Monday, December 15, 2008
Most scientists believe that only objective factors are real and try to eliminate all subjectivity from their explanations -- subjectivity is seen primarily as a source of error. Economists are the most objective social scientists, and they customarily sneer at dumber so-called scientists who fail to reduce human behavior to hard facts.
When things are going well, that is. During times of prosperity economics is a hard science like physics. It's only when things go badly that they kick the can over to psychology and reach for mental factors like "irrational exuberance" and "mental depression" so that they can blame other, stupider sciences for their failures. (Quantum physicists also reach desperately for The Mind at times, since after sixty or seventy years their data are still impossible to interpret.)
So here's my explanation of the present Collapse of Western Civilization: amphetamines. The world of finance is a rather small one, populated entirely by supersmart, extremely aggressive and competitive men (mostly) who have to go at top speed twelve or more hours a day, day after day. How do they do it? Performance-enhancing drugs, that's how: legally-prescribed amphetamines. (Cocaine is uncool, and so Eighties.)
And since finance controls the world, when the tweakers crash, the whole world crashes with them. Like a football team collapsing in the fourth quarter, the world has run out of beans. We've had our jag, and now we're crashing. Not much fun.
In my small experience, amphetamines are very nice. The world becomes a happy place. You get smarter and have lots of energy, and you can keep on going indefinitely. Complex ideas seem simple and all of your ideas look good. The crash isn't even that bad if you use in moderation. But amphetamines are not conducive to moderation.
A friend working in a major science research institute has told me in confidence that a psychologist had told him (also in confidence) that the majority of the researchers there were using amphetamines or something of that kind. Paul Erdos, one of the greatest mathematicians of our time and probably the most prolific, was famous for his reliance on amphetamines. Science magazine has recently suggested that we seriously look into the possibility that the use of amphetamines for performance enhancement should be medically authorized, allowing scientists to do openly what they're already doing under the table.
Erdos always worked with collaborators, and maybe this is the reason for that. While it's working, amphetamine only shows you the bright side of things. It doesn't enhance your judgment, your capacity for self-criticism, or your awareness of problems. Maybe Erdos needed a ground man -- someone to point at his work and say "You know, Paul, I think that you skipped about seventeen steps right there."
The mathematics community is self-policing, but finance absolutely isn't, at least in the short term. A rising tide raises all boats, and when things are going well a clever but foolhardy investor can keep winning for years. Furthermore, someone's who's already persuasive will be even more persuasive while in the grip of amphetamine-induced enthusiasm. Optimists who believe what they're saying are the best con men, and speed gives them the sincere optimism they need. (Have Glassman and Hassett ever been pee tested?)
Negative thinking is necessary and good. The disseminated optimism of crowds is not to be trusted. If we'd had fewer people lighting candles and more people cursing the darkness, we wouldn't be in this fix.
The crash phase of amphetamine psychosis is now before us.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Tectonic environments of ancient civilizations in the eastern hemisphere:
The map distribution of ancient civilizations shows a remarkable correspondence with tectonic boundaries related to the southern margin of the Eurasian plate. Quantification of this observation shows that the association is indeed significant, and both historical records and archaeoseismological work show that these civilizations commonly suffered earthquake damage. Close association of ancient civilizations with tectonic activity seems to be a pattern of some kind. In the hope that dividing the civilizations into subsets might clarify the meaning of this relation, primary and derivative civilizations were compared. Derivative civilizations prove to be far more closely related to the tectonic boundaries. Similarly, the civilizations that endured the longest (and that have been described as most static) are systematically the farthest from plate boundaries. It is still unclear how the relation actually worked in ancient cultures, i.e., what aspects of tectonism promoted complexity. Linkages to water and other resources, trade (broadly construed), and societal response seem likely. Volcanism appears not to be involved.
ScienceNow, Did Rumbling Give Rise to Rome? has a nice map. Exogenous shocks playing a critical role in cultural creativity? Remember that earthquakes were often interpreted as negative divine omens and elicited a drive toward soul searching....
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
In the post below, Colder climates favor civilization even among Whites alone, I made a few comments about possible differences between Germans in Illinois and Germans in Texas, based on nothing much more than a hunch. I trust my hunches, but there's no reason you should, so I decided to see if there was anything here in regards to my assumption about interregional differences in intelligence and how they might track across ethnic groups. So of course I went to the GSS website, and checked the mean WORDSUM scores of various white ethnic groups broken down by region. I specifically focused on whites who stated that their ancestors were from England & Wales, Germany and Ireland. My reasoning is that these are three groups with very large N's within the GSS sample and they are well represented across the regions in absolute numbers. My main motivation was see if the differences across regions were similar for all three groups. Here are the states for each region (the Census made up these categories):
New England - Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut
Middle Atlantic - New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania
East North Central - Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin
West North Central - Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas
South Atlantic - Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida
East South Central - Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi
West South Central - Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas
Mountain - Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada
Pacific - Washington, Imbler, California, Alaska, Hawaii
Obviously the breakdown isn't ideal. I think Delaware and Maryland arguably should be Mid-Atlantic. I also believe that Wisconsin is more plausibly in the West North Central than Missouri or Kansas is. But those are the regional breakdowns and I can't do anything about them.
So, WORDSUM is a vocabulary test on a 0-10 scale. For the whole GSS sample the mean was 6.00, with 1 standard deviation being 2.16. Below is a chart which shows the relationship between WORDSUM scores (Y axis) for various regions (X axis) for each of the three ethnic groups:
The tables below are pretty self-explanatory. At the top you see the mean WORDSUM scores for each ethnic group for each region. I put the N's in there as well so you can see that the sample sizes were pretty big. Note that there is more interregional variation within an ethnic group than there is interethnic variation within a region (the standard deviation across the columns is 50% bigger than across the rows). Just to be clear, I also included some tables which show the differences in WORDSUM mean scores between the regions like so: (row - column) = value.
Last year I had a crazy idea about how winged insects might influence civilization. I only pointed to winged insects as an exemplar, not to suggest a "Mosquito Theory of History" or something stupid and sexy like that. The reasoning is simple: insects are more likely to be winged in certain climates, and that means more effective vectors of disease in such environments; and a greater disease burden makes you dumber, more tired, and more irritable, which stunts the growth of civilization.  A qualitative follow-up post looked at where civilizations have ever appeared, and in what climate types they existed.
Well, now I've done some quantitative work, and it turns out that I was right. One critique against an international study is that natural selection may have adapted people to be more or less civilized in different environments, so that the only influence of climate is as a selection pressure for genetic change. There are at least two such studies already out there: one by Templer & Arikawa (2006) and another by Vanhanen (2004). I'm arguing that it matters even when people start out pretty much the same genetically, so I will look just at the US. It varies enough in climate and degree of civilization that any correlation should jump out.
In particular, I will look at the correlation, on the level of states, between average annual temperature and the average IQ of Whites, post-secondary degrees awarded to Whites per capita, and the percent of the White population that's imprisoned. I only look at Whites in order to avoid the confound of climate with racial composition (for example, the cold Mountain states are heavily White, while Blacks make up a larger fraction in the hot Southeast).
The reason I look at basic measures like IQ or being in jail, as opposed to the loftier things we associate with civilization, is that smarts is the key determinant of propelling the institutions of civilization forward, while crime gives us a good rough idea of how barbaric we are on a personal level. I'm sure that governments can improve or screw things up too, but it's the raw cognitive and behavioral materials that matter most, as Lynn and Varhanen show in IQ and the Wealth of Nations (see all GNXP posts on this topic). Moreover, studies of representative samples of the population always show a strong influence of IQ on how cultured a person is. See, for example, a National Endowment for the Arts report on the demographics of arts attendees (PDF p. 19), which shows that attendance increases nearly monotonically by education level.
As you can see, hotter average temperature is associated with lower White IQs, fewer degrees being awarded to Whites per capita, and a higher percentage of the White population being imprisoned. The relationship looks pretty linear in each case, and the data are on an interval scale, so we check the Pearson correlation coefficient: between White IQ and temperature, it is -0.48 (p = 0.0005, two-tailed); between degrees to Whites and temperature, it is -0.57 (p = 0.00002, two-tailed); and between percent of Whites in jail and temperature, it is +.40 (p = 0.005, two-tailed). Even conservatively correcting for three independent hypotheses still leaves all results significant (and IQ and getting a college degree are not even independent). At any rate, average temperature accounts for 23%, 32%, and 16% of the variance in White IQ, degrees to Whites, and percent of Whites in jail, respectively -- pretty damn good for social science. 
I took the average annual temperature for each of the 48 continental states (Alaska and Hawaii were not included in the source, so I left them out). Next, I used Audacious Epigone's estimates of White IQ by state, which are based on NAEP data from 8th grade math and science test scores (read about his methods here). I turned to Statemaster.com for the per capita number of post-secondary degrees awarded to Whites. For the number of Whites in prison per 100K Whites in the state's population, I used the data from 1997 in a study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (PDF here), which separates non-Hispanic Whites from Hispanics, unlike most crime data from government agencies. 
Here, correlation probably is causation, as climate precedes the other three variables in causality, and again because these are unlikely to be genetic differences that reflect adaptation to different environments -- one of the few cases where natural selection "has not had enough time."
An objection is that the differences could reflect a "brain drain," whereby smart people flock to colder states, and their smart children boost the state's NAEP scores. Even in this case, where climate does not cause group differences in IQ, it still confirms the hypothesis that colder climates favor civilization -- why else would smarties flock there? But I doubt this anyway, since Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota are not exactly fonts of civilization that smarties pour into, yet they have White IQs on par with the highly developed New York City metro area.
If it is causation, as seems likely, the mechanism could be anything. Pathogen load is surely part of it, hence the fields of study called "tropical disease" and "tropical medicine." Also, you might sweat too much in hotter environments, bringing you closer to dehydration. As mild as these effects may seem, when accumulated over the course of development, they could result in your body spending more resources on bodily maintenance than on luxury items like IQ and toil. Heat could also just make you more fatigued -- that wouldn't affect IQ, but it would affect your work ethic, making you less likely to complete college and more likely to pursue quick fixes like crime to get what you want.
The correlation is stronger for getting a college degree than performance on 8th grade math and science tests, and that could be because college work is more g-loaded, because it also taps into work ethic aside from IQ, and because out-of-staters show up in the college figures but not the 8th grade figures. As tough as the environment may seem to natives, it must seem unbearable to college students raised in a different climate.
To the best of my knowledge, as the saying goes, this is the first demonstration of an association between climate type and IQ, civilization-related achievement, and crime, even among a population that's pretty homogenous genetically (for the traits of interest, at least). Even what genetic diversity there is among Whites would underestimate the effect -- Whites adapted to hotter environments, such as Italians and Greeks, are far more concentrated in the colder states within the US. To put the final nail in the coffin, though, you'd want to look at babies of Whites who are adopted into White families in a state of noticeably different temperature than that of the biological parents.
Still, it seems pretty unavoidable: hotter environments are less conducive to civilization, at least for Whites, and not just in extreme cases like the failed attempt to colonize sub-Saharan Africa. Civilization may have started in hot areas, but that was then. It apparently flourishes much more in colder climates. Just as we provide iodine in table salt to prevent a nutrient deficiency from lowering IQ, it might be just as well to encourage people to settle colder areas.
It's not like they'd be abandoning civilization -- just the opposite. They could take their accents, music, and whatever else with them, but they would not suffer the environmental insults that lower their group's IQ, lower their ability to get a college degree, and make them more likely to commit crime. Fortunately for them -- and unfortunately for current residents -- the Mountain states have incredibly low population densities and could absorb some Whites from hotter states. That would certainly burden the locals for a generation, but again since lower White IQ in the Southeast is probably due to largely treatable environmental causes, it won't take long for them to contribute as citizens on the same level as the locals.
 Underlying this is likely a tendency for all sorts of things to be more migratory in such environments -- winged insects were chosen because there's lots of solid data to illustrate the point. Basically, environments that are highly unstable favor migratory features since your environment may go from good to bad from one day to the next, or from one spot to the next -- and being able to quickly move on to greener pastures will be well worth it. When environmental quality does not change much in space or time, then the expensive wings (or whatever) will not pay off.
 If you don't have statistical software, you can do a lot for free on Wessa.net, including correlation.
 Although I didn't run a test of normality on the distributions for temperature, iq, degrees, or crime, I did check the skewness of all, and only crime was significantly skewed: for crime, skewness is +2.1 standard errors of skewness (SES); for temperature, +1.24 SES; for degrees, +0.35 SES; and for IQ, -1.51 SES.
Addendum from Razib: I put up a related post at my other weblog.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Previously we found that your generation was sluttier, so we turn now to another great threat to civilization -- violence (between individuals). As before, our concern is with whether violent crime rates are increasing or decreasing, and not so much with the absolute level: it is easier to screw up civilization than it is to improve on it, so a decline can quickly snowball, while it may take much longer to restore things to their previous levels.
There are very good and very clear data on violent crime, so this post will be much more direct than the one on sluttiness. Let's begin with homicide. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the US Department of Justice, has taken homicide data from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and put it into a straightforward graph. I see five trends in the graph: an increase from 1900 to the mid-1930s, a decrease from the mid-1930s to about 1960, an increase from 1960 to the late 1970s, a fairly steady high level (with oscillations) throughout the 1980s, and a decrease from 1992 to the present.
To be generous to older generations, let's say that much of this homicide is committed by 15 year-olds. That means that the cohort born in 1945 is responsible for the increase that began in 1960. I figure you have to be about 73 years old in order to decry how violent the younger generations have been -- certainly the Boomers and Gen X-ers cannot complain, while Generation Y should be thankful they've lived through such peaceful times.
The homicide data also caution against viewing the past with rosy spectacles -- there was nothing peaceful at all about the first third of the 20th century. Declinists who long for better times in the past seem to latch onto a fleeting period of rest and prosperity. That's fine, as far as worshipping one period over another goes. However, we should not think that we can easily maintain that level, whether through individual choice or institutional incentives, as oscillations and limit cycles appear to be the rule rather than the exception. We should aim instead to have a somewhat low level of Bad Things, with low-amplitude fluctuations, and not let the mere existence of waxing and waning cause us hysteria.
What about the intersection of sex and violence -- how have forcible rape rates changed over time? Again we turn to BJS data, although they do not go back nearly as far as homicide data, the earliest year being 1960. After retrieving data from this page, looking at the entire United States, forcible rape rate, from 1960 to 2006, I put them into a simple graph:
There are only two trends here: an increase from 1963 to 1992, and a decrease afterward. In fact, the two trends look pretty linear on first glance. The slope of the increasing trend is about +1.11, and the slope of the decreasing trend is about -0.85, confirming the hunch that the decline of civilization snowballs more quickly than its restoration proceeds. As with homicide, Boomers and Gen X-ers cannot complain about rape epidemics in recent generations. This is particularly true for the Boomers and Gen X-ers who manufactured and continue to prop up the myth of the campus rape crisis.
The BJS also has an index of "violent crime" that includes murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. I used the same search function as for the rape rate graph, and the trends for this general violent crime rate look the same as the rape rate trends, so I won't include the graph. In brief, there's an increase from 1962 to 1991, and a decrease afterward.
As in the case of sluttiness, using popular culture as a means of taking civilization's pulse is highly unreliable. Before, we saw that slutty behavior has been decreasing even as perceived slutty appearances have been increasing. Here, we see that violent crime has been decreasing even as video games, movies, and TV shows have become increasingly violent. To pick just one example, gangsta rap was invisible during the 1980s and only became popular when Dr. Dre's album The Chronic came out in 1992, drawing ever larger audiences throughout the 1990s -- at the very time when violent crime was falling.
I don't believe that trends in real behavior and in popular culture are causally related in an inverse way either -- just that they are independent of each other. Cycles of fashion in the cultural realm are self-contained, and oscillations and limit cycles in real behavior are also self-contained, at least to a first approximation. I've read posts at Cognitive Daily that exposure to violent video games (and perhaps TV shows?) desensitizes people to violence within controlled, experimental laboratory settings, and that is an interesting finding. However, in examining the world outside of the lab, violent media cannot hope to account for even a trivial share of the variance across time in violent behavior.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Update: Added a chart.
One of the major themes of the past few decades has been the perception that greater cultural homogenization is occurring because of globalization, which is enabled by the changes in technological and institutional parameters. Shared material culture & values may piggyback along the cresting wave of economic integration and growth. An extremely optimistic model might be that we are seeing the emergence of a vast world market unified by a common set of mediating institutions and core values. There is obviously something to this. A substantial number of Muslims defend their religion's feminist credentials and decry polygyny, while Buddhists reframe their own independent tradition as an elucidation of a universal rational spiritual tradition. These responses show the power of Western culture in setting the terms of debate. But these general trends need to be tempered by an attention to the details, the specifics of which may not entail the results in all cases which our general framework would lead us to expect.
Consider the issue of language. The consistent belly-aching over the mass extinction of obscure languages is just the latest chapter in thousands of years of linguistic winnowing. Today the Iberian peninsula is home to a group of related languages aside from Basque. 2,000 years ago it hosted tongues of disparate families; Basque, Celtic, Latin, Punic and a medley of southern Iberian languages such as Tartessian. With the extinction of most and the emergence of a few large blocks one may perhaps argue that there is more discontinuity, not less, when it comes to speech. The logic here is that a welter of dialects would tend to fade into each other, and even when there would be a "jump" across language families (e.g., Finnic to Slavic) there would be a greater number of mediating dialects sharing lexical features to facilitate cross-fertilization. With the rise of nation-states and the expansion of originally narrow dialects into lingua francas which quickly monopolize the public spaces (e.g., modern Italian and French as descendants of particular Florentine or Parisian dialects) these intermediary variants no longer play their roles. Oligopolies of languages sponsored by nation-states force bridge dialects to fade to the margins. What are bridge dialects? Catalan and Occitan are two that I have in mind. Because of the decentralized nature of the modern Spanish polity the former looks like it may have a future, but the latter is slowly being crushed by the dominance of French.
Though language is emotionally salient for many, that is really not what I had in mind. In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order Samuel Huntington presented a thesis which used religion as the major organizing principle around which societies cohere. I am willing to accept this more or less (though language is obviously a major fissure as well). I have argued before that communication improvements are a major reason that I believe Islam is becoming more centralized in terms of belief and practice; the ummah is realizing its unity much more concretely than in the past. Recently I was reading a history of Burma, and the author noted that in the past many Muslims who were in areas where they were a minority were difficult to distinguish from non-Muslims. Most of their practices were similar to their neighbors, and they did not dress any differently, men and women prayed in a mixed setting etc. Much the same could be said of 19th century Bengal, where the outlook of Muslim and Hindu peasants didn't differ greatly and veneration of Hindu and Sufi saints bled into each other, resulting in an operationally syncretistic milieu, the perfect matrix for groups like the Baul to operate and receive patronage. Among abangan Muslims in Java the Ramayana remains very popular. In China the Hui Muslim intellectuals of the 18th century justified the high status of their religion on Confucian principles. In Vietnam the Cham Muslims were known to syncretize their Islam with that of the Mahayana Buddhism of their Vietnamese neighbors. The examples are endless, and one can generalize beyond Islam in South and East Asia.
Things have changed a great deal. In many of these regions Islam has gone through periods of "reform" and new found adherence to "orthodoxy." I suspect that santri Muslims in Java would assert that the spread of their form of Islam simply has to do with education; their Islam is the more authentic Islam, that of the abangan is debased weak tea. In China ties with the West enabled by modern transportation (broadly construed) resulted in a rethinking of the Hui relationship with the majority culture; instead of Confucius as the arbiter of correct thought they began to look to Muslim eminences from Southwest Asia as their authentic sages. In Kerala in South India Yemeni ulema who were reforming the Islam of that region instructed peasant women to no longer go topless as had been their custom when working in the fields. What you see here is a tightening of the ship, a purging and paring back of heterodoxy, heresy and laxity allowed and engendered by isolation.
Or do you? There aren't any black & white answers here, I don't think one can totally deny the thesis that the early texts of Islam reflect an Arab society at variance with assimilative dynamics manifest on the margins of the Muslim world. But there maybe less to the texts than meets the eyes. When reading about Burmese Muslims, or Hui Muslims, and so on, I was struck by the lack of rationalization they seemed to need for the fact that they were subordinated to non-Muslim rulers and populations. Their minority status was taken as a given, and they freely integrated themselves into a non-Muslim order (e.g., Burmese Muslims who served as soldiers, or Hui who entered the bureaucracy via the examination system). To some extent this contrasts with the pro forma nods to propriety near the "center" of the Muslim world; the fact that the Emirate of Granada was a vassal to Christian powers for centuries was long cause for some concern in the domain of political theory. Muslims in the Russian Empire engaged in soul searching as to whether it was acceptable to render under to the Orthodox Christian Tsarina (Catherine the Great). The logic was simply that of jihad and domination; the only peace was that which prevailed under Islamic dominion. That was the argument, but it was breached and contradicted by practice rather early on.
But why did this argument not seem to come up in some lands where Muslims were a small minority? Clearly there is the issue of practicality. There was no question that the Muslims of Burma were in no position to make demands or wage war against the non-Muslim majority. But, going back to my emphasis on communication and identification there was less of an exemplar of extensive Muslim states which expunge pluralism through a process of cultural attrition. Certainly India came close, but the reality remained that it was a primarily Hindu realm demographically, and the Muslim masses of Bengal were only notionally Islamicized during most of history. The apologia offered by the Emirate of Granada and the Tatars who remained within the Russian Empire was necessary because of the affinity & identification with polities where the dominionist narrative was taken for granted. Specifically, the Ottomans offered refuge to any Muslims who emigrated south into their lands, and the Sultan more or less saw himself as the natural lord of the Muslims of Russia. Tatars who remained within a Christian Empire and integrated did so despite the option of emigration or passive resistance and continued loyalty to the Sultan. The Emirate of Granada had successful models of the triumph of the eternal jihad across the Straits of Gibraltar in the Muslim polities of the Maghreb.
Today the information umbrella of the ummah spans the whole globe. Chinese Muslims are no longer ignorant of the currents of change and conformity in the rest of the Islamic world; rather, they are part of the discussion. But as they shift their marginal units of attention to the broader debates in the Muslim world they decrease the attention spent engaging their non-Muslim neighbors. These sorts of processes are complex; note that there is evidence that 19th century reformist Islamic movements in many parts of China succeeded when they used indigenous mythical formula. The paradox is that on the practical level Chinese means were the most efficient method to arrive to the ends of identification of Muslims as distinct from their non-Muslim Chinese neighbors! I bring this up to caution that even if there is a distinct tendency for many Muslims around the world to assert that they are concurrently moving toward a reassertion of 7th century Islamic values, that may not truly be the reality. This goes to emphasizing that despite the anti-liberal ethos of most Islamic fundamentalist movements, their origins, methods and to some extent practical outcomes, imply that substantively they are the product of dynamics of the last few centuries no matter their late antique packaging & marketing. The ubiquity of modern technology within Islamist circles may not be so aberrant or mercenary, but rather hint at structural features at sharp variance with their public propoganda and self-images.
But packaging matters. When the Muslim women of Kerala began wearing blouses some of their Hindu landlords objected that they were putting on airs. When some of these landlords forced the women to revert to their old style of dress their menfolk rebelled and killed them (these were not sui generis in this part of India, the same incidents occurred between landlords and low caste groups, but without the religious valence). Amartya Sen has objected to the emphasis on the Islamic identity of Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom to the exclusion of their Bengaliness, a dimension which they share with Sen (a culturally Hindu Bengali). I suspect though that Sen's objection may be in vain; perhaps the multi-textured demographic landscape is going to cede ground to the religious oligopolies of the future? The very rugged and chaotic nature of the phenotypic space which cultures had previously explored might have served as a buffer to massive seismic collisions which are now going to be inevitable in the world of crashing cultural plates.
The chart to the left illustrates what I'm talking about. Imagine a bounded region, and variation along a character (e.g., % of red-meat derived protein in diet). The further you go back in time the more local variation you tend to see. As you move closer to the present there is "cultural consolidation."
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Dissent has published an article on how pro-choice advocates should start thinking about the prospects of designer babies and the author broaches the subject of regulating, and perhaps prohibiting, access to such procedures. What's striking about the article is the heavy reliance on the "barn door effect" wherein pro-choice advocates, once through the barn door, slam it shut in order to prevent others from using the same rationales to get through the door. For example:
Now, we who support abortion rights may fear that regulating reproductive technologies could endanger our cause. There is no doubt that maintaining the legality of abortion-and fighting to reverse harmful restrictions of it-is paramount. But it is also important for us to sustain a larger moral vision.
The larger moral vision which the author seeks to protect imposes a cost of loss of reproductive freedom on couples who wish to use reproductive technologies. During the Abortion Wars the pro-choice advocates rejected the very notion of a larger moral vision being protected at the cost of individual reproductive freedom yet now, through the use of selective definition, wherein abortion is synonymous with reproductive freedom and the use of reproductive technologies falls outside the definition, some seem fine with the very idea of limiting individual choice in order to advance their vision of a societal interest.
One of the lines of argument she develops begins with the premise that "individual choices can have larger social consequences." I wonder what the author's response would have been to this same premise being used in the early abortion battles, for abortions themselves also create larger social consequences. As women exercise their individual right to abortion they create effects that ripple through society. The same process is at work with regard to access to birth control.
The author makes much of the arbitrary line in the sand she's drawn wherein she places high value on individual liberty for women to control their own bodies and timing of reproduction yet she devalues the individual choice of embryonic trait selection which leads me to question whether she stands for principle or outcome. If the principle of individual liberty is paramount, as we see with free speech cases where disagreeble speech is frequently defended, then we should expect support for individual exercise of reproductive freedom even when one may personally disagree with the choice made. If the outcome is of the highest importance, then we should see the jettisoning of principle when it is no longer convenient. I believe the author is arguing the latter position and this may come to be exploited by those who oppose her viewpoints on abortion, for if one jettisons principle when it is inconvenient to one's immediate concerns then it becomes harder to argue on the basis of principle when one's position is threatened.
I find it interesting to watch these early stumblings on the question of reproductive technologies and the shifting alliances that may result. Earlier I took a rudimentary stab at outline the shifting alliance in the post The Turning of the Tides. One of the most glaring examples of the conundrum reproductive technologies pose for dogmatic feminists was laid bare within this post, Feminist != Support for Reproductive Rights.
While the ideological contortions are interesting to watch what I find most amazing is the penchant for social engineering by fiat. The belief that legislation which restricts a couple's reproductive choice will adequately address what the author see as a problem and that people shall willingly constrain their reproductive choices. Bush and Kennedy championed a law (NCLB) which mandated that all students shall meet proficiency standards in their educations. How's that working out? Is the War on Drugs eliminating all drugs from society? Before abortion was widely legalized, did laws against abortion prevent abortions from taking place? Do Bio-Luddites really believe that prohibitions on advanced reproductive technologies will eliminate choice for parents? The most likely effect will be to drive such parents to underground providers or to exercise their choice overseas, in countries like China, where attitudes on this topic are quite different:
A survey of Chinese scientists working in the field of genetics suggests they overwhelmingly support eugenics to improve public health.
If the authors worried about a class divide developing between the "GenRich" and the rest of the population then the surest way to bring this about is to create a regulatory framework where only those with means can access the service by traveling overseas in order to have their embryos transfered. Does the author imagine that US Customs will maintain a pregnancy screening service for Americans arriving back in the country, or that abortions will be forced on people who have been found to have used reproductive technologies, or that the children, once born, will be born with a Scarlett Letter emblazoned on their foreheads announcing to the world that they are "GenRich."
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Recently I suggested that civilization flourishes in some areas of the world more than others, in part, because winged insects thrive more in environments that are lower in elevation and latitude. These insects are a key source of chronic infectious disease in humans, and having to deal with the recurring symptoms must sap some of your body's resources that could be used for "luxury" processes involved in societal innovation. I neglected to mention that what likely makes wingedness more common in such environments -- a higher degree of environmental heterogeneity -- likely selects for an increase in migratory features more broadly, not just in insects. So some small animal may be more migratory, and it could be carrying parasites or pathogens itself, or be harboring insects that carry pathogens. It's just a lot easier for disease vectors to make their way to you in such environments. And of course, it may be that the fatigue caused by hot, humid weather makes you less productive.
Since then, I looked again at Inductivist's analyses on White IQ in various regions of the US, based on GSS data. In the first two posts (here and here), he showed that adults in the Mountain (MTN) region score better than average on mean IQ and percentage of holders of college degrees. More interesting, though, is the post on IQ and geographical mobility. Although New England and the Mid-Atlantic far and away attract the smartest Whites, the smartest of all are the NE transplants who were raised in MTN. Moreover, none of the bottom 10 pairs consisted of a group that was raised in MTN. By contrast, even though 2nd place goes to those raised in East South Central and who moved to NE, those raised in ESC also occupy 4 of the bottom 10 spots.
Why does growing up in MTN appear to boost your IQ? Probably because the climate is less favorable to the spread of pathogens by vectors that are migratory. And that, again, is probably due to less environmental heterogeneity in that area -- the Rockies are cold, dry, and very high in elevation, all tied to greater environmental stability. That's surely one reason why Colorado in particular performs so well, and its state government should publicize the hell out of Inductivist's findings to draw in wealthy parents who want the best environment for their kids. "Baby Einstein" pre-schools won't accomplish squat, but being raised in the salubrious climate of the Rockies sure will. Even the hot areas in the southern part of MTN, which are less impressive than the northern areas, are not humid or sub-tropical but desert, which is characterized by little environmental change over time or across space.
You might think that the lower population density is also a factor, and that could be, but people raised in regions with high density make a good showing in Inductivist's ranking. Population density is more critical in influencing acute, contagious diseases like the flu or perhaps rarer and wilder stuff like schizophrenia. But it could be that adult IQ is more influenced by the presence of chronic infections that continually disturb the development process. As before, knowledge of which pathogens and which vectors are the culprit is not necessary to believe this idea: just knowing that the local ecology in region X favors such things far more so than in region Y is enough to suspect that diminished IQ in region X is at least partly due to infection.
Moving on to larger concerns, one puzzle that I admitted in the original post was South Asian civilization -- isn't that one of the nastiest places to be climate-wise? I should've investigated further, because the answer is "yes and no." The climates in the Subcontinent vary a lot more than I thought, as you can see in this climate map of India and this climate map of the world. But does climate correlate with degree of civilization in South Asia? Beats me, since I couldn't say which areas over the long-haul show more development than which others. However, I have catalogued below a list of the climates for the capitals of South Asian civilizations beginning in the Neolithic. I used the chronology of Wikipedia's History of India article for convenience, and looked up the capitals there as well.
I'll leave it up to the more historically informed to say whether the hypothesis is supported or not My rough impression is that the North has shown greater development over the past several thousand years, even though the civilizations of the South and Bengal have been no slouches, but that may be wrong in general or perhaps correct broadly but wrong in finer detail. One interesting exception to the rule of Southern climates being more tropical, though, is that of Bangalore -- the "Silicon Valley of India" -- which enjoys a semi-arid climate, lies higher above sea level than Madrid (920 m vs. 667 m), and is known as a "Garden City."
And yes, I know that the current climates where the earliest civilizations flourished might not be identical to what they were at the time, but Iran and the modern countries occupying the Fertile Crescent also have mostly arid or semi-arid climates nowadays. The point is that they didn't consist of tropical wet & dry climates like you find in Sub-Saharan Africa or the Amazonian rainforests.
Civilization (:capital) -- climate
Mehrgarh -- arid
Indus Valley -- arid, semi-arid
Mahajanapadas -- arid, semi-arid, humid sub-trop
Magadha: Rajgir -- humid sub-trop
Maurya: Patna -- humid sub-trop
Satavahana: Pune, Paithan, Amaravati -- humid sub-trop
Kushan: Charikar -- highland, semi-arid; Taxila -- semi-arid; Mathura -- semi-arid
Gupta: Ujjain -- semi-arid; Patna -- humid sub-trop
Pala: Varendra / Rajshahi area -- humid sub-trop; also trop wet & dry
Chola: Tiruchirappalli -- semi-arid, trop wet & dry; Poomphuhar -- trop wet & dry; Gangaikonda Cholapuram -- trop wet & dry
Delhi Sultanate -- semi-arid
Deccan Sultanates -- semi-arid, trop wet & dry
Hoysala: Belur, Halebidu -- trop wet & dry
Kakatiya: Warangal -- trop wet & dry
Vijayanagara -- semi-arid
Mughal: Agra, Delhi -- semi-arid
Sikh Confederacy -- semi-arid, humid sub-trop
Maratha: Pune -- trop wet & dry
Post-Independence: New Delhi -- semi-arid; Islamabad -- semi-arid; Dhaka -- humid sub-trop, trop wet & dry
NB: I left out the period of colonial India for a few reasons that you might object to. First, Europeans certainly cope differently with non-European climates than do the locals, and I want to see whether climate affects degree of civilization even for those who are most adapted to life there. And second, it's my understanding that Europeans were more concerned with establishing superior trading posts and practicing mercantilism than they were with encourgaging civilization per se in South Asia.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
A recent article in Nature, which we blogged about here, reviewed the consequences of agriculture on the nature and prevalence of pathogens that have plagued human beings. One key datum that Wolfe et al. (2007) discuss is the difference between the vectors (or transmitters) of infectious disease in the tropical vs. non-tropical regions, where agriculture has flourished the longest: almost all of the nasty infectious diseases in the tropics are spread by winged insects , whereas most of those in the more advanced areas are spread by human-to-human contact, polluted water, or parasites of small animals (such as the fleas that spread the Bubonic Plague). One consequence of this is that, as the authors note, infectious diseases in the tropics tend to be chronic rather than acute -- in crowded populations that characterize agricultural societies, it won't take long for you to pass your germs to someone nearby, after which point you've served your purpose and can be left alone for the time being (if you aren't shortly killed). If there aren't many people nearby to infect, you're going to have to serve as the host for much longer.
The authors do not note, however, an important evolutionary reason for why the geography of tropical regions causes them to be more plagued by insect-transmitted disease. This shortcoming is odd considering that one of the authors, Jared Diamond, has written best-selling books on human evolution (The Third Chimpanzee) and geography and civilization (Guns, Germs, and Steel). I haven't read either of these in full, so to be sure he didn't cover this issue in GGS, I searched it at Amazon and found no discussion of the prevalence of wingedness among insects. In any case, the key pattern is that the proportion of insects that are winged increases as both latitude and altitude decrease. At a more fine-grained level, wingedness is more common in habitats that are in some sense temporary or unstable, while flightlessness is more common in more permanent, stable habitats .
The basic insight comes from life history theory: in unstable habitats, an individual may be born into awful conditions due to temporal and/or spatial hetereogeneity. Here, it will pay to have a means of migrating to a more hospitable area, while in less volatile habitats an individual probably won't get caught with their pants down, and so flightlessness would increase. Just think of the energy a bug would save by not growing and maintaining their wings if it didn't need them. Most tropical areas have all three features: low in elevation, close to the equator, and more unstable habitat-wise . It's no surprise, then, that such areas are more wracked by insect-borne infectious diseases. There are simply far more winged bugs that can travel far distances transmitting pathogens to humans.
One consequence of all this chronic disease must surely be increased difficulty in founding, let alone maintaining, a great human civilization. Chronic diseases which begin to strike early on in life are likely one reason that mean sub-Saharan African IQ is about 70, while mean African-American IQ is about 85, a full standard-deviation above. Possible mechanisms are not difficult to think of: the parasite that causes Sleeping Sickness get into your brain and slowly destroys it, your body may divert resources to disease defense and repair rather than on "luxury" items like higher IQ, and so on.
Even controlling for IQ, being afflicted with chronic disease must sap one's ability to doggedly pursue long-term projects, whether artistic or scientific, that foster civilization. Probably the best shot sub-Saharan Africa has is south of the Zambezi River, which doesn't suffer from a tropical hellhole climate. At best they could reach the level of African-Americans, who don't dominate Silicon Valley, but who have contributed scores more to the world's culture than Africans in sub-Saharan Africa.  Even in the US, most high African-American culture has largely sprung from cities outside of the dreadful "humid subtropical" climate of the Southeastern states (for example, New York and Chicago).
That pattern is also evident among American Whites, by the way: at the most northern fringe of the Southeastern US there are first-rate research universities (Duke and UNC - Chapel Hill, both in North Carolina), but the region is largely bereft of civilization-propelling institutions. In fact, blogger Inductivist has shown, using General Social Survey data on Whites, that it is a larger source of and magnet for duller Whites, compared to other regions (see here and here). Now, clearly I'm not proposing that epidemic Sleeping Sickness, malaria, etc. are causing the problem in the US. But whatever the more numerous bugs in the Southeast are transmitting to humans, it could partially account for the discrepancy between its level of culture and that of the Northeast. Indeed, from Inductivist's reckoning, it appears that most intelligent people with any sense from that region decide to haul ass to the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.
 From p. 280 of Wolfe et al:
A higher proportion of the diseases is transmitted by insect vectors in the tropics (8/10) than in the temperate zones (2/15) (P less than 0.005, chi-square test, degrees of freedom, d.f. = 51). This difference may be partly related to the seasonal cessations or declines of temperate insect activity.
 For a brief overview, see pp. 349-56 of Roff (2002). For extensive literature reviews, simulations, and so on, see Roff (1990) and Roff (1994).
 As for the non-obvious claim of greater temporal variation as you move toward tropical areas, see Roff (1990: 405):
I tested the hypothesis that habitat persistence varies with latitude with data on the rates of succession on abandoned farmland. In the northerly states of the United States (Wisconsin, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York) shrubs appear only 10-20 yr after abandonment, and even after 40 yr succession does not proceed beyond a very open woodland/parkland condition (Thomson 1943, Bard 1952, Bazzaz 1968,1975, Mellinger and McNaughton 1975, Pickett 1982), while in the more southerly states of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia a closed canopy is formed within 15-30 yr (Billings 1938, Oosting 1942, Quarterman 1957, Nicholson and Monk 1974, 1975, Lindsay and Bratton 1980). In the Mexican tropics invasion by trees occurs within the first 2 yr, and these may reach a height of 10 m within 5 yr (Purata 1986): in the upper Rio Negro region of the Amazon Basin a loose canopy of Cecropia spp. 5 m high was formed within 22 mo (Uhl et al. 1981).
Sidebar: Detroit is fortunate to be situated as far north as it is, or else the reclamation of the city by the wild would have wholly swallowed up most of the area long ago (see here too).
 Alternatively, they could follow the lead of the elite strata of South Asia, who have managed to build a civilization despite vying with tropical Africa for status as the world's chamberpot of infectious disease. There, though, the elites have striven for centuries to isolate themselves genetically from those in lower castes, as well as to minimize their physical contact with the even more bug-bitten lower classes.
Roff, D. (1990). The evolution of flightlessness in insects. Ecological Monographs, 60(4), 389-421.
-------- (1994). Habitat persistence and the evolution of wing dimorphism in insects. The American Naturalist, 144(5), 772-98.
-------- (2002). Life History Evolution. Sinauer Associates: Sunderland, MA.
Wolfe, N., C. Dunavan, & J. Diamond (2007). Origins of major human infectious diseases. Nature, 447, 279-83.