Friday, September 26, 2008

10 Questions for Parag Khanna   posted by Razib @ 9/26/2008 11:59:00 AM

Parag Khanna is the author of The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. He is also Director of the Global Governance Initiative and Senior Research Fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. His website is, where one can find a repository of articles, videos and interviews. Below are 10 questions. (in case readers are curious, I did read The Second World in one sitting)

1) Another recent work which I think one can compare to your book, "The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order," is Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World." If I had to contrast the two I would suggest that Fareed's narrative is both broader in scope and thinner in detail. "The Post-American World" attempts to describe a possible future trajectory for the whole world while you focus specifically on the Second World (albeit, a rather a large canvas in and of itself). And while Fareed tends to utilize simple and general frameworks (e.g., China and India do not believe in God), you seem to rely on more thick description empirically (balancing both quantitative statistical data with on-the-ground observation) as well as a more scholarly theoretical superstructure (such as H. L. Mackinder's "Heartland" model). Would you say this is a fair description of the differences?

*** My "Second World" is certainly broader in scope than "Post-American World" in that it covers literally the entire planet (but with some areas like Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa getting very short treatment). He gives more space to India than I do, and we both accord much attention to China, while I add in China's role in key regions like Latin America, the Middle East, and Central Asis as well. Even though my book is a travelogue with micro-detail, Fareed and I have nearly identical conclusions about the growing confidence of "The East" and the Second World more broadly (which he calls "the rest"). I wanted to have the scholarly superstructure in my book because in addition to providing descriptive detail, I wanted to be predictive about what the rise of new powers will do to geopolitical transition, the balance of power, the future constraints on American foreign policy, and so on.

2) You make copious reference to geographer H. L. Mackinder and those who responded to his hypothesis about the centrality of the Eurasian core in world domination (e.g., Nicholas J. Spykman and the "Rimland"). As a self-identified geography-nerd I can say that your references to grand theoretical frameworks were deftly integrated into the narrative. On the other hand, can you expand on the value which these sorts of models may give to the typical lay reader? Specifically, do you believe that the theory allows one to plausibly stitch together the copious data which you present within your narrative a more comprehensible manner?

*** Even in the age of technology and globalization, geography is still destiny for most. I try to demonstrate just how important the regional context is for evaluating a country's situation and options -- it is more important than the global in most cases. So indeed, Mackinder and geopolitics' emphasis on population, resources, location, sea access, natural barriers, and other features of geography remain absolutely pivotal to understand a country's prospects. Let's take the biggest debate in Asia today (from America's point of view), namely India vs. China. Just because they both have over 1 billion people, that does not make them equal. Even if they both had efficient regimes (which China does and India doesn't), or even if the regimes were reversed, and India had the "better" government, India would still face the reality that it is hemmed in by the Himalayan mountains (the world's tallest) and vast oceans, and has acrimonious relations (at best) with all its neighbors. This severely limits its power projection capability. China, on the other hand, borders more countries than any other in the world, which is extremely useful when spreading influence by either economic, demographic, military, or infrastructural means.

3) I recently read "After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405," which seems to argue there was a fundamental shift in the rise and fall of polities around this period. Specifically, the author seems to be making the case that the Gunpowder Empires fundamentally reversed the power dynamic which had long privileged the peoples of Mackinder's Heartland over the settled societies of Spykman's "Rimland." The defeat of the Dzunghar Confederacy by the Manchus and the rollback of the Tatar by the Russian Empire come to mind. Since I am not fluent in Mackinder's ideas at anything more than a caricature level, am I right to believe that he his argument was one of strategic control of territory, as opposed to the dynamic forces of history being driven by peoples shaped by the ecology of the Heartland itself?

*** "After Tamerlane" is a wonderful work of scholarship. Both the factors you identify -- strategic control of territory and the ecology of the Heartland -- were important for Mackinder. It wasn't just that the Heartland would be impervious to naval attack/control, but also that it possessed rich natural resources (water, timber, etc.) In fact, based on differing understandings of Mackinder's emphasis, scholars have come up with different geographies for the precise location of "Heartland" and "Pivot", Mackinder's other key geographic concept.

4) Reading "The Second World" I felt the shadow of books such as "Guns, Germs and Steel" and "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations." In other words, fixed geographical parameters interact dynamically with historical contingencies to shape the patterns of variation we see around us. For example, geography does not mean that Argentina is a wealthy land, but, if history is a guide it suggests that it can be a wealthy land because of the potential productivity of agriculture in its particular climate. I believe these coarse marco-level parameters are critical and do add value in our attempt to model the reasons for the shape of the past, the nature of the present, and the possible trajectories of the future. But I also have an interest in biology, and I am of the opinion that economists for example would gain value by deviating from the uniform Homo economicus assumption and take into account individual and group differences. There are strong indications for example that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite which one may catch from cats, can change personality and predisposition and generate between-cultural differences. There is also data which suggests that personality variation may be controlled by genes which modulate dopamine pathways. Finally, there are also new avenues of research suggesting genetic variation which controls differences between individuals in behavioral economics experiments. These are simply three examples. I believe in the importance of geography as a major macroscale parameter, but, I am also one who suspects that many of these coarse differences we see across the world may be rooted in microscale variation. Some economists are moving into this domain and attempting to find causal connections between the micro and macroscale. Do you know if scholars in international relations community have taken notice? Or are there just too many other low hanging fruit to analyze so that it is impractical at this moment to integrate these domains into the field?

*** You might have noticed that I try to pitch the book as a work of "geopolitical psychology" and I use quite a few metaphors from sociology as well. I strongly avoid any rational actor models/biases in the book, and in fact try to highlight "irrational" behavior wherever possible and show it as a product of history/culture/geography: just take Chavez in Venezuela, Gaddafi in Libya, and Putin in Russia, three examples I delve into in the book. I also argue that a nation's psychology is schizophrenic (particularly in the Second World), and that nations can be satiated in a manner that tracks to Maslow's famous "hierarchy of need". But yes, beyond game theory there is increasing amounts of work in political science that looks at such non-social sciene approaches to undetstanding behavior in the political arena as well.

5) I was struck a bit by the Sinocentric focus of much of the book. China looms large. In contrast, you don't spend much time on India, asserting that it is basically a Third World nation, and will remain one for some time. This seems plausible to me skimming over the data on any human development index (or, the fact that it seems likely that the majority of the world's mentally retarded due to nutritional deficiency, cretins, reside on the Indian subcontinent). Nevertheless, the media in the United States has constructed a China vs. India narrative. Good copy? Or do some people actually think in these terms? (as I suggest above, it seems that the comparison is laughable looking at the bottom-line statistics on most vital indices)

*** In addition to my answer above about how geography impacts the China vs. India debate, it should be added, in agreement with you, that it makes good copy. After all, how else could one come up with an acronym like "Chindia" or "BRICS", both of which actually speak against the argument of rivalry. In any case, a 19th-century view of the balance of power would certainly suggest that India would make for a strong, populous, democratic, industrial, nuclear, naval superpower partner in the quest to contain China, and thus it's a very useful construction on the part of the U.S. Pentagon. That said, a great deal more depth has been added to the US-India relationship over the years, especially in the IT and now biotech and other areas, so there is a pattern of growing trust between the two since the end of the Cold War, and independent of the military relationship.

6) Your book was published last year. Events move fast. You spend some time on Georgia, and it is not a particularly flattering picture. A friend of mine told me several weeks ago the basic outline you present, which I would characterize by suggesting that Georgia lay somewhere in the great middle between Bangladesh and Finland in corruption and the robustness of civil society. But during the recent course of events I heard little detail of the nation of Georgia as opposed to the specific blow-by-blow of events (or what we know) involving South Ossetia, Russia and Georgia. Is simply an unchangeable feature of the media, or a bug which might be fixed in future releases? Is there any way we can prevent this? Geographical knowledge isn't a top priority now...but it seems that a little data would go a long way in making more informed foreign policy decisions.

*** It certainly would! And that is why my book attempts to be an inside-out look at Georgia. I present Mikhael Saakashvili as a corrupt, power-hungry and pugnacious semi-autocrat, and Georgia as a West African micro-state in the Caucasus. I talk about the poor roads, the belching buses, the squalid villages and the arrogant government. If more foreign policy experts and the general public understood these things earlier on, we would have heard less bullish talk about Georgia I think.

7) You lived in the United Arab Emirates at some point and profile Dubai. So quick question, is Dubai sustainable over the next decade? There are some questions about how over-leveraged and how it is being bankrolled by taking on debt. Additionally, as you allude to in "The Second World" it also extracts labor productivity rather cheaply out of most of its South Asian workforce and it seems there is a likelihood that at some point in the near future the cost of this labor might increase because of the imposition of what we in the States would term humane working conditions.

*** I do believe that Dubai is sustainable over the next decade - and the entire UAE even more so. The country has quickly taken up an essential place as a node in the globalized world, both financial (think SWFs), geographical (a key re-export zone located between Europe and Asia), and political (a neutral and safe place in a turbulent region). There is an outside view of labor conditions and an inside view. The outside view equates third world/Asian labor conditions as tantamount to slavery. The inside view shows that they're considering a proper minimum wage, are aquiring low-cost but energy-efficient housing in the labor camps, and that the workers are there because they want to be there and earn enoughto make the UAE/Gulf the second largest source of global remittances (behind the US). So there will be bumps in the road, but Dubai is the Arab world's first "global city" and absolutely essential for the region and now the world.

8) Speaking of working conditions and cheap labor, in the closing of the book you make reference to immigration in the United States. There are some, quite often economists, who make a case for the enriching value of open borders and free movement of labor, while others would like to close borders in the interests of cultural homogeneity and tightening labor supply to increase wages. Immigration has been a major flashpoint here in the United States over the past few years, and we haven't really resolved anything and seem to be tabling the issue for now. If you could design a system of immigration for the United States what would it look like?

**** The notion of closed borders vs. total free movement represent two extreme bookends, neither of which is realistic. The balance has to be found between bringing in sufficient low-cost Latin labor to do the work that Americans won't do, while also bringing the workers up the value chain so that real wages are pulled down. I do think bringing the currently illegal population "above board" as Schwarzeneggar proposed a while back is a good idea - it will help to get a better accounting of numbers of immigrants/workers in the country and legitimize their presence.

9) Empires loom large in the actions of Second World powers, the United States, China and the EU. I get the sense from the book that you think that the EU has acquitted itself rather well in the world of late in terms of advancing its own interests, both in terms of realpolitik and in the domain of spreading its normative outlook. Additionally, you observe that the EU allows for both unity and diversity; nations can preserve their language and culture upon admission, though obviously centralizing and homogenizing trends are also apparent. Of late some scholars have been looking back to empires of the past as models for diversity existing cheek-by-jowl with political unity. But I would assert that despite diversity most empires of the past were dominated by one identity. For example, Polybius famously observed that the power of the Roman state was its assimilative capacity, but Anastasius in the late 5th century was probably the first emperor who self-identify as a Hellene. Emperors of "exotic" lineage such as Philip the Arab or Septimius Severus (Punic on his father's side) were Latinized. In "The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians" the author asserts that the liberal education which was the norm among Roman aristocrats was essential in inculcating not just specific values, but an upper class Latin accent which could mark one's social origins through life immediately upon first contact. So my point is that these diverse empires had herrenvolk. You seem to point to China's Han ethnicity as something of this sort, but the Han are on the order of 90% of the population of their state. In contrast, there is no such preponderance of ethnicities in the EU. Could it be that past exemplars are simply not applicable to the present? In "The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800" Jay Winik contends that it was a common assumption during the 18th century that popular governmental forms such as republics and democracies were simply not scalable beyond the city-state, and yet here we are over 200 years later.

*** In her excellent book "Day of Empire," Amy Chua explains how tolerance of diversity was a renewing force for major historical empires and becomes the lifeblood of sustainability, even as it eventually can bring down an empire. The interplay of technology and historical learning is what has allowed the EU to become the modern day Holy Roman Empire so successfully.

10) You offer that you've traveled to over 100 nations in "The Second World." Certainly impressive, but I'm curious as to the range of linguistic fluency necessary make yourself understood. Was English sufficient, or did you have to lean on languages which you'd learned or already knew besides English? Were there interregional differences?

*** One needs a different linguistic strategy for each region. In Eastern Europe I got by with a mix of German (which I speak fluently), English, and some translators for Ukrainian and Russian. I speak Spanish so was okay in South America. In the Mideast I used basic Arabic to get by on the street, but did interviews either in English or with translators. And in China I needed translators all the time. If I could have done it all over again it would have been nice to speak Russian given all time I spent in Central Asia, but I wouldn't recommend to young students today to learn Russian. I think it is best to learn Arabic or Chinese (or both) today.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

10 Questions for James Flynn   posted by Herrick @ 12/05/2007 09:06:00 AM

James R. Flynn is a philosopher and psychologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, as well as Distinguished Associate of the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University. His best-known paper, "Massive IQ Gains in 14 Nations," (Psych. Bulletin, 1987), documented what Herrnstein and Murray later called the "Flynn Effect": A long term increase in average IQ's across the developed world. This widely-reaffirmed result contradicted the folk wisdom that a coarsened culture and dysgenic fertility were making the rich nations less intelligent. In his new book, "What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect," (Cambridge University Press), he argues that changing social and economic forces can explain both the Flynn Effect and group differences in IQ. To fully understand the Flynn Effect, he contends, we need to understand the "cognitive history" of the 20th century. Perhaps most importantly, he proposes a variety of practical empirical tests so that one can see whether his explanations are correct.

The author of four books and dozens of articles in the fields of moral philosophy and psychology, Professor Flynn has repeatedly spurred psychologists to rethink exactly what it is that intelligence tests measure.

1. In your new book, What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect, you emphasize that IQ research is so focused on g, the general factor of intelligence, that they've been unable to see other important features in the IQ data. In particular, the "g-men," as you call them, seem to think that if the Flynn Effect is an overall increase in all IQ subtests, or an overall increase in a random subset of IQ subtests, then they can just ignore the Flynn Effect completely. So, what are the g-men missing out on?

Over time, changing social priorities alter the cognitive demands made on our minds. For example, society may want more and more people to put on scientific spectacles so they can understand the world rationally through education. IQ tests like Similarities and Raven's pick this up as enhanced performance. Yet, thanks to a more visual culture, society may not require us to enlarge our vocabularies - meaning no higher scores on the WISC vocabulary subtest. These trends are of great significance. If you dismiss these trends because they do not tally with the various tests' g-loadings, you miss all of that. G rather than social significance has become your criterion of what is important.

2. Over the decades, you've carried on an extensive correspondence with Arthur Jensen, the controversial and enormously influential intelligence researcher at UC Berkeley. You summarized some of your early thoughts about Jensen's work in your 1980 book Race, IQ, and Jensen, a book that, in my opinion, sets the standard for how do discuss this controversial topic. What have you learned about Jensen over the years, and what have your interactions with him taught you about the nature of scientific research?

I never suspected Arthur Jensen of racial bias. Over the years, I have found him scrupulous in terms of professional ethics. He has never denied me access to his unpublished data. His work stands as an example of what John Stuart Mill meant when he said that being challenged in a way that is "upsetting" is to be welcomed not discouraged. Before Jensen, the notion that all races were genetically equal for cognitive ability had become a dead "Sunday truth" for which we could give no good reasons. Today we are infinitely more informed about group differences. Equally important, the debates Jensen began are revolutionizing the theory of intelligence and our understanding of how genes and environment interact.

3. In an earlier book, Asian Americans: Achievement Beyond IQ, you contended that Asians appeared to do just as well as Whites on IQ tests-no worse or no better, with the possible exception of some narrow visuospatial abilities. You showed, in fact, that a lot of the apparent high Asian IQ scores were driven by the Flynn Effect. Since then, a number of studies catalogued by Lynn and Vanhanen seem to reinforce the conventional wisdom that Asians are usually doing better than Whites on IQ tests. Are you still convinced that there's no substantial difference in average IQ between whites and Asians, and if so, what's wrong with the recent data?

The Chinese Americans I studied were the generation born in 1945-1949. They were no higher than whites even for non-verbal IQ yet out-performed whites by a huge margin in terms of eventual occupational status. That meant that they could give their own children the kind of privileged environment they had never had. The result was a pattern of IQ that put the subsequent generation of Chinese Americans at an IQ of 109 at say age six gradually falling to 103 by the late teens, as parental influence faded away in favor of peers. The extra 3 points the present generation has as adults is due to the fact that they are in cognitively more demanding universities and professions and because they have internalized a positive attitude to cognitively challenging activities and companions.

4. At least at first glance, reading comprehension appears to involve a high degree of abstraction. If, as you argue in your new book, the Flynn Effect is largely driven by an exogenous rise in abstract thinking, then why hasn't the reading comprehension score increased by very much?

The Comprehension subtest of the WISC does show significant gains, though not nearly as great as Similarities and Raven's. But it is not a test of reading comprehension but a test of perceiving the "logic" of social arrangements - for example, why streets are numbered in order. The reading tests of the Nation's Report Card show no gain at age 17 because you are expected to read adult novels. Since young people today have no larger vocabularies and funds of general information than their ancestors did, they cannot read these works with any greater understanding.

5. In What is Intelligence?, you discuss the importance of "Short Hand Abstractions" or "SHAs" as part of an educated person's mental toolkit. What are they and how do they relate to your intelligence research?

IQ tests have missed a striking cognitive development of the 20th century, namely, that the various sciences and philosophy have enriched our minds by gradually giving educated people short-hand abstractions (SHAs) that allow us to critically analyze our world. For example, the word "market" no longer stands for a place but for the law of supply and demand and you can use it to see why rent controls are self defeating. The concept of "tautology" can make us more sophisticated about history. If someone says "Christianity has been a force for good", and explains away all the slaughter Christians have perpetrated by saying that they "were not real Christians", we can immediately see the flaw. If only good people qualify as Christians, the goodness of Christians has been established by definition! Sadly universities never give their graduates a full tool kit of these wonderful analytic concepts.

6. Recently, some IQ researchers have argued that if the Flynn Effect is g-loaded, then we should see a fall in the factor loadings across subtests over time. Their story is that cross-sectionally, we know that people with high IQ scores have more specificity–that is, they have greater strengths and weaknesses relative to the average person. Do you place much weight on that hypothesis, and do you think it might explain why IQ gains over time are distributed the way they are?

The IQ gains are not g-loaded so the prediction is beside the point. The importance of cognitive trends over time is a matter of their social utility. Whether they happen to be greatest on skills that have the highest g-loading is a distraction.

7. The Dickens-Flynn model (Psych. Review, 2001) attempts to explain the apparent high heritability of IQ by arguing that people with good genes end up endogenously in good environments, which in turn raises their IQs even more. In your new book, you propose a number of ways to test this hypothesis. Do you think that the Dickens-Flynn model is all that's needed to explain differences in average IQ across ethnic groups, or do you think that other explanations might be needed?

The Dickens-Flynn model does nothing to evidence that IQ gaps between groups are environmental rather than genetic in origin. That evidence must come from specific environmental hypotheses about what handicaps (say) black Americans suffer as they age. What the model shows is that twin studies (which emphasize the effects of genetic differences between individuals) do nothing to prejudice an environmental explanation of group differences.

8. Out of the many research designs you propose in What is Intelligence, which one would you most like to see performed and why?

The one that calls for investigation of urban and rural Brazil. I think the former approximates where Americans are today, and the latter approximates where Americans were in 1900. We could get direct evidence for or against the cognitive history of Americans in the 20th century that my book relates.

9. You've long said that you disagree with Richard Lynn's view that the Flynn Effect is largely driven by better nutrition. One of Lynn's pieces of evidence is that IQ gains show up at very early ages, which would be surprising if the Flynn Effect were entirely sociological. Why do you think IQ gains show up at such an early age, and about what fraction of IQ gains do you think might be due to nutrition?

Changing ratios of adults to children in the home (smaller families) and changed modes of dealing with infants affect cognitive development from birth. The nutrition hypothesis explains little in America since 1950 - the evidence is in the book.

10. You've shaken up the field of intelligence research every time you've published a book on the topic. What are you working on for your next project?

My next book is in press. It will be called: The hollow center: race, class, and ideas in America. It will attempt to shake Americans into awareness that they are blind to the state of black America, that their foreign and domestic policies have perverse priorities, that they are class blind, and have lost their way it terms of Jefferson's humane ideals. It is, however, a hopeful book in the sense that there is much in America's history that can show us how to find our way.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

10 questions for Jon Entine   posted by Razib @ 10/08/2007 11:58:00 AM

Jon Entine is the author of Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People and Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. He is also a columnist for Ethical Corporation Magazine and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Abraham's Children will be on the shelves later this month. Below are his responses to 10 Questions.

(note, to explore further please see the website for Abraham's Children. Also, Jon has a guest post over at Eye on DNA)

1) The past 10 years have been rather fertile in human genomics; and certainly the study of Jewish genetic history has been big news. You obviously had a lot to work with in your most recent book, Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. But how much penetration has this knowledge had in your estimation in the broader Jewish American population? For example, is the likelihood that many Jewish foremothers were of gentile European ethnic background common knowledge?

There is certainly a growing awareness of what might be called "Jewish genetics," focused mostly on disease research, such as the identification of breast cancer and neurological mutations found commonly in Jews. Jewish DNA research centers have sprung up around the world and efforts are underway to export into other ethnic communities the screening model developed by the Jewish community in New York, which had been devastated by a high incidence of Tay-Sachs, one of the many brain disorders that disproportionately target Jews.

Although many secular Jews did not even know there was such a thing as a Jewish priesthood, there is now widespread awareness of the existence of the Cohan Modal Haplotype, the marker that traces about to the time of the first High Priest of the Jews, Aaron, Moses's brother. Whether this mutation originated with the biblical Aaron-there is no extra-biblical evidence that he or Moses even lived–or just to a person who lived 3000 or so years ago, and is the progenitor of one of the Cohanim lines, will likely never be known, however.

As for the more nuanced narratives that have emerged from the study of Jewish genetics-such as the fact that most Ashkenazi Jews are descended on their maternal line from Christians or pagans who more than likely never went through a formal conversion (which would make most Ashkenazim non-Jews under Israeli law)—no, that's barely known. It could provoke some intriguing soul searching among Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, about what determines Jewishness. I'm looking forward to my talks to Jewish groups to see how this prickly issues plays out.

2) It seems that simple visual inspection yields the inference that Ashkenazi Jews are a population which arose out of hybridization between a Middle Eastern people and European stock. That is, though some Polish Jews could pass as Polish and some could pass as Lebanese, the majority seem to span the spectrum between. And yet we have had wild swings in perception over the last century in regards to whether Jews were a wholly foreign element or the descendants of converts. Can you elucidate the reasons why people have denied the witness of their eyes so thoroughly?

As we all recognize, ethnicity and identity is closely bound with politics. The issue of "Jewish distinctiveness," for lack of a better phrase, long has been part of Jewish history. There were a number of periods during which Jews watered down their signature identity, self-selected or imposed, as a "chosen people." The Samaritans were a blend of Jews and non-Jews. Jews adopted many Hellenistic cultural practices during the Second Temple period, and intermarriage, particulalry among the educated elite, was not uncommon. There was also a fair amount of intermingling between Sephardic Jews and non-Jews during the Golden Age of Jewish, Muslim, Christian relations and in the century leading up to the Inquisition, which undoubtedly left a complicated imprint on the Jewish gene pool. Another more powerful wave of assimilation was touched off by the Jewish Enlightenment, which encouraged some Jews to drop their identity as "Jews first" and blend in culturally and through intermarriage with non-Jews, particularly in Greater Germany, in the 19th and early 20th enturies.

In each of those cases, Jews assimilated along the edges but the Jewish community Maintained its central ethic of Jewish distinctiveness rooted in the belief that Judaism was a tribal religion tied by threads of ancestry, culture and belief. Each of those experiments in assimilation arguably ended badly for many Jews, with the Holocaust the most tragic and recent example. So, when a movement arose in the 1950s, most popularly propaganized by Arthur Koestler in The Thirteenth Tribe, that Ashkenazi Jews were mostly converts, its political and social attractiveness-Jews didn't have to suffer the consequences of their chosenness-many liberal Jews fervently embraced the idea. Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, it became fashionable for Jews to to reframe Judaism as a religion and not a "race," which fit with the anti-race ideology of post World War II Europe and America.

Now, of course, DNA research has shown us that the story is a lot more complicated. Many Jews ARE descendants of converts, at least on the maternal side; but they have also maintained a relative blood purity on the male side that is extraordinary. The historical intermarriage rate of Jews (those who maintained their Jewish identity) remained at less than one half of one percent from biblical times until the mid twentieth century. And even after Askenazi males took on non-Jewish wives during the founding years of the medieval European Jewish community, Jewish fidelity took hold with a vengeance.

3) Some researchers have objected to the inferences made from the presence of the "Cohen Modal Haplotype" in disparate groups (e.g., some Hispano populations in the southwest). What is your sense about the current balance of opinion in the field of human genetics right now about its utility in ascertaining the signatures of past Jewish population movements and their subsequent acculturation?

DNA analysis in its present state remains a relatively crude tool. It's fairly easy to track our paternal and maternal lines but those are only tiny threads of our genetic history, although the stories they tell carry a lot of romantic cachet. The rest of the human genome, however, remains pretty mysterious.

Jews, because of their historical cultural and genetical isolation, are easier than most populations to track along the Y and mitochondrial DNA lines, but beyond that, the trails are heavily overgrown by the brush of paternal accidents and intermarriage, no matter how infrequent. Even supposedly clear cut findings-the three breast cancer mutations originated in Askhenazi Jews in the early medieval period---have been thrown asunder by the appearance of these mutations in pocket communities of Hispanos of the American Southwest, who trace their ancestry back to Spain, as Sephardic Jews before the Inquisition. At this point, genetic genealogy and anthropology is a great innovation for shedding light on all kinds of things, including disease origins, but its real value is as a complement to the other tools available to genealogists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians.

4) I am stuck by the high proportion of the CMH among the Bene Israel of Bombay. The Cohens were obviously just one lineage among many, and as you note after the destruction of the Second Temple the privileges and status of the priests were more symbolic and nominal as Rabbinical Judaism became the dominant dispensation. Was there some peculiarity among the Bene Israel in regards to the status of Cohens which might explain the disproportionate representation of this lineage?

First let's address some myths about the CMH. About 50 percent of Jewish males with an oral tradition of being members of the Jewish priesthood, which by Jewish tradition originated with Aaron, carry a distinctive mutation known as the CMH. Yet it does not stand as genetic witness to the biblical tale of Moses and his brother Aaron. The original CMH studies suggested the mutation appeared at about the time Moses was believed to have led the Jews out of Egypt (if in fact Moses and Aaron even existed). More recent studies have identified at least two CMH markers, suggesting that the originating haplotype might date somewhat earlier, making the CMH more likely a marker of Semitic rather than Jewish ancestry. It is its found in fairly high frequency in Arab populations, in Oman and Iraq for example, and among Palestinaans, as well as in other nearby populations.

The CMH is also found in populations believed to have Jewish ancestry, such as the Lemba of South Africa and the Bene Israel of India. The CMH is not common across all their members, however. As with the case of the broader Jewish population, the marker is concentrated in a priestly sub-group. Considering the history of cultural and genetic isolation expeerienced by the Bene Israel and the Lemba, and even more so by the priestly sub-clans, it's understandable that the CMH marker could have been preserved in such high frequencies.

5) Your book is obviously predicated on the revolution in scientific genealogy, nevertheless, you do offer some caution in terms of people reading too much into uni-parental results. My own general advice when friends ask me about purchase of these kits is that most of the time they won't find out anything they didn't know, though in particular circumstances (e.g., African Americans who want to fix on a particular tribal provenance for one lineage) I think it is worthwhile. What is your advice for the typical person in regards to scientific geneaology?

Caveat emptor. Those determined to focus on the two narrow lines of human ancestry—on the Y chromosome and in mitochondrial DNA-will miss the complex web of connections––genetic and cultural––that shape identity. It's safe to say the narratives that emerge from the genes that we can now identify will be simplistic and often misleading.

Consider the story of Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African American, who was both shocked and bemused to learn that his DNA on his mother's side did not track back to the Yoruba people as he had long thought. The Yoruba have a rich mythology and are believed to have been among the most culturally sophisticated of the African cultures before the arrival of Europeans. "A number of exact matches turned up," Gates wrote, "leading straight back to that African Kingdom called Northern Europe, to the genes of (among others) a female Ashkenazi Jew. Maybe it was time to start listening to ‘My Yiddishe Mama," he quipped.

DNA genealogy kits are great fun in helping us understand the general wanderings (minus the interesting migratory detours, some of which could have lasted thousands of years) of our male and female ancestors, but that's a limited story. Humans like to move around and fool around. As Gates' discovery underscores, there is a no way, using today's DNA technology, that he or any of us can retrace the movements of the many other genetic lines that contribute to our DNA.

6) In Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It I recall that you seemed to favor a "multi-regional" model for the origin of various populations and their distinctive characteristics. Have your conceptions of human evolutionary origins changed in the last 7 years at all? I note that you mention the Neandertal introgression work, which is predicated on predominant African origins overlain with a few salient "archaic" genetic elements.

The scientific consensus, which I am comfortable with, suggests a common African origin for the various populations of the world. That said, elements of the mult-regional model are still in play. We now have evidence, for example, that the Aboriginal population of Australia was relatively distinct for nearly 50,000 years. The core population that remained in Africa also faced definining geographic isolation. Migratory populations that settled in northern Asia also were somewhat isolated for thousands of years, until after the last ice age.

In each case, evolutionary forces played a role in shaping distinctive characteristics-physically and mentally. It's even possible-though highly speculative at this point-that the Neandertal genes or the genes of other remnant populations still to be identified could be present in one or another modern population, and have a unique impact.

We truly are a diverse species, and in some characteristics, this diversity patterns itself by population; it's not just superficial. When the ranks of the top 100 meter runners, all of whom are of West African origin, is suddenly dominated by whites from Des Monies or Berlin, we might rethink that thesis, but as of now, it's pretty clear that human "races"-that word used for lack of a better popular term-do exist.

7) Since you wrote Taboo there has been some discussion about the decline black Americans in baseball and the influx of European players in basketball. Did you anticipate these shifts and the pubic comment they would engender?

I'm amused when I read headlines, such as one that appeared last March on ESPN that "only 8.4 percent of major league players were black last season". You don't have to adjust your TV sets; the headline was indeed dead wrong.

As Richard Lapchick writes in the most recent "Racial and Gender Report Card," issued last March, almost 30 percent of today's baseball players are Latino-and many of them have a high percentage of African genes. Journalists and ideologically inclined sociologists and anthropologists, often confuse the racial folk category of "black" with the geographical or linguistic category of "Latin American" or "Hispanic." Skin color is a mark of ancestry not country of residency. Categorizing black Latinos as "not black" is like saying that the emergence of Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean (East African) born runner who became a naturalized US citizen in 1998, as an international superstar proves that American blacks, almost all of whom are of West African ancestry, are suddenly genetically able to compete as international marathoners. It's meaningless.

How can anyone classify, say, David Ortiz, born in the Dominican Republic, as anything but black? Although the number of American blacks is declining in baseball-it was 20 percent a decade ago--the percentage of black baseball players from North and Latin America combined has not declined at all. If "black" is taken as a (somewhat superficial) marker of primarily West African ancestry, than the percentage of black baseball players is mor than 35 percent––at an all time high. Moreover, the top awards in baseball continue to be disproportionately won by players with West African ancestry.

The influx of European white players in the NBA is an understandable byproduct of the globalization of the game and the booming economies of Eastern Europe. Culture plays a huge role in sports selection, creating a feedback loop between genetics and opportunity. Still, the white resurgence is greatly exaggerated. According to the Racial and Gender Report Card, whites made up about 25 percent of the players ten years ago. Today, despite all the publicity of a white revival, it's down to 23 percent. Moreover, most of the NBA's big-name superstars are blacks of West African ancestry. It's not an issue of black and white; it's an issue of body types; the sub-population of blacks from West Africa, including African Americans, have a slight biogenetic advantage over whites.

8) Has the genetic data changed your personal perspective at all as a Jewish American in any significant way?

Jews are a funny lot when it comes to discussing the implications of genetic research, and I'm no different. We were brought up to believe that we were unique-if not chosen by God, which never sat well with athiests like myself, than at least culturally distinct. We were a modern day tribe with all the rituals, silent forms of communication, and initiation rites that puzzles and irritates many non-Jews. Yet Jews are also imbued with the belief that we should never, at all costs, publicly acknowledge this cultural distinctiveness for fear of stirring a backlash-stories of the Holocaust were drilled into us from childhood, so why court danger?

Now research appears that suggests that our cultural exceptionalism may be rooted in genetics. This is both empowering and disquieting to Jews. It was no surprise to me that the sharpest, most vitriolic ideological attacks on Taboo, and surely to come on aspects of Abraham's Children, will come from self-proclaimed "liberal" Jews who will deny, in defiance of the evidence, that there are population based differences in behavior or physiology. That fact—it's not just an idea, after all—makes Jews nervous, even Jewish scientists who privately acknowledge these genetic based differences.

When I wrote Taboo, I fcoused much attention on the theme highlighted in the subtitle: "….Why We are Afraid to Talk About It"-that is, why we are afraid to openly discuss human genetic differences. That was also a central theme of Abraham's Children. We talk a lot about diversity in the United States, as long as we wink and smile that this diversity is not real, just superificial, a cultural patina. But in some aspects of our humanity, it is very real, and such differences can have huge consequences in everything from sports performance to success in the classroom.

The DNA data has solidified my conviction to follow my "Jewish instincts," nurtured by culture and pehaps by genetics over many centuries: challenge the conventional wisdom and spur constructive dialogue.

9) What was the information which most surprised you while you were doing the research for "Abraham's Children?"

Time and again, I was shocked by the power and romance of DNA, the hold it has on som many people. I saw men and women literally upend their lives, literally, based on the tiniest sliver of genetic material. Why would a fervent Christian abandon her religious beliefs after discovering a distant connection to those of Jewish ancestry? Heck, we are all related if you go back far enough in time, to apes and even bacteria. Why the atraction to an ancient tribal religion? Having been brought up Jewish, it's difficult to appreciate the metaphysical power of Jewish religious and ancestral archetypes on so many non-Jews. Is it religious? Cultural? Genetic? It's baffling and fascinating.

10) Now that "Abraham's Children" is complete, what next?

It's time to move from description to prescription. I'm planning, in my next book, to look at the public policy implications of the DNA revolution, particularly in education. Yes, it will be like walking through a minefield, but I'm used to that.


Friday, August 31, 2007

10 Questions for Greg Clark   posted by Herrick @ 8/31/2007 02:04:00 PM

In his new book A Farewell to Alms, Greg Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, contends that "[t]he New World after the Neolithic Revolution offered economic success to a different kind of agent than had been typical in hunter-gatherer society: Those with patience, who could wait to enjoy greater consumption in the future. Those who liked to work long hours. And those who could perform formal calculations in a world of many types of inputs and outputs...."

Clark also provides archival evidence that in medieval Britain (and to a lesser extent in China and Japan) the wealthy-who presumably had those "middle class" skills in abundance-raised more children than the average person. If you put these pieces together-a system that rewards a new set of abilities, plus greater reproductive success for those who have those abilities-then all you need to get some form of selection is one more link: A transmission mechanism. On the nature of the mechanism, Clark leaves the door wide open. Could be parent-to-child cultural transmission, could be genes, could be both.

While much of the discussion of Clark's book has focused on his "survival of the richest" hypothesis, Clark himself appears to be equally devoted to demolishing the widely-held view that economic institutions are the key to modern economic growth. He notes that the British people had solid property rights, limited government, and sound currency for centuries before they had their Industrial Revolution. Drawing on early work by Nobel Prize-winner Douglass North, he argues that economic institutions are largely endogenous and relatively efficient, at least when we're talking about time horizons lasting a century or more. If institutional change wasn't the driving force behind modern economic growth, then what was? In Clark's view, the driving force was change within human beings themselves.

1. In some early work, you wondered why workers in British cotton mills were so much more productive than workers in Indian cotton mills. You discuss this in the last chapter of A Farewell to Alms. You looked at a lot of the usual explanations-incentives, management, quality of the machines-and none of them really seemed to explain the big gap in productivity. Finally, you seemed to turn to the idea that it's differences between the British and Indian workers themselves-maybe their culture, maybe their genes-that explained the difference. How did you come to that conclusion?

Clark: I came to economics as an undergraduate expecting, as is the central view of economics, that the explanation for wealth and poverty would ultimately be located in social institutions and that people everywhere have basically the same aspirations and abilities.

But unlike most of my colleagues in economics I have always been interested in the mechanisms, and the fine details, of how things actually function. Much of modern economics is entirely theoretical, and even most empirical work in economics involves just looking at very high level correlations between variables such as income per person and education, or democracy, or the openness of trade.

When I set out in my PhD thesis to try and explain differences in income internationally in 1910 I found that asking simple questions like "Why could Indian textile mills not make much profit even though they were in a free trade association with England which had wages five times as high?" led to completely unexpected conclusions. You could show that the standard institutional explanation made no sense when you assembled detailed evidence from trade journals, factory reports, and the accounts of observers. Instead it was the puzzling behavior of the workers inside the factories that was the key.

2. Your book is clearly a call for a new research agenda in the fields of economic growth and economic history, one focusing less on institutions and more on what we might broadly call "labor quality." But your key hypotheses seem to turn on the question of how and why entire workforces change across the centuries, and involve questions of culture, child-rearing methods, and perhaps human genetics-fields quite outside the expertise of most economists. If you could command an army of, say, biologists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists to test your hypotheses about long-term changes in labor quality, what would you have them work on?

Clark: That is a great question. If, as is possible, the pre-industrial era changed people genetically to be better adapted to market economies, then a systematic comparison of the DNA of societies should find correlations between gene frequencies and the histories of these societies. If genetic change was also occurring in historical time, as opposed to the pre-historic era, then we would expect these changes to be incomplete even in societies with a long history of settled agriculture. In that case we would actually predict class differences genetically! The rich in these societies would differ genetically from the poor in certain systematic ways! All this should be testable at some point.

If the change was purely cultural, then we still might be able to discover systematic behavioral differences between poor and rich in modern capitalist society, such as over time preference rates, that correlate with differences between rich and poor societies.

3. What do you think are the weakest links in the now-conventional "Institutions Matter" chain of reasoning?

Clark: The book challenges the modern orthodoxy of economics - that people are essentially the same everywhere, and with the right set of institutions, growth is inevitable - in three ways. First by showing that there were societies like medieval England where the institutional structure provided every incentive for growth, yet there was no growth. Second by pointing out that by objective measures the institutions of many highly successful modern economies, such as in Scandinavia, provide much poorer incentives to individuals than those of very poor economies. And lastly by showing that in the long run economic institutions that would prevent growth tend to get replaced endogenously by ones that are pro-growth.

4. You provide a variety of evidence that interest rates have fallen over the centuries; this is a fascinating set of data that we've discussed before at Gene Expression. Should economic historians still be searching for transaction cost stories to explain this fall in interest rates-e.g., lenders needed a high return in ancient Rome to compensate them for the high cost of searching for safe borrowers-or is that search likely to hit a dead end?

Clark: Interest rates on safe assets like houses and land fell from 25% or more in Ancient Babylon, to 10% in Ancient Greece, Roman Egypt and medieval Western Europe, to 4% in the eighteenth century in the Netherlands and England. Most economic historians assume this just represents transaction costs. But I can show in cases such as medieval England that transaction costs have nothing to do with this - the real return on investments as safe as modern Treasury Bonds was 10% or more. So I am confident that something much more fundamental was changing over these years.

5. You use data on British wills to argue that the British people of today are by and large the descendants not of peasants and not of the violent medieval aristocracy-both groups failed to reproduce themselves. Instead, the British people of today are largely the descendants of the bourgeoisie of the middle ages. Nowadays, that seems to be a testable hypothesis; have you run into genetic evidence bearing on what you call the "survival of the richest?"

Clark: I agree that, in principle, this is a completely testable hypothesis. If there was genetic change in the Malthusian era then we will find systematic differences in genes that influence behavior such as patience and propensity to violence between groups such as the British and those such as Australian Aboriginals that had no experience with settled agriculture.

However, as far as I am aware, the identification of genes that influence such behaviors is at a very early and tentative stage. The only such studies I have seen reported are those of differences across ethnic groups in variants of genes encoding monoamine oxidase enzymes.

6. How are economists reacting to the book? In particular, are there any misunderstandings that you'd like to address?

Clark: I expected a hostile and perhaps even dismissive reaction, given the controversy that the "survival of the richest" argument was bound to create, and given the attack on the modern orthodoxy amongst economists about institutions being the key to wealth and poverty. But economists who have read the book, even when they remain skeptical of the conclusions, have generally found it interesting and challenging. They have been surprised to learn in particular that the history of economies is not anything like the implicit assumptions they have, based on modern economic doctrine.

7. One implication of your model is that human populations that haven't been through the full Neolithic Revolution are going to fail miserably when they try to build a modern market-oriented society. If people turn out to as hard to change as they appear to be-if neither culture nor genes prove to be all that malleable in the medium-run-then how would you recommend improving the lives of these people? Do you think economists can design institutions that can help make these populations productive?

Clark: Anyone who reads history cannot fail to be impressed by the difficulties that hunter-gatherers, or societies with only limited experience of settled agriculture, have in successfully incorporating into the modern capitalist economy. I spent a week in Australia this summer, and the plight of Australian Aboriginals is very sad. The surviving Aboriginal communities have seen tremendous rates of poverty, alcoholism, drug use, violence and sexual assaults.

But an important point in the book is that while some of this cultural variation may be due to the long histories of societies, there is a lot of cultural variation within these constraints that produces dramatic differences in wealth in modern societies. So there is no ground for fatalism on the possibilities for any society. The problem is that measures to reform the cultures of societies seem difficult to devise. Look at the lack of success the Chinese Communist Party had in remaking Chinese Culture. China has emerged from a period of extreme ideological indoctrination seemingly with its pre-communist love of individual wealth and status completely intact.

8. You emphasize that "[t]he argument is not that agrarian life was making people smarter." But you also emphasize that agrarian life placed greater value on verbal and mathematical skills than hunter-gatherer life. Let's set aside for the moment the question of whether these skill changes were cultural, environmental, or genetic. Are you claiming that the rise in math and verbal skills was counterbalanced by an equal loss of some similarly valuable hunter-gatherer mental skills? In other words, were the mental effects of the Malthusian process zero-sum? If so, what process within your model would make that occur?

Clark: I wanted to emphasize in the book that I was not advocating any kind of Social Darwinism. The long Malthusian economy that preceded the Industrial Revolution changed people, but there is no evidence it made them "better" or "smarter." Indeed there is evidence that we did not become any happier as result of economic growth.

Anthropological accounts of forager societies suggest that people in these communities have strikingly developed powers of observation and memory (as well as an amazing ability to endure pain) - they are just not abilities that the modern market economy places much value upon.

9. Bowles, Camerer, and an interdisciplinary research team led a series of ultimatum-game studies in pre-modern societies; the found incredibly diverse outcomes. By contrast, across modern societies, ultimatum game play is much more similar, so it looks like the modern world really is a world of conformity, at least on this topic. How do you think their experimental evidence bears on your question of whether the "long Malthusian night," as you call it, selected for a certain set of behaviors and attitudes?

Clark: I have seen these results reported, but had not thought of relating them to the arguments of the book. I would have expected that pre-modern societies would have had a common response, but potentially a different response than in modern societies. So I do not think I could call this any kind of vindication of the hypothesis in the book.

10. What's the next project?

Clark: I always have several going at the same time. One is a follow up to the "survival of the richest" study for England reported in the book which will look more closely at the intergenerational transmission of economic success with a much larger set of data, and seek to show through examination of the effects of family size that the mechanism is indeed almost entirely the transmission of culture or genes. This study will also look over the whole period 1600-1914 and examine when and why richer men ceased to have more children than average and began to have less. I would love to use this data to try to tease out whether we have just cultural evolution as opposed to genetic - I just cannot think of any way to do that!

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

10 Questions for Heather Mac Donald   posted by Razib @ 1/02/2007 03:35:00 PM

Heather Mac Donald is John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Well known for her realist take on immigration reform and law enforcement, of late she has been the center of a small controversy precipitated by a piece in The American Conservative where she expressed her atheism rather forcefully. Below are 10 questions and Heather's answers (here is an exchange Heather had with Luke Ford from a few years back).

1) OK, I'll get this out of the way. What prompted you to "come out" as an atheist in The American Conservative earlier this year? A friend of mine suggested that you might have become frustrated with the lack of a "reality based" conservatism during this administration, in particular in its attitude toward immigration. Is he going down the right track?

I wrote The American Conservative piece out of frustration with the preening piety of conservative pundits. I attended a New York cocktail party in 2003, for example, where a prominent columnist said to the group standing around him: "We all know that what makes Republicans superior to Democrats is their religious faith." This sentiment has been repeated in print ad nauseam, along with its twin: "We all know that morality is not possible without religion." I didn't then have the courage to point out to the prominent columnist that quite a few conservatives and Republicans of the highest standing had no religious faith, without apparent injury to their principles or their behavior.

Around that time, I had started noticing the puzzling logic of petitionary prayer. What was the theory of God behind prayer websites, for example: that God is a democratic pol with his finger to the wind of public opinion? Is the idea that if only five people are praying for the recovery of a beloved grandmother from stroke, say, God will brush them off, but that if you can summon five thousand people to plead her case, he will perk up and take notice: "Oh, now I understand, this person's life is important"? And what if an equally beloved grandmother comes from a family of atheist curs? Since she has no one to pray for her, will God simply look the other way? If someone could explain this to me, I would be very grateful.

I also wondered at the narcissism of believers who credit their good fortune to God. A cancer survivor who claims that God cured him implies that his worthiness is so obvious that God had to act. It never occurs to him to ask what this explanation for his deliverance says about the cancer victim in the hospital bed next to his, who, despite the fervent prayers of her family, died anyway.

As I was pondering whether any of these practices could be reconciled with rationality, the religious gloating of the conservative intelligentsia only grew louder. The onset of the Iraq war expanded the domain of religious triumphalism to transatlantic relations: what makes America superior to Europe, we were told by conservative opinionizers, is its religious faith and its willingness to invade Iraq. George Bush made the connection between religious beliefs and the Iraq war explicit, with his childlike claim that freedom was God's gift to humanity and that he was delivering that gift himself by invading Iraq.

I need not rehearse here how Bush's invocation of the divine gift of freedom overlooks the Bible, the persistence throughout history of hierarchical societies that have little use for personal autonomy, and the unique, centuries-long struggle in the West to create the institutions of limited government that underwrite our Western idea of freedom. Suffice it to say, the predictable outcome of the Iraq invasion did not convince me that religious belief was a particularly trustworthy ground for political action.

So in the American Conservative piece I wanted to offer some resistance to the assumption of conservative religious unanimity. I tried to point out that conservatism has no necessary relation to religious belief, and that rational thought, not revelation, is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law. I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?

My hope in writing the piece was that the next time a conservative pundit, speaking for and to other conservatives, assumes that he is surrounded by like-minded believers because of course to be conservative is to be religious, that for just a moment a doubt might pass through his mind whether some in his audience may be without faith. And the worst part would be: he couldn't tell who they are.

2) How exactly did you find yourself on the political Right? I recall that you were a liberal while in college, what happened that resulted in your political shift? Was in a "Eureka!" moment, or a gradual affair?

First I realized that I had wasted my college education on the literary theory known as deconstruction, being as I was then too stupid to grasp that nearly everything deconstruction had to say about language was lunatic and fictional. When multiculturalism hit the academy (several years after I had graduated), I was appalled that barely literate students were allowed to trash the most astounding creations of Western civilization before which we should all be on our knees. I came to New York in 1987, in the midst of a particularly craven period of capitulation to racial extortionists. Taking up journalism in the early 1990s exposed me to the total disconnect between liberal dogma about the underclass poor and the reality of their self-defeating behavior. I still have no idea how New York Times reporters can visit the same homeless shelters and welfare offices that I have and remain confident that the "clients" of those facilities are the victims of racism, rather than their own bad decisions. So I would say that reporting on social problems provided the coup de grace for liberal pieties. (I write about my political evolution at greater length in a forthcoming book of essays by various journalists called Why I Turned Right)

3) You've covered many absurd fads and fashions, from the banalities of teacher's colleges to the rise of "relevant" hip-hop curriculum. Of the various topics is there one that has struck you as an exemplar of all that is wrong with our culture?

First of all, I'm in such a period of doubt regarding the conservative establishment right now that I am not sure that I would still use the phrase: "all that is wrong with our culture." My recoil from contemporary conservatism is undoubtedly an overreaction, but even the cultural declinism that is one of its standard features--and which I have endorsed in the past--now strikes me as possibly overwrought.

That having been said, the most idiotic practice that I have come across remains the entire foolishness of progressive pedagogy: the insanity of having students "teach" each other (translation: sit around in class talking about the latest sneakers while the teacher-oops, I mean, "facilitator"--looks on benignly); the dismissal of knowledge as an essential legacy that a teacher must convey to his students; and the rejection of memorization and drilling as necessary to learning.

And having just read a hair-raising column in the New York Times (December 29, 2006) on parent-endorsed "talent shows" that feature 10-year-old girls simulating pole dancing, I am nearly ready to join the jeremiad against American cultural decline again.

And yet, I look around for signs that such pedagogical stupidities and parental cluelessness are retarding our progress, and I can't find them. For all the barbarity of popular entertainment and the historical ignorance of the American public, American civilization and the West generally are at the top of their games-contrary to war on terror hysteria that holds that we face an "existential threat" from Islamists. The rate of technological innovation is higher than at any point in human history and will undoubtedly only accelerate in the future. We are reaping a whirlwind of unfathomable benefits from scientific research.

Would I prefer it if our elites had the taste of 18th century aristocratic patrons and were subsidizing the likes of Mozart, Haydn, and Tiepolo, instead of Jeff Koons and Richard Prince? A thousand times, yes! But as much as I yearn to live in a world that could produce such beauty, I have to recognize that this is the best of all possible times to be alive. I don't know how many of us would give up our astounding array of choices, despite their costs above all in family stability, to go back to a time of more restricted individual autonomy.

4) You've taken a hard look at Latino "family values." When I say "hard," I must be frank and admit that it doesn't seem like it is that difficult to scry that Latin American cultures do not exhibit the sort of family values typical of the Anglo-American tradition, rather, you simply read out the data as it was. Do you think that facts can eventually supersede the cant on this issue?

Given that the liberal elites have ignored the 70% black out-of-wedlock birth rate for decades in discussing the causes of black poverty, I am confident that open borders conservatives will prove just as capable of ignoring the 48% Hispanic out-of-wedlock birth rate as they perpetuate the myth of redemptive Hispanic family values.

5) Do you think that the Bush administration was bad for conservatism? If so, how bad?

Since Bush was not a conservative, arguably he did no harm to conservatism. His failings were not those of conservatism but rather of a Wilsonian absolutism: faith in the universality of his favorite religiously-based abstractions and in the ability of government to impose those abstractions globally.

6) Do you take a particular interest in the natural human sciences? For instance, evolutionary psychology, behavioral ecology, neuroscience, and so on.

I have not read much evolutionary psychology, but I take it that it may come in very handy in rebutting the claim that human altruism proves God's existence (as Francis Collins recently proposed at the 92nd St. Y in New York City, before leading the audience in a sing-along to You Really Got a Code On Me," a tribute to the genome and God, set to Beatles music). As for neuroscience, I am in awe of its power. If I could be any kind of scientist, I would study the brain.

7) You've labelled yourself a 'skeptical conservative.' Would you also say you are hopeful about the trajectory that this republic might take into the future, or do you warrant that the corner is likely turned and we'll be fighting a rearguard action for most of our lives?

I will interpret your question to mean whether I think secularism will strengthen in the U.S. over time. I am not ordinarily an optimist, but I take heart from the incensed response to the existence of a mere three contemporary books debunking religion. While the proportion of Americans who believe in Biblical revelation remains depressingly high and doesn't yet show much sign of decline, the reaction of religion's conservative apologists to a few atheists sticking their heads out of the foxhole suggests to me a possible nervousness about religion's hold in the future. First Things editor Joseph Bottum calls secularists "superannuated," in the aforementioned book Why I Turned Right. Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henninger claims a religious provenance for the following "American" virtues: "fortitude, prudence, temperance, justice, charity, hope, integrity, loyalty, honor, filial respect, mercy, diligence, generosity and forbearance." Yet Classical philosophers and poets celebrated many of these "religious" virtues as vigorously as any Evangelist or Christian divine, and these ideals are in any case human virtues, which is why religion can appropriate them. As for Henninger's suggestion that mercy and hope had to wait upon Christianity to make their appearance on the scene, I would need more evidence. Do these overbroad claims for the necessity of religion suggest that the theocons are running scared? Perhaps.

Up to half of the conservative writers and thinkers whom I know are non-believers. And yet because of the rule that one may never ever question claims made on behalf of faith, they remain in the closet. At some point, however, they may emerge to challenge the idea that without religion, personal and social anarchy looms.

8) If you are 18 and figuring out what course of study to pursue for the next 4 years what changes would you make to your educational path now that you have some hindsight?

I would study a lot more history. Thanks to my college's refusal to tell its ignorant students what an educated person should know-heaven forbid that it actually exercise intellectual authority!-I was required to study no history and didn't know enough to do so on my own.

9) John Derbyshire has offered in the past that evangelical religious conservatives aren't really reliable conservatives in a Burkean sense considering that evangelicalism was aligned with progressive and radical causes in the past. What's your opinion of this assessment, is the Religious Right here to stay as part of the grand conservative coalition?

I defer to John Derbyshire in all things. But given the view of conservative spokesmen that they need the patina of piety, I can't see anyone drumming the Religious Right out of a "grand conservative coalition" in the future, even if the RR were to suddenly embrace the cause of global warming, say. And since our current reigning Republicans are not particularly worried about expanding government, I don't see how anything the RR might want in that arena would get it in trouble.

I have always been amazed that the liberal media is willing to let stand the right's equation between "religious voters," "values voters," and opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. There is no necessary relation between being religious, having values, or opposition to stem cell research or gay marriage, in my view. That having been said, the current obsession with homosexuality on the part of the Religious Right would seem to assure it a political relevance for the Republican Party for some time.

10) Were you surprised at all at the reactions to your piece about your atheism?

I had led such a sheltered life that I had never come across people like the letter writer who chastised me for not mentioning "God's sacrifice of his Only Begotten Son" in my discussion with Michael Novak. For the letter writer, this sacrifice constituted unassailable proof of Christianity. That type of reasoning was new to me.

As for the conservative intelligentsia, I was surprised-but that is my fault. I was ignorant and naive enough that somewhere in the back of my mind, I think, I might actually have assumed that presenting what strike me as pretty strong empirical arguments against the claim that God is just and loving, say, would end the matter. And I was unaware of the depth of commitment to the idea that religion is the source of values and that conservatism and religion are inseparably linked. For me, conservatism was about realism and reason.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

10 Questions for Bruce Lahn   posted by JP @ 10/10/2006 04:50:00 PM

Bruce Lahn is a Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago as well an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In 2004, he was on the "Top 40 Under 40" list by Crain's Chicago Business. Specifics of his research can be found on his faculty page. Our 10 questions are in bold below the fold.

1. One of the major trends in hominid evolution has been increasing brain size, with the somewhat confusing caveat that modern humans break that trend, with smaller brains than both Neanderthals and some earlier hominids. Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain this, from sexual selection for intelligence to selection pressures from culture. Do you have a favorite hypothesis? What evidence do you think could settle this issue?

Brain size is just a proxy for cognitive abilities. This proxy is very robust over long evolutionary periods (millions of years). But on a short time scale, fluctuation in brain size may not correlate well with cognitive abilities. Within humans, for example, brain size is only weakly correlated with cognitive test scores such as IQ (only about 15% of the variation in IQ can be explained by difference in brain size). Given this, perhaps we should not make too much out of the cognitive significance of brain size changes on a short time scale.

2. Your work on genes involved in human brain evolution (i.e. ASPM and microcephalin) has focused on amino acid changes. It has been hypothesized that most of the differences between humans and chimps are due to regulatory changes. Do you feel this is still a viable hypothesis? Do you consider your work a challenge to this hypothesis?

The hypothesis that most human-chimp differences are due to regulatory changes is proposed in the absence of any data. So, I don't place too much weight on this hypothesis to begin with. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that this hypothesis has influenced the thinking of many people. Our work showed that coding region evolution is likely to be important for human brain evolution. In this regard, it can be considered to be a challenge to the hypothesis. However, our work by no means argues that regulatory changes are necessarily less important than coding changes. So, the jury is still out.

3. The aforementioned work on microcephalin and ASPM touched some nerves, due mostly to two issues: the difference in frequency of the derived haplotype in different populations, and co-incidence of major moments in human cultural evolution with the appearance of these derived haplotypes. Do you regret anything you wrote in either of those papers?

On the one hand, I don't regret the things we wrote in the papers because they were scientifically justified and the speculative nature of some of our statements was clearly indicated as such. On the other hand, I can appreciate why some people might be concerned over the possibility that our results could be over-interpreted or even mis-interpreted to advance certain ideas about race and ethnicity, especially by people with certain political agenda. Our society, given its sordid history on race-related issues, is very confused about how to deal with racially and ethnically sensitive topics. As a result, science and politics get mixed up when they relate to these topics. I personally feel, like many other scientists, that science should be separate from politics. In particular, science should meet the same burden of proof regardless of what political implications it might have. But this may be too idealistic if not naive. I feel I am still learning how to handle such issues in a way that is honest to the science while at the same time sensitive and respectful to political and cultural needs.

4. You've speculated that humans will, at some time in the future, speciate. The evidence for clinal speciation in other taxa certainly supports this possibility. One possible counterargument is that germ-line genetic engineering or even pre-implantation genetic screening could lead to the human population becoming more homogenized, preventing the evolution of barriers to gene flow. What role do you see for technology in the future of human evolution?

I think we as a species now stand at a watershed moment in the history of life. For billions of years, evolution of life forms has been governed by the Darwinian process of random mutations followed by selection. Now, we are about to revise that principle dramatically by genetic engineering. Instead of starting with random mutations, of which only very few are advantageous, we can now prospectively change our genome (and the genomes of other species) in ways we intend. In a sense, genetic engineering will make Lamarckian evolution a reality. Given the revolutionary nature of this new technology, it is impossible to predict where the technology will take us into the future. But suffice it to say that genetic engineering, coupled with other technologies such as pre-implantation genetic screening, would likely speed up evolution enormously, and create life forms, including those derived from our own species, in ways that the Darwinian process can never hope to accomplish.

5. You've published a paper noting a correlation between mutation rate and the ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous mutations in a gene. This ratio forms the basis for many tests for selection. What's the best way to interpret such a test? You do much molecular work-- how can one decide, using both statistical and molecular evidence, that the story for selection on a locus has been decided one way or another?

It is still debated among experts as to how to interpret the ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous substitutions. The major difficult arises from the fact that both positive selection and relaxed constraint produce a high ratio. When a gene has a low ratio, one can argue that it has evolved predominantly under purifying selection. But when a gene has a high ratio, it is not clear whether it is due to strong positive selection, or relaxed constraint, or a bit of both. So, unless the ratio is very much greater than 1, it is not possible to conclude what a high ratio means. This is where other statistical and molecular evidence is needed. There are no clear-cut rules on what evidence can be considered "enough" for establishing (or refuting) positive selection. But the best cases usually involve multiple lines of evidence coming from several independent perspectives that are consistent with each other.

6. A lot of researchers studying human population genetics and evolution are strictly data miners (i.e., they generate/publish no original data). There are limitations to such an approach, as it depends on the available data and prevents certain analyses from being performed. Do you expect to see more research groups turning into pure data mining labs in the future? Or will there still be a place for independent labs generating their own data (for example, resequencing a gene in multiple individuals to study the polymorphism)?

Given the explosion of genomic data in the last decade or so, which shows no sign of slowing down any time soon, there is likely to be a proliferation of pure data miners just because there is a niche for them. But I suspect that many interesting findings will still require the combination of data mining and wet experiments to provide key pieces of data not already available in public databases. In this regard, labs that can do both data mining and wet experiments can have an advantage over labs that can only do data mining.

7. The politics behind the funding of stem-cell research in the US have sometimes obscures the actual science. As someone who works in the field, where is it headed? What is truly feasible in terms of medical progress using an approach based in stem cell research?

I personally feel that the promises of stem cells as a direct reagent in the treatment of disease are grossly exaggerated. I think it will be a very long time before Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease could be treated by introducing stem cells (or their derivative cells) into a patient. However, stem cells offer a model for studying developmental processes. As such, stem cell biology will ultimately make valuable contributions to our ability to better understand disease and develop treatments. So, I believe that the future of stem cell research lies in its potential as a research tool, and to a lesser extent, its ability to provide direct cure for disease.

8. Much of your work on stem cells is done in collaboration with a center in China. What is the attitude towards such research there, and how does it compare with the attitude here in the US?

The attitude is much more progressive relative to the US. Religion is not a dominant force in molding Chinese cultural traditions, and people are generally not married to a particular doctrine. This attitude provides greater flexibility for stem cell research.

9. Ian Buruma has noted that many Chinese dissidents have converted to Christianity, while David Aikman, in "Jesus in Beijing", argues that the Christianization of much of China will alter geopolitics. How accurate do you think is the perception by many Westerners that Christianity is filling the ideological void left by the fall of Marxism-Leninism?

I tend to agree that Christianity is filling an ideological void left by the dying out of the old communist ideology. But whether China will be Christianized is a separate matter. There is plenty of Chinese who are strongly opposed to the idea of allowing religion to play a major role in the culture. I suspect it will be a major uphill battle for one religion, be it Christianity or otherwise, to spread beyond a few limited sectors of society. But this is just my guess.

10. Looking back, would you make any changes in your educational path? If so, what?

Looking back, I might have chosen economics instead of biology, as it might have allowed my work to have a broader impact. But it's a tossup, and my feeling may well have stemmed from my constant impatience with lack of progress in my own work and therefore the perception that grass is greener on the other guy's pasture


Monday, August 28, 2006

10 Questions for A.W.F. Edwards   posted by DavidB @ 8/28/2006 11:46:00 PM

A. W. F. (Anthony) Edwards is one of Britain's most distinguished geneticists. He studied genetics at Cambridge as one of the last students of R. A. Fisher, and like Fisher he has contributed actively to both genetics and statistics. In genetics his work includes several influential papers on the reconstruction of phylogenies, and a widely-read recent article on 'Lewontin's Fallacy'. In statistics he is known especially for his development and advocacy of the concept of Likelihood as a criterion for scientific inference. He has also made a notable contribution to combinatorial mathematics by finding a method of constructing Venn diagrams for any number of sets. In addition to many scientific papers, he has written four books: Likelihood (1972; expanded edition 1992); Foundations of Mathematical Genetics (1977; 2nd edition 2000); Pascal's Arithmetical Triangle: the Story of a Mathematical Idea (1987; expanded edition 2002); and Cogwheels of the Mind: the Story of Venn Diagrams (2004). He has written extensively on the history of genetics, mathematics, and statistics, and has co-edited (with H. A. David) Annotated Readings in the History of Statistics (2001), and (with Milo Keynes and Robert Peel) A Century of Mendelism in Human Genetics (2004). He is also a champion glider pilot.

To see his replies to our 10 Questions, click on "Read full post".

1. You were among the last students of R. A. Fisher. Can you share with us some reminiscences of him?

I first met Fisher in the summer of 1956 and had much contact with him until his death six years later. I saw him last during the Second Human Genetics Conference in Rome in 1961 and subsequently corresponded with him. I have published quite a few of my reminiscences of those times in a number of different places. I have been fortunate in having had a lot of contact with the older generation who knew him better than I did - people like Barnard, Bartlett, Finney, Yates, Race, Ruth Sanger and Bennett - and with members of his family, especially Rose, Harry and Joan (his biographer) amongst his children. Being a fellow of the same Cambridge college (Caius) as Fisher, though not at the same time, has meant daily contact with people who knew him well. But the most important thing is his science, and there everyone can get to know him through his writings, which reveal a mind of extraordinary power and vigour. That is the Fisher whom succeeding generations should learn about and admire.

2. Like Fisher you have worked in both statistics and genetics. How do you see the relationship between them, both in your own work and more generally?

In a sense I have benefitted from being an amateur in both fields so that I see no boundary between them. Though I qualified in genetics the subject almost immediately changed so radically through advances in molecular biology that most geneticists would not now regard me as one of themselves anyway. My generation thought genetics was the study of inheritance; theirs thinks it is the study of genes. As to statistics, I attended eight lectures by Henry Daniels in Cambridge but am otherwise self-taught, being hugely influenced by Fisher's book Statistical Methods for Research Workers which he told me to buy (and then signed for me). Genetical statistics has changed fundamentally too: our problem was the paucity of data, especially for man, leading to an emphasis on elucidating correct principles of statistical inference. Modern practitioners have too much data and are engaged in a theory-free reduction of it under the neologism 'bioinformatics'. We had to navigate by the stars; they have GPSs.

3. Much of your early work (some of it in collaboration with L. L. Cavalli-Sforza) was on methods of inferring phylogenies. How do you assess the progress in this field since the 1960s, and how have your own methods stood up to empirical tests?

All my work was in collaboration with Luca Cavalli-Sforza. It was his idea. He hired me to join his group in Pavia in Italy, not specifically to work on phylogenies but to apply the new-fangled computers to human genetics generally. The late delivery of the Olivetti computer was a blessing in disguise because it left us time to talk about what we would do with it when it came. I was initially sceptical because I knew that linkage was statistically difficult and here was Luca proposing what looked like linkage on a tree whose very shape also required estimating!

I think progress on the theoretical side has been incredibly slow, despite the best efforts of Joe Felsenstein, the leading practitioner. In a few months in 1962 and 1963 Luca and I thought up three ways of tackling the problem: least-squares on an additive tree (his), minimum evolution or parsimony (mine) and maximum-likelihood on a stochastic model (very much a joint effort). Forty-odd years on people are still arguing about the relative merits of the descendants of our methods when all along they should have been concentrating on refining the statistical approach through maximum-likelihood, which was our real contribution. Of course, from a practical point of view the computer packages have taken over in a development parallel to that in human genetics, from shakey inferences based on too little data and doubtful logic to computer algorithms trying to digest too much.

4. Your recent article on 'Lewontin's Fallacy' criticises the claim that human geographical races have no biological meaning. As the article itself points out, it could have been written at any time in the last 30 years. So why did it take so long - and have you had any reactions from Lewontin or his supporters?

I can only speak for myself as to why it took me so long. Others closer to the field will have to explain why the penny did not drop earlier, but the principal cause must be the huge gap in communication that exists between anthropology, especially social anthropology, on the one hand, and the humdrum world of population and statistical genetics on the other. When someone like Lewontin bridges the gap, bearing from genetics a message which the other side wants to hear, it spreads fast - on that side. But there was no feedback. Others might have noticed Lewontin's 1972 paper but I had stopped working in human and population genetics in 1968 on moving to Cambridge because I could not get any support (so I settled down to writing books instead). In the 1990s I began to pick up the message about only 15% of human genetic variation being between, as opposed to within, populations with its non-sequitur that classification was nigh impossible, and started asking my population-genetics colleagues where it came from. Most had not heard of it, and those that had did not know its source. I regret now that in my paper I did not acknowledge the influence of my brother John, Professor of Genetics in Oxford, because he was independently worrying over the question, inventing the phrase 'the death of phylogeny' which spurred me on.

Eventually the argument turned up unchallenged in Nature and the New Scientist and I was able to locate its origin. I only started writing about it after lunch one day in Caius during which I had tried to explain the fallacy across the table to a chemist, a physicist, a physiologist and an experimental psychologist - all Fellows of the Royal Society - and found myself faltering. I like to write to clear my mind. Then I met Adam Wilkins, the editor of BioEssays, and he urged me to work my notes up into a paper.

I have had no adverse reaction to it at all, but plenty of plaudits from geneticists, many of whom told me that they too had been perplexed. Perhaps the communication gap is still too large, or just possibly the point has been taken. After all, Fisher made it in 1925 in Statistical Methods which was written for biologists so it is hardly new.

5. You have written several articles about Fisher's Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection. Following a groundbreaking reinterpretation by George Price in the early 1970s, it is now generally accepted that the theorem as intended by Fisher is valid, but some biologists would still question its practical use or importance. Can you explain in non-technical terms the meaning of the theorem, how the correct interpretation differs from earlier misunderstandings of it, and your own view on its biological importance?

Oh, it's very simple. You must first recall the precise name of Fisher's book in which it is the centrepiece: The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. He is studying the mechanisms of natural selection from the point of view of populations regarded as aggregates of genes. Of course he knows, and stresses, that this is not the whole story. But to him selection's defining effect is to change gene frequencies. He sees that this will only happen if there is variability in the survival rates of different genes.

Animal breeders promote artificial selection by imposing different 'fitnesses' on their stock according to desirability, breeding from some and not from others. They thus raise the mean value in the population of the character desired. Fisher saw that this process implicitly relies on a correlation between the character and fitness, so that progress will depend both on the magnitude of this correlation and the extent to which the character is genetically determined. What happens, he then asked, if we designate fitness itself as the character, making the correlation perfect? The answer is that the mean fitness of the genes will increase by an amount that depends on the extent to which fitness is determined by them. This is the fundamental theorem (in a modern paraphrase): 'The rate of increase in the mean fitness ascribable to natural selection acting through changes in gene frequencies is equal to the additive genetic variance in fitness'.

The theorem does not involve the mean genotypic fitness - that is, the weighted mean of the fitnesses of the genotypes - which is where most interpreters of it went wrong. Fisher's repeated denials that his theorem referred to the mean genotypic fitness, itself immortalised in Sewall Wright's 'adaptive landscapes', went unheeded. In 1941 Fisher even published an example in which gene frequencies were changed under natural selection but the mean genotypic fitness stayed constant. Nobody noticed.

The brilliance of the fundamental theorem is not merely that it expresses the central dogma of natural selection - the connection between genetic variability and selective change - but that it does so exactly. Fisher discovered what the rate of change was proportional to: not to the total variance in fitness of the genotypes but only to that part of it found by fitting a weighted linear regression to the genotypic fitnesses. This is the part accounted for by the regression itself, the so-called additive genetic variance. Animal breeders know it as the variance of the breeding values of the genotypes. The fundamental theorem disregards the way the genes are distributed through the population, which will depend on the amount of heterosis in fitness, the extent of assortative mating, and similar possibly transient effects. What matters to it are the changes to the mean fitness brought about by changing gene frequencies.

This, then, is the theorem whose 'practical use or importance' 'some biologists would still question'. Let them ask the animal breeders if it is any 'use', and let them ask themselves whether they think Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is of any 'importance'. If they do, then the fundamental theorem should help them to a deeper, Mendelian, understanding of it. If, however, they hanker after a theory that can make evolutionary predictions, like Wright's adaptive landscapes were thought to do at one time, they are crying for the moon. Possession of the fundamental theorem will no more enable you to predict the flow of evolution than possession of Newton's law of gravitation will enable you to predict the time of high tide at London Bridge.

It should not be forgotten, however, that shorn of its genetical complexities the theorem does have predictive power, just as the law of gravitation does when applied to the celestial movements that underlie the tides. 'In a subdivided population the rate of change of the overall growth-rate is proportional to the variance in growth rates'. The 'populations' could be economic sectors, for example, or even one's own savings accounts.

6. Your career since the 1950s spans the period in which computers, and off-the-shelf programs, have become widely available. Has this been an unmixed blessing, and do you think the development of statistics or genetics would have been very different if computers had been available in, say, 1900?

A mixed blessing of course, because the existence of programs hinders the development of the underlying theory. This is particularly true in statistics where, despite assertions to the contrary by Bayesians, the underlying theory is still a matter for discussion. The phenomenon can be seen in the field of phylogenetic trees, where programs based on different methods proliferate.

1900 is a peculiarly well-chosen date on which to hang the question. Not only was it the year in which Mendel's results became widely known but it was also the year of the publication of the second edition of Karl Pearson's The Grammar of Science, which included chapters on biological science for the first time. The Grammar of Science was hugely influential in its day, proclaiming that the function of science was 'not to explain, but to describe by conceptual shorthand our perceptual experience'. 'The man who classifies facts of any kind whatever, who sees their mutual relation and describes their sequences, is applying the scientific method'. The computer implementation of this sterile philosophy would have had a devastating effect, particularly on the development of statistical theory and the acceptance of Mendelism. All Pearson's formidable energy would have been devoted to amassing vast quantities of information to be sifted for correlations. William Bateson's 1894 six-hundred-page Materials for the Study of Variation treated with especial regard to Discontinuity in the Origin of Species would have been digitally scanned and computer programmers urged to uncover its secrets. It doesn't bear thinking about!

7. In statistics you are especially known for developing and advocating the concept of Likelihood and its use in scientific inference. Can you explain how Likelihood differs from probability, and why Likelihood methods are useful in evaluating hypotheses?

Likelihood compares statistical hypotheses; it has nothing to say about a hypothesis on its own, like a test of significance does. Imagine two statistical hypotheses, each of which predicts the probabilities of all the possible outcomes of an experiment - which need be no more complex than tossing a biassed coin a number of times and counting the heads. The experiment is performed, the heads counted. Given this count, was the probability of heads p1 (the first hypothesis) or p2 (the second hypothesis)?

Now imagine doing the experiment lots of times assuming the first, and then the second, hypothesis. Would you not prefer the hypothesis that had the shorter expected waiting time until the exact number of heads observed turned up? If so, you have just chosen the one with the greater likelihood. The likelihood of a hypothesis is proportional to the probability of the data given the hypothesis. Meaningless for a hypothesis by itself because of the undefined constant of proportionality, with two hypotheses to be compared on the same data this constant is irrelevant, and the ratio of their likelihoods (or the difference in their log-likelihoods) becomes a measure of the support for one hypothesis versus the other.

Likelihoods therefore derive from probabilities, but unlike the latter are not additive. Whereas you can sum the probabilities of two possible outcomes of an experiment to form the probability of 'either one or the other', you cannot do the same for the likelihood of two hypotheses; 'either one hypothesis or the other' is not in itself a hypothesis enabling the probabilities of outcomes to be computed, so no likelihood for it is defined. But you can graph the likelihood as a function of p and pay special attention to its maximum, the maximum-likelihood estimate of the probability of heads.

The concept of the likelihood function is fundamental to all approaches to statistical inference, whether Bayesian, Neyman-Pearson, or Fisherian. Not everyone agrees that it is meaningful standing alone by itself, but I (and others before me) believe it is. Doubters can always fall back on the above 'how long to wait' argument, which I think was due to David Sprott.

8. You have written extensively on the history of genetics, statistics, and mathematics. Apart from the intrinsic interest of historical studies, how important do you think a knowledge of the history of science is for practising scientists?

I find it essential, and cannot imagine doing science without it. Much of what counts as science nowadays is rather theory-free. We don't really have a word for it. Sequencing the human genome, for example, is a marvellous achievement relying on technical advances of great ingenuity but it did not require historical understanding. It differs intellectually from, say, the associated activity of trying to estimate linkage values between gene loci. The history of the latter, on which I have written recently, is an essential part of the study of the problem, and much modern work suffers from its neglect.

Celebrating the centenary of the publication of the Origin of Species in 1959, Fisher said:
More attention to the History of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this should mean a deliberate attempt to understand the thoughts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning or stopped short on the right track.
I agree.

9. R. A. Fisher was a keen eugenist. What are your own views on the role (if any) of eugenics in the modern world?

Fisher's world was so different from ours, in three ways in particular. Then (say the period between the wars) nation-states were much more independent of each other so that it was possible to discuss population matters for Britain in relative isolation; secondly, it was a time of concern about the possibility of a declining home population; and thirdly many scientists were in the first flush of enthusiasm for the application of Mendelian principles - so recently elucidated - to man. None of this is true today.

For myself, though I was once a grateful holder of a Darwin Research Fellowship of the Eugenics Society (now the Galton Institute), since boyhood I have been more concerned about the quantity of people on earth rather than their quality. In the early 1960s I was a founder-member of a body called, I think, the Conservation Society, which does not seem to exist today. Its main platform was that too large a population would be unsustainable. At the time there was much discussion about over-population which was seen as one of the greatest dangers facing mankind. Interestingly, the worse the problem gets, the less it is discussed. Yet the mounting dangers we face, such as the possibility of global warming, are all exacerbated by too high a world population, given its enthusiasm for motor-cars, aeroplanes, and environmentally-damaging activity generally. It seems that people fear the charge of racism if they comment on population growth - they intuitively understand Fisher's fundamental theorem.

10. Like yourself, your brother, J. H. Edwards, is also a distinguished geneticist. Nature, nurture, or sibling rivalry?

Well, certainly not sibling rivalry. It is true that we have been sufficiently alike at some stages of our lives to have been mistaken for each other. At the Rome Conference of Human Genetics in 1961 we were in a lift with the Swedish geneticist Jan Lindsten when he engagingly introduced us to another participant as 'the two most confused brothers in genetics'.

In fact I am 7 1/2 years younger than John, and due to mother's illness, father's war service, and wartime privations generally, I hardly encountered him until the end of the war when I was ten. We developed boyhood enthusiasms for science quite independently, he for biology, me for astronomy. But there was a common factor in our education from thirteen to eighteen. We both attended Uppingham School, though of course not at the same time, and were exceptionally well-taught in science and mathematics, in some cases by the same teachers. I cannot stress this influence too strongly. Since I only went to Uppingham because my elder brother did, is that nature or nurture?

Subsequently John's main influence was when I was learning about likelihood (see the preface to my book Likelihood). He, being medically qualified, keeps me straight on medical matters and I try to keep him straight on things statistical. I deliberately stayed off linkage theory so as not to get too close to his interests. John was more influenced by Lancelot Hogben and J. B. S. Haldane than I was. There is a wonderful letter from Fisher to R. R. Race in 1960 in which he refers to me as 'my Edwards from Cambridge' and to John as 'only one of Hogben's [pupils]', so at least Fisher got us straight.

And John introduced me to gliding. Though not exactly a 'champion', to use your word, I have enjoyed fifty years gliding and hope for a few more yet.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

10 questions for Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza   posted by Razib @ 8/24/2006 06:10:00 PM

Dr. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is a professor of genetics at Stanford University. Dr. Cavalli-Sforza's magnum opus The History and Geography of Human Genes is a landmark of human historical population genetics, while his text coauthored with Walter F. Bodmer, The Genetics of Human Populations, is one of the most thorough introductions to the field of population genetics with an emphasis on our own species. Originally trained as a medical doctor, his work has spanned a range of fields from microbiology to theoretical anthropology. Recently Dr. Cavalli-Sforza's life has been the subject of a full length biography, A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey. One may view a list of representative publications here.

Below are his responses to "10 questions."

1) Can you tell us what R.A. Fisher was like as a teacher and a department head? It is sometimes said that true geniuses do not make for the best instructors or superiors.

As a teacher, his lectures were quite good. It may have helped that I knew at least some of the things of what he taught. As a superior, he was tolerant of his inferiors with whom he did not get along, but ignored them, and was absolutely loved by all the others, with whom he was very generous, and this was true of me also. When Kenneth Mather, one of his best students and with whom I had worked in advance learnt that Fisher had offered me a job, he said "in the first fortnight it will be decided whether you will be friend or not". I certainly became a very good friend of Fisher, and am a very good friend of all Fisher's last students whom I had a chance to meet and work with, like Anthony Edwards and Sir Walter Bodmer, both of whom have a profound attachment to him. Fisher was very impatient with bureaucracy (who isn't, unless he/she is very lucky?), especially that of the University of Cambridge. He supported two of his potential, excellent successors: Guido Pontecorvo and Francis Crick, but his advice was not paid any attention.

2) When I read "Consanguinity, Inbreeding, and Genetic Drift in Italy" I was struck by the relatively mild differences between the two geographic halves of the nation. Considering the historical legacy of Magna Graecia, Byzantine and Arab rule in the south, in contrast to the Gaulish, and later Germanic influence in the north, I was expecting more between-population differences. I suppose that gene flow across demes along lines of trade equilibrated allele frequences between regions (while high relief resulted in enforced endogamy). If you agree with my assessment, were you surprised by those particular results?

The only "genetic" data in the book regarding the country as a whole are from surnames, which have little time depth: at most one thousand years, and reflect the cultural more than the deep genetic background. Nervetheless they are highly correlated with it, but cannot be used for between countries comparisons. The cultural unity of Italy is older than a thousand years; more than three thousand years in the south and two thousand years for the north.

The truly genetic data can be found in The History and Geography of Human Genes, especially pages 292-293, showing that northern Italy is more similar to western and central Europe, the center to the northern Balkans, probably reflecting in part the middle Neolithic diffusion, and the south the southern Balkans, reflecting the earliest Neolithic diffusion and the Greek and Phonecian colonizations of the first millennium BC.

3) I suppose it can be said "The History and Geography of Human Genes" was your most influential book. The PC maps as well as the cladograms were mental candy for those of us who were interested in the narrative that it told about human demographic history. Nevertheless, I have noted a tendency amongst some to view the conclusions you offered as a sort of "proof text." As an example, the affinity between Southern Chinese and Southeast Asians, and between Northern Chinese and other Northern East Asians, have been the subject of much discussion on internet forums. Did you anticipate that many would view your inferences as indelible Truth?

Nothing is indelible, or will be indelible until data from a much wider selection of markers will be available. In this century I hope there will be a chance of examining very extensive samples of individuals for the whole genome and this knowledge will be much more indelible, as much as the representativeness of the samples tested. I doubt that I will see it, but this is the rule of life.

4) Moving to, in the interests of frankness, less influential books, in "A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey" Linda Stone & Paul F. Lurquin note the relative lack of response to "Cultural Transmission and Evolution" within the social sciences. You seem to chalk this up in part to the lack of comfort with mathematical methodologies within cultural anthropology. Over the past few years a small group of anthropologists, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd and Joe Henrich seem to be continuing the attempt to model culture using the techniques that have been fortuitous in the biological sciences. Do you think that we are past the high tide of 'interpretative' anthropology and that a more explicitly hypothetical-deductive methodology may come to the fore?

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science - the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work.

5) "The Genetics of Human Populations" was recently re-printed. In the foreword, you and Walter Bodmer acknowledge that 30 years is a long time in scientific history, but that your work does offer theoretical insights which have stood the test of time. I was interested to note, for example, on page 530 you offer an estimate of the number of loci which result in the normal human variation of skin color at about 4 using classical genetic methods. Recent comparative genomic work suggests that there are other loci besides the well known MC1R, with a recent gene, SLC24A5, accountable for 30% of the difference in complexion between Europeans and Africans. It seems that the estimate of 4 loci may not be very far off the truth. Do you believe that the "postgenomic era" will by and large vindicate the synthesis of population genetics and evolution which crystallized in the 1930s under R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright? Or, do you intuit from the most recent batch of findings that we are in for a data-driven "paradigm shift" which will result in a new theoretical framework?

I was relying on the opinion of Neil Risch that our book is still useful because it contains knowledge that is important and is ignored in more recent books. Everything changes, but I believe the old paradigm that mutation + nat.selection + drift + migration is sufficient to understand biological evolution, and the basic theorems are still the same, with few additions. Of course, the use of simulation - of which I gave probably the earliest example for the role of drift on blood group genetics in the Parma Valley in 1967 (cited in Consanguinity, Inbreeding etc.)- has given much greater power to theoretical analysis, but it can hardly give results of the same generality as the mathematical approach. When one goes over to cultural evolution or other examples of evolution of self reproducing systems one needs to consider mechanisms of hereditary transmission other than the (generalized) Mendelian one. Also in biology it will be necessary to consider the general importance of lateral transfer, which will bring a partial revolution, but in cultural evol. it is imperative to give to it much importance, especially in the internet era. Still, it is difficult to completely ignore the importance of parent-child transmission in cultural evolution, as well as the niche influence (Odell Smith, Laland and Feldman), when one considers (e.g.) some surprising permanence of pagan rites in Europe.

6) In "A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey" you seemed rather unrepentant about not explaining the details of Principal Component Analysis though you obviously recognize the importance of mathematics to your work. The historian of science Will Provine has asserted Sewall Wright's original work which coalesced into the Shifting Balance was simply not internalized on a mathematical level by most workers, including disseminators such as Ernst Mayr, and that this resulted in subsequent confusions about the importance of random genetic drift and gene-gene interactions. Obviously biology is a science that is focused on a particular subject, life, as opposed to being hewed to any one method. Nevertheless, do you perceive in the next generation of trained biologists the mathematical aptitude and inclination to tackle problems both analytically and computationally so as to extract more insight from the excess of data generated by modern sequencing techniques?

I adore principal components, as you may have noted, and I was the first who introduced them into genetics (1963, Proc.Intl.Genetics Congress of the Hague). I also showed with Piazza in 1976 (Theor. Pop. Biology, 8: 127-165) that when a simple evolutionary model of mutation and drift is correct, principal components and trees give the same result, in the sense that eigenvalues and vectors calculated in the spectral analysis of populations x gene frequencies matrices correspond to the meaning and order of the nodes found in trees. But I have always found it difficult to explain rigorously principal components to people who have little confidence with mathematics, and I decided to test the skills of Lurquin and Stone, hoping they would do it better than what I usually do. Of course, the usual indication that it is a method to reduce the number of dimensions gives some ideas, but without an appreciation of the amounts of variance explained it may give a false sense of security .

7) Question #3 hinted at the powerful social impact your work has had in reshaping how we view the natural history of our species. One of the most contentious issues of the 20th, and no doubt of the unfolding 21st century, is that of race. In 1972 Richard Lewontin offered his famous observation that 85% of the variation across human populations was within populations and 15% was between them. Regardless of whether this level of substructure is of note of not, your own work on migrations, admixtures and waves of advance depicts patterns of demographic and genetic interconnectedness, and so refutes typological conceptions of race. Nevertheless, recently A.W.F. Edwards, a fellow student of R.A. Fisher, has argued that Richard Lewontin's argument neglects the importance of differences of correlation structure across the genome between populations and focuses on variance only across a single locus. Edwards' argument about the informativeness of correlation structure, and therefore the statistical salience of between-population differences, was echoed by Richard Dawkins in his most recent book. Considering the social import of the question of interpopulational differences as well as the esoteric nature of the mathematical arguments, what do you believe the "take home" message of this should be for the general public?

Edwards and Lewontin are both right. Lewontin said that the between populations fraction of variance is very small in humans, and this is true, as it should be on the basis of present knowledge from archeology and genetics alike, that the human species is very young. It has in fact been shown later that it is one of the smallest among mammals. Lewontin probably hoped, for political reasons, that it is TRIVIALLY small, and he has never shown to my knowledge any interest for evolutionary trees, at least of humans, so he did not care about their reconstruction. In essence, Edwards has objected that it is NOT trivially small, because it is enough for reconstructing the tree of human evolution, as we did, and he is obviously right.

8) Your lab has recently been focusing on Y chromosomal lineages. It seems that this is a clear extension of your previous program of analyzing demographically informative loci to aid in reconstructing the natural history and behavioral ecology of our species. A graduate of your lab, Spencer Wells, has outlined the utility of the Y chromosome in his recent book "The Journey of Man." Nevertheless, others, such as Henry Harpending at the University of Utah have argued that functional loci which have been shaped by selection should be the object of greater interest, and that neutral loci can only tell us so much about the nature of our species. Of late, data emerging from the HapMap has hinted at powerful selective pressures upon our species within the past few thousand years. Some would argue that the high frequency of deleterious recessive diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis (frequencies too high to be maintained by mutation-selection balance) should have prepared us for this. What is your assessment of the alternative program which is focused on signatures of selection as opposed to lines of ancestry?

It is obvious that natural selection has played a major role in human evolution, although most statistical methods for detecting it are rather gross. Quantitatively, however, I am sure that drift has been very important - it will take more work on different types of genes to see how much, relative to selection. For an estimate (78%) based on microsatellites, see Sohini et al., nov. 2005 Proc. Nat.Acad.USA. 102 : 15942.

9) In "The Genetics of Human Populations" you allude in passing to intergroup selection (page 750), and seem to suggest it played a non-trivial role in the reshaping of the overall character of our species' genome. To be clear, if you do accept group level selection, would you expect its power (vis-a-vis individual level selection) to increase or decrease with the rise of complex mass societies and the diminishment of tribes & clans?

It is a good question. I suppose the answer is likely to be (tentatively) positive.

10) Over the past 6 years you have had a somewhat heated relationship with Bryan Sykes of Oxford in regards to the apportionment of European ancestry into "Neolithic" and "Paleolithic" quanta in the context of the model of Demic Diffusion. Moving past the details of this scientific relationship, which interested readers can explore in your aforementioned biography, there have been other recent extractions of ancient DNA of supposed Neolithic immigrants which have been used to "refute" the contribution of this population because of the lack of contemporary descended haplotypes in most of Europe. Others retort that neutral markers by their nature may be subject to substitution and that over generations most lineages become extinct. The technical details are clearly lost on the public, and yet there is also a great interest in this topic. Have you any advice for a potential science reporter who is attempting to cross and bridge this chasm?

Neutral markers are clearly subject to less rapid evolution than markers under directional selection. Markers under balancing selection are more stable than neutral markers. There is no estimate of the quantitative importance of balancing selection. A list of 91 genes showing selection at the genome level (Sabeti et al., 2002 if I remember the date correctly) show that about 25% show mostly balancing selection.

Archeology can be very useful for tracing history, clearly. But genetic analysis on fossil bones requires hard work, and with the investment of time and money that is possible today the numbers of individuals and markers on which archeological conclusions are based is too small to be considered respectable, especially when examining very small genetic differences.


Monday, August 07, 2006

10 Questions for Joseph LeDoux   posted by Coffee Mug @ 8/07/2006 02:37:00 PM

Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor and Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, and a member of the Center for Neural Scienceand Department of Psychology at NYU. In addition to articles in scholarly journals, he is author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life and Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. His work has focused on the role of the amygdala in emotion and memory.

Be sure to check out the other interviews in the '10 questions' series in the sidebar. Below are 10 questions for Joe LeDoux.

1. Over the past two decades you have produced a detailed diagram of the neural circuitry involved in auditory fear conditioning, eventually tracing the storage site for such memories to a single nucleus of the amygdala. The fear system was appealing, in part, because it is relatively straightforward. Fear responses are stereotyped and have remained relatively constant throughout evolution. What, if any, emotional system(s) do you think will yield to this sort of fine-grained analysis next?

The key to doing all this for fear is that there was a good behavioral paradigm, fear conditioning, for studying fear. It's much easier to relate behavior to the brain if you have a simple and repeatable behavior that is reliably controlled by a stimulus. As soon as good stimulus-response paradigms are developed for other emotions, the brain will yield its secrets. There are good stimulus-response paradigms for reward but unfortunately these paradigms don't naturally relate to a specific emotion the way fear conditioning does.

2. In an Edge interview in 1997, you wondered about the interaction between a reactive emotional system and decision-making. Recent work in the fields of moral psychology and neuroeconomics are beginning to provide some insight into these mechanisms by integrating efforts across several disciplines. In what ways do your interests overlap with these fields? Have they affected your view of the mechanisms by which the emotional brain controls decision-making and vice versa?

I've been interested for a long time in a behavioral transition that occurs once you find yourself in danger. First, you react-evolution thinks for you. Then you act-you're dependent on past experience and your ability to make decisions in this phase. We've shown that the transition involves the flipping of a switch in the amygdala. I don't mean this literally. What happens is that reaction involves a circuit in which information flows from the lateral amygdala to the central amygdala, which then connects with areas that control reactive bodily responses (freezing behavior; changes in autonomic nervous system responses such as blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, sweating, pupil dilation, etc; and release of stress hormones). In order to take action, you have to inhibit this "freezing" pathway and activate a pathway in which active behaviors are controlled. This pathway involves the flow of information from the lateral to the basal amygdala. The switch flip metaphor refers to the output of the lateral amygdala, which is sent to different regions for reaction vs. action. Clinically, the reaction pathway is associated with passive coping, and the other pathway with active coping. Psychologists have shown that people do better in overcoming fear when they engage in active coping. So understanding how this transition occurs is important. All this is by way of answering your question about decision making. The brain makes a decision when it throws the switch. So I would say my interests do overlap a lot with the decision making disciplines but that really is a different world. I think part of the difference is that much of that field focuses on gains and losses of monetary rewards, which I think is very different from decision making in situations where bodily harm is at stake. However, the sophisticated analyses that have been developed in neuroeconomics might be very useful in the study of fear.

3. Several of the central mechanisms involved in synaptic plasticity (NMDA receptor, calcium signalling, AMPA receptor trafficking, spine dynamics, etc.) appear to be general, occurring at neocortex, hippocampus, and amygdala synapses. Are there major differences between mechanisms of memory in different brain regions? How could a drug, say for combatting phobia, target fear memory without affecting the other memory systems?

There is indeed a remarkable consistency of molecular mechanisms for different kinds of memory in different brain systems. This even holds across species as diverse as slugs, fruitflies, mice, and people. One implication is that the uniqueness of different kinds of memory is not dependent on the molecules so much as the circuit in which the molecules do their tricks. However, it is possible that so far we've mainly found the similarities and that subtle but important molecular differences are yet to be discovered. But let's assume that the first idea is correct-that the molecules involved are essentially the same. Even it the molecules that make memory in the amygdala and hippocampus are the same, it is likely that there are unique genes in these areas. If so the proteins made by these genes might be used as keys that unlock a molecular package that a drug is wrapped in. The drug goes everywhere in the brain but is only active in the area containing the protein that can unwrap it. Science fiction, but not science fantasy.

4. You have reported that some 30% of neurons in the lateral amygdala, and blocking AMPA receptor trafficking in just 10-20% of neurons produces impairments in fear memory. At this rate, it seems that a rat that is afraid of three things will have to overlap representations to fear a fourth. Does the fear system have limited storage capacity? What happens as you begin stacking multiple aversive memories into the same neurons, do they distort or overwrite previous memories?

Synapses, not whole neurons, are the units of information storage. Each neuron has many thousands of synapses. I'm sure the fear system has a capacity limit, and that would be very interesting to study. So far no one has studied that, at least as far as I know.

5. Have advances in genomics and bioinformatics (i.e. sequencing of several mammalian genomes and development of tools for exploring them) influenced your own molecular/cellular work at all? More broadly, what do you expect will be the relationship between genome research and neuroscience in the future?

I'm not very sophisticated when it comes to genomics. So I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer this question. But I do have an opinion. Genomics hit neuroscience in a big way. Probably neuroscientists were overly enthusiastic about the ability of techniques like gene chips to change the field overnight. It's easy to find genes that correlate with learning-too easy. The trick is analyzing all the data that come out and making sense of it. But genomics is here to stay and will make tremendous contributions in the years to come. The next generation of neuroscientists will be trained in both fields and will know better how to navigate the territory.

6. Several individual proteins and signaling pathways have been implicated in amygdala plasticity in the past few years. How do you conceptualize the interaction of these individual players in the bigger picture of the synapse? For instance, when a pathway like MAPK with multiple intracellular targets is implicated, do you mentally place more weight on the immediate downstream post-translational modification of synapse associated proteins or regulation of protein or mRNA synthesis?

I think we have to remain open minded about these kinds of things. To follow your example, we'd need to explore the various targets of MAPK to see which ones are critical and whether the critical ones lead to gene expression and protein synthesis. Then we could decide.

7. Some have proposed that a self-perpetuating 'mnemogenic molecule' (like a constitutively active kinase or a prion-like RNA-binding protein) might account for long-term synaptic plasticity and memory while others seem to suggest morphological changes are necessary. How do you think fear memories are maintained in the very long term? Are the same synapses even responsible for the memory trace throughout the life of the memory or do you imagine a systems consolidation type of mechanism where eventually the fear memory is moved to a remote storage site?

A few years ago we published a study showing that different cell groups in the dorsal subnucleus of the lateral amygdala participate in the initial learning of fear conditioning and in the long-term storage of the conditioned association. One, located in the superior part of the dorsal subnucleus learns rapidly and resets. The other, located in the inferior part of the dorsal subnulceus learns more slowly but retains the memory, even beyond behavioral extinction. So there is a nomadic quality to fear memory within the dorsal lateral amygdala. This means different synapses are involved in initial learning and persistent memory. The key issue is whether the synapses involved in forming the memory in the second circuit persist or change over time. I don't think anyone knows this. However, the fact that we could pinpoint a memory region in such a small zone in the amygdala gives us the hope that the question may be answerable.

8. You wrote a mild critique of Judith Rich Harris's book *The Nurture Assumption* when it was published eight years ago. In your own book *The Synaptic Self,* you expressed further reservations about the decidedly hereditarian perspective promoted by the emerging fields of behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology. What do you think is the most crucial shortcoming of these new human sciences in their consideration of the causal influences on behavioral phenotypes? What role do you see for your own branch of neuroscience in the ongoing debate over the sources of human nature and individual differences?

I am a strong proponent of the importance of genes and heredity to behavior and mental life. But I think it's important to keep this stuff in perspective. Genes are important, just not all important. Indeed, I believe, as I argued in Synaptic Self, that important parts of personality are learned. This doesn't water down the importance of inheritance. Evidence for a genetic contribution to something doesn't mean that non-genetic factors are unimportant. Non-genetic factors influence gene expression from the moment the egg is fertilized. In terms of the brain, nature and nurture are not two different things but two ways of doing the same thing: wiring synapses. Through synapses, genes and experience influence who we are. The key issue is how synaptic change over the course of life determines what the brain knows and forgets, and what can be acquired or not.

9. The most obvious changes that occurred in primate brain evolution involve the building of more neocortex on top of the 'reptilian' brain. You tend to emphasize the continuity between the emotional brain systems from rodents to humans, but could you speculate some on how the emotional brain is different across species?

When studying animals it's important to ask questions of the animal that research on the animal can answer. When I study emotion in rats, I study how the brain processes the stimulus to elicit physiological and behavioral responses. The reason I study this in rats is because the brain mechanism that process danger and produce defense responses have been shown to be very similar in rats and people. Considerable evidence suggests that when we are conscious of a stimulus, whether its an emotional stimulus or not, prefrontal cortex is involved in the processing. I don't attempt to study conscious aspects of emotion in rats for two reasons. One is that there is no way to know what they consciously experience, and two because they lack the regions of the prefrontal cortex that appear important in conscious states in people.

10. If you had a chance to do it all over again what would you change about your education?

I grew up in a small town in south Louisiana. I don't think I really learned what the field of psychology was until I went to college. I had very little training in science in high school, and that didn't change in college since I majored in business. I went on to do masters level work in business as well. At one point I took a course with a professor who was studying the brain, and my world changed. I decided I wanted to be a neuroscientist. I was at a certain disadvantage not having studied science. On the other hand, everything I learned about science, once I started learning it, was relevant to what I was doing. So I wouldn't necessarily change my science education. I do wish I had more exposure to art, history, languages, and the humanities in general when I was growing up and in college. I think most scientists, most people in fact, could use better grounding in the humanities.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

10 questions for Matthew Stewart   posted by Razib @ 8/03/2006 06:24:00 PM

Matthew Stewart is the author of The Truth About Everything, Monturiol's Dream and The Courtier and the Heretic. His recent piece in The Atlantic, The Management Myth, drew upon his experiences as a management consultant. Dr. Stewart received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford University and a bachelor's degree from Princeton. Below are his responses to 10 questions.

(Other 10 questions)

1) Your recent essay in The Atlantic was rather amusing, we all have our MBA jokes I suppose (well, except for a small subset of MBAs themselves). How exactly did you get involved in management consulting in the first place? As you noted, your primary "professional" background was in academia and food service.

It was just one of those things. Toward the end of my last year in graduate school, long after everybody else had made their plans for the following year, I was playing pool with a couple of undergraduates who had accepted jobs as management consultants. At the time, I would have said that I was about as likely to become a ballerina as a consultant. Actually, more likely, since I at least had some idea what a ballerina does for a living. Still, since I had decided that I didn’t want to pursue an academic career and was in desperate need of gainful employment, I was inspired to fire off a dozen letters to prominent consulting firms. Only one deigned to reply. A senior partner of that firm just happened to be passing through town and had an hour to spare. Two weeks later, I had a job offer - as an "experimental hire," I later learned. I often wonder what would have become of me had I skipped that pool game or delayed a couple of weeks in sending off the letters. Did I miss my calling at La Scala?

My approach to management consulting was experimental, too - I initially planned to work for a year or two, then figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The job turned out to be quite different and much more interesting than I had imagined. I left it after three years in order to write my first book. When that failed to pay the rent, I returned to consulting and got into a situation from which I had some difficulty extricating myself. Eventually I was able to resume my career as a writer.

2) You seem to divide the "science" of management between the humanists & rationalists. In philosophy of course there is the continental and analytic tradition today, in which direction would you say your leanings would be, if you have any?

In both cases there is a kind of dialectic at work: the one really makes best sense as a response to the deficiencies of the other. That is, humanist management science arose out of the failure of rationalism to recognize that organizations are, well, made up out of people. But rationalism originated with the claim that human beings often aren’t very good at organizing things. In philosophy, the history is very different, but there is nonetheless a similar kind of mutual dependence at work between analytic and continental philosophy. Analytic philosophy began as a rejection of the Hegelian mushiness of late nineteenth-century English philosophy. If there is a general theme of continental philosophy, surely it must be the rejection of the excesses it attributes to reason or the Enlightenment.

At this level of generality, however, we are no longer talking about concrete history. (It's easy to show that, for example, many rationalist management scientists began from humanist premises, and the reverse.) We're really just playing with certain abstract ideas (e.g., about reasons and passions). So I prefer not to take sides.

3) In The Truth About Everything you seem to praise the sophists. Did you receive any flak about this from acquaintances?

Quite the reverse. I discovered a deep and hidden undercurrent of hostility toward Plato. People are just fed up with many of his dialogs. He turns Socrates into the pedantic advocate of some preposterous theories, and is manifestly unfair to the poor Sophists.

To be sure, the Sophists were not all sweetness and light, and I certainly don't see myself as championing them as the last word in wisdom. In bringing them closer to center stage, though, I want to draw attention to the fact that in many ways they embodied some of our own ideals about philosophy and society better than their more famous antagonist. While Plato was a dogmatic elitist, they were basically democratic skeptics. More importantly, the sophists were in some ways more authentically "Greek" than Plato and his heirs. I want to emphasize the extent to which the conventional idea of Greek philosophy is a construct of the middle ages.

4) A friend of mine is now a social scientist, but his background was originally in philosophy. He once mused to me that scientists are philosophically naive. Would you concur? If so, is this naivete a problem?

I can see why a social scientist might say such a thing. The social sciences, as far as I can tell, contain an awful lot of undigested philosophy. On the whole, however, I can't say that I have shared your friend's experience. I have met many scientists who seem philosophically well-informed, and I have observed that in the public sphere today it is often the scientists who carry the torch on the defense of Enlightenment values and other fundamental issues we usually think are the property of philosophers.

Social sciences aside, in any case, I don't see philosophical naivete among scientists as a problem for science per se. On the contrary, the history of science is replete with examples of scientists whose philosophical sophistication led them to make major mistakes. A number of famous scientists dismissed the evidence in favor of the existence of atoms, for example, on the basis of philosophical principles. On the other hand, a broader kind of historical (or maybe historico-philosophical) naivete can be something of a problem, inasmuch as it may lead scientists to fail to understand their responsibilities to and consequences of their activities on the rest of society.

Scientific naivete among philosophers, by the way, is more common and disturbing, at least to me, though the victims are usually only the philosophers themselves. I have read one too many philosophical essays purveying bizarre notions about quantum physics and obtuse thought experiments about planets abounding in a substance called H30. A fair number of philosophers often work with a high-school level caricature of science, without ever bothering to check out what scientists do.

5) What is your sympathy toward, Wittgenstein I or Wittgenstein II (assuming you believe that the two are genuinely separable)?

Long ago I found Wittgenstein helpful and inspiring, especially in helping me think through the issues of "meta-philosophy", or the philosophy of philosophy. At this level, I found that the similarities between Wittgenstein I and II far outweighed the differences. The change from I to II may have seemed radical to those committed to the philosophy of language; but now that that project seems safely confined to the history of futile endeavors, it is the continuity that dominates. In the The Truth About Everything, I put the main arguments of the Philosophical Investigations into the quirky numerical format of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in order to make these points.

With the benefit of more study of the history of philosophy, I eventually concluded that the value of Wittgenstein's ideas (in both incarnations) was overblown. The near-total absence of historical perspective in him and his followers resulted in their failure to see that his critical work in many ways replicated earlier critiques, not always with improvement. I also found that just about everything he said that ranged beyond the confines of academic philosophy to themes of culture and value was either banal or barbaric. And one thing I still cannot abide is the cult of Wittgenstein.

6) Back to business, between writing The Truth About Everything and The Courtier and the Heretic did your attitude toward management consulting evolve at all? I ask because I got the impression from The Truth About Everything that you believed that philosophy is best lived and done by regular folk with jobs out in the 'real world,' but now you are retired from that world and a 'philosopher at large.'

"Philosopher at large" - now that is something I do get flak for from friends and acquaintances. My point in the The Truth About Everything wasn't that philosophy is best done by regular folks; it was that academic philosophy suffers from its lack of exposure to and interest in the so-called "real world." Life outside the academy isn't any more "real," nor is it necessarily better; but it is more representative of the human experience, and that makes it worth getting to know. I learned a lot as a management consultant, but my attitude toward that particular form of employment didn't change at a fundamental level: it is not, dare I say it, the best place to look for the eternal truths.

7) Are there genuine philosophical problems? If so, are exact solutions ever possible for these problems?

No. And no. The notion that there is a fixed list of philosophical problems waiting to be solved - "free will," the "mind-body problem," etc. - is a product of the institutionalization of philosophy. It happened in the middle ages, and it has happened over the past two centuries with the rise of the modern university system. Once philosophy becomes institutionalized in that way, it ceases to be genuine philosophy, in my humble view, and just becomes a sophisticated form of rhetoric for advancing a particular mix of ideological, sectarian, and institutional agendas. Genuine philosophy isn't so difficult to spot, even in the labyrinth of institutional philosophy. It is a set of tools, an attitude, a commitment to the search for truth, and a project aimed at emancipation from fear and superstition. Just like Epicurus said.

8) Do you believe that the Classical Greeks "invented" philosophy as such? Or do you hold that a spark of philosophy resides in the basal cognitive wiring of most human beings, and has since the emergence of modern humanity 40,000 years ago?

The philosophical instinct belongs to human nature. It is as much a dysfunction as a function of our cognitive apparatus. It arises from our remarkable ability to see patterns in experience. It is a product of the natural inclination to look for the pattern of patterns, or the pattern of everything. The Greeks certainly did not invent it. Even in the existing historical record, they weren’t the first; and many who came later simply re-invented it on their own.

9) What intellectual discipline appeals to you other than philosophy? In other words, if you had to select another domain for your contemplative energies, what would that be?

I went to college thinking I would major in physics, though what really interested me at the time was astrophysics and cosmology. Somehow I got sidetracked into metaphysics. I must have gotten impatient with astrophysics, thinking it was all about hot balls of gas instead of stardust. More recently, I have found myself drawn toward evolutionary biology. Alas, it is too late for me to be a scientist, so I content myself with reading lots of popularizations. What I do now is probably closer to what most people would call history than philosophy. Though I've never really been able to separate the two.

10) If you had to change anything about your education, what would that be?

As a good Nietzschean, of course, I wish for nothing but the eternal recurrence of Philosophy 305 and the rest of my courses. Nonetheless, I would say with the wisdom of retrospect that in my education I probably failed to learn as much as I could from the many talented individuals who had the misfortune of being my teachers. So perhaps I would have changed something about my ears.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

10 questions for Charles Murray   posted by Matt McIntosh @ 7/25/2006 12:00:00 AM

(This is the latest in GNXP's semi-regular "10 questions" feature; links to previous editions can be found along the sidebar or by searching the blog.)

The geneticist J.B.S. Haldane famously remarked that important theories went through four stages of acceptance: "i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so." This process would be quite familiar to Charles Murray, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has gained a reputation for staking out controversial positions a decade before they become mainstream. Starting with Losing Ground in 1984, later with Richard Herrnstein in 1994's The Bell Curve, and most recently with In Our Hands, Murray has made his name as a public intellectual by dropping well-researched bombshells onto policy debates. In between, he's published shorter books on political philosophy and a thorough historical study of human accomplishment in the arts and sciences.

Below the fold is our e-mail interview with Murray.

1. Let's talk first about your latest project. You've stated that In Our Hands is an attempt to strike a compromise between your libertarian ideals and the current socio-political reality. The biggest worry about your plan from a libertarian point of view is that in practice it would create a large constituency who would vote to raise the grant on a regular basis, leaving the fiscal situation largely unchanged or possibly even worse. How does your plan deal with these kinds of public choice objections?

Mancur Olson and other public-choice theorists taught us that sugar farmers can get sugar subsidies because they care passionately about getting their benefit while no other constituency cares enough about preventing them from getting it. Under the Plan, the grant will be the only game in town (every other transfer is gone), and will affect every adult in the country. Every time Congress debates a change in the grant, it will be the biggest political news story in the country, and a very large chunk of the population--and people holding a huge majority of the monetary resources for fighting political battles--will lose money if it's raised. Compare the prospects for jacking up the grant with the certain knowledge we have of the trends in spending under the current system. They have sky-rocketed and will sky-rocket, through classic public choice dynamics. The Plan uses the only strategy I can conceive to get out of the public-choice box.

2. One modification to your plan which has been suggested is to index the guarenteed income to GDP instead of inflation. This way everyone benefits from policies that increase economic growth, seemingly a perfect bargain between welfare statists and economic dynamists. What do you think of this idea? Have there been any other suggested modifications to (or criticisms of) to your plan which have impressed you thus far? More broadly, how has the reaction so far compared to what you were expecting?

An early draft linked the size of the grant to median earned income, which would have a similar effect. But the real purpose of the book was to put an idea on the table that doesn't have a prayer of being enacted now, but could become conventional wisdom down the road. To achieve that purpose, I wanted to avoid getting hung up on bits and pieces. If the idea of converting all the transfer programs to a cash grant is a good idea, we can figure out a way to control changes in the size of the grant. Worry about it after we've decided what we think of the idea: that's the logic of the book's presentation.

As for reaction, I've been surprised by the number of libertarians who are attracted to the idea (though perhaps I shouldn't have been, given that Milton Friedman thought up the negative income tax). Liberals don't know what to say: I'm proposing a much larger transfer of resources to poor people than they've ever dreamed of, which they should like, but they're obsessed with the people who would waste the money. They really do think that most people aren't capable of running their own lives without their help. Overall, IOH has accomplished pretty much what I'd hoped in the way of reaction.

3. It's interesting to consider what kind of downstream social effects your plan might have. For example, it's likely to encourage people to take greater risks (such as starting their own business at a younger age) or to pursue alternative "low remuneration" paths -- academic research, writing, charity work, etc. It would likely remove support for harmful labour regulations like the minimum wage, and one can also think of ways in which this might alter the impact of imigration and illegal labor. How much did you think about these kinds of downstream effects when writing In Our Hands, and what do you think the most significant social impact of the plan would be?

I hadn't thought about the way it would work against labor regulation, but you're right. It would. I did discuss other downstream effects--on families, the underclass, and most broadly on what might be called a climate of virtue. As far as I can see, the downstream, unintended effects of the Plan have a strong tendency to be positive, while the unintended effects of conventional social programs are always negative. Why the difference? Because the Plan taps positive human tendencies that are deeply embedded in human nature as it actually exists--self-interest, the innate desire for approbation, the innate tendency to take responsibility to the extent that circumstances require. They set up extremely positive feedback loops. For example, what happens if I squander my monthly deposit? I have to seek help from relatives, friends, or private social service agencies like the Salvation Army. I'm not going to starve--but I'm going to get that help with a whole lot of encouragement--to put it politely--to get my act together. And it won't be a one-time thing, but a continuous process. Conventional social programs are precisely the opposite. They make assumptions about human nature that are blatantly not true (e.g., bureaucracies are not governed by the self-interest of the people who run them) and the unintended consequences are destructive.

4. In Human Accomplishment, you come to the conclusion that accomplishment has been on a decline roughly since the industrial revolution. How does this square with the exponentially accelerating accumluation of data in the sciences (along with computing power, DNA sequencing, etc.)? Also, how does it square with the Flynn effect? You would think that ceteris paribus an increase in intelligence would result in an increase of genius, but by your reckoning this doesn't seem to be the case.

The chapter on the decline in accomplishment explicitly deals with that point, so my main answer is: Read the book, or at least chapter 21. The short answer is that, in the sciences, a certain kind of accomplishment--the discovery of basic knowledge about how the universe works--is declining, inevitably. Genetics is a good example. The applications of genetic knowledge are increasing nonlinearly; but the knowledge about the basic workings of genetic transmission has been close to complete for decades. Filling in the details permits all kinds of new applications, but they are details. In large numbers of disciplines--anatomy, for example, or geography--there is little new to learn. They're effectively closed to new accomplishment as I used the word for science.

As for the Flynn effect, it has nothing to do with the number of geniuses. It appears that the increases have little to do with g (the general mental factor), and that they are concentrated at the low end of the distribution. There is still a lot to be understood about the Flynn effect, but don't count on it for producing advances in string theory.

5. The decline in individual accomplishments in the arts is prima facie a bad thing, but is it possible that a decline in major discoveries in the sciences could be good thing? If you measure accomplishment by means other than outstanding singular accomplishments, could there be a case for collective, incremental progress?

The distinction is not between singular and collective (I include collective accomplishments in my science inventories), but between acquisition of new knowledge and the application of scientific knowledge to daily life. By the latter measure, accomplishment did not decline after the mid 19th century. It continued to increase very rapidly.

6. One of our contributors has conjectured the existence of "genius germs" to explain the examples of what could be called "pathological genius". The elegant thing about this hypothesis is that it would explain the decline in individual achievement even in the face of the Flynn effect, which tracks temporally with improvements in hygiene and immunology. What's your take on this?

Beats the hell out of me. Or, more dignified: I am not competent to comment. Being born on January 8 (along with Elvis, I would point out), the theory intuitively appeals to me.

7. In the wake of the Larry Summers flap, you wrote an article in Commentary revisiting familiar themes concering differences in intelligence. What was your impression of the response to that article? Were people as venomous as when The Bell Curve came out, or were they more accepting of the fact that group differences exist? More generally, where do you see the public debate on intelligence differences going in the medium- to long-term?

I got no flak for the Commentary article that I can recall (not counting blogs), which may be a straw in the wind. I took a much more aggressive position about the intractability of the B-W IQ difference than Dick Herrnstein and I took in TBC (understandably, given what we've learned in the last 12 years), and I said some pretty inflammatory things about sex differences. Perhaps the parsimonious explanation for the lack of flak is that no one reads Commentary. But I think in fact the dialogue is changing. Here's a quick illustration: In the Commentary article, which appeared in September 2005, I took great pains to present the recent work demonstrating that gene markers produced results corresponding to self-identified ethnicity in 99.9% of a large sample. Later that fall, PBS had a special with people like Oprah Winfrey and Henry Louis Gates (if I remember correctly) talking cheerfully about the precise percentages of their heritages that were sub-Saharan-African versus Caucasian, etc., based on DNA tests using similar gene-marker technology. The times are changing.

8. You and Richard Herrnstein attracted a lot of really thoughtless and absurd criticism, but there were also a few more reasonable voices amid the cacaphony. Which of the critics of The Bell Curve do you respect the most as an intellectual opponent, and why?

I thought Howard Gardner treated the book more or less fairly in his review. That's the only person I can recall who was on the other side who didn't go nuts. There isn't much I'd retract in a new version, because Dick and I were so mainstream in our science. We weren't out on any limbs that could be sawed off, as far as the data are concerned (my favorite line about TBC came from Michael Ledeen: "Never has such a moderate book attracted such immoderate attention.") But I would write a major expansion of our discussion of cognitive stratification. Living as we do in rural Maryland, my wife and I have been struck by the number of bright kids in our local high school who still go to nearby colleges and return to live where they grew up. I don't know how this anecdotal evidence translates into macro data, but I'd like to explore it. There may be an interesting interaction between urbanization and stratification--it's just an hypothesis, but perhaps stratification is much more severe in urban areas than in small town and rural areas.

9. Any scholar with a sincere devotion to seeking the truth is bound to have their own beliefs, expectations and prejudices falsified on occaision. Can you tell us about occaisions on which you've discovered something which profoundly altered your beliefs?

My epiphany came in Thailand in the 1960s, when I first came to understand how badly bureaucracies dealt with human problems in the villages, and how well (with qualifications) villagers dealt with their own problems given certain conditions. I describe that epiphany at some length in In Pursuit. The turnaround that led to TBC occurred in 1986, when Linda Gottfredson and Robert Gordon asked me to be on an American Psychological Association panel discussing their two papers on the relationship of IQ to unemployment and IQ to crime respectively, both of which discussed the B-W difference. The bibliographies astonished me--I had no idea that so much scholarly work had been done in these fields that so decisively contradicted what I had assumed (taught by the New York Times) to believe. If you want to see how far I moved: in Losing Ground, published in 1984, I cite The Mismeasure of Man approvingly.

My other movement has been less dramatic, but has been intensifying--and will not please the founders and probably most of the readers of Gene Expression. I have been an agnostic since my teens. But I am increasingly drawn to the proposition that of all the hypotheses about God, simple atheism is the least probable. That to be a confident atheist is the silliest of intellectual positions. That thinking about spiritual issues, despite all the difficulties, must be part of being a grown-up.

10. It has seemed to some of us that you regard libertarianism as really a procedural means to an all-important substantive end: the promotion and preservation of the Good Life as embedded in human wisdom and experience over many generations. Yet those of us with a futuristic orientation see a shadow looming over this project. If science and technology continue to advance unfettered, and individual liberty remains upheld more or less in its current form, then sooner or later we will achieve the means to alter the very substrate of human nature itself. Do you feel this shade as well? Among the many values now held dear by this or that faction of the human race--the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the fellow feeling of families and nations, etc.--which do you think should be actively maintained by our unimaginably evolved descendants of the perhaps not-so-distant future?

I am conflicted. I think human beings are hard wired to find certain institutions satisfying. E.g., in a libertarian state established immediately (before the hard-wiring is changed), I am confident that traditional marriage would flourish, because a good marriage with children provides such a deeply satisfying form of intimate human contact, far superior to any other arrangement such as serial cohabitation, and is also such a good way to provide for one's security. A libertarian state would do nothing to prevent people from taking other routes. Absent a welfare state, stable marriage with children would be the voluntarily preferred choice of the vast majority of people.

I am also confident that we will learn how to change the wiring, in many ways, including ones that might tweak the sources of our deepest satisfactions. That's in our future. It's also right to be worried. I am not confident that we are competent to make the right choices. For example, it is possible that increasing longevity dramatically--which is the primary goal of many, many people, including many scientists--will be inimical to human happiness, for reasons that science fiction writers have explored persuasively. But we don't have the option of choosing especially wise humans who can guide the science to the right paths. Long-term, I'm an optimist. We'll muddle through. Short-term, I think the coming technology for fiddling with human nature will produce some awful mistakes.


Monday, June 26, 2006

10 questions for Jim Crow   posted by Razib @ 6/26/2006 05:19:00 AM

James F. Crow is Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin. A collaborator with Motoo Kimura on Neutral Theory, he remains an active member of the evolutionary genetics community.

1) In 2002 in "Perspective: Here's to Fisher, additive genetic variance, and the fundamental theorem of natural selection," you conclude, "is there any other quantity that captures so much evolutionary meaning in such a simple way?" in reference to additive genetic variance. And yet, what about other factors like statistical epistasis? Do gene-gene interactions pack enough of an evolutionary punch to be anything more than a footnote in God's Book? Have you seen Loren Rieseberg's work at Indiana which points to the importance of loci of large effect?

The remarkable thing about additive genetic variance is that it predicts the effect of selection, even in the presence of dominance and epistasis. Nature seems to follow least-squares principles. The result is that the additive component of variance pulls out of dominance and epistatic variance those components associated with allele frequency change under selection. Of course the theory is not exact, but it is a very good first approximation. Fisher did not ignore epistasis, as some have said; rather he showed how selection can utilize epistatic (and dominance) components of variance.

On a more technical level, Kimura showed that under selection with loose linkage the population rather soon attains a state in which the linkage-disequilibrium variance approximately cancels the epistatic variance. Thus, under this circumstance the effects of selection are better predicted by ignoring additive by additive epistatic variance than by including it. See my book with Kimura (1970, p. 217 ff).

I am aware of Rieseberg's work on sunflowers. QTL mapping and various other molecular methods are indeed finding alleles with large effect in many species. It is inevitable that the first genes discovered will be those with largest effect, so I expect alleles with smaller effects to follow. How large a part genes with large effect have played in evolution is still up in the air, as far as I know. But they are getting more emphasis now than in the recent past.

2) R.A. Fisher is reputed to have aimed for an "ideal gas law" of evolutionary genetics (The Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection?). In the paper above you state that you expect "mathematical theory" to become more "general and rigorous." How near are we to an "ideal gas law" for evolutionary genetics which takes the step beyond a qualitative heuristic, if such a thing is possible?

It is not surprising that Fisher, who was trained in classical physics, would use physical analogies. Various mathematical geneticists, such as Tom Nagylaki of the University of Chicago, have found more general and accurate expressions, and I expect this to continue. I don't expect evolution to imitate classical physics in such things as an ideal gas law. For example, Fisher's analogizing fitness with entropy is better regarded as a metaphor than as rigorous science.

3) Computational methods have come to the fore within the past generation as an alternative to analytic modes for attacking theoretical problems. Do you believe this has been wholly a good thing, and if not, can you elaborate?

Yes, I think it is a good thing. Many problems in population genetics cannot be solved by a mathematician, no matter how gifted. Although I expect improvements in the mathematical theory, it is already clear that computer methods are very powerful. This is good. It also permits people with limited mathematical knowledge to work on important problems; but I don't expect it to entirely replace mathematical theory.

4) The 1966 the Lewontin and Hubby allozyme papers reported a great deal more polymorphism than either the followers of Wright or Fisher expected (i.e., Balance School and Classical School). The work with Neutral Theory and its successors stepped into the theoretical breach. In hindsight, does it seem that Neutral Theory was plausible a priori, or did the evolutionary geneticists of the pre-DNA era simply miss the possibility (and ubiquity) of neutral substitutions because they did not have a good mental model of variation on the molecular level?

The amount of variability disclosed by Lewontin and Hubby was more than some expected, although it did not seem particularly surprising to me. It is important to say, as Lewontin was the first to articulate, that the difference between the classical and balance schools does not lie in the amount of variability (variability is an observable and not a theoretical quantity). Rather the difference in the two schools was the way in which variability was thought to be maintained: mainly by mutation-selection balance or mainly be heterosis.

I think neutral variability came as a surprise to almost everybody. Of course, it was an outgrowth of molecular methodology, which made possible the study of DNA itself rather than phenotypic traits. I don't think it was the absence of a mental model as much as not knowing in advance the enormous number of nucleotides in the genome, and how little of the DNA, especially in mammals, is protein-coding.

5) Do you believe that group selection (i.e., inter-demic selection) might have played a significant role in the evolution of H. sapiens sapiens?

I'm sure it did, for our ancestors for many years had a tribal existence with competition, even wars, between groups. I suspect that group structure may be responsible for much altruistic behavior. In a small group everyone is related, so behaving cooperatively or altruistically toward members of a group is the genetic equivalent of kin-selection. Muller and others emphasized this idea. There is a level of relatedness in a group at which the welfare of the group prevails over the welfare of individuals. Egbert Leigh quantified this as did Aoki and I.

6) When your commentary on Arthur Jensen's infamous Harvard Educational Review article on the inheritance of IQ and racial differences was published in 1969, did you have any inkling that the issues raised by Jensen would remain largely unresolved over thirty-five years later? What kind of evidence do you think would decide these issues one way or the other?

I did not expect the issues to be resolved soon, for there were no new methods that promised be more informative. Of course, the structure of DNA had been discovered, but the powerful methods now available had not yet been developed. I think further identification of individual genes, usually by molecular methods, and a combination of statistical and molecular methods are pointing the way toward a solution. I don't expect racial differences to be either entirely genetic or entirely environmental, but of course I don't know the relative amount; it is likely to be different for different traits and different human groups.

7) In you recent review of "Genes in Conflict" you state in reference to Robert Trivers' papers published in the 1970s that, "They were ignored by most social scientists, who were reluctant to consider natural selection as a cause of human behavioral traits, and they were bitterly attacked by marxists for reasons of doctrine." Recently the University of Chicago evolutionary genomicist Bruce Lahn has come under fire (as profiled in The Wall Street Journal, June 16th edition) for his study of ASPM, a locus implicated in brain development, from both geneticists and non-geneticists because of the sensitivity of the possibility of intergroup variation due to differential evolutionary forces within the past 40,000 years. Last year the paper put forward by Gregory Cochran, Henry Harpending and Jason Hardy that argued high Ashkenazi IQ was due to recent natural selection also ignited a firestorm. It seems that we are entering a new era of human genetics as a great deal of data will soon be available for theorists to analyze (e.g. the HapMap and its successors). Are "controversial" questions still going to be off limits, or will the science compel the political and cultural taboos to step aside?

I hope that such questions can be approached with the same objectivity as that when we study inheritance of bristle number in Drosophila, but I don't expect it soon. There are too many strongly held opinions. I thought Lahn had a clever idea in thinking that the normal alleles of head-reducing mutants might be responsible for evolution of larger heads in human ancestry. Likewise, I think that Cochran et al. are fully entitled to consider the reasons for Jewish intelligence and I found their arguments interesting. In my view it is wrong to say that research in this area -- assuming it is well done -- is out of order. I feel srongly that we should not discourage a line of research because someone might not like a possible outcome.

8) If a budding evolutionary thinker had to read one book or paper that excluded Charles Darwin's body of work, what would you recommend?

I would recommend Fisher's "Genetical Theory of Natural Selection". But the reader should be prepared to find it tough going. Fisher's elegant obscurity has left many of us baffled, but entranced. Your "budding thinker" might want to stop before the last four chapters, which are more dated than the rest of the book. And by all means, read the 1999 variorum edition. It's appendices explain many of the book's obscurities.

9) You've defended "bean bag genetics" (Nature, 2001). Lynn Margulis has complimented you personally, but seems to dismiss the whole endeavor of theoretical evolutionary biology as trivial and irrelevant when set next to the concrete realities of molecular and cell biology. Over the past generation molecular biology has dethroned physics as the "Queen of Sciences" in regards to prestige, and many young biologists seemed to take the work of Fisher, Wright, Haldane, Kimura and yourself for granted and do not concern themselves with the abstract "big picture" when mechanistic details on the DNA scale needed to be elucidated. Do you believe that over the next generation more young people will begin to look once more at evolutionary biology in its grandest abstract reaches as the "low hanging fruit" in molecular biology is exhausted?

Lynn Margulis is a long-time personal friend and has done important work on the origin of cellular organelles, but I disagree with her on this issue. It is true that the elegant theory of Fisher, Wright, Haldane, Kimura, and Malécot was less useful than might have been expected, because of lack of good data to whieh the theory was applicable. But that is no longer true. Molecular evolution has provided an abundance of data and the theory now has plenty of important applications. In particular, the neutral theory of molecular evolution has had great heuristic and predictive value, and it owes a great deal to Kimura's earlier theoretical work, which built on the foundations of the pioneers. Lynn might change her mind if she looked at some of the striking results gotten by combining molecular measurements with population genetics theory. Maybe I should ask her!

10) If you had to have one last glass of beer, and your drinking partner was going to be either Fisher, Wright or Haldane, who would you choose, and why?

I would choose Haldane, for his uninhibited willingness to speculate, his enormous erudition, his interest in almost everything, his irreverence, his wit, and his enjoyment of conversation. I am told that much of the good biology in Huxley's "Brave New World" is the result of his drinking partnership with Haldane.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

10 questions for Adam K. Webb   posted by Razib @ 6/22/2006 07:53:00 PM

Adam K. Webb is the author of Beyond the Global Culture War and a lecturer at Harvard College. His specialization is world political thought, liberalism and antiliberalisms. Below are 10 questions....

Update: Adam K. Webb responds to criticisms and questions on the message board.

1) Dr. Webb, I have read your book, Beyond the Global Culture War, but I suspect few of my readers have (yet), so can you offer a succinct summary of your argument for us?

The book traces the rise of liberal modernity and the global culture war it has sparked. You might call me a traditionalist with a deep commitment to social justice. I share the misgivings that many thinkers and movements around the world have about the flavour of the emerging global culture-consumerist excess, an obsession with markets, the erosion of traditional ways of life, and the like. But I fear that resistance today, whether from the fundamentalists, populists, nationalists, or other such folk, isn't going to do much to roll back what so many of us find objectionable. For one thing, it's too insular. The Islamists, the Christian Right, the indigenous activists-none of these are offering an alternative vision that speaks to humanity at large, rather than just to (some of) their own people. They fight against the liberal "end of history," but they're going to keep losing because they're not fighting on the same global scale. And the visions they do offer their own societies are off-putting to many, for obvious reasons. They're too defensive and too rigid. They claim to speak for some great and now defunct premodern civilisations, but they're hardly representative of the many layers of human experience and human aspirations that those civilisations really included.

In the book I try to explain how liberal modernity gained ground, even though it doesn't really satisfy the deepest human needs. And I suggest a way out: a way to fight back against it in a kind of grand cross-cultural alliance of exactly the traditions it has put on the defensive for the last century.

2) In Beyond the Global Culture War you express some concern that the raw cultural material for resistance to liberal globalism is being diminished by the day, and we are facing the possibility of the "dark night" of the end of history passing over us. Forever is a long time, but do you imagine then that a liberal global culture can truly attain a steady equilibrium 'climax' state which suppresses cultural change in any "ethical" direction for a sustained period?

No culture can remain in equilibrium for hundreds of years, in the sense of not changing at all. But a liberal global culture could remain dominant long enough to erode much of what inspires real resistance to it. That doesn't mean it would reach an equilibrium in the sense of satisfying people's needs. In the deepest sense, once one probes below the glitter of high living standards, I think liberal culture is intrinsically unsatisfying. That would still be true even if it delivered an iPod to every pocket and a Lexus beside every olive tree a century or two from now. Something would still be missing. But people in an unsatisfying culture aren't necessarily always aware of what they’re missing, or of real alternatives to it. In the developed West today, we see some of that directionless alienation. Stronger resistance lingers elsewhere in the world precisely because there are still lived practices, communities, and memories that inspire it. Once they're gone, all cultural change is likely to be from within, as variations on a theme. As I explain in the book, an atomist can be a libertarian, a social democrat, even an evangelical of the more individualistic sort. So there might still be changes within liberal culture, but the basic contours of the new global civilisation would be set.

That is what is really at stake today: the shape of a future global civilisation, while we're still in the century or so when things are in flux. It's a time of rapid change, even vertigo, and will be for another couple of generations. But as many times in history, vertigo will give way to stability. I'd like that stability to be a global version of the great civilisations of the past, not the kind of self-indulgent technocracy that is now trying to lock in its own vision.

3) You allude to ethics and principles derived from religion and philosophy. Against this you set the models of the rational self-interested actor, which seems to derive in large part from neoclassical economics, though I suppose you would assert that the roots can be found in the general 'atomist' worldview. And yet it seems to me there is another alternative, and that is the model derived from cognitive psychology which contends that our minds are shaped by a particular biological architecture which results in biases and tendencies, a refutation of the behavioristic paradigm which rejected discussion of aspects of psychology beyond the empirical domain of inputs and outputs. In its application to economics this often implies that 'rationality is bounded,' or at least strongly constrained by the fact that our actions are often contingent upon non-reflective influences. Have you considered this dimension in regards to your meta-narrative?

I think my overall argument about ethics is quite compatible with any insights we might get from biology and psychology. The former is about how people understand their place in the world, and what demands they place on themselves. The latter is about impulses that work on a less than conscious level. A culture can channel those impulses in better or worse directions. The human impulse to protect one's kin, for example, can be a building block of a larger culture of social responsibility in one time and place. In another time or place, it can take the form of what Edward Banfield called "amoral familism": a cutthroat disregard for everyone outside one's immediate circle. The fact that cultures vary shows that ethical commitments shape how deeper impulses play out, and even that there is a point where biology stops and conscious ethical agency really comes into its own. I focus on ethics in the book because we can do something about what is conscious, in a way that we can't do much about unconscious human nature.

4) My understanding is that the attitude of the Chinese mandarin class toward Xunzi, the early Confucian who most emphasized ritual as opposed to heart, was ambivalent because of the fact that it was his students who became the base for Legalism. On the other hand, some scholars contend that State Confucianism as it emerged under the Han dynasty owed a great deal to Xunzi and Legalism even though rhetorically it reviled them. What is your attitude toward Xunzi? Do ritual, heart and piety stand shoulder to shoulder, or do you emphasize one in your personal constellation of values?

I's true that some of Xunzi's students became the founders of Legalism. But I suspect he would have frowned on the path they took. The Legalists were hard-headed pragmatists who tended to scoff at ethics. (They're eerily modern-sounding....) Xunzi was no soft idealist, but he was deeply committed to Confucianism. He was much like Aristotle in appreciating that living an ethical life required being habituated to good practices first. People needed to learn how to be good, through ritual and custom and law, rather than just relying on an innate goodness to come out, as Mencius tended to stress. While the later Confucian high culture elevated Mencius over Xunzi, perhaps because he seemed more idealistic, all the stress on custom and study smacked of Xunzi. Premodern China spoke Mencius but lived Xunzi, and benefited from doing both.

Speaking for myself, I tend to think heart is more important than ritual, as you put it. That's probably because I see rituals varying across cultures, while the bettering of the heart at which they aim is more universal. I’m interested in common ground, and that often seems the easiest place to look. That said, I'm very aware of how important habits, instilled by a culture, are in forming people and sustaining their better natures. It's very easy to talk about one's heart as the most important thing, and then slide into a kind of shapeless complacency, especially if a society on the whole is not very hospitable to virtue. Rituals can fortify. I imagine Xunzi would agree: rituals are important, but they're important because of where they lead, which is to the heart.

5) You express the hope that a cosmopolitan international 'virtuocracy' may emerge in your World Commonwealth (or, more accurately, it will be the cause of the emergence of that polity). This virtuocracy would be an expression of unity in diversity, not erasing differences of outlook between traditions, while at the same time reaching a respectful understanding of various visions and their common goal. I can see this in the case of a Hindu or East Asian virtuocracy, but I am somewhat more skeptical of the participation of Islamic or Christian civilization in the sense that it seems that 'Abrahamic' traditions have come to emphasize an exclusive and almost tribal attitude toward the other streams of human culture. While 'orthodox' Hindus and Confucians seem to be able to express an attitude toward pluralism which is not hostile, it seems to me that fundamentally what we term 'orthodox' followers of the Abrahamic traditions, as opposed to liberal revisionists and accommodationists, can not fundamentally accept pluralism as anything more than a temporary compromise in the ideological Forever War. What is your opinion in regards to this issue?

It's true that in some ways we can contrast Christianity and Islam, on the one hand, with Hinduism and Confucianism, on the other. The two pairs handle encounters differently, and see the boundaries between "inside" and "outside" differently. But we should be careful about saying that the two Asian traditions are more pluralistic than the two Abrahamic ones because of that. The real difference lies in how they see their beliefs as being transmissible to outsiders, and how they see beliefs interlocking when they meet. Take one example. When the Jesuit missionaries went to China in the late 1500s, they developed a rapport with some of the mandarins and even gained a few converts. The Jesuits saw Christianity as universal, as something any human being anywhere could embrace quite easily, alongside a lot of local cultural practices that could persist because they were worthy in their own sphere. The mandarins saw Christianity, much like Buddhism, as offering a kind of spiritual supplement to the worldly social ethic of Confucianism. It wasn’t a matter of one belief system losing out to another. Different kinds of beliefs could interlock, in a division of labour, so to speak, because they addressed different levels of human experience.

Now I admit that not all encounters work that way. A Christian and a Muslim would have to seek common ground on another level, perhaps in parallel understandings of God even though they differ on other details. It doesn't have to be easy, and some people will never reach out to others that way. But as I argue in the book, there are enough ways to find common ground across traditions-certainly enough to make common cause today against a lot of pressures that tradition-minded folk everywhere find troubling. A common political project, at the global level, does not require deep theological agreement. But it does require realising that likeminded people are better off casting their lot with each other in a time of crisis. If you don't hang together, you’ll hang separately, as Benjamin Franklin said in a different context.

6) I have spoken of 'tradition' a few times here, I am curious, are you at all influenced by the school of 'Traditionalism' which ultimately derives from Rene Guenon?

His overall approach to spirituality was rather eccentric and esoteric. He hasn’t been a direct influence on my thinking, unlike some of his contemporaries. But I suppose there are some parallels in his misgivings about the modern society of his own time, and his effort to take multiple traditions seriously and find overlaps among them.

7) In Beyond the Global Culture War you admitted holding metaphysical beliefs, but stated that exploring them would only distract from the thrust of your argument because of its scope and intent. May I ask what metaphysical beliefs you hold?

The short answer is that I'm a theist. I believe in a divine presence, and that human spirituality reflects a deep-seated impulse towards it. I believe that the virtues have foundations, and that they're not just subjective values conjured up out of thin air. I believe the state of mind that one acquires through living virtuously is, universally, more deeply satisfying than any external rewards one might get through vice or subterfuge. I believe that the world's traditions of wisdom all have some degree of higher inspiration behind them, and that they're the first place one should turn for guidance on how to live, today as in the past.

8) You hold out the hope for pluralism of belief and life in the future. And yet it seems that your world must also be constrained by some common standards, common boundaries of what it means to be human. What is your attitude, or, more precisely, what do you believe the attitude of the potential virtuocracy would be, toward bioengineeringand cybernetics? In other words, is a full expression of humanity a set of ideas and ethics resident within the mind irrespective of the form in which in resides, or is their something essential to the organic unity of body which we possess that should be respected and held in stasis?

The distinctly human, in the sense of what sets human beings apart from animals, is the ability to have these kinds of ethical ideas and to act on them in a sustained way. To be fully human obviously requires being sentient, and having the sort of consciousness of oneself to act ethically. Or to shift the language a little, it means having a mind and a soul, and living among other beings who also have minds and souls. As long as that is the case, I don't think the organic constitution of the creature matters much. An intelligent extraterrestrial, if we imagine such a creature, could be said to have a mind and a soul (and, I strongly suspect, would have traditions of wisdom analogous to our own). So I suppose one could change the organic features of humanity without changing the essence of a higher consciousness. Whether one should is another matter. There's a temptation to hubris in doing so. But beyond that, there’s also the problem of what one changes and to what ends. A cut-throat capitalist society values very different human impulses and capacities than, say, mediæval Christendom did. Genetic engineering could have very different effects on the ethical climate and the cultural balance of power in a society, depending on who dominates that society and what they're trying to accomplish. Imagine someone who had been genetically engineered to have a razor-sharp intellect, a relentless competitive instinct, and an imperviousness to emotion. That poor fellow would still be an ethical agent, but he’d have an uphill battle against the temptations from within and without. And society would be worse off for it, even if he might increase GDP. The lesson? If I’d trust anyone with the ability to tweak "human nature," it surely wouldn't be the sort of people likely to be paying for it and directing it in the near future.

9) I will admit that myself, I do admire some aspects of Confucianism. But, at the end of the day I am an empirical man, and it seems to me that Confucians held an idea of human nature which leaned strongly toward the 'tabula rasa,' or 'blank slate,' which assumed that the possibility of perfectability of all men (and women presumably). But the reality, to my eyes, is that behavior genetics and other modern biosocial sciences show us that there is variation across our species, and some people have strong biases against being 'perfected' in various directions. That is not to say that biases are destiny and that expectations of society should be contingent upon the expectations of statistics, but do you believe that a virtuocracy should avail itself of the findings of the modern empirical sciences of human nature?

Premodern civilisations were very attuned to the variety of human capacities, temperaments, and aspirations. And their social structures reflected that wisdom, albeit often in very imperfect ways. Even Confucian China, while urging all people to improve themselves, recognised real differences in practice. Modern liberal society downplays human diversityexcept the superficial kinds-for a variety of reasons. One ill effect is that, despite its loudly proclaimed freedoms, society today does not really provide the many institutional spaces for different worthy ways of life that traditional societies did. Try being a world-renouncing mystic or a devout villager today, and you'll have problems. The broader culture will disdain you and bring all kinds of subtle and non-so-subtle pressure to bear. Modern society is not structured for many kinds of human flourishing, according to people's inclinations and capacities. It's structured for efficiency and uniformity, with enough room for a pedestrian kind of self-indulgence so people can let off steam.

If behaviour genetics sheds light on inborn temperament, then it's simply telling us with more scientific detail what we've always known. The lesson, given some ethical reflexion, seems to be that a postliberal society would have to get away from just professing an empty tolerance of individual choices, and instead restore the spaces and the cultural signals that allow multiple ways of life to flourish and complement one another. In the book I talk at some length about what this might involve. Lessons at the level of public policy on how one treats individuals are rather more complicated. Prodding individuals along different paths according to their supposed inborn temperaments gets quite messy, even dangerous. It may work quite well just to create the diversity of spaces, send signals about the many different aspirations we value (and mean it!), and then let people do as they wish.

10) A common assertion of Creationists is that if you believe that humans derive from pre-humans, and so share a kinship with animals, then we will behave as animals. What is your opinion of this contention? Does evolutionary biology strongly imply amorality to you?

Not really. People may try to read amorality into evolution, some because they want an excuse for amorality (social Darwinism, for example), and some because they find evolution unacceptable and think all bad things must go together. I don’t think the link makes much sense. Evolutionary biology, if true, is an account of certain mechanisms by which the organic features of human beings developed. That account, taken at face value, doesn't have any obvious point of contact with the world of ethics. It tells us at most how the physical platform for consciousness was assembled, and perhaps why some impulses put pressure on the mind and soul. I am not a Creationist in the narrow sense that those you mention are. But even to them, I’d point out that the basic framework of evolutionary biology says nothing about the origin of the cosmos, about any non-obvious external influences that might have influenced evolutionary developments, or above all about the nature of ethics and spiritual experiences once consciousness has emerged.


Monday, June 19, 2006

10 questions for David Haig   posted by Razib @ 6/19/2006 01:20:00 PM

David Haig is the editor of Genomic Imprinting and Kinship. You may find many of his publications on his website. Below are 10 questions....

1) Reviewing your work on genomic imprinting I detect some frustration with those who suggest that monandrous mating systems imply symmetrical expression of "madumnal" and "padumnal" (for readers, inherited from mother or father, respectively) copies of a particular gene. Your basic argument seems to be is that in pure monandry madumnal and padumnal copies should agree on overall expression levels, but how they get there is irrelevant (i.e., the proportion of a gene product contributed by each). This seems trivially clear once pointed out, so my question is: did the researchers to whom you were responding really read your original papers? Or were you simply
unclear on this issue?

It is my experience that the majority of working biologists do not read theoretical papers closely and, when they do, often do not put in the effort to really understand the arguments. I can understand this, given that this is not their specialty and given the pressures on all our time. Things are not helped by 'silly' statements by a few theoretical biologists who do not have this excuse.

2) R.A. Fisher and Sewall Wright disagreed on the important of statistical epistatic interactions (i.e., those that result in variation across a population) in evolutionary process. Fisher seemed to assume they were as irrelevant as population substructure and random genetic drift, while gene-gene interactions played an important role in the adaptive landscapes in Wright's Shifting Balance Theory. 1) Is this argument relevant today? (in the post Neutral Theory and postgenomic world) 2) Do you have an opinion on the importance of epistasis in evolutionary processes?

Discussion about the role of 'epistasis' is complicated because the term has different meanings in biochemistry/molecular biology and in population genetics. Biochemical epistasis occurs when two genes have products that interact in a single pathway. Population-genetic epistasis occurs when two loci are polymorphic and there is a statistical interaction between alleles at the two loci in their effects on fitness. One can have one sort of epistasis without the other, and it is not always clear which definition people are using.

There is no question that biochemical epistasis is important in evolution. There is still controversy about population-genetic epistasis. This is not my area of expertise but I suspect that the answer may change depending on an individual's implicit time-scale. I have had a particular interest in fitness interactions between genes in mothers and genes in their offspring. Such interactions have the property that mothers treat offspring differently depending on which genes they inherit. If the loci in mother and offspring are tightly linked, then such interactions can have the properties of genetic 'self-recognition' or green-beard effects.

3) Do you believe most biologists, even evolutionary biologists, appreciate formal theory?

Most biologists do not appreciate formal theory. Theory is more respected by evolutionary biologists as a group.

4) You note that there is some evidence that related species of mice with alternative reproductive strategies, polyandrous vs. monandrous, exhibit different levels of genomic imprinting confirmed by hybridizations. What is the general time scale of how fast genomic imprinting can evolve? My understanding is that sexual dimorphism emerges rather slowly because of its peculiar sex contextual nature, would genomic imprinting be similar?

I do not know how rapidly such divergences in imprinting can evolve. We really need more data on more cases of closely related species with different mating systems.

5) You make it clear that one would expect monandrous species to exhibit a wide range of madumnal and padumnal expression on imprinted loci. But, it seems to me that in regards to a monandrous species that had "relaxed constraint" upon imprinting one could ascertain an expectation of the distribution of expression ratios between the two copies across loci. In short, could this be a way to infer aspects of sexual natural history of a monandrous species? (e.g., the length and extent of monandry)

I think there may be information of the kind you mention in the pattern of imprinted gene expression. For example, it is possible that maternally-expressed and paternally-expressed genes will react differntly to changes in mating system and that this may leave an evolutionary trace.

6) In your review of Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Volume 2, you addressed the late William D. Hamilton's attempt to apply evolutionary biology to humanity and our present state. In particular Hamilton was an unabashed eugenicist. My general impression is that though you did not question Hamilton's heart, you were skeptical of the particular plans he forwarded to implement his solution to the problem of deterioration of the human genome through the lack of selection against deleterious alleles. Now, seeing as how there are about 6 1/2 billion humans on this planet, is there any plausability that 'mutational meltdown' could be an issue for our species? And in regards to our health, is not likely that since our effective population is so large there should still be a wide range of realized variance in mutational load so that a small percentage may carry the torch of "genetic health" into the future even in a scenario where our technological civilization can no longer prop up the health of the genetically suboptimal majority?

These are very complicated questions about which I am wary of giving an ill-considered answer. Hamilton was a great proponent of the importance of sexual selection in keeping the gene-pool free of deleterious mutations (survival makes no difference if you do not reproduce) but he does not appear to have given this much thought with respect to humans. Selection on reproduction may have been less relaxed than selection on survival. Personally, I think that we should be worrying foremost about the environmental problems of having 6.5 billion people (these problems are here now and will get worse soon) rather than worry about the very long-term danger of a mutational meltdown.

7) In a follow up in regards to accumulation of deleterious alleles, in The Cooperative Gene Mark Ridley suggests that spontaneous abortions are purging the genetic load from our population. If survivability and reproductive value of individuals who carry a high load of deleterious alleles in elevated in our modern population, that seems to imply to me that spontaneous abortions would be elevated as well, perhaps serving as a check on the accumulation of load. Is this possible?

It is possible.

8) In Genes in Conflict Austin Burt and Robert Trivers point out that a large number of the loci in mice which are imprinted have behavioral and neurological implications. This seems born out by Prader-Willi Syndrome in humans. Do you believe that many cognitive traits or biases will show the effects of imprinting?

I must await the evidence on this but I would not be surprised if this were true. Theory does predict that genes evolve imprinting because they have effects on relatives.

9) Do you have an opinion in regards to the data emerging from the HapMap project which implies a great deal of positive selection on the human genome within the last 10,000 years?

I have not given this much thought, but I would not be surprised because natural selection never stops.

10) If you could change one thing about your educational path, would that be?

I would have learnt more linear algebra as an undergraduate.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

10 questions for Justin L. Barrett   posted by Razib @ 4/01/2006 08:50:00 PM

Justin L. Barrett is the author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Below are his resposes to 10 questions.

1) Most people tend to view religion as a set of rules, points of belief or a particular range of practices. Researchers who work from a cognitive prespective seem to take a broader and narrower view simultaneously. Broader in that they address the general phenomenon of religion across time and space, as opposed to specific religions, and narrower in that they interpret it through a specific disciplinary methodology. Now, people talk about religion all the time in a loose and intuitive fashion, but they tend not be systematic. Scott Atran has attempted to bring a theoretically richer and empirically grounded cognitive anthropological perspective to the analysis of suicide bombers, and it doesn't seem to have made much traction against general platitudes relating to poverty or mental insanity. Do you believe that the cognitive research program in religion will ever make an impact as an "applied social science," or will it remain at a remove from day to day public policy indefinitely?

The cognitive science of religion has the same problem in gaining traction that social psychology has had: everyone thinks that they are experts. Social psychologists have to work hard to show that their findings and insights are not just jargon-laden common sense. Similarly, most people seem to think they have a perfectly good theory of religion or religious behavior. No need to study religion! Nevertheless, as social psychology has made major applied advances (e.g., in advertising, persuasion, inter-group conflict resolution, team-building, etc.), I am confident that eventually the cognitive science of religion will gain traction. But perhaps our first applied successes will have to be in religious communities concerning religious practices and instruction and not in politically charged areas such as Islamic suicide bombers.

2) In your book "Why Would Anyone Believe in God?" you answer the question why people believe in God. More specifically, why the majority of humans believe in God or Gods. As an atheist, I have to ask, why don't I believe in God? Or, more seriously, do you believe that there are cognitive reasons why some people are just biased to be atheists? I actually emailed Robert N. McCauley about his conjecture that autistics might be 'natural' atheists because of their lack of social intelligence, but he responded that he hadn't stumbled upon any hard empirical confirmation of this hunch...yet. Do you know something we don't?

As self-proclaimed atheist Jesse Bering has observed it can be very hard to identify true atheists. He even suspects that they comprise a very tiny number of people. By true atheists, I mean people that consistently hold no belief (cognitive commitment that motivates behavior) in superhuman agency. Lots of people say they don't believe in superhuman agency (including gods and ghosts) but will still modify their behaviors around cemeteries on spooky nights ("just in case"). I also run into plenty of people who say they don't believe in God but they really have chosen to act as if they don't believe in God because they are angry with God or don't like God. With these qualifications in place, certainly there are a number of factors that might predispose individuals to become atheists. As I agree with McCauley that theory of mind or social intelligence plays a critical role in theism, those who are weaker in these areas (relative to other higher-order reasoning) might be less disposed toward theism. I find it suggestive that women-who tend to have stronger social intelligence-tend to be more religious than men; and men are disproportionately represented among self-proclaimed atheists. Autism has been referred to as a severe form of "male-brainedness," I believe by Simon Baron-Cohen. I suspect social and environmental factors are even more important in supporting atheism, and I speculate on these in my book.

3) Do you consider yourself an evolutionary psychologist?

I don't think of myself as an evolutionary psychologist even though I have a lot of sympathies and agreements with that camp. I have at least two hesitations with adopting that identification. First, I do not attempt to explain all religious or other cultural thought and behavior in terms of evolved capacities or with a stone aged perspective. The evolutionary history of a particular function of the human mind is less important to me than its contemporary properties and dynamics. If a regularly occurring cognitive structure is an evolutionary accident but still helps explain recurrent human behaviors, I'm interested. Second, "evolutionary psychology" sometimes gets identified with some controversial positions within cognitive science that I do not necessarily affirm. Evolutionary psychology often gets conflated with hard-line nativism when it comes to cognitive development; massive structural modularism when it comes to brain organization; and data-light ad-hoc theory production when it comes to theories of cultural phenomena. When trying to forge an new subfield, I suspect it is best not to identify too closely with a controversial perspective, even when it holds great promise.

4) You are a graduate of Calvin College and now work for Young Life. Do you accept the Five Points personally? If so, how do you feel about D. Jason Slone's contention in "Theological Incorrectness" that Arminianism is the natural state of the human mind?

Regarding five-point Calvinism, I'm not sure I can answer without nauseating explanation and qualifications. Within contemporary "Calvinism" we see considerable variation in exactly what the five points entail. Let me just say that I think it is completely legitimate to affirm God's sovereignty and human free will simultaneously, and I do. Slone is certainly correct that the natural state of the human mind is to assume free will of humans. Many modern Calvinists do not deny this. In fact, one of the most important 20th Century answers to the problem of pain was Alvin Plantinga's Free Will Defense - another Calvin College alumnus and former faculty member.

5) If you had to tell bicoastals one thing about Kansas which might surprise them, what would it be?

Kansas is surprisingly beautiful and I find the weather superior to that in many other places I've lived. Then there are the people. Having grown up in California but lived in New York and Virginia and spent considerable time in Maryland, I know how easy it is for bicostals (especially living in urban centers) to think that their world is normative. Academics who ought to know better seem especially prone to forget just how odd they are. Anthropologist and psychologist Larry Hirschfeld often says something about how ivory-palace academics discovering regular people are a bit like two-headed people discovering one-headed people and thinking the one-headed people are strange. Kansans are more similar to normal people-the world over-than are people from Boston or Berkeley.

6) Do you have opinions about the Intelligent Design program being forwarded by William Dembski and his confederates?

The hubbub about Intelligent Design has been a wonderful display of coalitional thinking overriding honest discussion and inquiry. Instead of genuinely seeking truth, too many folks on both sides of the issue seem more concerned with figuring out who is on "my side" and who isn't. (I once witnessed an agnostic, Darwinist, psychologist get accused of being a "closet creationist" because he raised concerns about hasty attempts to explain various phenomena in Darwinian terms.) Placing aside stereotypes about "anti-science fundamentalists" and "anti-religion Darwinists," the Intelligent Design movement is important in two respects. First, it helps to remind us that not all of biology can be explained in terms of natural selection-as if biology didn't exist before Darwin. Second, Intelligent Design reminds us that intellectual inquiry does not have to begin and end with naturalism. I happen to think that methodological naturalism is a great place to start in the sciences, and we should get as much mileage out of it as we can. But not all of intellectual discovery lies in the methods and assumptions of the contemporary natural sciences. Along with cosmology, the Intelligent Design movement also illustrates that the borders of natural science are not always clear. Refusing to do scholarship that might cross conventional borders strikes me as unfruitful and cowardly.

7) Are your co-workers and associates from Young Life aware of your scholarly work in its details?

No. Though I have some supportive Young Life colleagues, Young Lifers don't generally read academic publications.

8) In his recent trilogy "The Victory of Reason," "For the Glory of God," and "One True God" Rodney Stark argues, in sum, that modernity as we know it (democracy, liberty, human rights, science, etc.) are necessarily preconditioned by the particular form of monotheism that Christianity promoted. Do you have any opinions as to the plausibility of such a suggestion?

Not having read Stark's trilogy, I had better not offer an opinion.

9) Do you anticipate a possible return to academia in a more full time capacity in the future?

I do indeed. I'm not ready to give details yet, but stay tuned.

10) If you had a chance to do it all over again what would you change about your education?

I believe I received a first rate education at Calvin College and then received excellent instruction and guidance from Frank Keil and the Keil - Spelke (Elizabeth) lab group at Cornell University. I have been asked if an education at a Christian college/university such as Calvin College is restricted and incomplete. The assumption seems to be that at such places there are some questions and perspectives that are taboo. I can not comment on all Christian universities, but my experience would support the opposite conclusion: at the good Christian universities you have fewer restrictions than at, say, major state universities in the United States. Professors at Calvin will present why evolution makes sense and where its weaknesses lie and how it might be reconciled with Christianity. At most secular universities, you will never hear various perspectives on evolution. At Calvin, you can grapple with philosophical arguments for and against theism. Even on matters of politics, the political science department at Calvin (and other such schools) represents more diversity than most state university departments. Perhaps the only change I would make in my education would be to have studied more philosophy of science. I see many cognitive and evolutionary scholars with rather weak understandings of science's philosophical foundations.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Has bioinformatics touched cell biology yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope. Maybe a week's!


Saturday, December 17, 2005

10 questions for Dan Sperber   posted by Razib @ 12/17/2005 11:57:00 AM

Dan Sperber (you can read many of his publications at his website) is an anthropologist based in France, whose work Explaining Culture, lays forth his ideas in regards to the "epidemiology of representations."

1) If I recall correctly, you stated on an interview for EDGE that you became an anthropologist because of your confusion as to how people could be religious. Is this particular motivation common amongst anthropologists? In which case, it seems that France would have far fewer anthropologists than the United States!

I was brought up as an atheist but with respect for my Rabbinic ancestors and for religious thinkers of any persuasion more generally. The tension between these two attitudes was one of the causes of my becoming an anthropologist. People become anthropologists for a variety of reasons. I like the old line (I don't know where I first heard it) that you have to be unhappy with yourself to become a (clinical) psychologist, unhappy with your society to become a sociologist, and unhappy with both to become an anthropologist. Be that as it may, I would be surprised if the number of anthropologists relative to the whole population were much different in France and in the US.

2) In EXPLAINING CULTURE you thanked John Tooby and Leda Cosmides for having inspired you somewhat in the direction you took. In ADAPTING MINDS by David Buller you are part of the prosecution against the Wason Selection Task as evidence for a 'cheating detection' innate facility. You have also defended 'massive modularity.' How would you characterize your own position in the alphabet soup of Evolutionary Psychologists, Behavorial Ecologists and assorted thinkers?

I always took for granted that an evolutionary perspective on mind and culture was correct, but it is Cosmides and Tooby who helped me realize that if was also potentially a very fruitful perspective. Even if I don't care much about labels, I consider myself an evolutionary psychologist (part time; my main interest is in the epidemiology of representations, which draws on evolutionary psychology and other approaches). I agree on many essential points with Tooby and Cosmides, in particular the general idea - not necessarily the details - of massive modularity (I believe, actually, I was the first to use "massive" to describe modularity), but there are points of diagreement too. Among them there is a serious but also very local disagreement regarding their use of the selection task to test their hypothesis regarding the existence of a "social contract Darwinian algorithm." It is an interesting and plausible hypothesis, but I believe that, in spite of all the work done by them and their collaborators, it has not been seriously tested so far because most of their evidence comes from the selection task, which, I have argued (in collaboration with Vittorio Girotto and others) is not a good test to study this or any form of human reasoning.

3) When I discuss with those with anthropological backgrounds the ideas I have encountered in your books (EXPLAINING CULTURE) and papers, or Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran's books and papers, they seem confused and have little understanding of what I speak. Is your naturalistic paradigm more common among anthropologists in Europe than in the United States?

No, our common perspective (well illustrated also in the work of a few others, in particular Lawrence Hirschfeld - the four of us used to meet and discuss at my home in Paris in the early eighties) is still very much a minority view among anthropologists everywhere, as are all Darwinian views. On the other hand, I believe that our approach addresses maybe better and cetainly in greater detail than most other Darwinian approaches many legitimate concerns of people with a serious anthropological and ethnographic background.

4) In NOT BY GENES ALONE Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd refer to your work, positively. How do you feel about their project? Are they complementary, or addressing wholly different aspects of culture?

I have come to appreciate more and more the work of Boyd, Richerson, and their collaborators (in particular Joe Henrich). I believe our approaches are generally compatible, and our partly different focuses complementary.

5) It is often said that English is the language of science. How true does this seem in France? I notice that most of your work is available in English (or at least the work I know of!).

English is indeed the language of science. I don't know whether native English speakers who don't have to learn another tongue the way we do should be envied or pitied for that. As for my own work, most of it is written in English, or, when first written in French, translated into English.

6) Tooby and Cosmides tend to focus on the "psychic unity of mankind." They argue that salient psychological characteristics must be monomorphic in our species because the tightly contingent nature of the organ would make polymorphism a suboptimal genetic architecture in relation to fitness, as recombination would destroy favorable genotypes. Other thinkers seem to lean toward an insertion of individual conditional (facultative) strategies as well as a mix of fixed evolutionarily stable strategies, taking a cue from the late J. M. Smith's "hawk vs. dove" models. Where do you stand on this topic?

I don't see these two approaches as incompatible. I do see insistance on the "psychic unity of humankind" and a focus on what humans have in common, including ranges of alternative strategies within populations, as essential both to the fruitful pursuit of an evolutionary approach to mind and culture, and to its acceptability in the broader scientific community. Would-be-scientific racism - which is still alive - has not contributed anything of genuine scientific value but has had the worse effect on the image of biological approaches to human affairs. So, I see it as both scientifically sound and responsible to starkly dissociate what we do from programmes that try to explain social and cultural differences among populations on the basis of biological differences.

7) Your work strikes me as rather pandisciplinary, and far more philosophical than much of what I am conditioned to expect from an anthropologist. Is this a function of your intellectual track, or a general cultural difference in how social scientists are trained in the Anglophone vs. Francophone worlds?

I was trained both in France and in Britain, and I have also learned a lot while being a visiting academic in the States. The specific mix of competencies and interests that you find in my work is an effect of my unquenchable curiosity and of the varied opportunities I have had to try and satisfy it.

8) EXPLAINING CULTURE was an anthology of your works, and I do not get the sense that it was directed toward a general audience. Can we expect a popular audience targeted book for the English speaking market (it seems that Richerson and Boyd's NOT BY GENES ALONE was just that)?

What I want to write is one or several books that will present the general picture I have in mind and of which I have so far aimed different fragments at different specialised audiences. The result should be more comprehensive, and I will try my best to make it easier than what I have written so far, but I am not sure my best will be good enough to appeal to a popular audience, however much I would like it to.

9) How do you view David Sloan Wilson's arguments in regards to group selection and its role in fostering the evolution of altruism?

His contribution is well worth discussing, but I am not at all convinced by it, in particular because I believe that human cultures are far too labile to give much scope to cultural group selection (a point where I differ also from Boyd and Richerson).

10) If your parents hand emigrated to England, how do you think you would differ besides the obvious linguistic and culinary preferences and biases?

Sounds like you needed ten questions, and had only nine good ones. Seriously, I have no idea, and there are so many other things I would rather puzzle about.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

10 questions for Warren Treadgold   posted by Razib @ 12/08/2005 11:38:00 AM

Below are 10 questions for Warren Treadgold, author of A History of the Byzantine State and Society (and numerous other works).

1 - We hear quite a bit about the impact of Al-Andalus on the Western intellectual tradition, in particular the renaissance of Aristotelianism spurred on by new translations of Greek thinkers available from reconquista Spain. And yet far less is said about the impact of Greek scholars fleeing the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century to Italy. Is this lack of focus simply a quirk of biases in transmission of historical consensus to the public, or, is it a reflection of the fact that Byzantium really wasn't that important in the spurring the Italian Renaissance?

The influence of Byzantium on the Italian Renaissance was certainly profound, and better recognized at the time than it is today. We Byzantinists haven't done as good a job of publicizing (and studying) it as we should have, despite a few books like Nigel Wilson's "From Byzantium to Italy" and Deno Geanakoplos' "Byzantium and the Renaissance." Contemporary Renaissance specialists have also been reluctant to give Byzantium due credit. Much of the problem is the compartmentalization of modern scholarship; few scholars know both Byzantium and the Renaissance well.

2 - Recalling your work, "A History of the Byzantine State and Society," I was struck by two things, a) the overwhelming centrality of Greek culture after the 6th century, b) the simultaneous prominence of ethnic non-Greeks as emperors (i.e., Leo III the Isaurian, the presumed Armenian origin of the Macedonian dynasty, etc.). Is thereany way we can map modern terms like "ethnicity" or "multiculturalism" to the Byzantine Empire between 700-1100?

Most Byzantines seem not to have cared much about what we would call ethnicity. Byzantium was essentially a monocultural melting pot. New arrivals learned Greek, called themselves "Romans" (we'd call them "Byzantines"), married Byzantines, and practically forgot their origins in a generation or two.

3 - Why did you choose the field of Byzantine studies as your specialty?

Being drawn to a field is a little like falling in love: there's an irrational element. The best reason I can give for choosing Byzantine history is that so many important, pioneering things remain to be done in it. That's also the reason ambitious historians mostly shun it: they know that the best-known fields are the best-recognized, so that the thousandth biography of Lincoln will get more attention than the first biography of Basil I.

4 - Though Justinian closed the The Academy in Athens, I recall that the loose collection of Neoplatonic philosophers continued to teach and write, and the Alexandrian School existed up to the Muslim conquest. Who supported these pagan philosophers during this period when the commanding heights of the state and society were thoroughly Christian?

We don't know for sure, but most scholars in Byzantium were either independently wealthy or supported by their students' fees. It's not even certain that Justinian confiscated all of the Academy's endowment.

5 - I recently read "The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople" by Jonathan Phillips and was struck by references to statues of Athena and other mythological figures in Constantinople. Were cultural relicts of the "pagan" past quite common in the form of superstition and statuary in Byzantium? In other words, how genuinely "Christian" was the typical citizen of Constantinople during the period between 700-1000?

Constantine collected and set up all sorts of pagan statues at Constantinople, but as artworks, not cult objects. Some superstitious stories circulated about some of them, but that wasn't real paganism. Nobody had been worshipping the bronze statue of Athena that a mob tore down because it looked as if it was beckoning to the Crusaders.

6 - Do you have any opinions as to the endeavours of historians like William H. McNeill who attempt to construct grand historical narratives reduced to a few primary causative parameters? (e.g., his last book, "The Human Web," focused on tightening networks of information)

The trouble with most of these grand schemes is that they're oversold and overly elaborate. Yet most of them are partly right. Plagues, technology, information, irrigation, and so on were all important factors in history.

7 - Is history a social science or humanities?

It can be either; ideally it should be both; but nowadays it tends to be more a social science.

8 - The conquest of Egypt and Syria by the Muslim armies in the 7th century is one aspect of Byzantine history that is well known to the general public. Reasons given often hinge upon religious discord derived from the Monophysite nature of Egypt, exhaustion after the wars of the early 7th century between Byzantium and Persia and the decline of the border Arab polities. Is there any elegant and succinct model that can explain this event?

I don't think Monophysitism had anything to do with it; most Monophysites preferred Byzantine rule to Muslim rule, and they did nothing to help the conquests. The Arabs benefited enormously from the ruinous war in which the Byzantines and Persians had just worn each other out. The Byzantines wisely kept many of their troops in reserve (the Persians didn't), which allowed them to stop the Arabs at the first strong natural barrier--the Taurus Mountains in southeast Anatolia. Egypt, Syria, and North Africa were protected only by deserts, which weren't barriers for the Arabs.

9 - In regards the Christological controversies, do you have any opinions as to why they occurred? They seem to be a feature of the Eastern Christian tradition more than the Western one.

The Christological controversies dealt with a difficult problem--how Christ could be both God and man--and it's not surprising that Christians took some time to work out all the subtleties of the solution. The controversies were more Eastern than Western because the East had more sophisticated theologians, who saw difficulties that didn't trouble most Western theologians.

10 - If you could visit Constantinople for one day via a time machine between the battle of Yarmuk and Manzikert, what day would that be?

Probably the day (we don't know which) in spring 1019 when Basil II returned to celebrate a triumph after his conquest of Bulgaria. It was the high point of the middle Byzantine period, though I doubt that many Byzantines, including Basil, would have thought so at the time.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

10 questions for Armand M. Leroi   posted by Razib @ 12/01/2005 09:43:00 AM

Below are 10 questions I posed to Dr. Armand Leroi, the author of Mutants. My questions are in bold.

1) Your biography suggests that you are a "citizen of the world." Do you feel a special attachment to any of the nations that you have called home?

Like many people who have grown up in different countries, I have been left with a sort of restlessness, a desire to periodically sever ties and move. But I must admit that having now lived in England for nearly ten years, I have come to love this country and its people very much. In another ten I may even begin to understand them.

2) Your primary research focuses on the development of C. elegans. Seeing as how this is a selfing nematode, do you think that it is truly a very good organismal model for the "evolutionary" part of evo-devo in the general sense?

The beauty of C. elegans lies in its simplicity, regularity of structure and transparency. I do not mean "transparency" in any metaphorical sense, but in the literal one: you can see every cell in its tiny body. Importantly, the properties that make C. elegans so wonderful to work with are shared by many other species of nematode. So you can do comparative biology -- evo-devo -- on a cell-by-cell basis: something that is unique to worms and very powerful. For proof of this I recommend Ralf Sommer's work on the evolution of the vulva.

C. elegans' strange habit of selfing doesn't affect such comparative studies. It does, however, affect the population genetic structure of the species: it means that the species is largely composed of many clones. For this reason it's not terribly useful for microevolutionary studies. If you want to do a selection experiment, Drosophila remains a far better choice.

3) How did you come to John Brockman's attention? I assume you didn't send him a telegram with a letter of introduction from Richard Dawkins attached?

I knew that Brockman was the ultimate science-writer's agent. So I faxed him a five-page proposal cold. He, or rather Katinka Matson, his wife and President of Brockman Inc., picked it up off the floor; she has been my agent ever since. She tells me that it was the title that caught her eye: "Mutants". There's a lesson there for the aspirant writer.

4) You've shot to public intellectual status in large part based on your recent op-eds in relation to race. Have you read the rebuttal site to your essay A Family Tree in Every Gene, If so, how would you respond in a pithy fashion to their criticisms?

I have read the essays, and have considered responding to them. But where to start? When last I looked, the SSRC website contained a dozen papers written by some 20 academics united by little more than a collective, if heartfelt, sense of outrage.

But were I to respond I would ask my critics to do two things. First, when considering scientific results to set questions of history, ideology and social justice aside. And, second, to learn some genetics. Of course, given that my critics are overwhelmingly social scientists and historians, I hold no hope that these modest requests will be fulfilled.

5) You've offered that hybrid individuals with the parents being of relatively distinct racial origin might be more beautiful than unadmixed individuals on expectation. This appeals to an intuitive notion that I often encounter in my day to day life, though people seem to imply that the 'hybrid vigor' derives from heterosis or overdominance, while you suggest that it is due to the masking of deleterious recessive alleles (i.e., dampening of inbreeding effects). Do you believe that it is as simple as all that in that there is a relatively inverse linear relation between inbreeding coefficient and fitness? (at least across the genetic distances you are implying) What about the possibility of countervailing genetic incompatibilities acting as a break on the beneficial effects of the masking of negative recessives?

[this response is temporally out of synch with the others because there were some emails exchanged about it]

The idea that human beauty might depend on mutational load was a speculative one, and presented as such. But it is consistent with a great deal of theory and experiment in animals where it comes under the general rubric of the "good genes" hypothesis for sexual selection. Can concealment of deleterious recessives account for the common notion that mixed-race individuals are beautiful? Perhaps. But there are other explanations. One might be that mixed race individuals present us with novel, unexpected, combinations of features -- novelty itself is beautiful. In the future we should be able to test whether beauty does indeed depend on mutational load by estimating the latter directly from genome sequences.

Might racial mixing ever be deleterious? The conventional answer is "no"; it is certainly the one that I thought to give. Razib, however -- ever alert -- directs my attention to recent report in Nature Genetics that suggests a possible case of hybrid breakdown in humans.

Helgadottir et al. (2005) identify a haplotype that confers high risk for myocardial infarction in African- but not European-Americans. The haplotype is rare in Africa and so African-Americans who have it probably get it from European ancestors. But what accounts for its evil effects in African Americans? One explanation is that Europeans are protected by some other genetic variant that Africans also lack -- as do most African Americans.

Of course hybrid breakdown is not the only possible explanation for this result. It could be that African Americans are exposed to some environmental factor that European Americans aren't, and it is this that interacts with the haplotype to cause myocardial infarctions. Without knowing more about these other factors -- genetic or enviromental -- we are left with no more than a provocative observation. Nevertheless this study highlights how little we know about the consequences of genetic structure in human populations.

6) Who selected the photos for MUTANTS? Some of the pictures attracted quite a bit of attention in public places when I was reading your book.

I did. When searching for illustrations, I invariably sought old platinum prints or even older lithographs. I did so because such images are beautiful things in themselves. True, they are macabre. But they are less dehumanizing, and no less accurate, than the harshly coloured photographs that can be found in any modern clinical genetics textbook.

7) You've done research in the United States and England, what are the differences in the scientific cultures and variations in terms of how one has to get funding?

Funding is easier to get here, and there's less bureaucracy than in the US - but you get less money too. But then, we Brits (if you will permit me the identity) take pride in doing more with less: on being nimbler, smarter, than our American colleagues with their vast resources. There's some truth to that, but probably less than we like to think. And when we visit US labs we return awed. The single greatest impediment to British science is its unfriendliness to non-EU graduate students. US labs are filled with brilliant students from all over the world, notably China. We're lucky if we can get a single Belgian.

8) If you had to do it over again would you modify your educational track? If so, how?

I would listen to my father when he said I should learn German. But I was 14...

9) In evolutionary genetics the infinite allele Wright-Fisher models have been ascendent since the Modern Neo-Darwinian Synthesis (along with modifications introduced by Kimura, Crow, Ohta, etc.), but Evo-Devo is bringing a new macroevolutionary perspective to the debate. At the end of MUTANTS you acknowledge that you focused on genetic mutations of large effect rather than continuous traits due to additive polygenic variance, and that the latter is a very fascinating topic in and of itself. How would you express succinctly the relative importance of these processes across the taxa of the tree of life? For example, would you accept a dichotomy between intraspecies relevance of microevolutionary models based on the Wright-Fisher framework, while macroevolutionary events like speciation are sequestered under the umbrella of Evo-Devo?

There are good reasons - the reasons that Fisher gave - that evolution proceeds, in general, by the substitution of mutations with rather weak effects. That is, mutations of large effect will tend to be deleterious. (If you don't think so, then opening "Mutants" at almost any page should convince you otherwise!) Given that, I tend to be conservative on this question: the onus is clearly on the macromutationists to make their case by directly demonstrating the role of major mutations in evolution. It's not enough to simply demonstrate that you can make a four-winged fly in the lab or show that Hox genes are important to the development of lots of animals.

Of course, it's very hard to identify the number and kinds of genes involved in adaptation and speciation. But there are an increasing number of studies that bear on the question. Such studies are based on those rare cases where we can cross two closely related species in the lab and get viable, if not fertile, offspring. They tend to show that adaptations are formed by the fixation of alleles with a range of sizes: a few biggish ones, and then a lot of smaller ones. For a deeper discussion of these questions interested readers might read Leroi, A.M. 2000. "The scale independence of evolution." Evolution and Development 2: 67-77. It's not very technical and still fairly current.

10) If in 10 years you could purchase your own full genome sequence for a month of your salary, would you do it? (assume privacy concerns are obviated)



Thursday, November 10, 2005

10 questions for Derb   posted by Razib @ 11/10/2005 08:29:00 AM

Recently John Derbyshire was kind enough to answer a few questions I posed for him. You all know John, so I'll introduce him with a quote from a commentor at John Holbo & Belle Waring's weblog:

Like him or not, John Derbyshire is one of the smartest people writing for NRO (Brookhiser may be comparable). For another example, Derbyshire is typically the voice of sweet reason itself when natural selection vs. creationism is at issue. It would be nice if all one's ideological opponents were as newborn-baby-dumb as [another conservative pundit]....

1) Over the past year you've really been hammering intelligent design. As someone who works in conservative journalism, that seems peculiar. I know in your famous/infamous "Metrocon" column you offered that no one at NR rejects evolution, but I am curious as to your motivation for devoting considerable space to this topic of late. What has the for:against ratio in your emails/letters been?

My motivation, so far as I am aware, is my lifelong fascination with science, the extreme scientific shoddiness of the I.D. movement, and my indignation that the I.D. people should presume to claim a place at the science table, when they don't deserve one. The main reason they don't deserve one is that THEY DON'T DO ANY SCIENCE. When I said this to Bruce Chapman, head of the Discovery Institute, at a meeting with him and some I.D. honchos, he said: "Oh yes we do!" and passed me a paper. Here is the paper.

Read it for yourself. I rest my case. The Discovery Institute has been in business since 1991, the CSC (its most currently active offshoot) since 1996. That's an aggregate 23 years, and this is all the "science" they have to show -- or at any rate, this is a star paper that the HMFIC likes to carry around to hand to people who accuse him of not doing any science. What a bunch of frauds.

Of course, if you press this point, the I.D. people say: "Oh, you know, our people just can't get their stuff published in the science journals because of prejudice." To which the response should be: "So you have abig pile of scientific results written up over there at the Institute, that you haven't been able to get published? Mind if I take a look through them?"

I know some young scientists. They have to waste half their time playing politics, angling for NIH grants, filling out forms. For all that, they are mostly poor, the grants mostly very niggardly, academic salaries lousy. If they had the kind of money the Discovery Institute/CSC has, who knows what they might be able to do? It's criminal that they have to scrape and struggle as they do, just to get some real science done, while these ID people are flying around the country on PR junkets -- the Discovery Institute is SWILLING in cash -- DOING NO SCIENCE AT ALL, yet claiming a place at science's table. Feugh!

I.D. is in fact an evangelical Christian movement, a fact amply documented in Barbara Forrest & Paul Gross's excellent book CREATIONISM'S TROJAN HORSE. I have absolutely no problem with evangelical Christianity, and am inclined to believe that it is on balance a strengthening force in U.S. society. It is not science, though, and its teachings don't belong in the science classroom. Everything in its proper place.

I don't know why standing up for science and against pseudoscience should be at odds with conservatism. I.D. is an outgrowth of American folk religiosity, whose political "color" is populist, not conservative. William Jennings Bryan would have socked you on the jaw if you'd called him a conservative. Again, I don't mind populism. I regularlywatch Bill O'Reilly, the foremost TV populist of our day, and even agree with him on some things. That's nothing to do with science, though. Populism and science can't mix, and shouldn't.

2) A personal question, with what you know about genomics now (I am told you have informants in the business), how cheap would a full sequencing have to get before you would be willing to pay up? (assuming privacy was safeguarded)

It's not a thing I am much interested in having done, and I am seriously poor, so I guess the answer is "real cheap." I'm talking two digits to the left of the decimal point.

3) Your Metrocon column was in part a response, or lack of, to the tendency for people to specify what kind of conservative they are. I've heard people label you a "paleocon," and been surprised at your support of Israel, or assumed you were a "neocon" because you wrote for NR but noted that you also published in THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE. Can you make heads or tails of all this today anymore than you could 2 years ago? Do you care?

I confess to being a bit uneasy about it. These widely-discussed categories have real meaning (as, I believe, does my "metrocon" category, whose failure to gain general currency I attribute to people mixing it up in their minds with "metrosexual"...) The different positions gathered together under one heading usually have some common philosophical foundation. If you don't fit clearly into any of them, the reason very often is that you haven't really thought things through, or are not being completely honest about your positions. I am honest -- a bit too honest for my own good sometimes -- but I am not really an intellectual. Philosophy puts me to sleep, I can't read it. I keep trying Roger Scruton's books, but I just can't get past page 30. I'm really not very good at connected thinking, and work mostly from impressions.

The upside of this is that most people are the same as me, so lots of readers see their own thought processes reflected in mine, and they like that. The downside is that I nurse a nagging sense of inferiority towards people who really have read all the deep-brow stuff, thought everything through and made a coherent belief-system out of it in their heads. Though I'd add that when I meet such people, much more often than not I find their conversation disappointing. Having a well-thought-out world-view can make a person narrow and arrogant.

Israel? The mental map that I formed in my head quite early on in life -- after reading Wittfogel's ORIENTAL DESPOTISM in the mid-1970s, I think, though reading a lot of Chinese history contributed too -- is of a world divided into civilization and barbarism. There is a civilized zone, and a barbarous hinterland. I want to see the civilized zone defended, every damn inch. Israel is a civilized country; the Arabs are barbarous. There is nothing dogmatically biological about this, and I do think that civilized peoples can slip into barbarism, and vice versa. The Vikings were very barbarous; but they developed into the pale, hygienic Scandinavians of our own time. The Hungarians did the same thing very quickly, in a couple of generations, from the terrifying Magyar horde to the Christian kingdom of Stephen. The present state of the world is what we have to deal with, though, and I want the ramparts defended. It doesn't mean hating anyone. If the Arabs "got" civilization tomorrow, I'd be the first to rejoice. Don't see any sign of it, though.

The paleo response is that it is no skin off our nose what happens in the Levant, that we should mind our own business and look strictly to our own national interests. I am quite strongly sympathetic to that, as an instinctive nationalist, but I think it bespeaks civilizational overconfidence, and my sympathy is over-ridden by my affection for Western civilization at large. Civilization is, according to me, a very fragile thing, needing constant maintenance and unblinking, vigilant defense at every boundary. If forced to retreat to the borders of the
USA, it would not survive.

4) Is it hard knowing math when the world is filled with such innumeracy?

No. I belong to that generation of Westerners from low-class backgrounds who got access to higher education far beyond what was available to our parents. We spent our teens and our twenties with the unhappy understanding that our parents, whom we loved and admired, didn't actually know much. This created all sorts of psychological stresses. It had the great advantage, though, of teaching us that good, honest, worthy, hard-working people -- lovable people, admirable people -- could be very ignorant. I like to think that this inoculated us -- some of us, at least -- against intellectual snobbery. Certainly a contempt for ordinary people -- often guiltily but imperfectly disguised -- is very common among people raised in intellectual or professional households. This is independent of politics. I know some conservatives it applies to. No names, no pack drill.

5) Over the years I've seen the following comment (in some form) multiple times: So and so is "perhaps the second most pessimistic opinion journalist right now, after John Derbyshire...." Do you think this characterization of you is accurate? Or do you think everyone else is just unduly optimistic?

Well, it depends what you mean by pessimism. I am a religious person, in a very general way -- I believe there is a supernatural realm accessible to our minds, and more real (in some way) than the natural world, which is really just a play of shadows. The fact that the natural world is a pretty nasty place therefore does not depress me as much as it ought. A nearby supernova could extinguish all life on earth in a few hours, sure -- but if you feel in your guts that there is another place beyond this one, then that isn't the end. Somehow. So on the grandest scale, I am not really a pessimist at all. On the everyday scale, though, I acknowledge that most of our nature, life, & experiences arise from the natural world & therefore partake of its general nastiness, coldness, cruelty, and gross unfairness. Civilized life fences off the horrors to some degree, which is why I am a huge fan of civilization (see above), but the fences are fragile, and the Old Adam will break through them sooner or later. Not in my lifetime, please.

As to everyone else: Yes, I think that optimism, which I would actually characterize as wishful thinking, is epidemic. This is probably a good thing. "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." I can hardly bear it myself sometimes, and I think I am a psychologically quite robust person, a natural stoic. If the bulk of humanity wants to lull themselves with wish-fulfillment dreams, I can understand that. It's just that the kid scientist in me gets annoyed when their fantasies contradict reality too obviously.

I was at a friend's house some years ago just before Christmas. My friend had a daughter, a sweet child about four years old. They were fixing little Christmas stockings to the edge of a shelf over the fireplace. The stockings didn't stick very well, though. The little girl had particular trouble with one stocking. She pressed it to the shelf, but when she let go, it fell down at once. She picked it up and pressed again; it fell down again. At last she found a solution. She pressed it to the shelf, then as she let go she simultaneously turned away so she wouldn't see the stocking fall. It was a great solution, a developmental milestone like the ones Piaget logged. I think I missed that particular stage of development, though.

6) Speaking of how you feel about other people, how does it work that Andrew Sullivan has a "Derbyshire award" even though your opinions in regards to Intelligent Design (in terms of magnitude, if not vector) and Schiavo are at sharp variance with the center of conservative punditry? Do you find it amusing or annoying to the posterboy for the nutso as well as pessimistic Right?

I don't know Andrew personally -- we have never met -- and very rarely read his stuff. The reading I have done, and the opinions of people who know him well, tell me that he is a one-issue guy. His homosexuality is everything to him, and everything he says, if you peel off a layer or two, is really about that. I have the normal and universal (according to me) distaste for male homosexuality, or at any rate for "the man who plays the part of a woman," and so do not have much time for a person who builds his entire identity around that particular thing.

As to being the posterboy for this or that; I passed age 60 this year, and am entering the zone -- I think I'm well into it, actually -- where I don't lose any sleep over what people think about me. I can lapse into what Steve Sailer calls "Elderly Tourette's Syndrome" -- i.e. saying outrageous things and smiling around blithely while everyone gags and sputters. I am really looking forward to my 60s.

7) What publications do you have to read daily?

There aren't any that I compulsively HAVE to read. I read the New York Post every morning for something to do at breakfast. (I'm a very early riser, and usually breakfast alone.) I do a half-hour browse of the Internet -- read the Daily Telegraph from ancient loyalty, the BBC news site because it's easy to navigate, a few blogs -- Steve of course, who usually has something interesting to say, Michelle Malkin, Randall Parker, a few others. I subscribe to a ridiculous number of magazines -- no wonder I'm so poor -- but I'm not sure there are any I'd really miss. The New Criterion, perhaps.

8) What is it like living with a Democrat? How are the kids being raised?

I can't really call Rosie a Democrat. Though intelligent and well-read, she doesn't care about politics. She's like Julia in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" -- what was that passage, where Orwell says that all the political jargon just went right through her, like a seed through a bird's digestive tract. That's the consequence of growing up in a totalitarian society. (I have often wondered if Orwell was talking about his own late wife, Eileen.) So we rarely talk politics, and when we do, it never gets rancorous. So politics is not a domestic irritant. The kids are only 10 and 12, so they don't know much, and the only political work I can do is to try to disabuse them of some of the sillier things their schoolteachers say. You know: keep telling them that the major figures of U.S. history are NOT Sacagawea, Harriet Tubman, and MLK. There are others!

9) If you believe there have been scientists smarter than Carl Friedrich Gauss, who?

No, I don't. He was the bee's knees. Of course this kind of thing is hard to rank, despite Charles Murray's efforts. Newton was of pretty much the same caliber, I think, though I'd say Gauss had the edge on him in breadth of understanding. And there are undoubtedly brighter gems that had the misfortune to be hidden under rocks all their lives. If the Duke of Brunswick hadn't spotted Gauss and helped him up, Gauss might have ended up a schoolmaster somewhere. But no, it's Gauss. In the realm of math there are all sorts of names that excelled him in some particular way -- Euler in industriousness, Riemann in sheer imaginative power, and so on. But net-net, Gauss is tops.

You're the top
You're Carl Fred of Brunswick.
You're the top
You're a boobs-and-buns flick.

Sorry, nervous habit.

10) Are you still thinking of retiring to China?

Not very seriously. My wife wouldn't go, anyway. She likes America too much. And I don't speak the language very well. And I'm getting kind of set in my ways, really don't want that much of a disruption. Still, for all the awfulness of communism, or post-communism, whatever they're in now, China is a fundamentally civilized place, and I have always felt at home among Chinese people. An old friend -- one of my first Chinese friends -- used to say that I was Chinese in a previous life, an idea I am quite open to. In this life, however, I am English, and in an ethnostate like China, I should always be to some degree an outsider. I think it would get on my nerves at last. Of course, if things got really bad here, I would try to find somewhere less stressful to live.

For all my much-advertised pessimism, though, I don't honestly see things getting that bad in the USA. Not in my lifetime. I am 60.