Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No sh*t psychology   posted by Razib @ 9/30/2009 10:25:00 PM

Women Prefer Taken Guys:
The most striking result was in the responses of single women. Offered a single man, 59 per cent were interested in pursuing a relationship. But when he was attached, 90 per cent said they were up for the chase.

This is just a subset of the wisdom of Seinfeld.


High Anxiety   posted by Razib @ 9/30/2009 08:45:00 PM

Understanding the Anxious Mind. Jerome Kagan, Robert Plomin and Steven Pinker all make appearances. From personality psychology to fMRI.


Sweeps & Markov Models   posted by Razib @ 9/30/2009 01:53:00 PM

Detecting Selective Sweeps: A New Approach Based on Hidden Markov Models. Over at Mailund on the Internet.


Exploratory copy number variation study   posted by Razib @ 9/30/2009 12:48:00 AM

Identification of Copy Number Variants Defining Genomic Differences among Major Human Groups:
Overall, our results provide a comprehensive view of relevant copy number changes that might play a role in phenotypic differences among major human populations, and generate a list of interesting candidates for future studies.

The discussion is a little heavy on how the results might have errors...caution! Here's the PCA:

(if you're reading this weblog, I assume you know what "CEU" refers to and such)


Monday, September 28, 2009

Great Depression added 6.2 years to life expectancy   posted by Razib @ 9/28/2009 11:43:00 PM

Life and death during the Great Depression:
Recent events highlight the importance of examining the impact of economic downturns on population health. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the most important economic downturn in the U.S. in the twentieth century. We used historical life expectancy and mortality data to examine associations of economic growth with population health for the period 1920-1940. We conducted descriptive analyses of trends and examined associations between annual changes in health indicators and annual changes in economic activity using correlations and regression models. Population health did not decline and indeed generally improved during the 4 years of the Great Depression, 1930-1933, with mortality decreasing for almost all ages, and life expectancy increasing by several years in males, females, whites, and nonwhites. For most age groups, mortality tended to peak during years of strong economic expansion (such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-). In contrast, the recessions of 1921, 1930-1933, and 1938 coincided with declines in mortality and gains in life expectancy. The only exception was suicide mortality which increased during the Great Depression, but accounted for less than 2% of deaths. Correlation and regression analyses confirmed a significant negative effect of economic expansions on health gains. The evolution of population health during the years 1920–1940 confirms the counterintuitive hypothesis that, as in other historical periods and market economies, population health tends to evolve better during recessions than in expansions.

Also see ScienceDaily. I guess these papers are seeing the light of day because they're "relevant" again, but apparently these sorts of counterintuitive data have been an open secret for a while.


Creativity & psychosis   posted by Razib @ 9/28/2009 12:49:00 PM

Possible confirmation of folk wisdom? Genes for Psychosis and Creativity: A Promoter Polymorphism of the Neuregulin 1 Gene Is Related to Creativity in People With High Intellectual Achievement:
Why are genetic polymorphisms related to severe mental disorders retained in the gene pool of a population? A possible answer is that these genetic variations may have a positive impact on psychological functions. Here, I show that a biologically relevant polymorphism of the promoter region of the neuregulin 1 gene (SNP8NRG243177/rs6994992) is associated with creativity in people with high intellectual and academic performance. Intriguingly, the highest creative achievements and creative-thinking scores were found in people who carried the T/T genotype, which was previously shown to be related to psychosis risk and altered prefrontal activation.

Also see ScienceDaily


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Boredom   posted by Razib @ 9/27/2009 04:41:00 PM

Do readers of this weblog ever get bored? It seems that life is short, and there's so much to do and read. I understand that work can quite often be tedious and mind-numbing, but that's not quite what I'm talking about. What I'm referring to is having leisure or free time, and being bored because you don't know what to do with it. If I have leisure I have a stack of books on my "need to read" list. And yet I realize that the average person finds books boring. So I guess my question is this: can the intelligent ever really be bored when given leisure? Consider being left on an island without any books, social interactions, and even diverse topography. You still have a brain and lots of facts which you can peruse, reassemble, and analyze, correct? On the other hand, the average human seems to need a lot of exogenous sensory arousal. Movies, sports, drugs, parties, etc. When I was a younger man and spending time with my less intelligent friends it was critical that we "do something," after all there's only so much interest that conversation about sex and sports can elicit. On the other hand with intelligent friends there were many topics we could fall back on in lieu of doing something. Is my assessment of the average human off?


Race, plaque and disease   posted by Razib @ 9/27/2009 04:33:00 PM

Neutrophil Response to Dental Plaque by Gender and Race:
The inflammatory response, which has both genetic and environmental components, is a central mechanism linking oral and systemic diseases. We hypothesized that dental plaque accumulation over 21 days in the experimental gingivitis model would elicit systemic inflammatory responses [change in white blood cell (WBC) count and neutrophil activity], and that these responses would differ by gender/race. We recruited 156 healthy young adults, including black and white males and females. Plaque Index (PI), Gingival Index (GI), systemic WBC counts, and peripheral neutrophil oxidative activity were recorded. Overall, 128 participants completed the study. During the experimental phase, the correlation between PI and GI was 0.79. Total WBC and neutrophil counts did not change. Neutrophil activity increased in blacks but not whites, suggesting that there may be racial differences in the inflammatory response to dental plaque accumulation.

Don't genes like DARC track the nature of inflammatory response? And don't those genes exhibit a lot of African/non-African difference? Pointers, corrections and thoughts welcome in the comments.


Next year a child! Or not....   posted by Razib @ 9/27/2009 12:54:00 AM

Earlier this year I put a reader survey. One thing that stuck out was now few children readers of this weblog had. Here's a comparison with other demographics from the GSS:

Mean Number of Children For Men By For Age Classes
GSS, 2000-2008, Males Only
Age GNXP N GNXP All Males Bachelor's Degree Advanced Degree Atheists & Agnostics
18-25 84 0 0.24 0.09 (N too small, omitted) 0.28
26-35 140 0.21 1.06 0.53 0.68 0.8
36-45 97 0.9 1.79 1.73 1.56 1.29
46-65 108 1.57 2.22 1.93 2.06 1.82

Below the fold I've broken down by demographic for the GNXP male sample 46-65, which has an N of 108 total (though some questions were omitted for some individuals). I added the political extremes and centers together (e.g., Far Left + Center Left + Left = Left)

GNXP Males 46-65 # Of Children
N 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 Mean # Of Children
Middle Class 43 0.3 0.23 0.3 0.09 0.05 0.02 0 1.4
Upper Middle Class 40 0.25 0.15 0.3 0.18 0.08 0.03 0.03 1.85
Graduate Degree 59 0.27 0.12 0.37 0.15 0.05 0.02 0.02 1.73
Undergraduate Degree 33 0.33 0.3 0.18 0.12 0.03 0.03 0 1.29
Left 38 - - - - - - - 1.76
Libertarian 32 - - - - - - - 1.74
Right 24 - - - - - - - 1.32
Christian 25 0.2 0.04 0.44 0.2 0.08 0.04 0 1.44
No Religion 72 0.35 0.24 0.25 0.1 0.06 0.01 0 1.33

Struck by the fact that GNXP male readers who are upper middle class have more children than those who are middle class (subjective definition of course), and, that those with graduate degrees have more children than those with only undergraduate degrees.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Caste in India   posted by gcochran @ 9/26/2009 04:21:00 PM

David Reich says "There are populations that have lived in the same town and same village for thousands of years without exchanging genes." Sounds familiar.

If this was indeed the case, and if fitness payoffs differed significantly between castes - then there has almost certainly been genetic adaptation. Those whose ancestors lived a particular kind of life for a long time, with very low inward gene flow, should on average have traits that better fit them to that (past) way of life. This doesn't necessarily mean that they would better at the supposed formal role or purpose of that caste, more that they would be more successful (in a reproductive sense) in that niche . For example, depending on the reward structure, the soldier with greatest fitness might well be one who avoided combat.

Reich said that average inward gene flow in castes appears to have been less than than 1 in 30 per generation: that's low enough to allow this.

Same glasses edition   posted by Razib @ 9/26/2009 01:29:00 AM

John Hawks & I did a diavlog for Science Saturday. We decided it would be appropriate to synchronize with dark-rimmed glasses. Also, Mr. Parrot kind of decided it was an opportune time to make a huge racket by swinging his perch against the cage repeatedly. Just so you know....


Friday, September 25, 2009

Flatfish Gradual Evolution   posted by DavidB @ 9/25/2009 03:25:00 AM

Having recently posted on the subject of Charles Darwin's 'gradualism', I was pleased to see a news report on research showing the gradual evolution of the distinctive head of flatfish, which, like many of Picasso's portraits, have both eyes on the same side of the face. In Darwin's time this case was raised, especially by St George Mivart, as a fatal objection to the theory of gradual evolution by natural selection, since (it was argued) there would be no advantage to having one eye gradually moving around the face from one side to the other. The new research claims to show that this is precisely what happened. I am not sure whether the research is entirely new, because I vaguely recall something similar before, but the new study is presumably fuller and more definitive.

Added: The researcher, Matt Friedmann, had an article in Nature last year. The Abstract is here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Straight porn makes you gay   posted by Razib @ 9/24/2009 10:54:00 PM

This is making the rounds of the internet:
Schwartz told the crowd about Jim Johnson, a friend of his who turned an old hotel into a hospice for gay men dying of AIDS. "One of the things he said to me," said Schwartz, "that I think is an astonishingly insightful remark...he said 'All pornography is homosexual pornography, because all pornography turns your sexual drive inwards."

There were murmurs and gasps from the crowd. "Now, think about that," said Schwartz. "And if you tell an 11-year-old boy about that, do you think he's going to want to get a copy of Playboy? I'm pretty sure he'll lose interest. That's the last thing he wants! You know, that's a good comment, it's a good point, and it's a good thing to teach young people."

This conversation is a window into the widely divergent worldviews of many conservative Christians in the United States from the rest of society. How many 11-year old boys are going to look for Playboy if they want porn today? Playboy isn't even considered porn by many today, I recall in the mid-1990s when the military removed pornographic magazines from stores on their bases they left Playboy. Next he'll be talking about the dangers of rock & roll! More seriously, I suspect many people would react to this sort of assertion as ludicrous on the face of it, but it seems possible that to this audience this is an insightful and plausible thesis (or, they feel that they have to pretend that it's insightful and plausible, as they may have personal experiential knowledge which falsifies it which they can not divulge because they aren't supposed to be having those experiences). Secondarily, I remember the serious reception of Naomi Wolf's thesis from several years ago that porn was turning men off from having sex with real women in some quarters. Since the 1970s the Religious Right and Feminist Left have oddly paralleled each other, asserting strange ideas about the nature of heterosexual males and their susceptibility to sexual visual stimulus, without bothering much to consult a wide range of men who engage in the behavior in consideration.

I won't deny that there might be some effect of porn on the margin. But really. Perhaps men turned gay by straight porn will show up in the comment threads and tell their story, or those who only have sex with their girlfriends when their internet connection is down (the latter may occur, but probably has more to do with World of Warcraft than porn, so porn related behavior changes only).

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The Staffordshire Hoard   posted by DavidB @ 9/24/2009 04:42:00 AM

Exciting news for Anglo-Saxonists here.

Vitamin D & athleticism   posted by Razib @ 9/24/2009 03:30:00 AM

Phys Ed: Can Vitamin D Improve Your Athletic Performance?:
Although few studies have looked closely at the issue of Vitamin D and athletic performance, those that have are suggestive. A series of strange but evocative studies undertaken decades ago in Russia and Germany, for instance, hint that the Eastern Bloc nations may have depended in part on sunlamps and Vitamin D to produce their preternaturally well-muscled and world-beating athletes. In one of the studies, four Russian sprinters were doused with artificial, ultraviolet light. Another group wasn't. Both trained identically for the 100-meter dash. The control group lowered their sprint times by 1.7 percent. The radiated runners, in comparison, improved by an impressive 7.4 percent.

More recently, when researchers tested the vertical jumping ability of a small group of adolescent athletes, Larson-Meyer says, "they found that those who had the lowest levels of Vitamin D tended not to jump as high," intimating that too little of the nutrient may impair muscle power. Low levels might also contribute to sports injuries, in part because Vitamin D is so important for bone and muscle health. In a Creighton University study of female naval recruits, stress fractures were reduced significantly after the women started taking supplements of Vitamin D and calcium.

I've been wondering about the effects of a sunny Mediterranean climate culturally. I always assumed that people in California and Florida were more athletic because the weather was nice all year, but perhaps there are other factors?


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Antitrust suits are brought by busted businesses, not consumer crusaders: Dairy edition   posted by agnostic @ 9/23/2009 10:22:00 PM

After reading Arthur De Vany's Hollywood Economics and Winners, Losers, and Microsoft by Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis, I got the impression that antitrust cases on the whole have been misguided and often remarkably stupid. Looking a little more into it, I found that economists now are pretty much agreed on that picture. Here is the entry on antitrust from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, which has a nice brief list of references. Most cases are not brought by public representatives, whether elected or self-appointed, but by private companies, often rivals of the defendant who are being driven out of business. Businessmen believe that competition is good if they win but bad if the other guy wins.

Because these facts are not widely known outside of economics circles, and because most of us learned bogus stories about Standard Oil, etc., in high school history class, I figured I'd illustrate them with a recent complaint about alleged anti-competitiveness in the dairy industry. The farmers on the losing side of the commercial contest claim one thing, but I show that the facts prove the opposite.

First, here are free WSJ articles about the small farmers' complaints and a follow-up on the response of the DoJ's antitrust division. We can ignore the complaints of all the farmers quoted, as well as the talk from politicians in dairy states, because the very first sentence says that there is a "price-depressing glut of milk." A monopoly harms consumers by restricting output in order to shoot prices up -- think of a diamond company that owns almost all diamonds but only allows a tiny amount to get into circulation. So right away we see that there is the exact opposite of monopolistic practices in dairy -- there is a glut rather than a dearth of output, and prices are plummeting rather than soaring.

Is the 2001 merger of two large dairy processors to "blame" for greater output and lower prices, as suggested by the complainers? No. The article doesn't provide a broader perspective, but I looked up data from the Statistical Abstract of the United States' agriculture tables. Here is the price of milk received by farmers from 1980 to 2009, both unadjusted and adjusted for inflation using the CPI:

There is clearly no change in the trend during or after 2001. The real price of milk has been falling at least since 1980, and in this decade it has actually slowed down -- it's "showing signs of stabilization," as we would hear in another context. The nominal price shows no trend up or down, just greater volatility starting around 1995. OK, what about output -- was the recent merger responsible for flooding the market? Let's have a look:

The left graph shows that output has been increasing steadily at least since 1970. The only somewhat recent change is that the increase appears to get faster around 1995, compared to its shallower rate from 1985 to 1995. Again we see no effect of the 2001 merger -- let alone a harmful downward one. The graph on the right shows the trend for milk cows' productivity, or output per cow: it too has been steadily increasing since at least 1970, probably due to some combination of better technology and selective breeding. Here there is no change whatsoever in the rate around 2001 -- it's basically linear after 1975.

So we have greater output, lower prices, and greater productivity. What about having "too much" market share? The articles say that Dean Foods buys less than 15% of the nation's supply of raw fluid milk, which is hardly a concentration of the industry -- even if market concentration mattered per se (which it doesn't). It is a red herring that it has market shares closer to 70% or 80% in some regions -- it could not try to restrict output and thus raise prices in these regions anyway. Why not? If Dean Foods tried to gouge consumers in Michigan, anyone in Michigan could simply buy milk from a state where the supposed monopolistic gouging was absent, transport it to Michigan, and sell it below what the monopolist was charging. And -- boom -- just like that, competition neuters gouging.

(Looking more generally, milk is a commodity like gold, so just imagine if Michigan residents were charged up the ass for gold, while Ohio residents weren't. You could get rich quick in Michigan by buying gold in Ohio and selling it in Michigan, low enough to undercut the monopolist but high enough to cover your costs. Since these get-rich-quick opportunities would quickly exhaust themselves and drive down the monopolist's prices, we don't expect to see such price-gouging even if the company did have an incredibly large market share.)

But are the big bad companies even driving the little guy out of business? In my quick search, I didn't find data for this year, but a press release on the state of US agriculture in 2007 says that it's the middle-sized farms that are getting cleared out, suggesting greater specialization (like Wal-Marts co-existing with tiny local boutiques):

The latest census figures show a continuation in the trend towards more small and very large farms and fewer mid-sized operations. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms with sales of less than $2,500 increased by 74,000. The number of farms with sales of more than $500,000 grew by 46,000 during the same period.

Census results show that the majority of U.S. farms are smaller operations.

Granted, this is for all farms, not just dairy farms, but I'd be surprised if the pattern were in the other direction for the subset of dairy farms. Again, even if it were, that might make us feel bad about small farmers going out of business, but it would not be evidence of monopoly, anti-competition, or whatever else. Output and productivity are going up, and prices are going down. It doesn't get any simpler than that.

As the CEE antitrust entry notes, most lawsuits are brought by companies who are suppliers or buyers of the targeted company. That's what we have here, since Dean Foods buys milk from the embittered dairy farmers. The incentive to make it an antitrust suit is that they can win three times the damages than if they didn't.

So the next time you hear about some company coming under antitrust scrutiny, just keep this big picture in mind. Pretty much all such cases are bogus. Rather than crusades in the consumers' interests, they are cowardly attempts by a loser to have the referee handicap the winner just as they're about to get knocked out. I encourage readers to look through some of the references in the CEE entry; it is quite illuminating to see how backwards the history of antitrust has been, and how baldly we were lied to in high school about Standard Oil and the rest.

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The genomes of Indians   posted by Razib @ 9/23/2009 04:23:00 PM

A new paper is getting a lot of press, Reconstructing Indian population history. I will probably have something up on ScienceBlogs tomorrow (have to read the supplements). But I thought I'd highlight a paragraph in the text:
We warn that 'models' in population genetics should be treated with caution. Although they provide an important framework for testing historical hypotheses, they are oversimplifications. For example, the true ancestral populations of India were probably not homogeneous as we assume in our model, but instead were probably formed by clusters of related groups that mixed at different times. However, modelling them as homogeneous fits the data and seems to capture meaningful features of history.

This caution did not percolate to the level of the press releases from what I can gather. John Hawks has some criticisms up....


American "Nones", sex differences   posted by Razib @ 9/23/2009 11:49:00 AM

American Religious Identification Survey 2008 has a new survey, American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population. Not surprising, but interesting:
There are a couple of additional findings worth noting here. Looking at retention by gender, Nones are more likely to retain men than women: 66% of men who reported no religion at age 12 were Nones at the time of their participation in ARIS 2008, but only 47% of females who reported no religion at age 12 remained Nones. Of those who reported having a religion at age 12, 15% of men left while only 9% of women did. It appears that American women have a greater affinity for religion than men. And conversely men have greater affinity for secularity than women.

Also, 49% of male "Nones" are atheists & agnostics in terms of stated beliefs. 36% of female "Nones" are. In terms of asserting that one is an atheist or agnostic, 11% of male "Nones" admit to that, while 8% of females do.

Related: Male vs. female religiosity difference.

H/T Talk Islam

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

People who spank are aggressive   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 11:11:00 PM

A follow up to the previous post. I keep seeing the research from this paper in the press, Spanking detrimental to children, study says:
Berlin and colleagues found that children who were spanked as 1-year-olds tended to behave more aggressively at age 2, and did not perform as well as other children on a test measuring thinking skills at age 3. The study is published in the journal Child Development.

The idea is that spanking has negative consequences, making children less intelligent and more aggressive. But what do you think? My thought was that there are two other reasons of possible interest:

1) The kids being spanked are more incorrigible in general, which results in more frustration on the part of the parents.

2) The parents themselves are less intelligent, lack impulse control and are aggressive.

The above two traits of course could exhibit heritability betwen parent and child. Yes, there are plenty of confounds; acceptability of spanking varies from culture to culture. But I think the hypothesis that this is just a correlation between heritable traits and the behavior in question explains the why the "effects were somewhat small."

This sort of thought process kicks into action with a lot of the developmental psychology I see being reported in the press. But a headline such as "Aggressive impulsive parents more likely to beat their children" is probably less palatable....

Note: I'm against spanking personally in regards to how I'd raise my children. But I assume that my children wouldn't be totally incorrigible because I was not (those who know me personally might consider this a mischaracterization, but I am not including outlier behavior!).


Behavior is heritable you know....   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 08:58:00 PM

Genes May Explain Why Children Who Live Without Dads Have Earlier Sex:
Mendle and her colleagues looked at more than 1,000 cousins ages 14 and older from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The study design tested for genetic influences as well as factors such as poverty, educational opportunities, and religion. It compared children who were related in different ways to each other, and who differed in whether they'd lived with their fathers. The more genes the children shared, the more similar their ages of first intercourse-regardless of whether or not the children personally had an absent father. This finding, the researchers say, suggests that environmental theories don't fully explain the puzzle. Instead, genetic influence can help us understand the tie between fathers' absence and early sex.

"While there's clearly no such thing as a 'father absence gene,' there are genetic contributions to traits in both moms and dads that increase the likelihood of earlier sexual behavior in their children," notes Mendle. "These include impulsivity, substance use and abuse, argumentativeness, and sensation seeking."These traits get passed down from parents to children, resulting in a situation known as 'passive gene-environment correlation,' because the same genetic factors that influence when children first have intercourse also affect the likelihood of their growing up in a home without a dad."

This issue is known to anyone who has read Judith Rich Harris' The Nurture Assumption. Nevertheless a lot of the psychological and social research published today routinely ignores the possibility of passive gene-environment correlation from what I can tell. Of course heritable propensities express themselves in an environmental context, so for example the rank order of average age of first intercourse among a set of unrelated families may remain the same in a Mormon "treatment" as opposed to a Wicca treatment (this is a thought experiment obviously), but the average age for the two cases would probably differ somewhat.


Synthetic biology goes mainstream   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 04:36:00 PM

If The New Yorker is giving the topic coverage.... (though a lot of probably is more Craig Venter's celebrity status)


Bye bye Kalash! It was good while it lasted....   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 03:39:00 PM

Taliban targets descendants of Alexander the Great.* In this case, we're talking about the Kalash of Pakistan, a non-Muslim cultural relict in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. The Kalash are like the Mari of Russia, a relatively isolated group who managed to maintain their explicit pagan religious traditions down to the modern era, at which point a legal framework allowed for them to practice their customs in the face of hostility from the world religion which had come to dominate their region. In the case of the Kalash, that authority and legal framework was that of the British. On the other side of the border in Afghanistan the more numerous cultural kin of the Kafir Kalash were forcibly converted to Islam in 1896

Though there are plenty of supply-side theories of religion which posit individual ("rational") choice as the driver of change, historically this has not been so useful. I've noted before that in Reformation Europe Protestantism was initially very successful in converting much of the population across broad swaths of Austria, Bohemia and into Poland. Not only that, but Protestantism's initial strength was almost always in what might be termed the "upper middle classes" (literate urbanites) and the lower nobility. But if the Protestants failed to secure political power, which usually meant the monarchy, generally there was a swing back toward Roman Catholicism. Both the Huguenots and Dutch Protestants started out as a small, motivated, and well organized minority (today around 20-30% of the population of the Netherlands is Roman Catholic, but I've read that during the height of the Protestant revolt against Spanish Catholic rule in fact only 10% of the population was Protestant, but these included much of the elite as well as very motivated refugees from Antwerp). But the Dutch Protestants managed to take control of the political machinery of the Netherlands and achieve independence from the distant Catholic rulers; the Huguenots did not.

A more explicit analogy with the Kafir Kalash is what occurred with the population of ancient Haran. In the 6th century Justinian the Great was getting around to imposing religious uniformity on on the East Roman Empire. The Empire had been Christian for a long time, but there were still large minorities of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, etc. Missionaries were sent to Anatolia to convert rustic populations who remained pagan, and persecutions of Jews & Samaritans triggered revolts in Palestine. A force was sent to Baalbek to stamp out the pagan enclave there, the Academy in Athens, a redoubt of Neoplatonism, was scattered, and the last active center of ancient Egyptian paganism at Philae was shuttered. But Haran was spared from conversion because of an accident of geopolitics; it was too close to the Sassanid Empire, and Khosrau I fancied himself a patron of culture, which including the dispersed members of the Athenian Academy. Some members of the Academy reputedly settled in Haran, with its pagan population, and Khosrau secured religious freedom for this area under a treaty with the Byzantines. The proximity of the Persian forces meant that it was reasonable for the Byzantines to grant this concession. Haran's peculiar religious mix persisted down into the Islamic era, when they became the Sabians, and were instrumental in the translation of Greek works into Arabic under the Abbasids.

As for the Kalash, their persistence is only due to a combination of historical accidents (the Durand Line), their isolation, as well as their backwardness. The importance of the last fact is that they have been underdeveloped enough to maintain very high fertility rate, compensating somewhat for the high rate of conversion to Islam. As I have noted before, paganism tends to cede before higher religions at a particular level of social complexity. With modern communication and transportation the ability of the Kalash to be protected by isolation is diminished. One way that the Kalash could preserve their identity would be to align with another higher religion. This is a common occurrence in Southeast Asia, where ethnic minorities resist converting to the majority religion because it connotes assimilation to the majority ethnicity. Instead, many minorities in Burma, Thailand, etc., convert to Christianity, acquiring the ideological and institutional armamentarium which might serve as a check on conversion. In Indonesia pagan groups often redefine themselves as Hindu, and so enter into a relationship with the institutional structures of Balinese Hinduism.

This is not feasible in Pakistan. Religious minorities are under extreme pressure. The Kalash have no cultural future, extinction is their lot. It is a matter of 10 years or 30 years. No more. After that point they'll be photographs in National Geographic. This is frankly the lot of non-Muslims in many Muslim nations (the best option is to escape abroad, as a substantial minority of Mandaens have, and the Church of the East did in the 20th century. Or, remain segregated and isolated and numerous enough in your own geographic enclaves, such as the Yazidis).**

* They're a genetic isolate, probably not derived from Alexander's sojourn in the east.

** The main exceptions to the grim record of religious minorities under Islamic majorities is in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In both these regions conversion to Christianity from Islam is known and accepted. In Nigeria Islam has barely increased as a proportion of the population, while Christianity has nearly doubled to parity. In Indonesia there has been a marginal decrease in the proportion of Muslims since the 1960s, probably because of the conversion of nominal Javanese Muslims to Christianity and Hinduism (Hinduism is considered by many Javanese to be their ancestral religion, and there remain Hindu Javanese minorities).

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"Can you watch my computer?"   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 03:12:00 PM

While traveling I've often had the experience where I'm sitting on my laptop at a Starbucks or some other establishment, and someone gets up to go to the restroom and asks if I could watch their computer. These are people whose only connection with me is that they have been sitting next to me for a period of time as we were both on the computer, and I never see these people again after that encounter. And we never talk aside from a perfunctory "thanks." A notebook computer is small, so it is totally feasible that it could be stolen (though it is more common to hear of people simply leaving their laptop somewhere). The resale value is usually not trivial. So the danger of theft is real. My question is this: is this sort of behavior cross-cultural? I've had this happen to me in small towns as well as New York City.

Meat for your money   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 01:48:00 AM

I stumbled onto these data which show meat consumption in kilograms over the years for a range of nations. I was curious as to the relationship between meat consumption & GDP PPP per capita. My logic is that the more $ you have the more calories you'll purchase in form of flesh protein & fat. That being said, there's obviously a limit to how many calories you might want to purchase per day, so extra cost of meat for the wealthy would be in the form of quality (e.g., eating only Kobe beef). I took the 2002 data on meat consumption and plotted it against GDP PPP per capita from 2007. The relationship is rather straightforward.

The thick black line is a fit via loess. Here's a plot that's log-transformed:

OK, but what you want to do are the deviations from the trend line, right? If you're "Green" minded, the "naughty and the nice."

Country GDP per capita 2007 kg meat consumed in 2002 kg meat consumed predicted Deviation Proportional Deviation

Mongolia $2,894 108.8 22.75 86.05 478%
Papua New Guinea $2,079 73 18.76 54.24 389%
Samoa $4,802 82.6 31.12 51.48 265%
Paraguay $4,004 70.3 27.78 42.52 253%
Kyrgyzstan $1,997 39 18.34 20.66 213%
Uruguay $10,836 98.6 47.64 50.96 207%
Grenada $12,315 97 50.87 46.13 191%
Argentina $13,061 97.6 52.91 44.69 184%
Brazil $9,731 82.4 45.66 36.74 180%
Zimbabwe $190 15.2 8.46 6.74 180%
Belize $8,302 74.7 42.6 32.1 175%
Mauritania $1,827 29.9 17.48 12.42 171%
Bolivia $4,359 50 29.3 20.7 171%
French Polynesia $18,421 112.2 68.1 44.1 165%
New Zealand $27,310 142.1 86.8 55.3 164%
China $5,371 52.4 33.32 19.08 157%
Denmark $37,179 145.9 93.21 52.69 157%
Dominica $8,952 67.1 44.13 22.97 152%
Cyprus $27,142 131.3 86.57 44.73 152%
Saint Kitts and Nevis $18,323 99.3 67.82 31.48 146%
Hungary $19,255 100.7 70.45 30.25 143%
Jamaica $7,367 56.8 39.93 16.87 142%
Bulgaria $11,841 69.4 49.69 19.71 140%
New Caledonia $13,990 76.6 55.48 21.12 138%
Madagascar $948 17.6 12.79 4.81 138%
Mali $1,136 19 13.82 5.18 137%
Lebanon $10,302 63.1 46.68 16.42 135%
Luxembourg $79,422 141.7 105.43 36.27 134%
Vietnam $2,593 28.6 21.31 7.29 134%
United States $45,759 124.8 95.38 29.42 131%
Spain $33,648 118.6 92.14 26.46 129%
Barbados $18,900 88.7 69.47 19.23 128%
Poland $16,177 78.1 61.65 16.45 127%
Philippines $3,295 31.1 24.62 6.48 126%
Belarus $10,643 58.6 47.29 11.31 124%
Netherlands Antilles $15,481 73.3 59.67 13.63 123%
Guinea-Bissau $561 13 10.61 2.39 123%
Guyana $3,665 31.8 26.3 5.5 121%
Portugal $21,827 91.1 76.9 14.2 118%
Chile $14,296 66.4 56.33 10.07 118%
Canada $38,065 108.1 93.46 14.64 116%
Fiji $5,529 39.1 33.9 5.2 115%
Panama $10,737 54.5 47.46 7.04 115%
Mexico $12,447 58.6 51.23 7.37 114%
Ecuador $7,176 45 39.35 5.65 114%
Vanuatu $4,232 32.6 28.76 3.84 113%
Romania $11,093 54.5 48.13 6.37 113%
Sudan $2,056 21 18.65 2.35 113%
France $31,161 101.1 90.79 10.31 111%
Ireland $46,628 106.3 95.58 10.72 111%
Swaziland $4,734 34.2 30.85 3.35 111%
Albania $5,796 38.2 34.86 3.34 110%
Israel $28,911 97.1 88.75 8.35 109%
Malta $23,390 86.9 80.25 6.65 108%
Venezuela $12,846 56.6 52.32 4.28 108%
Senegal $1,679 17.7 16.71 0.99 106%
Namibia $5,202 34 32.69 1.31 104%
Haiti $1,307 15.3 14.75 0.55 104%
Uzbekistan $2,318 20.7 19.96 0.74 104%
Benin $1,485 16.2 15.7 0.5 103%
Slovenia $27,966 88 87.65 0.35 100%
Austria $39,269 94.1 93.79 0.31 100%
Italy $30,956 90.4 90.64 -0.24 100%
Lesotho $1,441 15.4 15.46 -0.06 100%
Niger $687 11.2 11.33 -0.13 99%
Cape Verde $3,784 26.3 26.82 -0.52 98%
Jordan $4,700 29.8 30.71 -0.91 97%
Netherlands $38,955 89.3 93.71 -4.41 95%
Kazakhstan $11,004 44.8 47.96 -3.16 93%
Belgium $36,229 86.1 92.94 -6.84 93%
Slovakia $20,229 67.4 73.03 -5.63 92%
Guam $14,738 52.6 57.57 -4.97 91%
Uganda $963 11.7 12.87 -1.17 91%
Iceland $40,373 84.8 94.08 -9.28 90%
Chad $1,544 14.3 16 -1.7 89%
Malaysia $14,552 50.9 57.05 -6.15 89%
Germany $34,065 82.1 92.28 -10.18 89%
Russia $14,833 51 57.84 -6.84 88%
Georgia $4,434 26 29.61 -3.61 88%
Estonia $21,802 67.4 76.84 -9.44 88%
Greece $30,599 78.7 90.36 -11.66 87%
Kenya $1,658 14.3 16.6 -2.3 86%
Qatar $78,723 90.5 105.09 -14.59 86%
United Kingdom $35,047 79.6 92.58 -12.98 86%
Honduras $4,311 24.7 29.09 -4.39 85%
Colombia $7,384 33.9 39.98 -6.08 85%
Peru $7,658 34.5 40.79 -6.29 85%
Costa Rica $11,072 40.4 48.09 -7.69 84%
Croatia $15,487 49.9 59.69 -9.79 84%
Ukraine $7,015 32.3 38.86 -6.56 83%
Gabon $14,049 46 55.65 -9.65 83%
South Africa $10,632 39 47.27 -8.27 82%
Sweden $37,482 76.1 93.3 -17.2 82%
Seychelles $16,826 51.1 63.5 -12.4 80%
United Arab Emirates $36,994 74.4 93.16 -18.76 80%
Armenia $5,778 27.7 34.8 -7.1 80%
Burkina Faso $1,215 11.2 14.25 -3.05 79%
Cambodia $1,871 13.9 17.7 -3.8 79%
Lithuania $16,776 49.5 63.36 -13.86 78%
Liberia $477 7.9 10.13 -2.23 78%
Zambia $1,403 11.9 15.26 -3.36 78%
Morocco $3,703 20.6 26.46 -5.86 78%
Switzerland $40,134 72.9 94.02 -21.12 78%
Bahrain $33,885 70.7 92.22 -21.52 77%
Nepal $1,013 10 13.15 -3.15 76%
Singapore $49,879 71.1 96.31 -25.21 74%
Cameroon $2,228 14.4 19.51 -5.11 74%
Guatemala $5,088 23.8 32.25 -8.45 74%
Finland $35,965 67.4 92.86 -25.46 73%
Antigua and Barbuda $21,963 56 77.21 -21.21 73%
Oman $18,999 49.8 69.74 -19.94 71%
Egypt $5,046 22.5 32.09 -9.59 70%
Yemen $2,530 14.7 21 -6.3 70%
Syria $4,679 21.2 30.62 -9.42 69%
Latvia $17,723 45.7 66.08 -20.38 69%
Trinidad and Tobago $25,355 57.8 83.86 -26.06 69%
Togo $884 8.5 12.43 -3.93 68%
Ethiopia $733 7.9 11.58 -3.68 68%
Tanzania $1,297 10 14.69 -4.69 68%
Cuba $11,015 32.2 47.98 -15.78 67%
Djibouti $3,501 17.1 25.56 -8.46 67%
Thailand $8,015 27.9 41.82 -13.92 67%
Nicaragua $2,849 14.9 22.54 -7.64 66%
Ghana $1,358 9.9 15.02 -5.12 66%
Tunisia $7,403 25.5 40.04 -14.54 64%
Norway $53,285 61.7 97.06 -35.36 64%
Saudi Arabia $19,782 44.6 71.87 -27.27 62%
Kuwait $55,876 60.2 97.64 -37.44 62%
El Salvador $5,992 21.4 35.54 -14.14 60%
Bosnia and Herzegovina $6,085 21.4 35.86 -14.46 60%
Pakistan $2,500 12.3 20.85 -8.55 59%
Brunei $52,432 56.4 96.87 -40.47 58%
Maldives $4,303 16.6 29.06 -12.46 57%
American Samoa $8,949 24.9 44.12 -19.22 56%
Libya $12,377 28.6 51.04 -22.44 56%
Sierra Leone $650 6.1 11.11 -5.01 55%
Tajikistan $1,690 8.7 16.77 -8.07 52%
Algeria $6,669 18.3 37.78 -19.48 48%
Botswana $14,343 27.3 56.47 -29.17 48%
Guinea $1,102 6.5 13.63 -7.13 48%
Japan $33,523 43.9 92.09 -48.19 48%
Iran $11,666 23.1 49.3 -26.2 47%
Angola $7,784 19 41.16 -22.16 46%
Mozambique $844 5.6 12.21 -6.61 46%
Nigeria $2,193 8.6 19.33 -10.73 44%
Comoros $1,774 7.6 17.2 -9.6 44%
Malawi $778 5.1 11.84 -6.74 43%
Turkey $12,000 19.3 50.07 -30.77 39%
Azerbaijan $7,963 15.9 41.68 -25.78 38%
Burundi $346 3.5 9.37 -5.87 37%
Rwanda $813 4.4 12.04 -7.64 37%
Indonesia $3,595 8.3 25.98 -17.68 32%
French Guiana $8,298 13.2 42.59 -29.39 31%
Guadeloupe $7,981 12.7 41.73 -29.03 30%
Martinique $14,360 13.9 56.52 -42.62 25%
India $2,625 5.2 21.46 -16.26 24%
Sri Lanka $3,919 6.6 27.42 -20.82 24%
Bangladesh $1,385 3.1 15.16 -12.06 20%
Bhutan $1,443 3 15.47 -12.47 19%
Virgin Islands $14,498 6.6 56.9 -50.3 12%

The Virgin Islands is entered like that in the data, so perhaps it is a data entry error....


Sunday, September 20, 2009

High time preference & windfall earnings   posted by Razib @ 9/20/2009 12:14:00 PM

Tyler Cowen points me to this article from last spring about the profligacy of professional athletes. Here are numbers which seem constructed for the sake of plausibility more than anything else:
* By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.

* Within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke.

It shouldn't be that hard to track down a large number of former players and try and make the sample representative, and assess what their financial situation is. This looks like a "natural experiment" waiting to be mined for data (perhaps someone already has, if so, pointers in the comments welcome). Here's the part which shows time preference inclinations most starkly:
Given all the pressures on a pro athlete's marriage, one safety valve might be the prenuptial agreement-something "very strongly" recommended by agent David Falk, who surged to prominence representing Michael Jordan (who did not have one). "The percentage of prenups amongst athletes is appreciably lower compared with nonathletes at the same economic level," says celebrity divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, who has represented the ex-wives of Patrick Ewing, Jason Kidd and Mike Tyson.

In 1994, when NBA center Dikembe Mutombo was engaged to Michelle Roberts, a med student, Roberts refused to sign a premarital contract the day before the wedding. Five hundred guests-including a large party from Mutombo's native Democratic Republic of Congo-had begun flying in to Washington. "[Roberts] never signed," Falk says, "and Mutombo never married the girl." Calling off the nuptials reportedly cost him $250,000.

It's no coincidence that the woman a pro athlete often chooses to marry-and often at a young age-is his hometown sweetheart. For that reason he can't envision a ruinous divorce. "That was how you could tell if she really liked you, if she knew you before you made it," says West. But when a player does make it? "The question [for the athlete] becomes, When you get off the farm and see Paris, so to speak, can you really go back to the farm?"

Children almost always complicate the issue. How to limit paternity obligations is a challenge for pro athletes. Former NBA forward Shawn Kemp (who has at least seven children by six women) and, more recently, Travis Henry (nine by nine) have seen their fortunes sapped by monthly child-support payments in the tens of thousands of dollars. Last month Henry, who reportedly earned almost $11 million over seven years in the NFL, tried and failed to temporarily reduce one of his nine child-support payments by arguing that he could no longer afford the $3,000 every month. Two weeks later he was jailed for falling $16,600 behind in payments for his child in Frostproof, Fla.

Mutumbo as an exceptional case is informative, he was not recruited as a student athlete initially, and managed to complete a degree in linguistics and diplomacy at Georgetown (David Robinson, who scored a 1320 on the pre-recentered SAT and received a degree in math from the Naval Academy, is probably an even better example).


What Darwin Said: Part 5 - Gradualism (A)   posted by DavidB @ 9/20/2009 05:43:00 AM

This is the fifth in a series of posts about Charles Darwin's view of evolution. Previous posts were:

1: The Pattern of Evolution.
2: Mechanisms of Evolution.
3: Heredity.
4: Speciation

The present part deals with the subject of gradualism. Gradualism is contrasted with views of evolution as a sudden, discontinuous or even instantaneous process. At various times, from Darwin's lifetime onwards, discontinuous processes of evolution have often been advocated, most recently by the proponents of 'punctuated equilibrium'.

What is gradualism?

It is necessary to distinguish between

(A) gradualism with respect to the rate of evolutionary change, and
(B) gradualism with respect to the size of the variations adopted by natural selection.

A gradualist in sense (A) maintains that evolution is always or usually slow, while a gradualist in sense (B) maintains that successful variations (mutations, in modern terminology) are always or usually relatively small in effect. Gradualism in senses (A) and (B) often go together, but in principle they can be separated. It would be possible that evolution, when it occurs, usually occurs rapidly (on a geological time scale), but that the mutations responsible are individually quite small. For example, small increases in size might cumulatively double the size of an organism within a few thousand years, which would be 'sudden' on a geological timescale. Conversely, it would be logically possible for a large phenotypic change, such as a reduction from four to two legs, to occur as the result of a single mutation, but to take a very long time to spread through a species. In practice this seems unlikely. Large mutations are seldom advantageous, but when they are, the selective advantage is also likely to be large, and the spread of the mutation will be rapid.

These two senses of 'gradualism' depend on terms such as 'slow', 'rapid', 'large', and 'small', which are themselves vague. They can be made more definite by specifying what is meant by 'large', 'rapid', etc. For example, it might be suggested that an individual mutation affecting a quantitative trait is 'large' if it produces a trait more than three standard deviations larger or smaller than the current mean size. Or the rate of evolution might be considered 'rapid' if more than 90% of evolutionary change occurs within only 10% of the available time. Stephen Jay Gould proposed that speciation be considered 'punctuational' if it takes place in less than 2% of the duration of the species.

I had intended to cover both types of gradualism in this post, but for convenience I will now defer consideration of type (B) to another post.

Darwin's views

So far as the rate of evolutionary change is concerned, Darwin says repeatedly that it is slow, e.g.: 'we have every reason to believe the process of manufacturing new species to be a slow one' [Origin, Variorum text, 140], 'that natural selection will always act with extreme slowness, I fully admit' [201. In the 6th edition he changed 'will always act' to 'generally acts']. This does not imply that the rate of evolution is constant, and Darwin said several times that it is irregular and intermittent (see Part 1 of this series).

'Slow' is a vague term, but Darwin believed that evolution in natural populations is unlikely to be detectable within a human lifetime. Evolution by deliberate artificial selection could produce noticeable changes more quickly, but Darwin thought this was unlikely for species in nature. A closer analogy would be with 'unconscious' artificial selection, by which 'various breeds have been sensibly changed in the course of two or three centuries' [486], but species in nature 'probably change much more slowly' than this [486], implying a timescale of thousands rather than hundreds of years. One secondary source does however hint at a possibility of more rapid change: E. B. Ford, in his Ecological Genetics [4th edn., p,393], says 'Major Leonard Darwin told me of a conversation with his father, the great Charles Darwin, who expressed his belief that by choosing the right material it might be possible actually to detect evolutionary changes taking place at the present time. For this purpose he said that long-continued investigations and careful records would be needed, extending over a period which he estimated at perhaps fifty years in species reproducing annually'.

Darwin apparently believed that substantial evolutionary change, sufficient to form a new species, was usually slow even by geological standards: 'although each formation may mark a very long lapse of years, each probably is short compared with the period requisite to change one species into another' [495. The word 'probably' replaced 'perhaps' from the 4th edn. onwards]. It is not entirely clear what Darwin means by a 'formation'. The term is generally used to refer to the smallest units of the stratigraphic column having their own distinctive rock type and fossil fauna, such as the Chalk of the Cretaceous period. With modern dating methods most such units would be estimated as having a duration of over a million years. In Darwin's time there was much debate about the absolute length of geological time, with physicists arguing (wrongly) that the age of the Earth, and therefore the entire geological record, could not be greater than 100 million years. Even with this timescale, formations would usually have a duration of at least 100 thousand years.

Darwin recognised that his doctrine of slow evolutionary change, in which the emergence of a new species would usually take longer than the duration of a geological formation, faced serious difficulties. It appeared to conflict with a literal reading of the geological record. Darwin identified three main difficulties:

1. New species were not observed to evolve gradually from old ones: they usually appeared quite suddenly in the record

2. Whole groups of related species sometimes appeared simultaneously in the fossil record

3. The fossil record itself began rather suddenly at the base of the Paleozoic era, and showed considerable diversity from the outset.

These phenomena appeared inconsistent with Darwin's gradualism. Darwin's answer was that the fossil record could not be taken at face value. In his chapter on 'The Imperfection of the Geological Record' he examines the processes by which fossils are formed, preserved, and then discovered, and argues that the fossil record gives a very incomplete picture of past life. Sediments can only be deposited over long periods in the same area if the land (or more usually the sea bed) is gradually subsiding at a rate just matched by the supply of new sediment, and the circumstances in which this can happen are rare. The geological record in any one place is therefore usually intermittent, and shows occasional periods of sedimentation interrupted by long gaps during which either there is no deposition, or in which deposits are subsequently eroded. Even where there is no conspicuous discontinuity, as shown by differences in the inclination of bedding planes, there may be long gaps in the record. This is not just a theoretical prediction, but can be demonstrated by cases where formations known to exist in some localities are missing from a seemingly continuous sequence elsewhere.

The sudden appearance of new species in a formation therefore does not imply that they have been suddenly evolved (or created). The alternatives, consistent with gradualism, are that evolution has taken place in the same locality during an unrecorded period, or that the species has evolved elsewhere and then migrated into the area, producing a seemingly instantaneous change in the fossil record. Darwin recognises both of these possibilities [496, 499].

Modern views and controversies

It would now generally be accepted that the fossil record in any one locality is very incomplete. As the geologist Derek Ager put it, 'there is more gap than record'. Whether this entirely explains the apparent patterns of evolution as observed in the record is more controversial. The doctrine of punctuated equilibrium (PE) maintains that the apparent pattern is true to the reality, and that evolutionary change (in any given species) is usually concentrated in relatively short periods of time, too short to be often preserved in the fossil record. The corollary of this is that for most of the time there is 'stasis', i.e. an absence of significant change. However, in the 'fine print' of PE it is admitted that there may be gradual changes in size. The doctrine of stasis is also weakened to the claim that there is no 'directional' change, leaving the possibility that there is fluctuating change rather than strict stasis. It is also admitted that there may be changes in pigmentation, behaviour, and other traits which are not detectable in the fossil record. Taken together, these qualifications substantially dilute the doctrine of 'stasis'.

Most evolutionary biologists accept that punctuation and stasis are possible, but maintain they are consistent with orthodox neo-Darwinism. They point out that the notion of 'phyletic gradualism' denounced by PE - a belief in steady and continuous evolutionary change in a definite direction - is a straw man, and that ever since G. G. Simpson's work in the 1940s evolutionists have believed in wide variations in the rate of evolution, including bradytely (near-stasis) and 'quantum evolution' (rapid bursts of change, often associated with an adaptive radiation).

There remains the question how far the core doctrine of PE is empirically supported. Advocates of PE have compiled meta-analyses which purport to show that the majority of evolutionary change conforms to the PE pattern. However, any meta-analysis can only be as good as the primary data it is based on. In view of the notorious disagreements among paleontologists, such as the division between 'lumpers' and 'splitters', one may be sceptical about any analysis which simply takes paleontological data (such as lists of species and genera) on trust. As recently as 1989 (some 20 years after PE was first advocated) an eminent paleontologist could still say that 'many practising palaeontologists do not record adequate stratigraphic data because they do not think that such information is useful'. [Christopher Paul in Evolution and the Fossil Record, p. 102] There appear to be few studies which directly show punctuation 'events' occurring in the fossil record, and it is part of the PE doctrine that such events are unlikely to be recorded. (In this respect PE agrees with Darwin in appealing to the incompleteness of the fossil record.) The sudden appearance of a new species in a formation is not in itself proof of punctuational evolution, since the species may have evolved slowly elsewhere and then migrated. One of the few cases claimed as showing punctuation in action (P. G. Williamson's study of Lake Turkana molluscs) has recently been re-assessed as a case of migration: see here.

There is wider agreement that 'stasis' is often observed, as can be shown by striking cases of near-identical fossils separated by millions of years in time. Whether stasis is a predominant mode is less clear. The majority of recorded fossil species are known only from a single specimen, so there is no means of assessing their rate of evolutionary change. In studies of living species, there is little evidence of stasis in a strict sense. Almost every population that has been studied in detail has shown some evolutionary change going on. Most species that are geographically widely distributed also show geographical variation, which implies recent evolutionary change. Some evolutionary biologists, including John Maynard Smith and George C. Williams, have been disturbed by the apparent conflict between the evidence of change among living species and the evidence of stasis in the fossil record. One possible resolution is to suppose that most changes are short-term fluctuations which are soon reversed, and that species have an underlying stability due to ecological factors. Only if the ecosystem breaks down, as in a mass extinction, will there be a burst of more substantial and lasting change. Another possible resolution of the puzzle is that different types of species in fact show different evolutionary patterns. Most studies of evolution among living species are of land animals, whereas most paleontologists study marine invertebrates. It is possible that evolution among marine invertebrates is in general slower than among land animals. A case in point is the marine inverterbrates on the opposite sides of the Panama isthmus. The emergence of the isthmus is dated to around 3.5 million years ago. Since then the populations have been isolated from each other and have generally evolved slight morphological differences, to the extent that they are classified as closely related 'geminate' species. If however they were only known as fossilised remains, and it were not known that the populations had been geographically separated, they would probably be lumped together and regarded as a case of 'stasis', with no significant change and no speciation over a period of at least 3 million years. If such slow rates of change are the rule among marine invertebrates, Darwin could be right in arguing that evolution may be too slow, rather than too fast, to be often observable in the fossil record. A final consideration is that paleontologists are interested especially in those parts of animals which are convenient for classification, and these are often features that can be counted, such as the number of teeth in the hinge of a bivalve shell, rather than continuous quantitative variables which require careful measurement. But there are theoretical reasons for supposing that these countable or 'meristic' traits are subject to stabilising selection; see the section on meristic traits in Fisher's GTNS. If so, they would tend to change only rarely, but when they do, the change would be rapid as the species moves from one stable state to another.

The Cambrian Explosion

The sudden appearance of a diverse range of fossil life at the base of the Paleozoic (now often known as the Cambrian Explosion) was recognised by Darwin as a special problem [512-6]. He considered that if his theory was true, there must have been a long period of evolution before the earliest known fossils, probably longer than the period of the known fossil record itself. Why then were there no fossils from this early period? (Darwin did mention fossils from the late pre-Cambrian Longmynd formation, and in later editions of the Origin he mentioned the so-called Eozoon in the pre-Cambrian of Canada. Eozoon is now regarded as inorganic, while the interpretation of the Longmynd fossils remains uncertain - see here ) Darwin speculated on possible explanations, such as very long term changes in the position of land and sea, which might have obliterated the pre-Cambrian record, but he concluded 'The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained'.

Subsequent discoveries have partially resolved Darwin's problem. Microscopic fossils have now been discovered far back in the early pre-Cambrian, but larger organisms are not found until quite late in the pre-Cambrian (the Ediacaran fauna), and hard-bodied animals not until the base of the Cambrian. The appearance of hard-bodied animals was not quite as sudden and simultaneous as believed in Darwin's time, as small shells, and trace fossils attributed to arthropods, have been found in the early Cambrian before the appearance of the trilobites, molluscs, echinoderms, and other forms known in Darwin's time. But the appearance of hard bodies is itself a relatively sudden event which requires some explanation, and a number of speculative hypotheses have been proposed. It also remains unclear whether the division of animals into the existing major phyla (arthropods, echinoderms, etc) was simultaneous with the Cambrian Explosion, or whether there was a long prior period of 'cryptic' evolution of phyla among small soft-bodied forms. There is some molecular evidence to support the 'cryptic' theory, and it is not inherently absurd. Most existing phyla of small soft-bodied animals, such as Rotifera, have no fossil record to speak of, despite presumably having existed in vast numbers since at least the Cambrian (see the table on p.186 of James W. Valentine, On the Origin of Phyla, 2004). The issue of timing remains unresolved (Valentine, p.195).

Overall, it is not clear whether Darwin overestimated the gradualism of the rate of evolution. Some of the issues raised by Darwin, such as the nature of the Cambrian Explosion, remain active and controversial areas of research. Darwin was undoubtedly right - and frank - in highlighting 'the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory' - the lack of direct evidence in the fossil record for the gradual transitions which the theory postulated. Subsequent paleontological research has provided some examples of the kind of transitions required, but these remain a small minority of all species in the fossil record. This has led some paleontologists and biologists to think that Darwin also put too much emphasis on gradualism in sense (B): that is, his insistence that the variations favoured by natural selection were always very small. If larger variations - 'saltations' or 'macromutations' - are important in the evolutionary process, the problem of the scarcity of gradual transitions in the fossil record would largely disappear. I will consider gradualism in sense (B) in my next post.

Civilization saved the Church?   posted by Razib @ 9/20/2009 12:39:00 AM

One question which I have touched upon repeatedly is why is it that in some regions languages of elites replace those of the populace, and in other regions the inverse occurs? This is one reason why I'm very interested in genetic studies of populations, they add a new dimension to the large set of often confusing, contradictory and cloudy "facts" we have on hand. Among Anatolian Turks for example there is still a noticeable imprint of East Eurasian ancestry, though by & large it seems that Anatolian Turks are the descendants of those acculturated to a Turkish identity from a Greek, Armenian or Kurdish past (the main qualification is that I have read, though am not sure as to the veracity of the claims, that large numbers of Orthodox Christian Turkish speakers who switched language, but not religion, have been totally Hellenized after the exchange of populations). In contrast it is difficult to find any genetic evidence that the Magyars actually settled among the peoples of what is today Hungary (Pannonia), even though their origin was likely from the Volga region (some of the difference might simply be that it is harder to detect deviations from expectation if the Magyars were more similar to the peoples of Pannonia than the Turks were to the natives of Anatolia, as is likely the case).

In the lands of the former Roman Empire most of the Latin domains quickly assimilated the Germanic military elites to the native culture, in both religion & language. There are two glaring exceptions to this: Britain & the Balkans. Several years ago I read The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe, and I began thinking of the processes described in this book when reading the chapter on post-Roman Britain in The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000. To my mild pleasure I then came upon this passage:
This model for the Anglo-Saxon settlements, which I broadly accept, thus has the invaders settling in the very small groups, initially covering ahandful of local communities for the mostpart, which could as in Wales, be called tribal. Political leadership would have been very simple and informal, though of course necessarily military, for a fragmented conquest is still a conquest. THis picture further fits with the archaeolgy of early Anglo-Saxon settlements and cemeteries, which shows a very simple material culture, far simpler in every respect than that found anywhere in the ex-Roman Continent outside the Balkans.

My pleasure was not due to excitement about the collapse of Roman civilization. Rather, it was that I had anticipated an analogy which the author later spotlighted, suggesting to me that the correspondence is striking enough to be obvious to independent observers. What occurred by and large in the Balkans, and to an even greater extent in Britain, is that the complex of literate Roman city-centered society yielded to decentralized village-based societies, and barbarism seems to assimilated the peasants left behind after the withdrawal of the Imperial forces. Though one can find some evidence of exogenous genetic input indicating non-trivial population movements, especially in Britain, it does not seem that the native substrate was replaced in the majority across these regions (see the links here). In Britain the old models of pots-not-peoples seems falsified by suggestive gradients of alleles of Germanic provenance from East Anglia, the Dark Age "Saxon Shore." But, in terms of total genome content the English as a whole seem to resemble the other peoples of the British Isles more than they do the populations of northern Germany (though again, there are regional variations within England, with East Anglia and the former "Danelaw" showing signs of the more recent gene flow). In the Balkans genetic relationships between populations seem to follow geography more than language; the Bulgarians resemble Romanians, not the Czechs, who are close to the Hungarians.

And yet despite the genes there was a massive cultural discontinuity between Roman Britain and the Balkans, and what came after. It is now fashionable to assert that the Roman world "transformed," and did not "fall," after 476. This view seems least defensible in the case of these two regions. Not only did Romanitas disappear, but the physical character of these societies as evident from the archaeology show rupture and regression. The fall of Roman Britain can be pegged to a specific date, 410, when the legions were recalled to the continent. This did not mean that the barbarian hordes struck immediately, rather, in the decades after political fragmentation and a reassertion of the native Celtic tribal traditions seem to have occurred. In The Inheritance of Rome the author suggests that the political prominence of what were once marginal regions, Wales and southern Scotland, is a reflection of the fact that these areas held the deepest stores of Celtic tribal cultural capital which might fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Latin civilization. To battle a militarized society one requires a militarized society, and the peoples of the Celtic marchlands fit that bill. It is here that there is a contrast between Britain and the Balkans: Britain was far less Latinized than the Balkans. Latinization had proceeded in Spain, Gaul (France) and the Balkans to the point that ib these regions the natives were initially termed "Romans" by barbarian conquerors. The persistence of Latin-derived languages in the Balkans into the modern era is also witness to the thoroughness of Latinization. Romanian, the persistence of the Vlachs, as well as the recently extinct language of Dalmatian can not be ignored. Of course Greece and the region around Constantinople were presumably Greek speaking. And there were obviously regions where the ancestor of Albanian was spoken. But it seems likely that Latin was the dominant language among the peasants across much of the Balkans, most certainly above the Jirecek Line. Justinian the Great, the last East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor who spoke Latin as a first language, was born near Skopje, the capital of modern day Macedonia. In Britain the working assumption is that the peasantry spoke a Celtic language related to modern Welsh, though the elite used Latin frequently, and Latin was the dominant written language. Though the Celtic inhabitants of Britain had adopted many Roman customs, they remained Britons, while the Thracians, Illyarians, Dacians, etc., of the Balkans had adopted Roman ways to the point where they termed themselves Roman.

There was also another difference between the British and Balkan case, in the former instance Roman influence disappeared for centuries (only to reappear via the Franks in the early 7th century), while in the latter the lines of Imperial control washed over barbarized regions many times over the centuries. In The Fall of the Roman Empire Peter Heather contends that the northern Balkans were effectively lost in the early 5th century to barbarians as a sort of "No Man's Land" where city-based civilization simply was untenable. But by the late 5th to 6th centuries it seems that the Empire reasserted its control and pushed secure boundaries out toward the Danube. By the year 600 almost the whole of the Balkan interior excepting Greece itself was lost to the Avars (see A History of Byzantine State & Society). The period between the collapse of Roman control of the interior and the later medieval emergence of nations which we would recognize such as the Serbs and Bulgarians is unclear and to a great extent lost to history. There were indications and references of massive Slavic migrations, though these groups were usually under the hegemony of non-Slavic groups such as the Avars and Bulgars. But as I pointed out above, the primary predictive variable of genetic change in the Balkans is geography, not language (this does not mean that language has no effect, I am simply suggesting that outsiders do not seem to have totally replaced the local population in toto).

With this general sketch in place, let's move to the similarities. Britain, in particular the regions which became England, and the Balkans were barbarized and descended into a "Dark Age" in a classic sense (obviously I exclude the persistent arc of city-based culture which clung to the coasts and exhibited some depth in Greece in the case of the Balkans). Writing disappears. The local language is replaced (though with important exceptions in the Balkans). And Christianity also fades. The replacement of Celtic language with Anglo-Saxon dialects was so total, with so little borrowing, that the model of replacement does not seem totally implausible. Archaeologists have also uncovered extreme discontinuities in more prosaic aspects of culture such as how farmsteads are laid out. But as I said above from what I can tell the genetic data point to Anglo-Saxon input of only a minority, if a substantial one at that with local concentrations, across England. We are then faced with the possibility that the local Romano-British elites, along with the more thoroughly Celtic peasants, assimilated into the Anglo-Saxon culture (there are textual indications of the persistence of British subjects of Anglo-Saxon rulers in England into the era of the Venerable Bede, see Norman Davies' The Isles). The genetic data indicate the same in the Balkans, though here I am less familiar with the research, and it seems much thinner than in reference to the British for social and political reasons (i.e., British people are interested in their genetic history and can fund that interest).

In The Early Slavs the author argues that the natives simply went barbarian. Though Roman civilization was predominantly peasant-based, and caught in a Malthusian trap, it was still quantitatively different in terms of its economic and social complexity from those of societies beyond the limes (see The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization). The cultural toolkit of Slavic tribes pushing into the Balkans in the wake of the collapse of Roman rule was far simpler than that which had been dominant prior to their arrival. In a localized world shorn of Roman networks of trade it may be that peasants saw in the barbarian culture something more adaptable and appropriate in light of the new structural conditions of their lives. On the margins of subsistence perhaps those who shed affiliation with what was now a distant political power fared best. The same may have been true for the Celtic peasants who lived under Anglo-Saxon rulers, and tilled the soil with Anglo-Saxon immigrants (the weregild for Celts in Anglo-Saxon Britain was less than for Anglo-Saxons, so the incentives were strong to switch if possible). We have copious data in the case of local elites who assimilate to the norms and values of their barbarian conquerors in the post-Roman states of the West (e.g., Romans of senatorial background like Cyprian, rival of Boethius, raising sons with a strongly Gothic cultural orientation), as well as the Visigothic elites conquered by Muslim Arabs & Berbers (who were at that point barbarians). But that is a function of the fact that the elites are literate, or employ those who are literate, and leave hallmarks of cultural shifts in their correspondences or actions.

This brings me to the title of the post. It is classic chestnut of wisdom that the Christian Church was the vessel which preserved elements of classical civilization for posterity through the Dark Ages. This model is tendentious, in large part because partisan Christians and anti-Christians wish to come to different conclusions, select their data, and cull their analysis, until they arrive at the inferences which they prefer. It is a dodge to admit that the issue is complex, but dodge I will. Rather, let us note that religion, and religious institutions, have been powerful forces across history. It seems rather obvious that "higher religions" have a strong cultural fitness advantage in any complex civilization. By higher religion, I refer to religious systems which combine primal religious sentiment with philosophical content as well as robust institutional organizations. Over the long term only higher religions can resist the spread of other higher religions. There are cases where non-higher religions can arrest or suspend the expansion of higher religions, but these are always temporary setbacks. Lithuania, Japan and Tibet are detailed case studies of temporary setbacks which only delayed the dominance of higher religions. Often higher religions imported from the outside stimulate the emergence of a complex literary society because of the need of a class of text oriented religious professionals to interpret the scriptures and commentaries which justify the existence of such institutions. In theory the Bible, the Koran, the Palin Canon, are causally prior to the variegated religious institutions which accumulate around them. In the model that the Roman Christian Church preserved Roman civilization the institution which arose due to the Christian scriptures as a side effect also served to maintain and perpetuate aspects of Roman culture which were not necessarily related to Christian religiosity (though naturally justifications were often presented as to why secular works were spiritually edifying or useful).

So why the inversion in my title? One cynical and obviously irreligious perspective contends that the specific belief content of higher religions is actually co-opted as a post facto rationale for organically emerging institutions which are products of complex societies. This can be approached from a religious perspective; many early Christian thinkers offered that a singular and unified political order was the ideal seedbed for a singular religion which expressed the fullness of truth (there are analogs to this sort of thinking among Buddhists when a potential chakravartin appears on the scene). The point is that higher religions seem to coexist with higher civilizations. In some cases they bring higher civilization to a lower one, and in other cases they are the products of higher civilizations (e.g., Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire, Buddhism in the early phase of Indo-Aryan literate states in the Indian subcontinent).

But what if a higher civilization regresses to the state of a lower one? To some extent the collapse of the social and economic order in the Post-Roman world fits the bill, and Christianity remained a robust presence. But so did the Latin language in what became France, Spain and Italy. It is in these regions that the term "transformation" as opposed to "fall" apply the most. There was a shift away from direct taxation and toward what became feudalism, and an evolution from a civilian aristocracy into a military caste. Literacy became less prominent a feature of the cultural landscape, though it did not disappear (e.g., Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville and Boethius & Cassiodorus, the province of specialists rather than elites as a whole). But the contrast with the total collapse in what became England and the sharp reordering of the cultural landscape in the Balkans is obvious. The decline of Christianity (to the point of near total extinction in England) and the need for missionary efforts centuries after the collapse suggest to me that higher religion is not robust when higher civilization disappears.

I discount the suggestion that concerted persecution led to de-Christianization. Pagan societies and states did persecute Christians (or adherents of higher religions with foreign connections in general, such as the case with Buddhism in late Tang China), but on the whole they were more systematically tolerant of religious pluralism than civilizations where higher religions were dominant. Pagan Lithuania remained pagan for a relatively long time in part because it lay between Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia, and conversion to either religion would have aligned it with one of the states irrevocably (Lithuania eventually became Catholic and was absorbed into the Polish political and cultural orbit). But during the period when this state remained officially pagan large numbers of Christians were under Lithuanian rule, and at the height of the state the majority of the population was no doubt Christian, as were large numbers of Lithuanian nobles. There are many other examples which illustrate the trend whereby pagan persecution of adherents of higher religions is sporadic and situational, and not persistent, structural and systematic, so I won't belabor the point.

What I am positing then is that the process of barbarization led not just to the discarding of language, but also of Christian religion, in both England the Balkans. In France, Spain and Italy the pagan or heretic (Arian) rulers of predominantly Catholic populations acceded to the religious sentiments of the ruled. In the Balkans and England it seems that the rulers had no such inclination, and the institutional framework of the Christian Church simply withered without the proper structural preconditions. There are cases where even Christian rulers can be paganized by their population, as seems to have occurred with Samo. Protestant critics of the depth of Catholic Christianization of illiterate peasants in Medieval Europe have already assembled a large amount of scholarship which allows us to comprehend how nominal Christians might shift their identity to that of identified pagans. The Christian priesthood was also often illiterate and quite ignorant of the details of their religion during this period (though sometimes the deviation was from the other end, an archbishop of Toulouse in the 18th century was a materialist and atheist, see The Pursuit of Glory). Here is a quote from The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914:
...While roughly a third of village schools were run by the Orthodox Church, the priests had little influence on their flock. They were themselves hardly more than peasants and were deeply ignorant; studying theology and doctrine were the domain of the robed 'black clergy' in the monasteries, who fulfilled no pastoral duties. Knowledge of the Christian doctrine was therefore minimal, as Maksim Gorky heard from a Kazan peasant, who said that God 'cannot be everywhere at once, too many men hae been born fro that., But he will succeed, you see. But I can't understand Christ at all! He serves no purpose as far as I'm concerned. There is no God and that's enough. But there's another! The son, they say. So what if he's God's son. God isn't dead, not that I know of'

This describes late 19th century Russia, but I have read similar accounts from Prussian peasants of the 18th century who were left without a pastor for a generation because of a bureaucratic problem. These peasants' worldviews were only recorded because there was an inquisition into their beliefs after the burial of a bull which occurred in the locality to ensure a good harvest (the peasants' rationale was quite inchoate, but the burial of bulls was actually a custom of the Baltic peoples of that region, so I suspect the reemergence of the practice reflected folktales which had preserved fragments of the old religion). Books such as Theological Incorrectness report data that illustrate the reality that cross-culturally most lay persons exhibit religious sentiments and intuitions which are roughly the same. A tendency to "default" toward animism when philosophical religion disappears because of a lack of institutional support shouldn't be too surprising.

With all that said, it is understandable then why higher religion goes extinct with a regression to barbarism, just as literacy, civilized arts and economies of scale go into decline. What I am contending then is that the suggestion that Christianity was responsible for the perpetuation of classical high culture is incoherent, the same level of civilizational complexity which would allow for the perpetuation of classical high culture in some form may also be necessary for the perpetuation of Christianity! What if Constantine had lost at Milvian Bridge? If you are familiar with Rodney Stark's oeuvre then you will respond that this was irrelevant, and perhaps even counterproductive, as Christianity was a bottom-up movement with a better religious product which was inevitably going to become dominant. Looking from the year 300 I think that this is a defensible position. But years ago I read an alternative history short story which posits that Europe would be dominated by illiterate savages if Maxentius had defeated Constantine. This is fictionalization, but lays out the extreme case that but for Christianity Rome & Greece would have been lost forever. As it is, I think that this is likely wrong. Chinese civilization persisted after the collapse of the Han even though that polity did not have an organized religion like Christianity (in fact, Buddhism as a foreign religion spread after the fall of the Han and influenced indigenous religious traditions such as Daoism into competitive imitation). As a point of fact, it was the pagan Sabians of Haran who were heavily overrepresented in the translation of Greek classics in the service of the Abbasid Caliphs because the Sabians revered ancient pagan works. Haran's paganism was a historical accident, as they were protected by the Persian Shahs from forced conversion by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. If Christianity had not become the dominant religion of the Roman world I suspect some other religious system would have become the vessel for classical culture. Higher civilization begets higher religion, or adopts higher religion.

Simple models of causality in the social or historical realm assume the unproblematic teasing apart of variables. Many anti-religionists assert that all evil done in the name of religion is necessarily contingent upon religion. Many religionists assert that all good done in the name of religion is necessarily contingent upon religion. I think both views are probably wrong. Religion may be the root of some evil and the root of some good, but I doubt it is the root of all good or evil, and I believe we tend to overestimate how much of a root it is in any specific behavior. Religious suicide bombing seems very comprehensible today, but the atheist anarchist movement of 19th century Russia also engaged in a great deal of suicidal terrorism.

The historical data I survey above tell me that there is a very easy way to destroy organized religion: destroy organization. That is what I believe occurred in Britain and the Balkans. Without scale, complexity and organization the Christian Church could not flourish. Even the bottom-up "Primitive Church" of the early Empire was likely dependent upon the structure which the Roman Empire provided. The Christianization of much of Europe after the fall of Empire was concomitant with the rise of complex polities which wished to integrate themselves into the Christian commonwealth of states, as well as the ambitions of kings who were eager to justify centralization of power into one individual with the ideology of one true religion. If globalization is here to the stay, then the global religions are here to stay. Additionally, the vast majority of the world religions all emerged in the period between 600 BC and 600 AD. We're probably at some sort of competitive equilibrium, and without some major exogenous shock it looks like the market is saturated.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Interpreting genetic association studies   posted by p-ter @ 9/19/2009 12:52:00 PM

There has previously been some discussion on this site about the failure of past candidate gene association studies for identification of genetic variants that truly influence a phenotype. Much of this involved discussion of the interpretation of p-values in this context (for example, see this thread). Nature Reviews Genetics has just published a must-read review for people interested in these topics.

The randomness of model organisms   posted by p-ter @ 9/19/2009 12:33:00 PM

I thought I'd point quickly to a really nice paper showing that the RNAi pathway, thought to be absent in budding yeasts, is actually only missing from baker's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Remarkably, the authors are able to reconstitute the pathway (which was presumably present in the ancestor of all budding yeasts) in S. cerevisiae with exogenous expression of only two genes. The authors close with a remark about the role of contingency (in particular with regards to the choice of model organism) in research:

While anticipating a productive future for RNAi research in budding yeasts, we note that if in the past S. castellii [a yeast with an endogenous RNAi pathway] rather than S. cerevisiae had been chosen as the model budding yeast, the history of RNAi research would have been dramatically different.


E-memory, quantitative or qualitative change?   posted by Razib @ 9/19/2009 12:07:00 AM

I recently listened to a radio program which featured the topic of "e-memory." The guests are promoting their book, Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything. Here's part of the description:
Total Recall provides a glimpse of the near future. Imagine heart monitors woven into your clothes and tiny wearable audio and visual recorders automatically capturing what you see and hear. Imagine being able to summon up the e-memories of your great grandfather and his avatar giving you advice about whether or not to go to college, accept that job offer, or get married. The range of potential insights is truly awesome. But Bell and Gemmell also show how you can begin to take better advantage of this new technology right now. From how to navigate the serious questions of privacy and serious problem of application compatibility to what kind of startups Bell is willing to invest in and which scanner he prefers, this is a book about a turning point in human knowledge as well as an immediate and practical guide.

First, there were callers who objected that this development was against our nature. It was frankly the rather standard Luddite position. In fact the same arguments which seem to crop up societies which are experiencing the first flushes of mass literacy are being recycled. The arrival of the printing press witnessed the decline of the ancient techniques of Ars Memorativa, so surely much will be lost. I don't dismiss all objections to the utility of technology, everything has its limits. Telecommunications has not, and will not, replace face-to-face communication in many situations or contexts for most people. But the same stock objections seem rather tired after a few thousand years.

And yet I wonder if this is that big of a deal. How many people memorize their friends' phone numbers in the age of the cellphone? There are already things you don't have to memorize like you did in the past. But facts stored outside of our brains exist a la carte, as opposed to being embedded in a network of implicit connections. To generate novel insight these connections and networks of facts need to exist latent as background conditions underneath reflective thought. Of course for most people novel abstractions, analyses and streams of data are irrelevant. So a perfect record of one's personal life and relationships may change a great deal. I have a rather good memory and would honestly appreciate it if others had has much recall about the details of individuals who they might have met years ago and such. Much less awkwardness.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Did iatrogenic harm select for supernatural beliefs?   posted by agnostic @ 9/16/2009 08:10:00 PM

Toward the end of this episode of EconTalk, Nassim Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan) talks about religion and the history of medicine. He notes that one of the benefits of adhering to religious practices was that you probably avoided going to a doctor when you were in trouble -- you prayed to a god or whatever other supernatural entity your religion said would help you out. Why was this a benefit? Because before roughly 50 to 100 years ago, going to the doctor was worse than doing nothing. He bled you, gave your wife a disease by not washing his hands while delivering her baby, etc.

Basically, before very recent times, doctors were parasites. They did not specialize in healing you, but in conning you into thinking that they could heal you -- for a small fee -- all while making you worse, on average. This makes me think: there would have been a selection pressure on human beings to be skeptical of materialist claims about the world -- or at least about the nature of ourselves -- and thus, by default, to be naturally inclined toward supernatural beliefs. Of course, praying to Zeus might not have done an awful lot of good -- but at least it wouldn't have given you new infections like a hospital would, and at least it wouldn't have bled you dry. (And there may have been some benefit from all the social interactions that you got by attending religious services regularly vs. being socially isolated.)

Natural selection operates on the tiniest differences in relative fitness, and for most of human existence there must have been more than a little difference in fitness between those who eagerly sought out the help of a medicine man / doctor and those who just went to church (or wherever) and prayed to the spirits instead. This may be an original hypothesis, but I don't claim so since I haven't read much on the various theories of why religion is part of human nature. Taleb came pretty close to saying so, but not explicitly. Most economists talk about what's rational or utility-maximizing, without making that final link to evolutionary fitness. To its credit, the idea has a pretty solid basis for the necessary differences in relative fitness between believers and non-believers.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The right-handed ape   posted by Razib @ 9/15/2009 06:20:00 PM

Via, The prehistory of handedness: Archaeological data and comparative ethology:
Homo sapiens sapiens displays a species wide lateralised hand preference, with 85% of individuals in all populations being right-handed for most manual actions. In contrast, no other great ape species shows such strong and consistent population level biases, indicating that extremes of both direction and strength of manual laterality (i.e., species-wide right-handedness) may have emerged after divergence from the last common ancestor. To reconstruct the hand use patterns of early hominins, laterality is assessed in prehistoric artefacts. Group right side biases are well established from the Neanderthals onward, while patchy evidence from older fossils and artefacts indicates a preponderance of right-handed individuals. Individual hand preferences and group level biases can occur in chimpanzees and other apes for skilled tool use and food processing. Comparing these findings with human ethological data on spontaneous hand use reveals that the great ape clade (including humans) probably has a common effect at the individual level, such that a person can vary from ambidextrous to completely lateralised depending on the action. However, there is currently no theoretical model to explain this result. The degree of task complexity and bimanual complementarity have been proposed as factors affecting lateralisation strength. When primatology meets palaeoanthropology, the evidence suggests species-level right-handedness may have emerged through the social transmission of increasingly complex, bimanually differentiated, tool using activities.

The evolutionary background of handedness is of interest because there are correlates with left-handedness when it comes to individual differences. Handedness can also be somewhat confusing. For example, I am right-handed when it comes to writing (of less relevance today when I generally type). But I am strongly left-handed in basketball, switch-hit in baseball (slower bat speed left), and can throw a football with either arm comfortably (greater strength left, but better touch right, and I tend to side-arm with the left).

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Personal genomics, beyond the hype   posted by Razib @ 9/15/2009 04:57:00 PM

ScienceDaily has an interesting piece, Individual Genetic Data Illuminates How Genes Influence Human Health. Points to two papers, Epistasis and Its Implications for Personal Genetics and Genetic Population Structure Analysis in New Hampshire Reveals Eastern European Ancestry. If you read a weblog like Genetic Future you are probably cognizant of the fact that personal genomics firms are invested in overselling and hyping their current efficacy to serve their economic interests. And yet I was intrigued as to the disjunction between the present day capabilities of personal genomics and the perception of its power in the general media when listening to a recent episode of Plant Money. The hosts spoke as if personal genomics had already rendered health insurance obsolete because science had removed uncertainty from prediction of disease risk. Even when personal genomics does become powerful enough to push itself far beyond the margins when it comes to effecting personal health decisions, randomness is probably going to be a big factor in who becomes ill simply because randomness is a fact of biology.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sex hormones & genes   posted by Razib @ 9/12/2009 01:16:00 PM

Quantitative trait loci predicting circulating sex steroid hormones in men from the NCI-Breast and Prostate Cancer Cohort Consortium (BPC3):
Twin studies suggest a heritable component to circulating sex steroid hormones and sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). In the NCI-Breast and Prostate Cancer Cohort Consortium, 874 SNPs in 37 candidate genes in the sex steroid hormone pathway were examined in relation to circulating levels of SHBG (N = 4720), testosterone (N = 4678), 3-androstanediol-glucuronide (N = 4767) and 17β-estradiol (N = 2014) in Caucasian men. rs1799941 in SHBG is highly significantly associated with circulating levels of SHBG (P = 4.52 x 10–21), consistent with previous studies, and testosterone (P = 7.54 x 10–15), with mean difference of 26.9 and 14.3%, respectively, comparing wild-type to homozygous variant carriers. Further noteworthy novel findings were observed between SNPs in ESR1 with testosterone levels (rs722208, mean difference = 8.8%, P = 7.37 x 10–6) and SRD5A2 with 3-androstanediol-glucuronide (rs2208532, mean difference = 11.8%, P = 1.82 x 10–6). Genetic variation in genes in the sex steroid hormone pathway is associated with differences in circulating SHBG and sex steroid hormones.


The taste of wine   posted by Razib @ 9/12/2009 01:04:00 PM

Expectations influence sensory experience in a wine tasting:
Information about a product may shape consumers' taste experience. In a wine tasting experiment, participants received (positive or negative) information about the wine prior to or after the tasting. When the information was given prior to the tasting, negative information about the wine resulted in lower ratings compared to the group that received positive information. No such effect was observed when participants received the information after the tasting but before they evaluated the wine. Results suggest that the information about the wine affected the experience itself and not only participants’ overall assessment of the wine after the tasting.

Also, see ScienceDaily for a summary. Felix Salmon has another post, Tasting wine blind.

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Sacred objects as toys   posted by Razib @ 9/12/2009 12:27:00 PM

Dienekes points me to an interesting article, Ancient figurines were toys not mother goddess statues, say experts as 9,000-year-old artefacts are discovered:
Made by Neolithic farmers thousands of years before the creation of the pyramids or Stonehenge, they depict tiny cattle, crude sheep and flabby people.
In the 1960s, some researchers claimed the more rotund figures were of a mysterious large breasted and big bellied "mother goddess", prompting a feminist tourism industry that thrives today.

But modern day experts disagree.

They say the "mother goddess" figures - which were buried among the rubbish of the Stone Age town - are unlikely to be have been religious icons.
Many of the figures thought to have been women in the 1960s, are just as likely to be men.

It's old joke that when archaeologists can't find a utilitarian slot to put an object, it becomes "sacred" or a religious object. The nature of the sacredness or religiosity of an object as it is perceived may tell us more about the culture in which the archaeologist lives than the ancient society itself (remember those peaceful Maya?).


Thursday, September 10, 2009

The rise of the South (China)   posted by Razib @ 9/10/2009 06:32:00 PM

Just wanted to put some concrete data from China's Cosmopolitan Empire out there. Most people know that the Tang Dynasty witness the rise of South China, defined as the Yantgze river valley and on south, as the economic and demographic engines of China (though arguably the plains around the Yellow river remained the cultural and political heart of China). There were several censuses across Chinese history.

- Between the census of 742 and 1080 the population of North China rose by ~25%. The population of South China rose by ~325%. The reasons for this are many, but one of the primary ones was the introduction and improvement upon of Champa rice (the pre-Champa strains dominant at the beginning of the Tang died out by the Song Dynasty).

- The transformation of South China from isolated cities and a few densely populated pockets of cultivation,(e.g, around lake Tai) to a region where Han agriculture was omnipresent witnessed a shift from using animals (oxen, buffalo, etc.) to human labor.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When China contained the world   posted by Razib @ 9/09/2009 11:44:00 PM

The Tang Dynasty is to a great extent a contemporary favorite because of the norms of the modern day West. It was a notionally native dynasty which was also open to outside influences and was strengthened by its cosmopolitan tenor. The merit-based industry of the Song lacks scale and romantic glamor. The Ming withdrew from the world after the the voyages of Zheng He. And the Manchus were outsiders and so were more exotic than cosmopolitan. During the ancient Han Dynasty the Chinese were the world for all practical purposes.

This tendency of co-opting the Tang for modern needs, a case-study of China as a cosmopolitan empire, not only is flat and lacks nuance, but ignores other aspects of this period in Chinese history which Western moderns may find unappealing. The Tang were characterized by the dominance of aristocratic values, a cabal of elite noble lineages in the capital who for all practical purposes monopolized the bureaucracy. Its foreign conquests were often done via native proxies, and divide and conquer (sound familiar?). During the second half of the Tang period the dynasty was in decline, and was given to bouts of persecution of disfavored foreign religions (all except for Daoism), and massacres of foreigners. All this is not to say that the Tang were "bad." Or frankly "good." It seems that such judgments bear less fruit than a genuine descriptive examination of the history and culture of this distinctive period in Chinese history. That is what China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty does, even if the title naturally catches the attention of the typical Western reader.

I come to this with some knowledge of this region and period, having read works such as T'ang China: The Rise of the East in World History. A more accurate title for China's Cosmopolitan Empire might have been "China's Last Empire," insofar as I have pointed out before that the Manchu administered areas outside China proper differently from China for most of that dynasty's history. Of course the claim that the Tang are native, while the Manchu are foreign, is to some extent a matter of art. The Li family of the Tang dynasty likely emerged out of the milieu of partly barbarized borderland warlords who dominated north China after the fall of the Han. Likely they had Turk and Xianbei ancestors, and they maintained many of the customs and outlooks of these non-Han peoples. Emperor Taizong fought like a nomad when necessary with native skill. The early Tang developed symbiotic relationships with nomadic federations such as that of the Uyghurs to buttress their Empire and guard their borders, relationships cemented by the fact that the early Tang emperors could move with ease among the barbarians because of shared experiences, values and background. When Taizong broke the Turks he took upon himself a barbarian title in addition to his role as emperor of China, subsuming within himself what had previously been rival opposites. It is notable the early Tang apparently also practiced the horse sacrifice on occasion, a common feature of Central Eurasian societies.

Of course unlike the Manchu and the Yuan (Mongol) the Tang were not alien overlords despite their partial Central Eurasian provenance. The Li family claimed descent from Laozi, patronized Chinese high culture on a grand scale, and the emperors themselves were civilized aesthetes who produced original poetry. Unlike the Yuan and Manchu the non-Han populations which settled in China proper during the early generations of the Tang dynasty were not given a superior status to the natives, and on the contrary like the Li family themselves many of these individuals assimilated to a Han identity and constructed false genealogies to elide the fact of their foreign provenance. It would be wrong to suggest I think that the Tang produced a hybrid culture, rather, they fostered a cosmpolitanism with Chinese characteristics.

If you are reading this now likely you will have read my review of Empires of the Silk Road. It was fascinating to read China's Cosmopolitan Empire in the wake of that work because the intersection of concepts, facts and trends were palpable. The Tang dynasty was a period when China was a Central Eurasian power, operating in a three-way game with the Turks to the north and the Tibetans to the south. The scope of the Tang's reach is evident when one considers that in 751 Chinese proxy forces (there were very few Han in the notional Chinese force) were defeated by outriders of the Abbasid Caliphate along with their Tibetan allies at the river Talas. Up to this point Chinese and Muslim political and culture influence vied in the Fergana valley, which today spans parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is likely that the battle itself is important only in hindsight, but it marks a convenient turning point when Central Asia irrevocably shifted its focus west to the world of Islam, and lost its ancient connections to the east and China.

Those connections were not, and are not, trivial. The few generations of the Tang were at the tail end of what sometimes is termed the "Buddhist Age." During this period Buddhism served as a common cultural connection across much of Asia to the east of Persia. Though the city states of Central Asia were multireligious, it is arguable that Buddhism was the most prominent of those religions. It was from Central Asia that Buddhism arrived in China, and flourished in the centuries after the fall of Han. Though Buddhism was likely in decline relative to what we now term Hinduism in South Asia, it was still a relatively vital cultural force, and far more prevalent in what are today Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in the east in Bengal. In Empires of the Silk Road Christopher Beckwith argues that many Indian concepts and institutions which came to shape Islamic culture during the Abbasid Caliphate were actually transmitted via Buddhism (it is clear that there were Buddhists in Sindh when the Arab armies conquered it). The Barmakid family which was extremely powerful during the early years of the Abbasids was of course from the Buddhist priesthood of Balkh. And just as ideas flowed west from Buddhist northwest India, so they flowed east from Buddhist Central Asia. Indian Buddhist eminences also took the route through Central Asia to China to spread their teachings or aid in translations. During these early centuries Buddhism was an exotic foreign religion in China, not indigenized, and the Silk Road was the vector via which came a stream of foreign sacred objects and texts from India. To the east the Silla kingdom of Korea and the Fujiwaras of Japan patronized Buddhism as part of their imperialistic project, resulting in several decades in which Buddhistmonks could take advantage of an international network which flowed uninterrupted from South Asia to Japan.

Of course very few Indian or Central Asia monks went to Japan. Rather, much more likely was that Indian, Central Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese Buddhists would meet in Chang'an, the capital of the Tang which also lay at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Though India was the Jerusalem of Buddhism, China quickly became its Rome and Constantinople. The process of indigenization of Buddhism in China was lent a helping hand by the armies of the caliphs, as the 7th century progressed the Muslims pushed into Afghanistan and the marches of South Asia, and conquered the Buddhist and Hindu kings who patronized the great monasteries. Prominent Buddhists, such as the Barmakid family, no doubt converted to Islam. With the Tang withdrawal from Central Asia after 750 Islam totally absorbed the former Buddhist city-states. The international was broken, and China had to rely on its own resources. It is an odd parallelism that to a great extent the eruption of Islam, and its absorption of the lands from with Europe and China were evangelized in their respective dominant institutional religions, led to the rise of a self-conscious Christian West and Buddhist East. Europe was the faith, and the faith was Europe, because Islam and swallowed whole the domains of eastern Christianity. Similarly, as the centuries progressed the holy sites of Buddhism were to fall under the sway of Islamicized Turkish warlords (this dynamic was unfortunately on display with the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan).

But the resources of Buddhism in China were many. The Tang era is generally thought to be the period when Buddhism was most powerful and esteemed as an institutional religion across the Chinese class structure. The anti-Buddhist Confucian Han Yu was speaking from a position of weakness in relative comparison to the disdain or contempt which later Confucian scholars would exhibit toward Buddhism. It must also be noted that Buddhism was not officially the most favored religion during this period, Daoism was. One of the ways in which the Tang ruling family emphasized their Chinese character was their descent from Laozi, and they tacitly tolerated attacks upon Buddhism as a debased foreign religion which was inappropriate for the Chinese by prominent Daoists. This is a contrast to what occurred during the reign of Khubilai Khan, who favored the Buddhists and forced the Daoists to cease their attacks. Nevertheless, this is a case where the Tang did not eat their own dog food; Buddhism was patronized extensively, given favor, and the monasteries accumulated great wealth. The similarities to medieval Catholic Christianity are manifold, as bequests by wealthy individuals were often a form of operational tax evasion, and Tang armies marched with the blessing of Buddhist abbots. Buddhist ideas spread across China, and stories were told of how ignorant individuals were sent to hell for sacrificing animals to native gods. The monasteries became so powerful that during the later years of the dynasty there was a great persecution which ultimately destroyed Buddhism's status as an elite religion, and reserved for it the role of the opium of the masses. When the first Jesuits arrived in China they dressed as Buddhist priests to assimilate, but found they received no hearing from the powers that be. They were dismissed due to their low status as clerics in a popular religion. That is, Buddhism (in later years the Catholic missionaries tried very hard to make their religion distinctive from Pure Land Buddhism).

By the end of the Tang Buddhism was no longer a foreign religion which held some glamor for the elite. Rather, it was an indigenized popular cult. Tang cosmpolitanism seemed to exhibit a tendency whereby the foreign transmuted and became native. Whereas earlier rebellions relied on Daoism, institutional Buddhism became a new avenue for secret societies and organizations of sedition. In fact, during the 18th and 19th century Hui Islamic revivalists had to use terms derived from Pure Land Buddhism in the course of fomenting revolt because symbolism from that sect had percolated into the consciousness of the general Chinese population to the extent of it becoming common semantic currency. One aspect of the later Tang that led to the emergence of the Song which might be of foreign provenance was the rise of military bands cemented by bonds of fictive kinship. This is not a novel idea, as it as occurred in several societies, but in light of the central role of real kinship in the Confucian order, and the strong Turkic influence on the Tang, one has to wonder if this is the Central Eurasian comitatus emerging in a Chinese context, totally extracted and now assimilated. But one must not make too much of this, even if the Song Dynasty arose in part propelled by traditions and customs which the Tang imported from the steppe, it became the civilian Chinese dynasty par excellence.

This deeper texture often renders characterizations of cosmopolitan or xenophobic trite. A simple narrative of the Tang is that the period between 600 and 750 was one of cosmopolitan expansionism, while that after 750 was one of slow long xenophobic decline. Descriptively this is not false, but it is not as if China was insulated from the rest of the world, and moved along an endogenous track. The Buddhist Age, in which Tang China was the preeminent state, gave way after 750 to what was operationally an Islamic Age, when the Abbasid Caliphs were for one century near a world empire, from the borders of China to the margins of the Atlantic. The inward focus of the Tang was partially a function of a collapse of a greater world order which had nourished them and against which they had tested their mettle. The trade routes which allowed for the Sogdians to flourish frayed, with the arc of the Caliphate expanding outward and cutting the ties which bound the older civilized centers together. Though I am cautious about a hydraulic metaphor, it seems not too much a stretch that the rise of Islam and the decline of the Tang operated in concert.

Obviously I've just skimmed some interesting points in this book. I haven't discussed literature, city planning, rural life or the nature of the mercantile cities of the lower Yangtze. It's all in there and all worthy of note, but, I want to get back to the point about cosmpolitanism. There were many foreigners in China during this period. Tang Guangzhou was a city dominated by foreigners, with Arabs being especially prominent. In much of northern China Uyghurs dominated money-lending. There are many physical depictions of people of western Eurasian appearance in artifacts from the Tang period. Where are these people's genes? I pointed out that one problem with an Indo-European origin for ancient Chinese in Empires of the Silk Road is that the genetic data seem clear that the Han people are very distinct from those to the west. And, that groups like Uyghurs are recent hybridization events between two distinct gene pools from western and eastern Eurasia. There are isolated cases of prominent generals in ancient China who were of reputed western origin who turn out to have genes which indicate that they were western. But the modern data from China show very little (if any) western ancestry.

One immediately wonders about the adequacies of the samples we have now. The HapMap had 45 unrelated Chinese from Beijing. The overseas samples are mostly from people whose families are derived from Fujian or Guangdong. But what about Guangdong? Where did the foreigners in Guangzhou go? The easiest explanation is that they were all massacred as is described in the histories. But could all foreigners in China have been massacred? Were they all recognizably foreign? As it happens Chinese speaking Muslims carry a significant western quanta of ancestry, even if it is the minority. The origin stories for this group all derive from men who arrived from western Asia, so this stands to reason. And, it shows that western ancestry does exist in some Chinese populations in China proper. So is there another reason that it is not evident among the Han? I will give a reason that Greg Cochran gave years ago for why the area around Rome is not dominated by Greek genes: the foreigners lived in cities, and the cities were demographic sinks. The cultural cosmpolitanism of Tang China had important long term historical consequences. But its genetic cosmpolitanism was less significant because the locus of that cosmpolitanism was centered around evolutionary dead-ends. The cities of yore live on in faded memory, but their blood has long gone extinct.

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What's "natural" is heterogenous   posted by Razib @ 9/09/2009 09:43:00 PM

Seems to be the "take away" message from Bryan Caplan's post, Monogamy and Heterogeneity. Interestingly, I've run into nature-based arguments in regards to human behavior and norms (e.g., "it's the natural way" or "it's against nature") mostly from two sets, back-to-nature-hippies and social conservatives. As Caplan suggests there is a tendency in these cases for the two groups to generalize from their own likely innate preferences, though the defections and deviations from both groups over time suggest that there's a lot of heterogeneity within them and some people are just conforming to the ideologies and leaders of their packs. Humans are supposed to have good Theory of Mind, but I think even that is a little outmatched by the enormous sample space of possible choices available in a post-industrial consumer society living well above the margins of subsistence. Minor innate behavioral dispositions which might have been marginal or buffered in a small-scale society may snowball due to the unending positive feedback loops which can be generated by the diversity of choices we can make today.

The pre-modern polyamorist was likely constrained in the number of individuals they might have sexual relations with because the number of people in their social world was small. Similarly, there wasn't nearly as much temptation and opportunity (or perceived opportunity cost) for the pre-modern monogamist. The realized distribution of behavior may be much more stretched out in modern society than in the past. After all, how nerdy would most of the readers of this weblog be if they'd been peasants? How many ways are there to plant a seed? (I'm sure I'm going to get answers to that rhetorical question)

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A survey on genetic testing, attitudes & opinions   posted by Razib @ 9/08/2009 07:35:00 PM

If you have a minute, I'd appreciate it if you fill out this survey, the 6 questions should take 30 seconds (2 optional questions about where you came from to take the survey). This is for a friend's research project. The results will be posted next week.

Subjective hedonism   posted by Razib @ 9/08/2009 12:46:00 PM

The last part of this discussion between Felix Salmon & James Kwak is about wine (most if it is about finance), in particular, the fact that people subjectively seem to gain more utility out of expensive wines than cheap ones, even though most blind taste tests show little correlation between price and preference. Paul Bloom is apparently writing his next book on the topic of this sort of subjective hedonic experience, whereby your knowledge of context shapes and filters your perception. I used to think it wasthese sorts of subjective hedonic experiences were best not had, but now I'm not sure so. Is this just signalling? I don't think so since this often operates on a personal scale relative to food consumed alone. Can we train ourselves not to manifest these cognitive ticks? Consider an extremely tasty brownie shaped like feces vs. one that wasn't. Could you train yourself not to be affected by the feces shape because you know that qualitatively there isn't any difference? I assume most people could make themselves eat the feces shaped brownie, my question is could their rational and conscious understanding that it tastes the same as the one not shaped like feces reshape their perception of the experience so that they are of equal quality? It seems the price or knowledge of the provenance of a wine is much less "hard-wired" in our brains than aversion to feces, so perhaps we could appreciate cheap consumables so long as they didn't trigger aversive reflexes.

Addendum: I'm sure there's a technical word for what I'm talking about, but which I labelled subjective hedonism, so feel free to tell me in the comments.


Monday, September 07, 2009

GALLUP Worldview   posted by Razib @ 9/07/2009 03:58:00 PM

Readers of this weblog might find GALLUP Worldview of interest. It's free, but you have to register. Here's a screenshot:

Update: A lot of the variables are for subscribers only :-(


Those tolerant Bektashis!   posted by Razib @ 9/07/2009 03:11:00 PM

Slate has a "dispatch" from the peculiar nation of Albania. The second is titled Albania, the Muslim World's Most Pro-American State. I do think it would be an exaggeration to analogize this title to one which asserts "France, the Catholic World's most laicist state!" Albania is a bit more Muslim than France is Roman Catholic from the data I can see, but we're a long way from the time when France was the "Eldest Daughter of the Church." Times change, despite cultural baggage.

But I want to focus on some passages about the Bektashi sect which is based out of Albania:

This syncretism formed the perfect ground for the spread of Albania's second-most-popular faith, Bektashism, a secretive, heterodox Shiite sect with which roughly 40 percent of the country's Muslims identify (the rest are Sunni). The Bektashi are one of several Shiite sects known by Muslim heresiographers as Ghulat ("exaggerators"): those who have exceeded the proper bounds of religion by ascribing divinity to human beings (typically, to Ali, the first Shiite imam). Bektashism, like other Ghulat sects, contains many Christian-like elements: belief in a trinity (of God, Mohammed, and Ali), confessions, drinking wine, and a ceremonial supper resembling the Eucharist.

Bektashism and other Ghulat sects are shrouded in mystery in large part because their members have been persecuted as heretics. The Bektashis are most similar to the Alevis (also known as Kizilbash) of Turkey, where the Bektashis once had their headquarters. Some scholars have said Alevis and Bektashis are two names for one people; at the very least, they appear to share a common origin. Turkey's Alevis, sometimes called Alevi-Bektashis, are thought to number between 10 million and 20 million. They have no mosques, no muezzins, no ban on alcohol, no obligation of daily prayer, and no fasting during Ramadan. Several Western missionaries, as historian Matti Moosa has documented, have said that the Alevis are "a corrupt Christian sect" and that they accepted "Jesus Christ as the Son of God under the name of Ali" but could not profess this openly for fear of Sunni persecution.


As we sip a sweet peach tea, the dedebaba explains that tolerance of other religions is Bektashism's most important principle. "We all adore the same God," he says. "All the prophets, from Adam to Mohammed, were sent to spread his message." The dedebaba's faith, which contains a strong mystical strain, is often described as a Sufi order. But, he tells me, "though similar to Sufism, Bektashism cannot be considered a part of it."

He willingly discusses some aspects of his faith: "God, Mohammed, and Ali are a trinity-they are inseparable." He confirms the existence of others, like ritual meals and confessions, but he says no more: "Not everything in our religion can be said." Wiping his brow with a white handkerchief, he tells me he has undergone two heart surgeries in the United States. "In Detroit," he says, "we have a Bektashi tekke. When I go there, it is like a little Albania!"

There's a lot there. I've actually tried to do some digging into the background of some of the esoteric and obscure religious sects of the former Ottoman domains. Numbers, beliefs and practices are really hard to come by. There are two primary reasons. First, these groups have spent hundreds of years being persecuted by Sunni religious authorities, while in Albania they had to go through the gauntlet of Communism. Keeping a low profile has now become an essential part of their religious tradition. Secondarily, many of the sources are biased insofar as they are Sunni, and so wish to exaggerate how outlandish or deviant the beliefs and practices of these groups are. There is for example a peculiar convergence between some Sunnis and Christians in viewing these sects as Christianized, though the underlying reason for the depiction naturally differs.

The passage above was dense with obscurity, but if you know the words and background history you might be a bit surprised. For example, the Bektashis are often portrayed as syncretistic and peaceful Muslims, as opposed those intolerant Sunnis. But this is a sect which came to prominence in large part through its ties to the Janissary military order. Its suppression was incidental to the abolition of the Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire. Secondarily, that strange word, "Kizilbash." That's a pointer to another distant, but very likely, connection which the Bektashis have: with the Safavid dynasty of Iran. The Safavids started out as a Turkish Kizilbash movement, out of the same religious milieu as the "syncretistic" and "tolerant" Bektashi or Alevi, who suffered under Sunni Ottoman oppression. But they ended up conquering Iran, and forcibly converting the Sunni population in that nation to Shi'ism.

If you didn't know these specific historical events, and the contingencies entailed, it might be a great deal more plausible that these heterodox Shia sects are somehow naturally more tolerant. But when you're an oppressed minority you see the virtue of tolerance firsthand. When the shoe is on the other foot this principle of the religion seems to fade.

Note: For me the most frustrating thing about groups like the Bektashis and Alevis is that the range of numbers you get is enormous. You can find data which suggests that 40% of Albanians are of Bektashi background, and data which asserts that only 1% of Albanians are Bektashi. In Turkey, where the Alevis face more social marginalization the numbers are even harder to come by (naturally mainstream sources give low numbers, while the Alevis give very high numbers).


The Pittsburgh Steelers as an organism   posted by Razib @ 9/07/2009 11:39:00 AM

There's a strange post over at The New York Times titled Steelers Are a Highly Evolved N.F.L. Species. The author goes into Richard Dawkins' The Self Gene to draw some analogies, but I don't feel the characterization of Dawkins' ideas are clear enough that the analogy even has a chance. But, there is a real set of facts to be observed. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most Super Bowl wins of any team, despite being consistently outgunned in terms of money due to the structural nature of the their local television market. The author above wants to suggest there is a particular organizational genius which the Rooney family presides over. I'm skeptical of this. I suspect that the "genius" is simply institutional stability. Before 1970 the Steelers sucked, and everyone felt sorry for the late Art Rooney. Since 1970 not only have the Steelers captured the most championships, but they have the best win to loss ratio of any professional football team. And it is since 1970 that the Steelers have been characterized by an incredible stability of coaches, only two between 1969 and 2007 (with Mike Tomlin being the third in the post-1970 period). If life is an expectations game then it is likely that individuals employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers might exhibit a longer time horizon simply because of the overall stability of the personnel. Not only might this result in more judicious decisions in terms of the long term health of the team (as their interests are more closely tied to those long term outcomes), but the stability in personnel may also generate and esprit de corps which may serve to substitute for the lost income that entails from remaining with the Steelers organization (naturally, the very reality of consistent winning may also mean that the Steelers can pay less for more since high quality talent does want to win by and large).

Of course, the random things do happen in sports. I always say sports writing is like political writing, way too many specific facts, but no real robust theoretical framework. It's meant to entertain like historical fiction, not illuminate like a textbook (this is very evident in SportsCenter, where the reporting of facts are supplemented by a lot of entertainment). So there will always be people looking for "causes" for trends which may just be flukes. Consider the peculiar alternation between the ascendancy of the AFC and NFC since 1970.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

The changing library   posted by Razib @ 9/06/2009 01:38:00 AM

The future of libraries, with or without books:
The stereotypical library is dying -- and it's taking its shushing ladies, dank smell and endless shelves of books with it.

Books are being pushed aside for digital learning centers and gaming areas. "Loud rooms" that promote public discourse and group projects are taking over the bookish quiet. Hipster staffers who blog, chat on Twitter and care little about the Dewey Decimal System are edging out old-school librarians.

I like computers, but I have to admit that I really appreciated how underutilized libraries were by the bibliophobic public before circa 1995. With public computer terminals there are many more people who show up at public libraries. I don't have an issue with younger people, but there are always a large number of older creepy dudes who obviously don't have a computer at home and so show up to look at porn. Some libraries have even installed privacy screens. In college I remember there was one guy who would use the university library computers to load up on porn. He'd bring a stack of computer disks and copy images to them for several hours, and then leave. A friend, who had just come fresh off the boat from Singapore, referred to him in Queen's English as "the pornographer" ever after (we'd see him biking around town).


Saturday, September 05, 2009

EDAR & the shovel-shaped incisor   posted by Razib @ 9/05/2009 07:23:00 PM

Dienekes is posting more ASHG abstracts. This one is interesting:
A nonsynonymous SNP in EDAR is associated with tooth shoveling

Teeth display variations among individuals in the size and the shape of cusps, ridges, grooves, and roots. In addition, there are certain dental characteristics which are predominant in certain human groups, such as tooth shoveling of upper incisors that is major in Asian populations but rare or absent in African and European populations...Human genome diversity data have revealed that the derived allele of a nonsynonymous single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), rs3827760 that is also called EDAR T1540C, is predominant in East Asian populations but absent in populations of African and European origins. It has recently been reported that the 1540C allele is associated with Asian-specific hair thickness. The aim of this study is to clarify whether the nonsynonymous polymorphism in EDAR is also associated with dental morphology in humans or not. For this purpose, we measured crown diameters and tooth shoveling grades, genotyped EDAR T1540C, and analyzed the correlations between them in Japanese populations. To comprehend individual patterns of dental morphology, we applied a principal component analysis (PCA) to individual-level metric data, the result of which implies that multiple types of factors affect the tooth size. This study clearly demonstrated that the number of the Asian-specific EDAR 1540C allele is strongly correlated with the tooth shoveling grade.

We've posted on EDAR. Interesting that it seems it is related to another classic "Mongoloid" physical trait, the shovel-shaped incisor, which loomed large back in the day when bones and teeth were the way you identified remains. Of course, other ancient populations had shovel-shaped incisors, so it isn't as if this is totally unique to the peoples of East Asia and the Americas. In any case, this shouldn't be too surprising, EDAR does a lot of things, as evident by the summary in GeneCards:
This gene encodes a member of the tumor necrosis factor receptor family. The encoded transmembrane protein is a receptor for the soluble ligand ectodysplasin A, and can activate the nuclear factor-kappaB, JNK, and caspase-independent cell death pathways. It is required for the development of hair, teeth, and other ectodermal derivatives. Mutations in this gene result in autosomal dominant and recessive forms of hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia.


Friday, September 04, 2009

She So Hot   posted by Razib @ 9/04/2009 07:14:00 PM

Interacting with women can impair men's cognitive functioning:
The present research tested the prediction that mixed-sex interactions may temporarily impair cognitive functioning. Two studies, in which participants interacted either with a same-sex or opposite-sex other, demonstrated that men's (but not women's) cognitive performance declined following a mixed-sex encounter. In line with our theoretical reasoning, this effect occurred more strongly to the extent that the opposite-sex other was perceived as more attractive (Study 1), and to the extent that participants reported higher levels of impression management motivation (Study 2). Implications for the general role of interpersonal processes in cognitive functioning, and some practical implications, are discussed.

Everything fits intuition, right?

H/T Sheril


Super Y lineages over the past 10,000 years   posted by Razib @ 9/04/2009 03:45:00 PM

Dienekes posted a bunch of abstracts from the 2009 American Society of Human Genetics meeting. This one is of interest in light of recent posts on this weblog:
Some Y-chromosomal haplotypes have been found at unusually high frequencies in Asian and European human populations. The massive spreadof these lineages has been explained by the impact of social selection i.e.the high reproductive success of some males and their relative/descendants due to their high social status. The most well-known examples are the "Khan haplotype" and the "Manchou haplotype" in Asia, and the U’Neill haplotype in Ireland. But are these frequent haplotypes always associated with recentevents of social selection, or could they be linked to much older processes? To address this question, we have surveyed ~ 3500 males in 97 populationsfrom Turkey to Japan. We have focused on the 12 most frequently represented haplotypes in Eurasia and tested whether their expansions are linked to a specific factor such as language or subsistence methods. Our results show that both recent and ancient processes are responsible for the expansions of these lineages. The recent expansions (2000-3000 years) likely to be linked to social selection are prevalent in Altaic-speaking and pastora lpopulations. This might indicate a recent cultural change in the social organizationof these populations. The ancient expansions (8000-10000 years) are over-represented in Indo-European speaking and sedentary farmer populations,and are likely to be the result of the Neolithic transition.

Asymmetries between male and female lineages are always of interest. For example, diversity of Y and mtDNA correlates well with patrilocality vs. matrilocality. The idea of "super-male" lineages was mooted by Bryan Sykes several years ago in the wake of the "Genghis Khan haplotype", though it benefited from particular preconceptions many have about the nature of male genetic reproductive fitness. But it is likely that these dynamics vary by population due to ecological and/or social parameters. The time window for the expansion of Y lineages among Altaic speakers is very suggestive in light of historical records and archaeological data. It seems that early on (i.e., before 500 BCE) horse-based nomadism was dominated by Indo-Europeans, predominantly Iranians, in Eurasia. In the few centuries before Christ the populations of the eastern steppe, the precursors of Altaic language families, adopted this lifestyle, and to a great extent superseded the Iranian populations across the length and breadth of the non-sedentary zone over the next 1,500 years (the fact that the Ossetians are now a people who reside in the Caucasus is illustrative of the great retreat of Iranian peoples on the steppe). I have suggested that there is a winner-take-all dynamic in regards to steppe polities, and I suspect this will be reflected in the genetics of male lineages as well.

* It is notable that Ireland was to a great extent a pastoralist society during the period of domination by the Ui Neill .

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Where the Sexy Ones Are   posted by Razib @ 9/02/2009 01:04:00 PM

Tyler Cowen Alex Tabarok points me to this paper, Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe. The abstract:
The Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI; Simpson & Gangestad 1991) is a self-report measure of individual differences in human mating strategies. Low SOI scores signify that a person is sociosexually restricted, or follows a more monogamous mating strategy. High SOI scores indicate that an individual is unrestricted, or has a more promiscuous mating strategy. As part of the International Sexuality Description Project (ISDP), the SOI was translated from English into 25 additional languages and administered to a total sample of 14,059 people across 48 nations. Responses to the SOI were used to address four main issues. First, the psychometric properties of the SOI were examined in cross-cultural perspective. The SOI possessed adequate reliability and validity both within and across a diverse range of modern cultures. Second, theories concerning the systematic distribution of sociosexuality across cultures were evaluated. Both operational sex ratios and reproductively demanding environments related in evolutionary-predicted ways to national levels of sociosexuality. Third, sex differences in sociosexuality were generally large and demonstrated cross-cultural universality across the 48 nations of the ISDP, confirming several evolutionary theories of human mating. Fourth, sex differences in sociosexuality were significantly larger when reproductive environments were demanding but were reduced to more moderate levels in cultures with more political and economic gender equality. Implications for evolutionary and social role theories of human sexuality are discussed.

Below is a table of SOIs....


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Who's the barbarian now? Empires of the Silk Road   posted by Razib @ 9/02/2009 01:00:00 AM

If there is one word that is applicable to Empires of the Silk Road, Christopher I. Beckwith's magnum opus, it would be dense. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is a complement of similar density and topical intersection (they do not quite overlap, and The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is missing from the bibliography of Empires of the Silk Road). A quick perusal of Beckwith's ouvre shows that he writes history from the center. What we might term the Ecumene he calls the "periphery." Page after page he defends the "barbarians" of the Heartland against the slander of peripheral scribblers. Though in the introduction the author takes a stand against both the Whiggishness of much of Modernism and the vacuous relativism of Post-Modernism, this work is clearly written as something of a corrective, not an objective treatment where all scales are balanced with care, caution and precision.

One of the themes of Empires of the Silk Road which distinguishes it from most pre-modern history is its mobility, scope and breadth, of space. A history of ancient Egypt or the Roman Empire spans centuries, and even millennia. But their geographic expanse is limited. Roman expeditions to eastern Germany shock and surprise, but the Roman Empire was fundamentally a polity of the western periphery of Eurasia. In contrast Beckwith's subject matter naturally pushes the boundaries to a far greater extent. For example, the flight of the Avars, who dominated what is today Hungary for several centuries, covers from what is today Mongolia to the Danubian plain in less than 10 years! It is a common assert that before the modern era a typical human would be born, live and die with a 10 mile radius. The exact number of miles is irrelevant, the moral is that one wishes to project a sense of incredible spatial stasis which we modern people could not comprehend. Similarly, the fashion in archaeology to assert that a shift in culture as evident through artifact is never through migration, but always through communication, internalizes this assumption. But the reality is that this assumption is only valid for the vast peasantry of peripheral societies (if even there), not for hunter-gatherers, nomads and those who practice mixed-lifestyles. In other words, not for the peoples of the Eurasian Heartland which is the subject of Empires of the Silk Road. The very high likelihood that much of what we today call Xinjiang was inhabited by peoples of Western provenance is one of those "mysteries of the ancient world" which surprises us, but that's because we're the descendants of peasants who are conditioned to assume that pre-moderns were immobile! Conversely, the descriptions of some of the more exotic nomadic groups which arrived on the Central European plain after the collapse of the Roman Empire strongly hint at an East Eurasian provenance for an element of these hordes (the physical characterizations of the Huns and Avars seem qualitativey different from that of Scythians and Samartians).

There are two great pulses, Volkerwanderung, which loom large in Beckwith's narrative, that of the Indo-Europeans and of the Turks. The former is always much more difficult than the latter because in the case of the Turks we have copious records from other groups as to their appearance on the margins of major civilized states. In contrast, when the Indo-Europeans were on the march there was very little widespread literacy, and what there was was often devoted to the kind tedious accounting which dominate the Linear B tablets. The model in Empires of the Silk Road seems to lean strongly on Robert Drews' The Coming of the Greeks, chariot riding martial elites swooping down on the settled peripheral civilizations from the Eurasian Heartland, and rapidly generating synthetic creole cultures in a matter of centuries if not decades. In Beckwith's telling the Indo-Europeans mastered the horse and chariot, and used these technological advances to take over civilized states, though he suggests that instead of full-frontal attack the norm would much more likely be that warbands were invited or their services purchased by the settled elites. Only after this period service would the Indo-European warriors rebel and take over the reigns of power (think the takeover of Britain by Anglo-Saxons after their having been brought over as mercenaries by native warlords). This specific model of servitude is assumed to be an instantiation of a general dynamic which characterizes the ethos of the Heartland, fealty of the comitatus to a leader who they will follow 'till death. We are familiar with this in its classical form among the Mongols or the Japanese samurai, but Beckwith suggests that Islamicized Turks and Christianized Franks continued to express some of the values of this ethos even after repudiation of its more extreme aspect of collective suicide in case of the death of the leader. This sort of non-kin based group cohesion can often be very powerful, and even if it is the exception historically in many societies, these exceptional periods can sometimes serve as hinges which determine the course of nations. The Arabs are a kin-based society, but the presence of non-kin among the Muhajirun, and the obvious non-kin status of the Ansar, is notable as it was they who helped Muhammad rise to power. Though the early Muslim movement was co-opted by the Umayyad clan, it nevertheless relied on an esprit de corps which was not kin-based in its early decades (though it was to a great extent ethnically based, see The Great Arab Conquests).

Though the effect of the chariot in the short term, and Indo-European languages in the long term, are not dismissed, one of the interesting suggestions made in Empires of the Silk Road is that perhaps more critical is the role that Indo-European nomads, and perhaps in particular North Iranians, played as facilitators, communicators and even originators, of ideas and technologies across Eurasia. It is not an exaggeration to note that sometimes Beckwith seems to see Indo-Europeans everywhere. The most controversial and perhaps tendentious claim (which he admits is not the scholarly consensus) is that Indo-Europeans may have played an essential formative role in the emergence of Shang & Zhou China. In particular, it is known that some elements of the culture of the Shang elite is of western origin, in particular the style of chariot warfare. It is also known that the Zhou were a semi-barbarian group from western China, and Beckwith makes a philological argument that the maternal lineage of the Zhou are not Tibetan barbarians, but Indo-European ones. He even goes so far as to offer that perhaps the original Chinese language was Indo-European, now overlain by the indigenous substrate so as to be unrecognizable. I find this last to be rather implausible, but then I know little philology so I can't critique it technically. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we know that Indo-Europeans were a presence in ~2000 BCE in what is today western China, and some aspects of technology were transmitted from them. My skepticism is partly due to the fact that the Han populations of China are genetically very distinct from those of West and Central Eurasia. The Europoid remains from Xinjiang have had enough of their DNA extracted so as that we know that on many genes where Europeans and Chinese are disjoint in frequency, so were they. Additionally, some historical remains of individuals who were claimed to be of western origin have been analyzed, and yes, they were West Eurasian. The thinness of distinctive West Eurasian genes in China proper, genes which are found in abundance among the Uighurs, shows that there were limits to the genetic admixture in this case, to the point where the indigenous substrate totally absorbed and marginalized the exogenous input. This may explain why even if Indo-European warbands had a critical role to play as a cultural stimulus among the elites of the North China plain they seem to have left a rather marginal biological impact.

The contrast with India is illustrative, as there are candidates for genes which the Indo-Europeans brought. Not only that, but the sex asymmetry in terms of genome content is very striking in South Asia, exactly in the direction which Beckwith would argue insofar as they are roving bands of males who engage in societal takeover. India naturally does seem to have a highly creolized culture, most manifest in the Indo-Aryan languages of northern India which show many hallmarks of being the synthetic product of local dialects and an intrusive language. The author barely even manages to conceal his contempt for South Asian nationalists who make arguments to the effect that Aryans were indigenous to South Asia. I think that though the tone could have been a bit more scholarly, anyone who looks as the total range of data from all Indo-European traditions can not escape the conclusion that the probability that Indo-Europeans originated in South Asia is very low, to the point of triviality. He exhibits the same attitude toward those who argue for a deep history of Indo-Europeans in Greece or Anatolia, sentiments with which I sympathize and am in general agreement, but, I would have liked the arguments sketched out in more detail rather than asserted blithely (the footnotes on this topic often don't satisfy since Beckwith cites his future work!).

One interesting facet of the story in Empires of the Silk Road seems to be the winner-take-all and positive-feedback-loop dynamic which reoccurs. The spread of the Indo-European languages is rather amazing, and invites more scholarly interest, but that is not where the story stops. Beckwith notes that for much of antiquity the heart of Asia was dominated by one group of Indo-Europeans, the Northern Iranians. The term "Iranian" here is something of a misnomer, as groups such as Scythians, Samartians and Alans may have had little to do with the contemporary Iran. Rather, the peoples of modern Iran speak a language which is related to the dialects of the Scythians. Up until fall of Rome the Northern Iranian nomads drove all others before them. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the Iranians displaced the Indo-Aryans from the plateau of what later became Persia, and Herodotus seems to describe peoples under Scythian hegemony who would later become Slavs and Balts.

This winner-take-all dynamic repeats with the Turks, who swept the Iranians from the plains of Central Eurasia after marginalizing other groups such as the Avars in their climb to the top. What was so special about the Turks? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps to some extent this is a stochastic process which is characterized by positive-feedback-loops, someone has to win, and winners become even more powerful over the course of time. Eventually these great confederations which have eaten dozens of other smaller confederations expand until they lap up against the margins of peripheral civilizations, at which point the scribes of the settled marvel as to the savage superhuman nature of the nomads at the gates. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World the author clearly implies that Temujin's personal qualities were essential in allowing for the mobilization of the whole Mongol nation. He notes in particular his rejection of kin-based favoritism and elevation of his comitatus (he does not use that word, but same difference) as critical ingredients in scaling up the Mongol war-machine. But do note that the Mongols had risen before, under Genghis Khan's great-grandfather Khabul Khan, and been crushed by the Tatars. Perhaps Khabul Khan had all the necessary personal qualities, but the fates did not smile upon him, and now he is simply a footnote in history. The domain of the Goturks in the 6th century was nearly was expansive as that of Genghis Khan in his lifetime, but most readers of this weblog are likely unaware of the Goturks. Why? Some of this is simply that the Goturks crested at a lower maximum of territory, but some of it is simply that in the mid-500s much of peripheral civilization was in low ebb and so the Goturks did not come into conflict with the lettered lands (in fact, the Turks were often used sought out as allies against the true barbarians at the gates).

What I'm trying to say about the importance of positive-feedback-loops is not going to shock and surprise anyone. The larger the Roman or Persian Empire got, the more resources were at their disposal. So the more likely victory against other powers became (though at a certain point holding territory becomes more difficult due to diminishing returns on force projection with more numbers). But the parameters are somewhat different in the center. Rome took centuries to reach its "climax" configuration under Augustus (with only changes at the margins under Trajan, etc.). In contrast, most of the area of the Mongol Empire was conquered within 20 years. 30 years after the death of Genghis Khan Baghdad was sacked, and 50 years later all of China was finally conquered. It is understandable why the rate of conquest slowed as the Mongols pushed into the periphery; capture of the territory of nomads by nomads is far different from the taking and holding of cities, or the pacification of mountains. But winner-take-all dynamics on the plains of Eurasia did result in a series of polities which had the numbers and expertise to learn the game of peripheral states, and beat them at it, repeatedly. The Mongols famously learned siege warfare in in the process of conquering China, while the Ottomans hired European gunners, and the Huns made recourse to infantry in forested regions. But the size of their forces due to winner-take-all dynamics, and the cohesion of the comitatus, served them in good stead until the natural decay of soft civilization set in.

About which, Christopher Beckwith has serious objections to the characterizations which posit dichotomies between the soft sedentary and barbarian hardy nomads. He correctly points out that most "nomads" were not pure nomads, but lived a mixed lifestyle (hunting, herding and farming). Additionally, there's plenty of evidence that disgruntled peasants could turn roving brigand when authority was disrupted. So the boundaries between the two are not so clear cut (also, whole populations seem to have switched between settled farming and nomadic animal husbandry several times). The idea of the nomad as the born warrior is also exaggerated, and Beckwith points out the widespread literary evidence which attest to the love of luxury and laziness of the nomad populations (they're humans). And as evidence of the hardiness of peasants, he offers the examples of the citizen soldiers of Republican Rome (before Marius' reforms) and the Greek hoplites who formed the famous phalanx. Good points all, but Beckwith protests too much. He asserts repeatedly that the peoples of Central Eurasia tended to be larger and more well fed than the peasants of the periphery. Why? In a pre-modern society the population would push up against the Malthusian limit, so why were the nomads larger? To some extent this was a function of their higher quality diet in regards to meat and milk, but one might suppose that another issue was that there were greater ecological fluctuations which culled the nomad populations in a manner which was more extreme than among peasants. I bring this hypothesis up because in Empires of the Silk Road this particular problem, starvation due to theft of livestock of their deaths (disease?) is introduced as one issue which made the life of the nomad more uncertain than that of the peasant. But another factor may simply be interpersonal violence on the plains. If the peasant toiled on the margins under the boot of their sedentary nobles, they were often shielded from the sort of violence we read about in the raids common among herders. These facts lead me to contend that that Beckwith overemphasizes the symmetry between nomad and peasant when it comes to their viability as fighters. Finally, I think the body of evidence implies that nomadic populations did mobilize a greater fraction of their able bodied males in organized violence than peasant-based societies (consider Imperial Rome with its professionalized army). This would naturally give the average nomadic male more martial skills simply through experience.

Before I go to the most explosive contentions of Empires of the Silk Road, let me address a peculiar set of chapters near the end of the book. These chapters throw repeated polemical salvos at "Modernism." They attack populism, democracy, and the overall degeneracy of contemporary "high culture." Though they make the factual observation that the old architecture and traditions of Central Eurasia have been totally decimated by Modernist ideology, specifically Communism, the bigger issue here seems to be that Christopher Beckwith objects vociferously to the general slant of the Modernist era in culture. Though I have some sympathy with this, these sections of the book read rather uncomfortably next to the great mass of erudite, if assertive, scholarship which is the majority of the narrative. It is clear that Beckwith believes that Modernism is a base expression of human preferences, and that our better nature has its origins in the genius of the Heartland.

About that genius, the proposition is forwarded by Beckwith that the philosophical production of the Axial Age may have something to due to the facilitative or even original contributions of the peoples of Central Eurasia. As noted above these were peoples who could span great distances in short periods of time, so in some ways it is plausible that they would be the "Pony Express" of their age. Beckwith notes that at least one philosopher who resettled in Greece was Scythian, so the peoples of the Steppe may have been familiar with philosophy. Some of the ideas originated by the Greeks, Indians and Chinese seem eerily similar, while the religious genius of the Jews and ancient Iranians was also operative during this period. Zoroaster is likely a figure of Central Eurasia, not the sedentary world of Fars.

The simultaneous aspect of the Axial Age is rather peculiar. If you are a theist who believes in an active God this is one historical epoch which would seem a likely candidate for divine intervention. Barring that, though I am not convinced by Beckwith's hypothesis, I think a less ambitious model which posits the Central Eurasians not as drivers but as enablers of the spread of ideas is plausible. The civilized areas of the periphery were expanding during this period so they would be in more intimate contact with the Heartland than before, and also naturally more culturally productive because of gains of efficiency due to scale. There are cases later in history where the trade routes and peoples of Central Eurasia were critical in the spread of ideas: Buddhism became a religion of East Asia almost certainly through the cities of Central Eurasia. Islam also spread through the same trade routes, from the Crimean Tatars in the west to the Uighurs in the east. Finally, as Arnold Toynbee observed Far Eastern Christianity spread along these routes, during the time of Genghis Khan most of the tribes of western Mongolia was nominally of Nestorian Orthodox Christian affiliation.

In keeping with Beckwith's thesis that in the period between 2000-1000 BCE a series of cultures arose as syntheses between Indo-Europeans and the sedentary polities of distant antiquity he concludes that Central Eurasians are the spiritual ancestors of modern people, and not the Sumerians, or Egyptians, or the people of the Indus Valley civilization. This is naturally a contentious point. It is for example often noted that of the gods of ancient Greece only Zeus is of undisputed Indo-European origin, even the Mycenaean Greeks may mostly have been culturally indigenized! (or barely Indo-Europeanized if you invert it) Buddhism, arguably India's most impacting cultural export, has been argued by many scholars to be one example of a reemergence of some of South Asia's indigenous religious strands after a period of Vedic Indo-Aryan cultural domination. And so on. I can grant that the ethos of the Heartland was powerful, the expanse of the Indo-European and Turkic languages are manifest evidence of this, but I am not eager to abandon one biased narrative from another. The nature of modern civilization, and its antecedents, are complex. Empires of the Silk Road is admirable at exploring one particular neglected strand, but I'd rather not turn that tree into the forest just yet.

Note: I want to emphasize that did not touch upon many aspects of Christopher Beckwith's argument. When I say that the book is dense, I mean it is dense.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Trends in journalism   posted by Razib @ 9/01/2009 11:28:00 PM

The Worst NYT Trend Story of the Year?:
Here's an early autumnal contender: Virginia Heffernan's entirely anecdotal story about a massive Facebook Exodus. How serious is this Facebook exodus? Heffernan explains:
The exodus is not evident from the site's overall numbers.

The exodus is not evident from the site's overall numbers! Some trend!

This is a serious problem. Anecdotes add spice to real data. As illustrations of something real. Too often journalism involves finding five people on the street who can agree with whatever "trend" you've made up. This reminds of how I was taught to write essays in Middle School, make up a thesis and find n facts to support the thesis. Who cares if those facts are representative of the distribution of facts in the real world! You got your thesis and you know what you are looking for. And secondarily, there is the problem of trends are so widely accepted as to become background assumptions, but which turn out to be false upon even cursory examination.

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No one believes genes affect personality   posted by Razib @ 9/01/2009 06:47:00 PM

I looked in the GSS, post at Secular Right. There isn't that much deviation from the mean of ~25% who believe genes play a major role in personality. Interestingly, women are more accepting of the idea of genes effecting personality than men. Not surprisingly, the old are also more open to the idea of genes effecting personality than the young.