Reevaluating “multiple origins” for modern humans

Following up on the post below, The Deep Origins Of East African Hunter-Gatherers, as well as some discussions on Twitter, I think I want to do some clarification about where I think we are now. My thoughts shouldn’t be a surprise if you have read everything I’ve said, but I may not have put them all together in one place.

Around the turn of the century, nearly twenty years ago, the consensus had definitively turned against a “multiregional” origin of modern humans, toward one where an “out of Africa” migration ~50,000 years ago was paramount. Many people took the “paramount” part and simply asserted that we are all Africans descended from a population that flourished in the east of the continent about 50,000 years ago. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence to support this, at least spottily, from both archaeology and genetics. There were also problems and lacunae in both fields. But the data was spotty enough that the extreme position was defensible.

We now have a lot more information and need to update our model. First, most people agree that indigenous Eurasian hominins, Neanderthals and Denisovans, contributed to the ancestry of people outside of Sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, it’s been evident for a long time now that the massive population bottleneck that is present in all non-African populations dating to ~50,000 years ago is far less evident in Sub-Saharan African genomes.

Finally, it’s pretty clear that humans with modern morphology were present within Africa for hundreds of thousands of years before the movement out of Africa.

Therefore, a new reevaluation of the old model that is converging is a possibility is that multi-regionalism was operative within Africa for hundreds of thousands of years, followed by a massive expansion on the northeast edge of Africa that resulted in most of the ancestry of other human groups outside of the continent, with some assimilation (e.g., Neanderthal). This is a far more complicated model than the older one, but sometimes the truth is more complicated than simplicity.

But I think we’ll probably need to make further modifications, and that’s because gene flow is not always unidirectional. Specifically, the Y chromosomal work, in particular, is strongly indicative of migration of lineages more typical of Eurasians expanding within Africa within the last 50,000 years. And, as a commenter on this weblog has pointed out, even the “deep lineages” within Africa, Y haplogroups A and B, show signs of massive expansion within the last 50,000 years.

This may mean that a population liminal to Africa and Southwest Asia underwent a very rapid expansion ~50,000 years ago. The replacement of indigenous lineages was far more thorough outside of Africa, with 5% or less assimilation in most places. But, it probably impacted Africa as well. Though a larger fraction of diverged modern ancestry persisted in Africans than Eurasian hominin ancestry in non-Africans. In other words, the high genetic diversity of Africans today, and particular groups like the Khoisan, is due to the mixture between an ancient migration from the same population that was the source of “out of Africa” in Eurasia and Oceania, and disparate deeply structured lineages within Africa, that date back 200-400 thousand years ago.

Additionally, I think some earlier “modern” lineages were assimilated in eastern Asia with the latest migration out of Africa. And, some of the ancestry within Africa probably predates the origin of anatomically modern humans, analogous to the case of Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Note: This is not that different of a model from Dienekes Pontikos’ ideas in the 2000s, More support for the Afrasian/Palaeoafrican hypothesis, at the high level. Basically the more evidence has come in, the less crazy his model has gotten.

The deep origins of East African Hunter-Gatherers

PNAs has a new paper out, Genomic evidence for shared common ancestry of East African hunting-gathering populations and insights into local adaptation. From what I can tell this was never a preprint, so it’s all new….

Or is it? Looking closely at some of the populations sampled, I’m about 85% sure that I saw a very early and preliminary analysis of some of these data (probably on a different SNP-chip) at ASHG 2012. I say this because I recall talking to the second author in front of the poster about an obscure hunter-gatherer tribe in Ethiopia that they had sampled. Unlike some graduate students he did not dodge my inquiries by standing away from the poster as if he was not associated with it!

Here is the abstract:

Anatomically modern humans arose in Africa ∼300,000 years ago, but the demographic and adaptive histories of African populations are not well-characterized. Here, we have generated a genome-wide dataset from 840 Africans, residing in western, eastern, southern, and northern Africa, belonging to 50 ethnicities, and speaking languages belonging to four language families. In addition to agriculturalists and pastoralists, our study includes 16 populations that practice, or until recently have practiced, a hunting-gathering (HG) lifestyle. We observe that genetic structure in Africa is broadly correlated not only with geography, but to a lesser extent, with linguistic affiliation and subsistence strategy. Four East African HG (EHG) populations that are geographically distant from each other show evidence of common ancestry: the Hadza and Sandawe in Tanzania, who speak languages with clicks classified as Khoisan; the Dahalo in Kenya, whose language has remnant clicks; and the Sabue in Ethiopia, who speak an unclassified language. Additionally, we observed common ancestry between central African rainforest HGs and southern African San, the latter of whom speak languages with clicks classified as Khoisan. With the exception of the EHG, central African rainforest HGs, and San, other HG groups in Africa appear genetically similar to neighboring agriculturalist or pastoralist populations….

Some of this stuff was vaguely predictable a long time ago. There is a strange tendency in older data and results for hunter-gatherers such as Pygmies and San Bushmen to be closer together genetically against agro-pastoralists and farmers. Additionally, the two most deeply diverged Y chromosomal haplogroups, A and B, tend to be found in African hunter-gatherers in particular. At least at high frequencies.

The main phylogenetic result of this work is some other isolated hunter-gatherers in eastern Africa, more obscure than the Pygmies, Hadza, and San Bushmen, also seem to show deep affinities that set them apart from demographically dominant groups such as Nilotic pastoralists and Bantu farmers.

This is not surprising though in light of ancient DNA. A few years back Pontus Skoglund’s paper showed that there was likely a preexistent relatedness cline in East Africa between the peoples who were present in Ethiopia before the arrival of Eurasians and south toward the ancestors of the modern Khoisan groups in southern Africa.

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The rise of the childless class

Due to the recommendation of a reader of this weblog I’ve been listening to the audiobook of John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. I am good at reading a text. I am not so good at patiently paying attention to the narration of someone speaking.

But with that said, one passage that stuck out at me is where Keegan talks about the tension between the Christian professional class of secular and religious priests and the military nobility of early medieval Europe. Priests and monks were the Christianized cultural descendants of the Roman elite, which engaged in war, but generally focused on literate self-cultivation so as to signal their acceptability to polite society (this was especially true after the 3rd-century emergence of an Illyrian military elite that took up the martial responsibilities of the Roman nobility). The post-Roman and early medieval ruling class, in contrast, was marginally literate at best, and with exceptions took after German warlords in their practices if not their professed beliefs.

Keegan notes that numerically the religious caste and the military caste were balanced, adding to the tension which was punctuated by events such as Humiliation at Canossa which occurred in 1077 AD. But my interest and thoughts were piqued by the realization that this balance between priestly and military castes is neatly paralleled in many societies. It occurred among ancient Indo-Europeans, and continued down into historical periods among Zoroastrian Iranians, and continues down to the present day in Indian among Hindus. In China, the situation is somewhat different, because the bureaucratic and civilian gentry had traditionally subordinated any military element. The famously civilian Song dynasty was founded by a successful general. But in Japan arguably the large Buddhist establishment coexisted with the samurai class, while in the Islamic world the ulema serves to buttress military caste.

And yet there are differences between these groups. The Western Christian priesthood and the Dharmic religious class exhibit a degree of detachment from normal society due to their celibacy. This is not the case for the religious class of Muslims, who marry and have children, just as Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and most Eastern Orthodox priests, do. Though Hindu priests generally marry, an ancient tradition of celibacy exists in Indian culture and persists within Hinduism, and this was transmitted throughout the world via Buddhism.

The Buddhist tendency to produce large self-supporting and independent institutions which supported celibate monks and nuns was one of the main reasons that the Confucian elite objected to the religion: it undermined family life.

The difference between religious and intellectual elites which have a normal family life and those which don’t remind me of a close friend who is a very productive and prominent (for his age) professor at an elite university. Now that he is settled down with someone, the consideration of children has emerged. If they are able to have children, likely a single child due to age, my friend expects that his life will change in many ways. This will impact his work. In fact, when it seemed likely that he was never to have children I did tell him that in a way it was a benefit to him, as he could pursue high-risk research and allocate his time geared purely toward maximizing human knowledge.

Aristotle married and hand children. Plato does not seem to have done so. I think the difference seems entirely reflected in the character of their philosophies. Christianity and the Dharmic religions have had large numbers of religious-intellectual professionals detached from worries of family life as monks across their history. In contrast, Jewish rabbis, Muslim ulema, and Confucian scholars have all had to concern themselves with family life.  I would say on the whole Christianity and the Dharmic religious have concerned themselves more with abstruse philosophical issues around metaphysics, while the latter religions have focused more on the organization of prosaic life so as to further “the good” as they understand it. Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism are fundamentally religions of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

When I say “family life”, I really mean children. Children change you in many ways. For parents, they are the biggest contributions you will make to the human race. Having children can cure many of abstract radicalism and hunger for philosophical speculation.

Of course, not all single people are reading thick scholarly tomes with their marginal time. Most American single people who will never have children are rather stupid, and so focus on consumption, sex, and assorted distracting leisure. They are hedonic machines. But, a minority are devoted to causes. To society. And they have a lot more time than those of us with family obligations.

Over the last generation American society has changed a great deal when it comes to children (or the frequency of):

Delaying marriage is related to delaying childbirth. The median age at first marriage has gone from 20.6 to 27.4 for women and from 23.1 to 29.6 for men since 1967. Age at first birth increased as well. Most babies are born to a married couple, so it is natural to see shifts in the percentage of adults who live with no children in particular age groups.

The largest change in the proportion of adults living without children happened among those aged 18 to 35. In 1967, the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds had children living with them (53.3 percent) but by 2016, less than a third did (31.2 percent).

The changes are even more dramatic among 25- to 34-year-olds. In 1967, 23.9 percent in that age group did not have their own children under their roof. By 2016, the share more than doubled to 61.5 percent.

What are the implications for a much larger number of American adults in their prime years living in households without children?

Societies are complex. I think the existence of a large number of celibate adults as a persistent institution probably resulted in some unique aspects of Western Catholic and Indo-Buddhist cultures. To be frank, I think a sort of strange and peculiar unmooring from reality can occur. The reflexive ridiculousness of Zen or the openness of hyper-rationalism of Thomas Aquinas are both products of this. This isn’t bad. The flourishing of science in Western Europe may have been enabled by the independent and detached institutions of Catholicism.

Today in much of the world we see a different phenomenon from religious institutionalized celibates: the existence of a large number of childless adults outside of a strong institutional framework that channels their energies and leisure. I think a consequence of this may be some peculiar enthusiasms for various radical ideologies.

Open Thread, 2/18/2019

Peter Turchin’s Ages of Discord is now a free rental if you have Amazon Prime (otherwise you will be prompted for a Kindle Unlimited subscription). If you are interested in the kind of stuff I talk about, I highly recommend all of Peter Turchin’s work. For readers of this weblog Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall and War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations would be of most interest.

Speaking of Peter, check out his recent blog post, An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution, which is basically a critique of the two of scholars and an essay, Are we city dwellers or hunter-gatherers? The interesting sociological aspect is that one of the scholars is a pretty unpleasant disputant with critics on social media…and that seems to redound to his fame and influence. Unfortunate incentives.

An Honest Living: What is it like to go from a tenured professorship to an hourly wage driving buses? This piece tries to make sense of an unusual transition. The author is, to be frank, kind of a dick. But there are lots of people with unpleasant and intolerable personalities in academia.

President’s Day sale and DNAGEEKS. Put in the code “PREZ” and you are good to go.

Speaking of presidents, you probably know about The Age of Jackson. A more recent book, The Age of Lincoln is worth reading. And, if you want to get more contemporary views for and against Jacksonianism, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

The post below, The End Of America As The World As We Know It, is gated. But the first two posts should be free. And since the gating is leaky if you want to deal with the hassle you should be able to figure out how to get access (I’m going to make them free after 30 days as well).

The biography of Maximinus Thrax is on sale as Kindle. A lot of the Roman history stuff that is discounted is kind of like a Wikipedia entry, but this biography comes from a serious scholar and has some reviews that are positive from legitimate people. Thrax is a bit of a turning point character, ushering in the period when the Roman Empire was under serious threat from without and within.

Jussie Smollett. I wish there were betting markets for this sort of stuff. Also, those guys were shredded.

More than 26 million people have taken an at-home ancestry test. A bit of an update on the piece David Mittelman and I worked on last year, Consumer genomics will change your life, whether you get tested or not.

What ancient DNA tells us about caste. David Reich was in India for a bit talking about his work. It seems that they’re ready to uncoil their work soon enough. I’ve been told that he said a draft of the paper was written, so it’s probably going through internal revisions with collaborators.

This Mediterranean diet study was hugely impactful. The science has fallen apart.

The Making of a DNA Detective CeCe Moore, an amateur genealogist turned professional, helps police crack decades-old cases.

If you are on Twitter, Thomas Chatterton Williams is worth following.

For those of you who have read this blog since the beginning, you know that Ramez Naam is a friend. How to decarbonize America — and the world.

Mitogenomic evidence of close relationships between New Zealand’s extinct giant raptors and small-sized Australian sister-taxa.

Radiocarbon dates and Bayesian modeling support maritime diffusion model for megaliths in Europe.

A ‘Denisovan’ genetic history of recent human evolution.

A journalist is tweeting out old, and likely false, information, and another journalist is pointing out how you shouldn’t trust this result. Unfortunately, the original tweet-out is getting more RTs and likes than the refutation of the source and the credibility of the result.

I don’t normally read a book such as The Souls of Yellow Folk. First, it’s too much like a memoir, and I don’t care about other peoples’ memories. Second, I am on the same wavelength about most of these sorts of issues as Wes Yang, and I didn’t think I’d encounter anything novel or that pushed me to new views. But Yang is a good writer. Reading on the strong recommendation of a friend.

This week on the BrownCast I’ll be posting a conversation about Native Americans and nationalism with a lawyer.

Noah Smith says replace listening to podcasts with audiobooks. The problem I see with this is when it comes to books I have to give singular attention…so if I wanted to pay attention I’d just read the book. Podcasts are things that are less dense and contingent and I can sample in and out.

New York Did Us All a Favor by Standing Up to Amazon: Yes, Amazon’s departure will modestly hurt the city’s economy. But it’s also a victory against bad economic policy.

The Valentine’s Day episode of The Insight was fun. This was a conversation we could have had for three hours.

Speaking of academics who are irascible, Bob Trivers is burning up Twitter. Worth a follow.

Not happening at genomic speed: diversification of GWAS panels

One of the things that is evident and the norm when you are interested in genetics and genomics is that things happen fast. There are some sciences which proceed at a normal and conventional pace. But, because genomics is fundamentally driven by the synergy of two technologies, modern automated sequencing, and computation, the field has been moving at faster than the speech of light. A single whole genome sequence is now cheaper than $1,000, whereas the first whole genome 20 years ago cost $3,000,000,000!

People who point to a paper in 2010…well, in genomics that’s ancient history. Take a look at the initial HapMap papers from the mid-2000s if you want to have a laugh!

But, there’s one area that it seems “genomic speed” hasn’t applied: and that’s the attempts to increase population diversification necessary in GWAS panels to maximize insight. The figure to the right is from a new preprint, Current clinical use of polygenic scores will risk exacerbating health disparities. To my surprise, over the last few years, the proportion of people of European ancestry, which mostly means Northwest European ancestry, in genome-wide association studies has actually increased. The absolute number increases are still heartening, as a a lot of the low-hanging fruit can probably be picked at sample sizes of thousands.

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The end of America as the world as we know it

Today in Variety, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ No Match for China’s ‘Wandering Earth’ Overseas:

The Chinese New Year is bringing in huge business in the Middle Kingdom. China’s sci-fi epic “The Wandering Earth” pulled in a massive $96.6 million from three territories, bringing its international tally to $606.8 million. Another movie from the Mainland, “Crazy Alien,” earned $28 million for an overseas total of $318 million, while fellow local title “Pegasus” brought in $25.7 million, taking its bounty to $238 million.

Fox’s “Alita: Battle Angel” led films on the Hollywood front, generated $56 million when it launched in 86 overseas markets this weekend. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron, the sci-fi adventure has now grossed $94 million internationally. The movie saw the best opening in Russia, where it earned $6.5 million. “Alita” also had sizable debuts in Mexico ($4.2 million), Australia ($2.9 million), and Thailand ($2.5 million).

The Wandering Earth is based on a story by Liu Cixin. It is kind of a big deal, the second highest grossing mainland Chinese film ever.

The graph at the top of this post is based on data taken from Angus Maddison’s magisterial Contours of the World Economy. No matter how you calculate it, it does look like the United States of America became the world’s largest economy at some point in the last quarter of the 19th century. The USA has maintained that position for more than one hundred years. This has undergirded the power of the United States of America in the second half of the 20th century in all dimensions. Cultural, geopolitical, and yes, moral.

Of course, the size of the economy is not the only thing that matters in relation to influence and power. The Chinese economy was very large in the 19th century, but it was not mobilized and deployed in a manner which allowed China to maintain military parity with Western nations, and later Japan. In the years between 1900 and World War I, the powers of Europe remained culturally and geopolitically at the center of the world, despite the fact that the United States of America had surpassed any specific European power economically. That is, there was a certain “cultural overhang” which was a lagging indicator in relation to economics.

The United States during this period was a debtor nation which maintained very small armed forces as it was rising to economic prominence. Culturally it looked to Europe, with homegrown American movements such as Transcendentalism of national, but not international, interest. The British retained their self-conception as the world’s hegemon after 1900 due to their colonial Empire, despite the factual reality that the USA and Germany had matched or surpassed them economically.

After World War II, the USSR achieved some level of military parity (at least roughly) through mobilization of a disproportionate fraction of its economic resources toward the armed forces. But the USSR never matched the USA in terms of overall economic output or cultural influence. The dissolution of the Communist Bloc after 1990 resulted in the unipolar moment, when the United States of America was unchallenged militarily, geopolitically, and culturally. With the recession of the Japanese economy, the Asian flu of 1998, and American vigor in the second half of the 1990s, the USA was also economically a model for the world again.

As someone who grew into manhood in the 1990s, it was an interesting and charmed time. The future was American. Liberal democratic. Market-oriented. The popular culture of the future would be the American popular culture. The specter of Chinese economic might was still something a generation down the road. Fodder for think pieces. But mostly blue-sky. Abstract.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Twenty years on from 1999 we are now facing the world we had dim glimmers of then. There is a mix of the expected and unexpected. The expected is the demographic-economic juggernaut of China is now within spitting distance of the United States in terms of nominal GDP. Parts of China are already basically a developed economy. Barring a major catastrophe, which some have predicted every few years since the 1990s, China will become the world’s largest economy by 2030, as it was in 1880. One hundred and thirty years of the USA being the largest economy in the world will end.

The period after 2030 is murky. China faces serious demographic headwinds due to the one-child policy. Much of its population will be poor, while coastal areas will be tightly integrated with the rest of the world. The USA will likely remain the wealthiest large nation on a per capita basis for the foreseeable future. China’s preeminence as the largest nation economically will be in the context of much greater parity between it and other big economies, as well as structural factors pointing to its eventual decline. We are not looking to another unipolar, even bipolar (e.g., USA vs. Chinese), world, in the second quarter of the 21st century. Probably the best analogy is the period around 1900 when a mix of cultural, economic, and military proto-superpowers jostled for their time in the sun. The first modern age of globalization of trade and travel.

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Europe had a lot of demographic turnover because there were never many humans

Now things are coming into focus. Population dynamics and socio-spatial organization of the Aurignacian: Scalable quantitative demographic data for western and central Europe:

Demographic estimates are presented for the Aurignacian techno-complex (~42,000 to 33,000 y calBP) and discussed in the context of socio-spatial organization of hunter-gatherer populations. Results of the analytical approach applied estimate a mean of 1,500 persons (upper limit: 3,300; lower limit: 800) for western and central Europe. The temporal and spatial analysis indicates an increase of the population during the Aurignacian as well as marked regional differences in population size and density. Demographic increase and patterns of socio-spatial organization continue during the subsequent early Gravettian period.

If you read The genetic history of Ice Age Europe you know the very first modern humans to arrive in Europe didn’t leave a genetic footprint in future populations. And the impact of both the later Gravettian and the Magdalenian seems to have been marginal. The primary “hunter-gatherer” contribution to modern Europeans is through a group which expanded after ~15,000 BC.

In any case, there are two things that I observe in relation to the population estimates above. First, they aren’t that unreasonable for a large mammal which isn’t much of a primary consumer of plants. Second, such a small and fragmented population indicates that extinction is always a possibility. You can take a standard conservation biological view and just assume statistically that small fragmented groups are likely to extinct over enough generations. Or, you can point out that genetically such small breeding populations (remember that the genetic breeding effective population is always smaller than the census population) are likely to build up deleterious alleles, and that’s probably going to result in a decrease of long term fitness.

In other words, I think localized mutational meltdowns would be possible in this scenario.

The small populations during this period are not surprising. Many of the Neanderthal, Denisovan, and hunter-gatherer (e.g., the first WHG sample) populations had small sizes that led to homogeneity genetically and inbreeding. You see it in the homozygosity data and the runs of homozygosity. Ultimately, it was the larger population sizes due to agriculture which changed things in a fundamental sense.

This makes me wonder what was so advantageous about these marginal modern humans which allowed them to overwhelm and absorb the older Eurasian hominins?

Salman Rushdie and me, 30 years on

Salman Rushdie with Bernie Sanders, 2004

Readers of this weblog know that I have a peculiar relationship to the Salman Rushdie controversy in the late 1980s. When I first heard the name “Salman Rushdie” and book called The Satanic Verses I was by chance not in the United States. I happened to be spending my winter vacation in Bangladesh and was in a rural area of Comilla (near the eastern border with India) traveling with family, visiting shrines dedicated to Sufi ancestors of mine and such. To be frank, I was already skeptical of religion by that point, having realized years ago that people believed in supernatural beings in a deep and intuitive way that I never had. But, my cultural identity still remained nominally Muslim.

Somehow, in rural Bangladesh, word had gotten out that a writer of Indian and Muslim origin, and British national background, had written a blasphemous novel. A group of religious students approached my uncle, who was traveling with us, to have us “translate” some leaflets that were printed in English that they had gotten their hands on. My late uncle was by training a geologist, but his primary focus in life was as a member of the Tablighi Jamaat. These students trusted my uncle immediately and knew that we, his nephews, could speak English. But the pamphlets contained material that was totally inappropriate for children. I remember specifically lines to the effect that “Salman Rushdie claims that Muhammad’s wives and daughters were whores.” To be frank, I did not know the word for “whore” in Bengali, and I did not want to talk about the sexually explicit material that was printed in the leaflet in any case.

The reason I am telling you this is that some of the anger toward Rushdie can be explained by the simple fact that many of the angry people did not read The Satanic Verses, but like me, no doubt heard graphic and false descriptions of the material.

With some hindsight, this incident in the late 1980s illustrates the viral power of propaganda and lies. By the end of the process what Rushdie had written was immaterial. The truth was less important than the cause, and the cause was defending the honor of Islam against an irtidad.

To be entirely honest, the “truth being less important than the cause” is something that is much more prominent in public life from what I can tell today than it was then. When I went back to the United States our class had a discussion about the issue, and my very liberal teacher (she was a major supporter of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988) took a straightforward position in defense of free speech, despite the fact two of her students (myself and Egyptian boy) were from Muslim backgrounds. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, some American and European writers temporized. That is our age.

A brain warped by reading

Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read is an excellent book because it shows how we reuse preexistent cognitive architecture to extend our capacities through cultural creativity. There is, for example, a part of the brain that is localized toward recognizing the shapes of letters to allow immediate “sight reading” of words (higher mathematics is a similar cognitive extension repurposing).

But nothing is without cost. In Reading in the Brain the author recounts evidence that adaptation to reading may have resulted in a diminishment of human ability to localize and situate ourselves on a landscape with few features (and obviously no road signs!). As we live in a world of clerks and not trackers, this is a reasonable trade-off for most. As someone who reads quite a bit, and has read quite a bit since I could read, I’m sure some of my mental peculiarities are the consequence of the warping effect of constantly reading text.

Aside from reading, over the last 15 years, I have written quite a bit. Last I checked >5 million words. That comes to ~10,000 pages. My writing style has evolved and changed. Just as with reading, I’ve reshaped my brain in various ways. Ways I have not reflected on. And perhaps will never be aware of.

The ancients understood the impact of literacy intuitively. The first great transition likely occurred with the utilization of text to record stories and ideas and freeze in place discourses that were previously free-flowing in the ancient agora (as opposed to the accounting function of Linear B and much of Bronze Age writing).

The rise of text also heralded the long and slow decline of the art of memory. The text itself changed qualitatively and quantitatively. Clay tablets and papyrus gave way to parchment, and parchment gave way to paper. The physical form of text also evolved, from scrolls to a codex. The Bible of Christians was famously one of the first major works distributed primarily as a codex. A book as we understand it (though the separate “books” of the Christian Bible hint at its past as a collection of scrolls). Each of these transitions reduced the price and increased the convenience and accessibility of text, but the printing press transformed the game fundamentally. Due to the crash of the cost of books the art of memory what persisted down into the Renaissance finally expired with early modernity.

These reflections are due to the fact that I have now been heavily involved in two major podcasts for some time. One on science and another on broader topics relevant to South Asians. Additionally, I have participated in a few YouTube live streams as well. The first thing to note is that the density of information per unit of time is lower in podcasts than writing. Part of this may just be that I read fast, and I listen with lower than typical comprehension, but part of it is also certainly objective data density because others admit the same. To “fix” this issue most people simply speed up the podcast, to 1.25 or 1.5 times the regular speed.

But there is a second issue: the very form of writing is structured in a way that is different from the necessarily more extemporaneous form of podcasting. Obviously the latter is on a spectrum. Patrick Wyman’s Tides of History podcasts feel like dramatic readings of essays. In contrast, Joe Rogan’s two to three-hour ramble-fests are winding, digressive, and chaotic. I find Rogan quite entertaining, but I suspect the “learning” portion could be condensed into 15 to 20 minutes out of the 2-3 hours.

When it comes to the science podcasts that I run with Spencer Wells I think they are often dense and tight because the topicality is one where both of us are on solid ground, and science itself is a contingent and structured set of ideas and concepts. In contrast, a podcast where several people try to tackle the definition of Hindu nationalism is naturally going to sprawl in unexpected and sometimes muddled directions.

If podcasting is the new blogging, we are in new territory here. Or are we? Perhaps the more extemporaneous and unstructured manner of dialogue that you see in this medium is a throwback to the ancient agora, and the oral cultures which were dominant even among elites more than 2,000 years ago.

Open Thread, 02/11/2019

Rereading Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, and it’s striking how different Americans today are in relation to development and economic growth. Yes, we want to be richer, but in large parts of the country, there is a strong tendency to want to bake incumbency advantages into the cake. Texas and Florida still retain relatively open development cultures, which explains much of their growth. Meanwhile, of course people are fleeing California due to the expensive (at least if you want to have children).

The Brown Pundits BrownCast is pushing along fast. We’ll probably stabilize to somewhere between 4 and 8 episodes a month. The last two have been very popular (they touch on Hindu nationalism).

Having done these podcasts now for a few months…the BrownCast is quite different than The Insight. On The Insight we’re tackling technical and scholarly topics, and the goal is clarity and density of exposition. Not dialogue as such. BrownCast is different.

This causes issues because speaking is far lower data density and less structured than writing. During every podcast, I take notes but rarely get a chance to follow up. Extemporaneous digressions are common. To be frank, it’s probably interesting, but the quality of insight is just lower on a substantive scale.

It makes me much more appreciative of the thesis in Warriors of the Cloisters that the Buddhist recursive-argument technique led to the flowering of scholarship and thought that was progressive, contingent, and cumulative. Written dialogue and disagreement is fruitful because of the external structure imposed upon it, removing the ability of individuals to temporize, dodge, and digress. It makes human stupidity just a little less stupid.

Speaking of stupid. Last week I was having beers with a member of the “mainstream media” who was coming through Austin. We were talking all things D.C., and I mentioned offhand that a key aspect of Ilhan Omar that is not spoken of enough is that she’s likely not very smart in comparison to the average member of Congress. She graduated from North Dakota State University with bachelor’s degrees in political science and international studies in 2011. Her B.A. likely indicates an ability to parrot platitudes. Not the ability to think analytically, or, to engage in verbal parsing so as to be subtle enough to maintain deniability. Her attempt to lift the ban on trans powerlifters is probably sincere.

Relative stupidity is I think an explanation for these sorts of cringe-inducing tweets:

An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution. Peter Turchin reviews a tendentious essay. Of course he’s correct. Of course it won’t matter.

I contributed a chapter to the book, Which of us are Aryans? I didn’t think it would be available in the United States, but according to Amazon some independent booksellers are distributing it! Obviously I talk about genetics. At least what we knew in the summer of 2018. I would like to thank Priya Moorjani in particular for detailed feedback on my initial draft.

Walter Jones, congressman who worked to atone for his Iraq war vote, is dead at 76. Jones was an honest and sincere man. That’s why he never became nationally successful as a politician.

There are so few science blogs in the world now that are active. But here is a new one on quantitative evolutionary biology, After Sol.

The Dune Reboot Could Be the Next Lord of the Rings. Unlikely, but one can hope.

Cupertino Mayor: “Build the Wall”.

A Bell Beaker superhighway.

Patterns of African and Asian admixture in the Afrikaner population of South Africa. No big surprise when it comes to the issue of admixture (confirms what I found). But there are some interesting suggestions of really strong selection. I would bet not a true positive, but if I’m wrong, super notable.

If you aren’t subscribed to my total feed, The ghost of empire and the origin of all repression.

Is there adaptation in the human genome for taste perception and phase I biotransformation?

The Bonfire of the Democrats. Related:

You made your bed now lie in it.

Parag Khanna’s new book, The Future is Asian, is out. I also got a copy of Wes Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk. In general I seem to agree with Wes, so I didn’t see the point in reading a collection of his essays…but a friend suggested I really should because it’s that good. So there you go.

Tides of History has been on fire recently. Games of Thrones and Late Medieval Politics. Patrick Wyman’s podcast is one where when there’s a new episode I immediately listen and ignore the rest of the queue. It’s that good.

Also, this week’s In Our Time is on Aristotle’s Biology. Highly recommend a listen. Armand Leroi, author of The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science, is one of the guests.

Characterization of prevalence and health consequences of uniparental disomy in four million individuals from the general population.

Several people have asked me about my reduced frequency of posting. A major issue is that I’ve been trying to figure out how to implement the MemberPress plugin to my satisfaction (the Patreon I’ve set up for the BrownCast is easier to manage obviously). I have particular concerns and needs, and it’s not entirely easy to customize in the way I want. But at this point, I think I’ve implemented “leaky gating” for this website in a way I want. I am only gating the long-form essays. They will become free after about a month (and you get a few freebies, so it allows outside sites to link without a major issue). I’m currently set up for one tier, a $2/month membership that renews every month. The registration page is here. You can change your status (pause, cancel), on the account page. These two links are on the top right.

It seems everything works correctly except the password reset email. I’ll try and get it fixed, but if anyone has an issue you can email me until I get that working.