declaring his Roman citizenship).

The problem of definition

This moves me to the topic of defining who and what Muslims are. As I have suggested above, Muslim states and potentates have often simply declared other Muslims apostates or non-Muslims to justify wars. Parallels are clear in the case of Christianity where "Crusades" were sometimes declared against political enemies who were Christian. But there is a clear problem in definition when we move to subgroups of Muslims, i.e., the "moderate Muslim." I have seen some atheists, like Salman Rushdie, defined as a "moderate Muslim." Though an ethnic definition for Islam is not entirely unjustified (according to Muslim law you are a Muslim if you father is a Muslim), in the context of transnationalist terror this not always helpful in light of the overrrepresentation of converts in radical Salafism, or the reality that many of the Muslims themselves "converted" to the Salafist sect in young adulthood from alternative Muslim traditions.

So we must move to the realm of ideas, profession of beliefs. The term "moderate Muslim" is meant to imply the central tendency within the distribution of Muslims. Turkey is often held up as a moderate Muslim culture, yet I have pointed out that Turkish Muslims are rather like Americans in their religious sensibilities. And yet would we consider Americans "moderate Christians"? The reality is that Americans are particularly conservative in comparison to Christians from other parts of the world. Though analogies between Islam and Christianity can yield fruit, the correspondences must be normalized so that we can interpret the terms in their appropriate context. If one conceives of a belief system as existing within the minds of believers, one can conceive of a distribution of beliefs which range from "liberal" to "conservative," with other axes like "quietist" vs. "activist," or "pacifist" vs. "violent." Even if the gross morphology of distrubtion of Islam and Christianity resemble each other, it seems reasonable to conclude that their positions on the axes are shifted over from each other (or perhaps time shifted), a "moderate Muslim" is probably cognate to a "conservative Christian." In other words, the modal/median (assume normal distribution) center of Islam might very well be where evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity in the United States is. To the Right of the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian mainstream are the Christian Reconstructionists. In many ways Christian Reconstructionists are Calvinistic Protestants who resemble Islamists a great deal. Though influential above their numbers, they are marginal actors on the American landscape, which is witnessing a slide toward less doctrinal rigor and an increase in the numbers of those who espouse no specific religion. In any case, you can computationally investigate the importance that a mean has on the frequency at the extremes of a range, the large numbers of Islamist radicals and the relative paucity of liberals may simply be an outcome of the distribution's center of gravity.

The distribution is important because as I have stated, humans develop within social matrices. In genetics the norm of reaction is a concept which illustrates the non-linear response of genotypes to environmental context. I have talked about the applicability of this concept in terms of political orientation. It is also clearly relevant in terms of the heritability of religiousness. While a very religious youth might become a violent Protestant radical in the milieu of 16th Germany, in the United States they are more likely to become involved in parachurch groups. The German example is illustrative, as it seems plausible that catastrophes like militant Protestant Munster theocracy naturally resulted in the generation of quietist pacific radical Protestants like the Mennonites as a cultural backlash. Though on the finer levels gross sociological typologies mislead, at the broadest scopes of time and space when conceiving of organic civilizational development cultural types are the only verbal tools available to us. The norms, folkways and traditions of a given place and time are contingent upon what has gone before, so the slow but inexorable trend toward religious liberty and freedom of conscious in the West can be traced across the span of time in Europe between 1517, 1648, and the various random walks toward the target of religious liberty which came to full fruition with the emancipation of the Jews as the 19th century progressed. The turning of disaffected youth who were born into and grew up in a Muslim cultural matrix toward violent radicalism can be considered an individual's journey, but that trek can not be comprehended unless one knows where the journey began. If one imagines that an individual is standing on a football field and stumbling randomly up and down between each goal post, the probability of entering either end zone is proportional to the initial distance from each end zone. To restate it in terms of population genetics, the probability of fixation for a neutral allele is equal to the initial frequency, i.e., for a mutant, 1/(2Ne). If you selectively sampled a population so that a particular allele was exhibited at a higher frequency in the isolated daughter population, than that allele would have a correspondently higher probability of fixation with that subpopulation over time. In short, the, the flash frying of many non-Western cultures in the cauldron of modernity has resulted in the transposition of medieval and pre-modern cultures into a vat of advanced technology and semi-affluence which those values were not designed for. To fall back on a genetic analogy, the end result of long term directional selection with a moderate selection coefficient (s) on a particular trait (or suite of traits) may not be recapitulated by powerful short term selection on the same traits. Consider the reality that milder selection might allow the genetic background to adjust over time as modifier genes may mitigate some of the deleterious pleiotropic effects of the selected alleles (large jumps in phenotype also tend to overshoot fitness peaks as noted by Fisher and illustrated analytically by him). Additionally, on quantitative traits mutation can replenish variation relatively quickly, but extremely fast selection can outpace this replishment. Finally, powerful selection can reduce the effective population so (as only "fit" individuals reproduce) that random genetic drift becames more salient and can induce the fixation of negative alleles into the genetic background (recall when selection is more powerful when 2s >> 1/(2Ne), but a high s means the effective population drops fast because of the non-reproduction of the majority of the previous generation which was not "fit").

The genetic analogy was not meant to be an accurate description of the exact parallel dynamics. Rather, it was to illustrate that the changes wrought by modernity, affluence, mass society and jarring technological innovation, likely have had a qualitatively different effect on Islamic society than they ever had on Western Christian cultures. Though it might be helpful in some contexts to analogize Salafis to Calvinists, or assert that "Islam needs an Enlightenment," these correspondences are extremely weak and should be used with that knowledge in mind. The Enlightenment was fostered by an elite repubic of letters, when even sufferage for the bourgeoise was an alien concept. The Reformed Calvinist engagement with the text of the scripture is in some ways not possible in Islam because of the ignorance of classical Arabic that is nearly universal among the non-clerical class of believers.

Reason and emotion

In Descarte's Error Antonio Damasio makes that case that emotion is crucial to make reasoned judgements. But mixing emotion and reason in a helter skelter fashion does little good, though reason may serve passion, it does a poor job if passion overwhelms it. Though self-reflectively humans give lip service to reason, many of our decisions are dictated by our passions. When no reasonable data or chain of logic is on hand, passion is all we have to go on. But too often it seems that emotional sincerity overwhelms a cool analysis of the way the world is. This was pretty obvious to me after a reader stated that the West could destroy the Muslim world in nuclear holocaust if need be, after I had pointed out that it seems possible that 80% of the Salafist terrorist network might be residing on the soil of Western nations. Emotionally satisfying as a military show of force might be, it does not always get the job done, especially when you find out that the object of your ire has little to do with the threat that you perceive. I have spoken before of the need to make our priorities clear. There is a big difference between our course of action when faced with existential threats and when confronted with a long term adversary.

Unjustified emotion

But reason serves and ends, and that end is the good society. The good society is a subjective perception. A libertarian would place the non-aggression principle first and foremost. A devout Muslim in the Islamist mode would prioritize a reconstructed Caliphate. A radical feminist may dream of a gender-egalitarian society. And so forth. Humans cry and laugh in the context of their small joys, but as thinking, rational beings, despite our reflexive and subconscious selves, we take pleasure and comfort in the vision of the society which we believe to be good and true. An classical Greek reveled in the back and forth discourse with fellow citizens in his polis. A Roman was a citizen of his republic. A Hindu existed within a matrix of social relations where their jati served as the axis mundi. A Confucian mandarin was grounded by filial piety. Certainly these truisms elide over the textured complexity of a individual life and the society within which that individual lives their life. It ignores the reality of common joys and triumphs and fears which unite us as human beings. It disregards the variations that exist across and through all societies, divisions and axes of power which are also human universals.

The values that bind a society are not simply abstract or idealized truths. They take shape in day to day interactions, and in the decisions we make as human beings. Honor killings in Pakistan might shock us, but if we partition our emotional outrage away from our reasoning faculties we might be able to understand how such behavior is a natural byproduct of social structures which influence particular cultural values. If the behavior of one individual can reflect upon the reputation of a whole clan, than it is not surprising that violations, or even perceived violations, of communal norms may bring about harsh and ruthless retribution. Humans are creatures of conformity, the people of Kant burned millions of fellow humans in part because of group conformity (I do not make recourse to the 'authoritarian personality,' I believe that most peoples are capable of genocide on a basic level). Americans raised on apple pie committed atrocities at Mylai in the heat of battle.

A partitioning of emotion and reason allows us to consider the brutal truths in regards to honor killings. Rather than asking why individuals behave in such a fashion, as if they were irrational beasts, we might reflect on the structural conditions of the society and the values that it expresses which allows such behavior to be normative, and then realize why our own society does not allow such acts to be committed in the name of 'honor' (though was I the only one to notice that it seemed a bit unchivalrous for Sean Connery to try Julia Ormond for adultry as if it was a capital crime at the end of First Knight?). Perhaps it may allow us to realize how precious the values we hold dear are, how hard won they have been, and how precarious they might be.

Hobbes and Severus

Thomas Hobbes proposed that we cede to the state, the monarch, absolute power so as to safeguard human society from its natural state of brutish savagery. In the early 3rd century as the Roman Empire fell prey to barbarian incursions, social decay and general chaos, the emperor Septimius Severus unclenched the naked hand of despotism, and the pretense toward republican values was dropped in favor of pure monarchism. In my post A prayer for the Emperor I opined that perhaps history was, in part, repeating itself, and the polyglot empire of multitudinous cults that is America would have to rediscover motifs and forms which once united a previous cosmopolis. Certainly not original thoughts, but perhaps inevitable ones, which is why they are mooted so often.

Though Hobbes and Severus do not present us pleasant choices, they are simply faces of reality. Thomas Hobbes was not an evil man, his life spanned a time of chaos and change in England. Religious faction and civil war tore England from end to end, and a king was beheaded in the name of parliament and its liberties, but truly by the force of personality of Oliver Cromwell and the point of the gun aimed by the army he led. Septimius Severus was born during the time of the "Good Emperors," but saw the decline into barbarity ushered in by the reign of Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus. Severus might have been a despot, but one of his predecessors purchased the emperorship at auction from the Praetorian Guard, so the majesty of Rome had long been torn to shreds before he came to soil the purple. His reign saw consolidation and stability in the face of cracks in the Roman peace, a peace that was broken during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher king beloved of intellectuals, as Germans began to swarm on the borders of Rome and broke through the limes. Stoical virtue is no defense against the capricious forces of nature and demography.

The historical digression serves to underline the point that easy and simple choices are unlikely in the future. If we know what values we truly stand for, what truths we hold dear, than hard choices will become more bearable, and we will be able to make them more quickly. The truths are matters of emotion, points which hold us together and endgender amity between fellow citizens who can face each other unveiled in the public square. How they are implemented and actualized in the real world are best left up to reason. The specter of Hobbes and Severus are on the horizon, and perhaps like death they are inevitable, but life does not have to be nasty and brutish before its completion.

The futility of it all

We live in a world of breath-taking affluence and instantaneous change. And yet the vast majority of the world's population gives lip service to gods and men who lived between 600 and 600, from Buddha to Muhammad. Our posthuman future seems to be rapidly approaching, though whether it will be a postsentient future is yet to be decided. We live in the shadow of madmen who swear fealty to an empire that never existed. Prudence is best when possible, but haste is necessary when oblivion is ready to swallow us. Whatever the future holds our various opinions will have some weight, trivial or not. I do not ask anyone to accept the truths I accept on faith, I simply demand that those who declare that they worship the same gods I do take a stand with me when the lines are drawn for the most imminent battle. In the end I do not believe in personal or cosmic immortality, but I do believe, and that is all that matters while I breathe.

P.S. Happy New Year!

"Dangerous Ideas"   posted by Razib @ 1/01/2006 05:33:00 PM

Steve brings to my notice that John Brockman is asking about "dangerous ideas" over at Edge. Greg Cochran's response might interest some readers, as will Steven Pinker's. There's a lot in there, but Irene Pepperberg, Keith Devlin, Timothy Taylor and Robert Shapiro gave responses that jumped out at me. Bart Kosko's bell curve response is a must read. Skimming over the responses the idea that there isn't a soul and the perception that our understanding of the world around us is cognitively constrained seem to be relatively common opinions as to what is dangerous.