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April 26, 2003


Thanks again to everyone who welcomed my introductory blog.

I am planning to post a series of notes discussing various issues of cultural
evolution, altruism, group selection, and so on. Here is the first. I hope this will provoke both critical and constructive comments, including references to empirical and theoretical studies I have overlooked.

Analogies are often drawn between biological evolution and ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ evolution. I believe these analogies are seldom enlightening, and often misleading. There are too many major differences between culture and biology for the analogies to be useful. Notably:

1. In biological heredity an individual has a well-defined set of ‘ancestors’. Coefficients of relationship can be calculated, and genetic regressions and correlations estimated. In contrast, cultural traits can be transmitted between any number of biologically unrelated individuals - even (by means of writing and other media) between people widely separated in time and space.

2. With unimportant exceptions, biological heredity cannot transmit traits acquired during the lifetime of the individual, whereas cultural transmission frequently does.

3. The processes leading to variation in biological heredity - mutation, recombination, meiosis, etc - are unconscious and random, in the sense that they have no tendency to serve any ‘purpose’. (I am ignoring the possibilities of eugenics, artificial selection, genetic engineering, etc.) In contrast, cultural change and innovation are often conscious and aimed at achieving a goal. There appears to be nothing in cultural transmission closely analogous to the ‘randomising’ features of biological heredity, which are important for biological evolution. (I’m aware that in some areas, such as linguistics, attempts have been made to estimate the amount of ‘transmission error’, but this remains a vague and limited analogy to biological mutation.)

4. Individuals have no choice in receiving their biological inheritance, whereas people frequently do have a choice in deciding whether to accept some cultural trait.

5. In biology there is a distinction between the genotype, which contains inherited information, and the phenotype, which is the set of observable traits of the individual, and is not directly inherited. The genotype forms the basis for development of the phenotype, which varies according to ‘nurture’, but has a predictable correlation with the genotype. The phenotype can to some extent be changed by deliberate choice, whereas the genotype cannot (again, ignoring genetic engineering, etc.) By contrast, in culture it is not clear that the genotype-phenotype distinction is applicable at all. Ultimately, cultural behaviour must have some genetic basis, but this may be of a general, species-wide kind. The specific form taken by the culture of a society is only very loosely constrained, if at all, by the genetic basis, as cultural traits can be abandoned or modified almost without limit during the lifetime of an individual.

6. Cultural traits are often specific to certain ethnic or social groups. Because of this it is often argued (or assumed) that in cultural evolution the group, rather than the individual, is the unit of evolution by natural selection. This would entail that groups have a life-cycle of birth, reproduction, and death. But groups do not literally die (except in the rare case of total extinction), and they do not literally reproduce themselves. Also, unlike biological individuals, they may split, reunite, or merge with other groups.

7. In biology, most organisms have the capacity to produce many offspring, and there is considerable variance in reproductive success. This is a prerequisite for natural selection to operate. In culture, by contrast, even if social groups may sometimes in a loose sense reproduce (e.g. by forming colonies), the rate of ‘reproduction’ is very low, and has little variance. For example, there are nearly 200 recognised independent countries in the world, but it is doubtful if any of them can be said to have ‘reproduced’ during the last century (unless you count the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia as ‘reproduction’). Yet there has been immense cultural change in all of those countries during that period.

8. Even when social groups give rise to ‘offspring’ in the form of colonies or emigrant communities, these seldom closely resemble the ‘parents’; e.g. Singapore is formed mainly by people of Chinese origin, but in many respects it is different from China.

9. Biological individuals compete with each other for available resources, and genes compete with each other for possession of genetic ‘loci’. There is nothing closely analogous to this in cultural evolution. It is true that some cultural traits are incompatible with others - you cannot be a Muslim and a Roman Catholic - but this is probably the exception rather than the rule. It is therefore doubtful whether there is a ‘struggle for existence’ among most cultural traits.

10. Biological traits are usually adaptive for the individuals who possess them, in the sense that possession of the trait enhances their reproductive fitness. Genes producing traits that impair reproductive fitness will be eliminated by natural selection. In contrast, there is no reason to suppose that cultural traits (with some important exceptions, such as economic competition in a free market) are usually beneficial in any sense to the individuals or groups that possess them. (As this goes against a lot of sociological and anthropological dogma, I may come back to it in another note.) It is true that people usually believe that their customs (witchcraft, circumcision, sacrificing the first-born, etc) are beneficial, but people hold a lot of false beliefs.

I conclude that the differences between biological and cultural evolution are so great that analogies between them are usually worthless. In particular, I do not believe that cultural traits have been produced by any process closely resembling natural selection.

But I am ‘blogged out’ for now, and will return to this subject again.


Posted by David B at 11:15 AM | | TrackBack

Genetic Weapons

Ok, I'm going to comment on the genetic weapons post because, well, I'm a card-carrying Molecular Biologist. (Although now I'm converting into a Capitalist, and hopefully soon, a Plutocrat--my new boss says he'd like to convert me to paid, full-time by July:) (knock on wood)

A genetic weapon targeted to a particular ethnic group is so unlikely as to be impossible. Reasons:

1) There are few known gene variants that are ONLY present in particular ethnic groups.
2) Targeting these DNA stretches or the proteins produced would be extremely difficult, and unlikely to kill the desired numbers of people because of inter-group variations.
3) It would be impossible in a large, diverse group like the 300+ million Arabs, who run the gamut from previously Hellenized Levantine Arabs to half-sub-Saharan African Egyptians/Sudanese to completely mixed-up Yemeni Arabs (who probably have Jewish, East African, Indian and Arab genes) to Moroccan Berbers.

This does remind me of a simple conspiracy theory by Arabs and some other Muslims who ascribe every nefarious motive they think of to the Jews.

As an aside, to all the aspiring bioterrorists or weapons makers out there, it's much much easier conceptually to simply engineer a virus to be fast-spreading and deadly and then vaccinate your own people against it, while releasing it to your enemies. Of course, the Russians failed at that after 40 years or whatever. But they're Russians. And you'd have to somehow keep it secret from all the intelligence agencies in the world. And assume your enemies couldn't quickly develop a vaccine to it on their own, in the midst of your attack (while dealing with the attack with traditional quarantine measures, etc).

All in all....keep working on your nukes. Physics is easy and clean. Biology is complex and messy.

Posted by david at 11:07 AM | | TrackBack

Rapper's against the gold standard

Read the lyrics for the new Nas single "I Can" and you'll see he opposes the gold standard.... (cool to hear wholesome stuff from a rapper, but the Afrocentric junk is kind of kooky)

Update: Anyone else notice the Christinization of modern rock??? This group Evanescence claims it's not Christian but check out the lyrics for "Bring Me to Life." Their album is titled "Fallen." Here are some lyric samples from "Bring Me to Life":

wake me up inside
wake me up inside
call my name and save me from the dark
bid my blood to run
before i come undone
save me from the nothing i've become
bring me to life

Is that inspirational or what? Once upon a time Rock 'n' Roll was perverted & debauched music but now groups like Creed are bringing a more spiritual sound into the mix. They must hose off kids in the mosh pit with Holy Water now.

Posted by razib at 04:23 AM | | TrackBack

Born to be bad

John Jay Ray points me to this abstract titled Physical Aggression and Expressive Vocabulary in 19-Month-Old Twins. Interesting excerpt:

...A modest but significant correlation (r = -.20) was found between physical aggression and expressive vocabulary. Substantial heritability was found for physical aggression....

The heritability part for physical aggression is not surprising-generations of pussies beget pussies-but the correlation with expressive vocabulary is interesting, though it tends to be loud-mouths that pound the crap out of other kids from what I recall.

Posted by razib at 04:11 AM | | TrackBack

April 25, 2003

soc.history.what-if & blasts from the past

I used to be a participant in soc.history.what-if a few years back (especially 4-5 years ago) and wrote up the "Manzikert Timeline" with Andrew Reeves. I saw a referral from this blog which has links to SHWI participants that I haven't thought of in a while! I know Ikram Saeed remembers me from SHWI and I get an email now & then from people who are familiar from that forum. Anyway, I just wanted to welcome the SHWI people (smart & often as esoterically inclined as I) to the blogosphere! And I didn't even connect Jonathan Edelstein of Head Heeb with the Jonathan Edelstein of SHWI who I riffed off of a few times.

Finally, for GNXPers, looking for the Manzikert file I found some other data I had thought I had lost. I told Steve Sailer a few years ago that I decided to send out an email to a bunch of the profs at various Indian Institute of Technology campuses and ask what their mother tongue was to figure out if Tamil's were overrepresented. Here is the data:

Raw data
Resorted data
Comparison with Census (1990)

I did this survey in the winter of 2000 by sending out a mass email :) Haven't had time to do anything about it, but it was interesting, and confirmed my suspicion that Tamils are overrepresented in the Indian technocrati.

Posted by razib at 09:15 PM | | TrackBack

April 24, 2003

Minority Rule in Argentina

Names of the main presidential candidates in Argentina for the election on the 27th: Ricardo Lopez Murphy, Néstor Kirchner & Carlos Menem. Irish, German and Syrian last names in a country of Spaniards & Italians by origin (with some indigenous contributions of course).

Posted by razib at 01:44 PM | | TrackBack

SARS & Genetic Bombs

OK, away from the race-wars, toward some health/genetics related topics.

Randall Parker has another SARS post up. I've basically started ignoring most analytical SARS stories and just bug Randall to post on it ;) Also, this week's print edition of The Economist has a bunch of SARS articles. I quickly cut & pasted the ones that require registration on the extended entry area below.

Also-Aziz Poonwalla emailed about a controversy that has erupted between Winds of Change & him.

Here is his email:

dunno if you've seen the critique over at WindsOfChange.net yet, but I was wondering what your opinion was regarding the feasibility of a genetic Bomb, that targets a specific ethnic group. I believe it is theoretically possible, Joe K. disagrees. Whats your take/.opinion?

When I went over and read the post over and WindsofChange.NET it was more about anti-Semitism & Mid-East politics than genetics. These topics I have little interest in. I am going to start out by asserting that any posts on this thread related to Grand-Jewish-Conspiracies shall be deleted-partially just to deter a pro-Jew data-flood from godless ;) As for the genetics of it, Aziz is wondering if Israel is developing a genetic weapon of mass destruction against the Arabs.

Is this possible? Well-I think we're pretty far away from it. I've been away from science for a long-time (4 years is a long time) but my friends who were grad students would always whine how wimpy their "genetically engineered" organisms were. We'll do a lot of gene therapy first before we get to being biologically sophisticated enough to do this sort of thing, so if our race is going down the tubes, at least we'll cure a lot of ailments first. But in the future I don't think it will be impossible to re-design a naturally occuring virus and have it target individuals with specific genetic traits. The only problem is that it would probably open up a can of worms, most genetic tendencies that are different in frequencies still occur throughout a host of populations. Nukes & the like are probably going to be far more efficient for the time before our species destroys itself or proceeds toward transhumanism.

One thing that did come up on the WindsofChange.NET is the fact that "40% of Israeli Jews are ethnically Arab." This is a semantic issue, but the studies now indicate that though mtDNA lineages are shared with majority populations, Jews seem to have preserved their male lineages pretty well, so though the Sephardic & Oriental Jews spoke Arabic, they were genetically different from Arabs-though they originate (at least in the Levant) among the same Aramaean culture complex in greater Syria. Additionally the Ashkenazi Jews are separated on the mtDNA lineage from the Arabs pretty clearly so that could be used as a difference to key in on.

But one thing that occurs to me, "the Arabs" are far more genetically diverse than "the Jews," so it seems that genetic WMD would be more plausible against the latter rather than the former. Genetic WMD might have utility against endagomous minorities but would probably be less appropriate in dealing with diverse and amorphous groupings of people-the kind of thing that states would care about (it seems wacked-out bug-eyed individuals tend to be fixated on "problem" minorities).

Since I've been out of science for several years now, I'm curious as to what godless, grady & others, as well as Future Pundit have to say on this. What I'm not curious about is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Fellow bloggers-ban & delete away please to keep this blog evil in its more esoteric fashion rather than in a more conventional way....

The SARS epidemic

China wakes up

Apr 24th 2003 | BEIJING
From The Economist print edition


A health scare may herald much more profound changes

AT BEIJING'S international airport, a parting couple hug and press their mask-covered mouths together in a prophylactic kiss. On the streets of the capital, mask-wearing is fast becoming the norm. Outside foreign embassies, armed police have been reinforced with a new contingent of guards clad in masks and gloves. After weeks in denial, Beijing is suddenly confronting the problem of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

This virus, though less infectious than influenza, is more than twice as deadly as influenza in a pandemic. Its mortality rate, at around 5%, is close to that of bacterial meningitis; and, like meningitis, it gains in horror by killing the young and vigorous as well as the old and frail.

Five months after the first appearance of SARS in the southern province of Guangdong, something snapped at the end of last week. On April 18th, the government information office invited the foreign media to attend a briefing on SARS, to be given two days later by the health minister and the mayor of Beijing. But neither showed up. They had been dismissed—the party's first public sacking of top officials in mid-crisis for incompetence, rather than political incorrectness.

The most senior official to attend was a deputy minister of health, Gao Qiang, who announced that there were 339 confirmed SARS cases in Beijing and another 402 suspected cases, compared with a mere 37 confirmed cases (and an undisclosed number of suspected cases) declared previously. By the 24th, confirmed cases in the city had risen to 774, with another 863 suspected and 39 deaths. This compared with 49 fatalities and 1,359 confirmed cases in the worst-affected area (by official counts), Guangdong. Beijing alone now accounts for a third of all China's reported deaths from SARS.

The upcoming week-long May Day holiday—normally a time when millions travel in crowded trains and buses—was promptly cancelled. Transport operators were ordered to screen out passengers showing possible signs of SARS, such as fever and persistent coughing. Citizens were advised to avoid crowded areas and warned they would be quarantined if they had contact with a SARS patient. On Wednesday, schools in the capital were ordered to close for two weeks.

Why the change of tack? Not out of concern for public health, to be sure; the central government is still lethargic in the face of the far bigger problem of HIV/AIDS, which, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, may result in between 10m and 20m Chinese being HIV-positive within seven years. More important to the leaders was the damage being done to China's image abroad, and the realisation that the economic consequences of being honest may, in the long run, be less severe than those of obfuscation.

Even before the higher figures began to leak out, international events in Beijing were being cancelled because foreigners were refusing to attend and foreign tour-groups were staying away. Dependants of foreigners living in Beijing were beginning to leave the country. China's cover-up of the spread of SARS was causing the country's biggest credibility crisis abroad since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. On April 23rd, compounding the regime's fears, the WHO advised travellers not to go to Beijing—advice not heard since those violent days.

Finding scapegoats
At home, the credibility of China's new leaders, who took office at a party congress last November and a parliamentary session in March, is also at stake. The president and party chief, Hu Jintao, and the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, have been trying to present themselves—as new leaders do, even here—as men attuned to the feelings of ordinary citizens. They have been failing. Hence the unaccustomed rolling of at least a few official heads.

Cynics say, however, that the ousted officials were scapegoats for policymaking errors at a higher level and for the ingrained weaknesses of China's sclerotic and secretive bureaucracy. Bates Gill of the CSIS says the ousted health minister was “a breath of fresh air”, who helped secure the release of an activist detained last year for revealing a secret document on the spread of HIV in China. Neither of the dismissed officials was responsible for the decision to order a news blackout on the development of SARS as it spread across Guangdong in February and reached the capital in March.

The two-week annual session of parliament, which began on March 5th, was an event that no leader wanted marred by panic over a disease. The party controls the media through secret directives issued by the party's Propaganda Department, which is overseen by a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee. The Standing Committee, headed by Mr Hu, would have known about the decision to suppress news coverage of SARS, as well as to avoid preventive measures in Beijing that might alert the public to the problem.

It was not until April 2nd that China's cabinet, headed by Mr Wen, held its first meeting to discuss the SARS problem. This might have been a good time to sideline the health minister, Zhang Wenkang, if he was felt to be underperforming, but instead he was put in charge of SARS prevention. At a news conference the next day, Mr Zhang told a correspondent that “The ordinary people of the mainland are not like the ordinary people of Hong Kong. Their education level is lower. If we released information like they did in Hong Kong, there would be chaos.” Mr Zhang would hardly have made such a remark if Mr Wen had told him to be completely open about the epidemic.

And then there is Jiang Zemin, Mr Hu's predecessor, who is still the country's most powerful man as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. There is little evidence that Mr Jiang has played a significant role in handling the SARS crisis. If he had, the problem in Beijing might have been a little easier to tackle. Of Beijing's 175 hospitals, 16 are under the control of the armed forces and, until last week, were under no obligation to report SARS cases to the city authorities (even though, with their often superior facilities, they are a magnet for military and civilian patients alike). But though bringing such hospitals to heel may help in gathering statistics, their previously separate status does not help explain why Beijing's SARS figures were so seriously understated. The only plausible reason is that people were lying.

The health ministry said on Sunday that it knew of no deliberate cover-ups, but one of the more daring official newspapers has suggested otherwise. The China Business Times accused the Beijing city authorities of “making false reports” and in another article said provincial authorities were giving tardy, incomplete and falsified figures in order to avoid blemishing the careers of officials. Lying is endemic in China's bureaucracy, partly because leaders at all levels are fearful that any mishap reported in their jurisdiction may be used as an excuse to pass them over for promotion or have them dismissed.

The China Business Times also pointed out the discrepancy between the government's decision last weekend to scrap the week-long May Day holiday (citizens will still get one day off) and a statement on April 6th by a senior tourism official that China should take advantage of the movement of tens of millions of holidaymakers around May Day to demonstrate that China is “the safest tourist destination”. Again, the official was presumably speaking in the knowledge that the prime minister would fully agree with him. Mr Wen, it appeared, was determined to play the crisis down and pretend that all was normal, even as Beijing's hospitals were struggling with an upsurge of cases.

Town and country
On roads leading into Beijing's neighbouring province of Hebei, officials have begun stopping some vehicles to check passengers for signs of SARS to prevent the disease from spreading. But such measures have come too late. Official figures show that SARS has now affected 20 of the country's 31 provinces and municipalities. Apart from Guangdong, Beijing and the northern province of Shanxi, each has reported only a tiny handful of cases. Tianjin, the port city closest to Beijing, has reported only eight, the whole of Hebei province has declared only six and Shanghai a mere two. But it is safe to assume that the actual number of cases around the country is significantly higher. With the best will in the world, cash-strapped local governments whose health-care and disease-surveillance systems have fallen into disarray in recent years for want of funds would be extremely hard pressed to monitor the spread of a new disease.

Even in Beijing, the official figures still convey only a partial picture. The city has offered free treatment for poor SARS patients. But this is little consolation to the large numbers with no health insurance, particularly the unemployed and the 3m or so ill-paid migrant labourers (about one-fifth of the city's population) who are too poor to consider hospital treatment in the city. Many with SARS-like symptoms would think twice about any offer of free treatment, since their ailment may well turn out to be something else for which they would have to pay. Compounding this fear is the risk that days of quarantine for themselves and family members could cause a big loss of earnings.

In rural areas, the situation is particularly bleak. The “barefoot-doctor” system established under Mao Zedong to provide basic health care to peasants has broken down. Many township hospitals can now do little more than dispense medicine. As many as 70% of country people cannot afford to pay for medical treatment. On Sunday, the deputy health minister said that if SARS was found to be spreading in the countryside, “the consequences would be extremely serious.” But how will anyone know? On April 23rd the government announced a fund of 2 billion yuan ($240m) to support anti-SARS work in the countryside and among the urban poor. The problem, however, could only be solved by a massive overhaul of the health-care and insurance system that would cost many times more than that.

With their political U-turn, Mr Hu and Mr Wen may help to shore up their image. In Beijing, the party's legitimacy rests largely on its ability to deliver economic growth. Although a severe downturn could precipitate serious social unrest, China's SARS crisis (unlike Hong Kong's) occurs at a time of strong growth. As long as the death toll does not rise (or is not rumoured to rise) dramatically in key urban areas such as Beijing and disruption is short-lived, the new leadership will probably muddle through. But the trust of the rest of the world, which had come to believe that China was beginning to understand the need to play by international rules, could take far longer to repair.

Copyright © 2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Hong Kong's economy

In intensive care

Apr 24th 2003 | HONG KONG
From The Economist print edition

From hopes for a strong recovery to fears of recession within weeks

Masked for school

Get article background

SARS is not bad news for everybody. Makers and retailers of Chinese medicine are struggling to meet demand, as people in Hong Kong and China turn to traditional herbs to boost their immune systems. Telecoms companies are doing well as businessmen cancel meetings and tele-conference instead. Rentals of DVDs and sales of instant noodles have been soaring, as people stay at home.

But these are exceptions to the rule. East Asia is now in the midst of an economic period, says the World Bank, “as troubled and uncertain as any since the 1997-98 financial crisis”. Bill Belchere, an economist at J.P. Morgan, thinks that Hong Kong's economy will shrink by 8% (annualised) during the current quarter and Singapore's by 2%, and that the region as a whole will grow by only 1%. His growth estimate before the outbreak was 4%.

Hong Kong, with more SARS cases than any other city in the world, is by far the worst-hit economy. Its tourist industry, which accounts for 5% of GDP, has been obliterated. Average hotel occupancy over the Easter holidays has fallen by around 80% and is now in single digits. Five hotels are for sale already. Cathay Pacific and Dragonair, Hong Kong's two passenger airlines, have lost two-thirds of their normal traffic. Restaurants are empty.

Domestic demand has dropped as well. Retail prices have been falling since 1998; in March, deflation turned virulent and hit 2.1%. Economists expect that April will be worse. The property market has been in the doldrums since 1997, even without SARS. Now transaction volumes are down sharply, and one property consultant reckons that luxury rental prices will fall by 10% this year.

Exporters, too, are suffering. Earlier this month, Hong Kong's jewellers and watch-makers were banned from an important trade fair in Switzerland, losing many orders. Last week, foreign buyers stayed away from a trade fair in nearby Guangzhou, where many Hong Kong entrepreneurs have factories. According to first estimates, only $730m-worth of orders were booked, compared to $17 billion last year.

The real effects of SARS will not be clear for some time. Hong Kong's small businesses, usually the economy's pride, appear to be hurt most, even if the pain is not yet shown on balance sheets. Bankruptcies will rise, leading to higher unemployment and more loan write-offs by banks.

All this comes at a particularly bad time for Hong Kong. As recently as budget day, March 4th—when the outbreak had begun but was not yet public knowledge—the city's biggest problem seemed to be its deficit. How fast priorities change. On April 23rd, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, said that the government will spend $1.5 billion in rescue money: waiving utility charges for three months, giving out tax rebates and extending emergency loans to the most desperate industries.

Hong Kong is not yet a crisis economy. Forward rates on the Hong Kong dollar, a proxy for the territory's risk premium, have risen in recent weeks, though not enough to suggest that an attack on the currency's peg to the American dollar is imminent. Nevertheless here, as in Singapore and China, everything depends on whether this disease can be controlled.

Copyright © 2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Canada's worries


Apr 24th 2003 | TORONTO
From The Economist print edition

The country's biggest city becomes a pariah

CANADA is the only country outside Asia to have had any deaths from SARS. As of April 22nd, 15 people had succumbed. All lived in or around Toronto. That city has the overwhelming majority of the 320-odd cases reported in Canada, almost all of them directly traceable to contact with travellers who went to Hong Kong in February and March. Hardest hit, both by the disease and by the fear of it, has been the large Asian community that is concentrated in various parts of the city.

Tourism has taken a hard knock, for Toronto is also Canada's tourism capital: 16.3m visitors came last year, spending a total of C$3.5 billion ($2.4 billion). In mid-April, the city's hotels are usually about three-quarters full; this year, occupancy has been about half that. Restaurants and tourist attractions are finding business slow; hundreds of workers have been laid off or put on reduced hours.

The biggest cancellations have been of a couple of medical conventions. The American Association for Cancer Research, for example, was supposed to bring 12,000 doctors to Toronto earlier this month, thereby pumping about $20m into the economy. On April 23rd the World Health Organisation added Toronto, with Beijing and China's Shanxi province, to the list of places to be avoided by international travellers. “You won't be able to take this mark off,” lamented Donald Low, the chief microbiologist at the city's Mount Sinai Hospital. “They could have waited another four or five days.”

Business leaders and the media are calling for a stronger lead from Toronto's mayor. But Mel Lastman, facing his own health problems and widely viewed as a lame duck, was almost invisible until the WHO announcement, which he energetically condemned.

One major issue is compensation for the 7,000-10,000 people in Toronto who have voluntarily quarantined themselves after possibly coming into contact with an infected person. At first, it seemed that these people would be eligible for financial relief only if they developed the illness; now, the federal government may relax its employment-insurance regime to cover them. On April 22nd, Sheila Copps, a senior federal cabinet minister, suggested that the government should classify SARS as a “national disaster”; but no one else in cabinet agreed with her.

Torontonians travelling elsewhere are under wide suspicion. Several countries have said they are not welcome. Torontonians are also becoming suspicious of each other. They are going out less (though the unseasonably cold weather could be partly to blame), and some are looking for alternatives to shaking hands. At one Chinese restaurant chain, managers are interviewing all employees daily to check whether they are showing symptoms.

Politically, the outbreak probably helped to persuade Ernie Eves, Ontario's premier, not to go to the polls this spring. Economically, the cost is harder to judge. The governor of the Bank of Canada, David Dodge, said the outbreak had the potential to cut growth this year, but it was too early to say by how much. The bank cut its growth forecast anyway on April 23rd, from near 3% in January to 2.5%.

Copyright © 2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Posted by razib at 12:42 PM | | TrackBack

Mein Fatherland

Normally I don't see the point of posting the results of the online tests, but I found this Which Country of the World are You? quiz on Zack & Amber's blog and the result was kind of funny & oddly predictable:

Germany -
Despite a controversial recent history, it has had a tough and powerful history. A modern-day
technological and cultural beacon, it is still target to stereotypes and antiquited thoughts.


Technologically Advanced.

Culturally Admired.

Global Power.


Target of Historical Fervor.

Constant Struggle.

Funny-Looking Ethnic Clothing.

This is amusing mostly for those people that know me well (especially in "real life") and what company I tend to keep ;)

Posted by razib at 02:42 AM | | TrackBack

April 23, 2003

Only True Bloods on the side of the Lord of Light?

Despite Birth Bonuses, Zoroastrians in India Fade is a story in The NY Times about the decline in the number of Parsis due to low birthrate & high interrmarriage. It does not bode well for other high achieving groups that wish to maintain their integrity in the midst of other nations. Here is one amusing quote:

The more delicate issue is danced around: the fair-skinned Parsis see themselves as an ethnic group as well as a religion, and many orthodox argue that they have a duty to preserve what one priest called their "genetic distinctness."

"If the trend continues, you won't be able to recognize a Parsi," said Noshir H. Dadrawala, 42, who is among the community's most vocal opponents of mixed marriages.

But some advocates of intermarriage whisper that generations of in-breeding have hardly done wonders for the community's genetic pool. Reformers also argue that notions of separateness amount to a doctrine of racial or ethnic superiority.

Is this really controversial in India or is the author projecting her American sensitivites on a different people? Jawaharal Nehru's family were Pandit Brahmins from Kashmir that had lived in the Gangetic Valley (Uttar Pradesh) for generations who had preserved their phenotype (taller, lighter-skinned) by marrying only their own-the Brahmins of India Proper were not "Aryan" enough for them (I knew a woman who was a Pandit Brahmin and she looked more Persian than Indian). When Nehru's lineage did marry out it was often with quasi or non-Indians. Indira married a Parsi, her son Rajiv married an Italian (her other son Sanjay married an Indian woman).

Take a look at this site and ask yourself if you think that the preservation of the light-skinned phenotype would be a big stretch in India [1].

(story via Steve Sailer)

[1] What I do for this blog-googling for "brown" chix!

Posted by razib at 06:27 PM | | TrackBack

The Creator Race: was McKibben celebrates stagnation

From Razib:

I've decided to post this topic to siphon away some of the comments from the topic below. Additionally I invite others who have accounts on the blog to append their opinion/statement. We are a collective blog, but our opinions are not!

So a few points....

How many "civilizations" are there?

I believe there are three civilizations that have contributed to the semi-universal civilization dominant today that we term "Western," or "Modern." There is the genetic ancestor of the Western civilization that is superimposed over the Islamic Middle East/North Africa & Europe. This civilization has expanded in scope over the ages-its beginnings were among the interconnected riverine & oasis civilizations of the Middle East 5,000 years ago-but gradually crystallized into an axis between Persia at its eastern edges and the Pax Romana at the center and west. With the rise of Islam a split developed between the northern & southern elements of the civilization and it also expanded into new frontiers in northern and eastern Europe (not mention that the boundary between the "West" and the Dar-al-Islam kept changing). But even into the days of the British Empire those Europeans would comment on how journeying into India was a trek into alien rather than foreign or hostile lands-rather than a branch of their own civilization (not matter how distantly related), this was something that had a profoundly different origin and unfamiliar axioms.

South Asia is a smaller civilization. Its contributions to the world civilization have been more abstract and harder to pin down. The religious influence (Buddhism) as well as the possible exchange of ideas between Greek philosophers (from Pythagoros to Plotinus) and the "gymnosophists" (almost certainly the aesetic gurus) stand out. Additionally India has made some mathematical contributions early on that aided in the discoveries of Arabs & Persians during the Islamic apogee. The border between South Asia and the West exists but it is very porous. This can explain the blending of outward phenotypes that you see as semi-white Persians turn into brown Indians-and the free exchange of ideas with Persia acting as a transition culture.

Finally you have China. This civilization does not really need much elucidation, it has the most self-conscious integrated tradition and a well conceived historiography. I don't need to rattle off the technological contributions that the Chinese made despite their inability to systematize them and so pull off the cultural explosion of the Western European West.

How does genetics effect civilization?

This is just my opinion, but I do think that g distributions have an effect in the ability to maintain a literate elite. On the other hand I am open to the idea that g distributions or the mean can shift over time because of different cultural contexts and changes that can effect relative fitness of genes & phenotypes. The idea of decline and fall and rise and ascendence can been gleaned in both ancient Rome and China ("three generations up, three generations down").

That being said-I believe that cultural differences being caused by environmental/genographical variations should be the null hypothesis. Obviously the Japanese are not "genetically inferior" to the Chinese nor are the Swedes any less than the Rhineland Germans, though the latter of each respectively has a far longer "civilized" tradition. Civilization needs many preconditions and it not implausible that in its early stages the regress back to barbarism requires a later outside stimuli (the Classical Greeks did not used a variant of their Linear B script but one based on the Phonecian/Aramaean model)-but later one it can develop through its own impulses.

We should be careful of positing genetic differences as being the root of differentials in "cultural productivity." The Classical Greeks thought the early Republican Romans rather dull individiauls, and true to form, in the philosophies speakers of Greek predominated throughout span of the Roman Empire. The idea that some races-the Latins in this case-could be made out to be naturally dull is an easy explanation. But historical hindsight shows this probably was not so, but rather the orientations of the two cultures were different-a great Latin mind became an orator and politician while a Greek would remain within his polis and might become an intellectual (compare the theological arcana that dominated early medieval Byzantium to the administrative wrangles that fixated the Western Church).

Finally, let me add that I suspect that historical experience shapes the traits that a civilization selects for. The Chinese emphasis on semi-competative examinations probably had an effect on selecting for whatever genes help one master obtuse literary intellectuality. That Sub-Saharan Africa had no native literate tradition (this is fuzzy, literacy comes to Europe and India from the Middle East after all!) might have meant that there was no niche of scribes for those afflicted with myopia (utter conjecture of course!). That Jews have had a literary/intellectual tradition for 2,000 years is used as evidence as to why they excel in professions like law-but the justification often reminds me of racial memory. There is surely something to a long-standing cultural practice, but we should remember that over dozens of generations these practices should shape the genetic profile of the culture!

The Creators?

First, let me get something out of the way. Many people seem to take great pride in their ancestry. Let me make an observation that might seem mean-but those who do this tend not to feel very good about their individual worth. It seems clear that we have a heirarchy of identification, first as an individual, later as whatever you care about (religion, race, ethno-linguistic group, your role-playing club, etc.)-and those that always emphasize on the upper ends of the layers of identification seem a bit off. This occurs in most races, religions, castes and classes. A semi-literate Chinese dishwasher might talk at length about the acheivments of "his people." A Jewish friend of mine would never shut up about the acheivments of "her people." Black people regularly get a pass when they assert that their ancestors were "Kings and Queens" (join the club brothers and sisters! Now whose ancestors were peasants I might ask?). Hindu nationalists regularly make bizarro claims about ancient India where 99.99% of the people lived short-brutish lives while a few in the upper class contemplated the ways of the cosmos (though some of the Indian mystics were lower caste, I believe most like Mahavira & Siddartha were upper caste, especially Kshatriya & Vaishya). And of course we have those that take pride in their "white heritage." The last statement is a little hard to grapple with, because white people have acheived a lot!

The world we see around us was created by white people, most of them northwest European origin. So if you care about this stuff-take pride I suppose. But a problem is that these individuals seem to neglect that northwest Eurpe was for a long time a backwater of sorts-this is not the historical norm and the natural order of things, but the outcome of multiple strands of history, geography and genetics. Though they produced the Principia and Beethoven-northwest Europe didn't invent agriculture, literacy, universal religions, etc. etc. And perhaps the greatest acheivment of northwest Europe is the lionization of the individual-the make of the I more crucial than the We, explaining why most northwest Europeans, in contrast to less accomplished races, do not take particular pride in this day and age..

This blog is run by people of many racial and ethnic origins. Those of us who are non-white tend to be rather cosmopolitan and quite often explicitly pro-Western in our outlook. That means we have a tendency to reflexively roll our eyes when someone trots out the "White makes Right" sort of arguments-as well as People-of-Color-Must-Unite. Such arguments are the two faces of the same coin.

Cultural achievment is the product of multiple variables, environment, historical context, cultural openness and yes, the genetic endowments of the individuals that make up the group in question. That being said-though the genetic endowments and environment are often semi-constant, cultural openness & historical context are ever shifting and interdependent and contingent (ie; would there be a England without a Sumeria or China?).

Rational discussion of facts are always undermined by amusing chest-thumping or unalloyed hatred.

Addendum from Razib: I would also like to add that I am not a "metaphysical racialist." I mean there are those who seem to ascribe an almost mystical significance to the perpetuation of their race. You can couch this in terms of maintaining diversity, and I can understand and to some extent sympathize with their viewpoint as something that needs to be heard, but I don't really share it. If I do have children they are likely to be half-white, knowing my tastes, probably would be able to pass as white (probably look southern European or something). It is likely that they in their turn will marry non-brown individuals. For me personally I don't give much weight to either my racial or religious origins. On the other hand, I don't discount those who assert that races might be on average different on non-trival matters. But just because I agree that race exists as a matter of biology or social organization, I don't care much on a personal level for the perpetuation of "my race." Just so people know where I'm coming from (and I think most of the bloggers who have accounts on GNXP).

Posted by razib at 05:35 PM | | TrackBack

April 20, 2003

McKibben celebrates stagnation

The Sydney Morning Herald today features an article byBill McKibben who celebrates and romanticises human imperfections and then uses his tastes to mount a *moral* argument against improvement through genetic engineering. Let me place a disclaimer here - I'm not trying to argue that genetic engineering should be compulsory, I'm not even trying to argue that it should anyone social obligation to improve the species through genetic engineering. All such matters are matters of taste - I watch with amusement colleagues who obsess over their diets and exercise regimens while I chomper away at American fastfood and spend most of my life sitting down - and I'm glad they're not trying to impose their puritanical versions of extropianism on me. However by the same token, bogus arguments which end up with policy conclusions proscribing 'designer babies' and which seem to be based on nothing more than the author's 'ugh' factor shouldn't be treated as if they were serious philosophical arguments. And every line when a 'why?' question comes up when I read McKibben, he doesn't answer my question, which suggests there isn't much of an argument, just a litany of the author's autobiographical details.

He writes:

the latest plans of Watson and his followers are monstrous in an entirely new way. They look forward to a world of catalogue children, who might spend their entire lives wondering which of their impulses are real and which the product of embryonic intervention. They replace the fate and the free will that have always been at the centre of human meaning with a kind of genetic predestination that will leave our children as semi-robots.

Firstly there's a lot of reason to suspect the concept of free will is meaningless and incapable of operationalisation. So discourse would be much improved by dumping the concept. And any discourse which makes use of the concept is equally meaningless. Think of it this way - say agent A reacts to a stimuli B by action C. Now, if action C was somehow dictated by a chain of cause and effect which originated in some biochemical processes at work since the beginning of agent A's life, perhaps this is what McKibben means by A lacking 'free will'. A lacks free will in the sense that his reactions were predetermined. But what is the alternative? Is the alternative that perhaps there was some random element to reaction C coming out instead of reaction D? Is introducing an element of randomness in the chain of cause and effect equivalent to introducing free will? But if that's so, then, all natural phenomena can be said to have free will owing to the fact that we know that strictly mechanistic linear models of cause-effect don't apply even to natural phenomena - the so called 'chaotic dynamics' picture of the world.

So I suppose what McKibben means is some reaction that isn't assimilable into some cause-effect chain. A bit like an unmoved mover. A bit like God actually. I think the concept of free will is a bit like the concept of God - at best one can be agnostic about its existence. And what the hell does he mean 'fate and free will' and how is that better than a genetic destiny that has been partly determined by a human choice? In fact isn't the latter fate which has been partly determined by human choice according to McKibben's own weird view of the world preferable to one that has been left to 'blind chance'? Or is he just turning the popular expression 'Shit happens' into some sort of Kantian imperative?

However ignoring all these considerations and taking McKibben's metaphysical verbiage as valid for the sake of argument, what does his claim boil down to? Say, if I happen to be a child of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who is born without Tay Sachs disease owing to concerted efforts by my community

Concerted efforts by Ashkenazi Jews to use genetic testing to screen for Tay-Sachs, devastating neurological disorder that was high risk for Askenazi Jews, has resulted in virtual elimination of Tay-Sachs; success has emboldened new effort to use screening to eliminate nine other genetic diseases from Ashkenazic population; some geneticist see effort as payoff of Human Genome Project, but others worry about how people will use sreening information and whether or not they should

Yeah I can imagine one day this child growing up into an adult and lamenting McKibben-style: "My state of well-being owing to lack of Tay-Sachs disease, I wonder, oh I wonder, if only my parents had let it be, whether I would not have had it anyway. How dare they deprive me of experiencing this possibility, how dare they? Better to be a puppet of mystical concepts of 'fate and free will' than a puppet of scientific endavours aimed at improving my well-being'.

Also, what is the difference between a woman deciding not to get pregnant at 50 because of the heightened risk of Down's Syndrome that comes with late pregnancy and a women who employs other state of the art methods of reducing the risk of disability in the child? What about a woman who decides not to smoke and drink during pregnancy? It seems to me that the degree of eugenics in these cases is indeed, as my formulation suggests, a difference in degree rather than in kind from the more ambitious attempts at voluntary eugenics (like the screening out of Tay Sachs disease) that some parents might choose to practice.

Hopes of enhancement and immortality are widely and superficially appealing, drawing on the overpowering love we feel for our children and on our weakness for technological consumerism.

Why isn't what we're doing now to stay alive - for instance, wearing a mask in the presence of a SARS sufferer, avoiding working in places filled with abestos, putting flouride in the water - why aren't all these things 'technological consumerism' relative to what our primate ancestors experienced, pray tell? It seems where we draw a line on this is a personal matter of our own internal trade off. For instance, I don't want to spend my life eating stuff which tastes like cardboard so I'm willing to shave a few years off my life in exchange for eating whatever I want, rather than eating what my health-obsessed colleagues eat.

It's all too easy to imagine that a society that celebrates botulism toxin injections to fight wrinkles might fall for gene injections that seemed to promise a ticket to Harvard, not to mention immortality. But they reflect the shallowest idea about human life - the sense that more is always better. In fact, it is in our limitations that we find our meaning. An eternal robot might be nifty, but it wouldn't be human

What the hell is this supposed to mean? How does wanting to be smarter or healthier or wanting to have healthy and smart children if possible have to do with 'more is better' other than in the sense of 'more well being is better'? If the latter, what exactly is wrong with that? And isn't the genuine sense of well-being that we experience come from overcoming our limitations rather than revelling in them? Is McKibben saying we won't have enough limitations to overcome if we're born too smart and healthy? What an optimistic man. Incidentally by McKibben's chain of logic, isn't Homo Sapiens to Homo Erectus as 'the eternal robot' is to Homo Sapiens? Perhaps McKibben would approve of genetic engineering back to our primate ancestors given the increased degree of personal authenticity to revel in our limitations that this will confer upon us.

Gregory Stock, director of the program in medicine, technology and society at UCLA, has written that "the human mind cannot be the highest summit of cognitive performance". Measured in computations per second, that is certainly true - heck, an executive at Advanced Cell Technology has predicted that scientists soon will be able to add 20 or 30 IQ points to an embryo.

But the human mind may nonetheless be the apex of thinking machinery simply because it is able to hold things in balance, to understand that more can be too much and that there are thresholds we don't need to cross

So not only is a higher IQ not a sufficient condition for wisdom (almost certainly true) but a higher IQ may be incompatible with the current levels of wisdom which have brought us the Holocaust, Hutu-Tutsi massacres, S11, etc? Declining returns of IQ to wisdom? Interesting concept. Either McKibben has a higher IQ than me which is why I can't understand why this should be so, or he has a lower IQ than me and therefore is conferred with an ineffable wisdom which renders greater insight into this curious relationship than I am capable of mustering.

Posted by jason_s at 06:51 PM | | TrackBack

Flame warriors

Check out this very amusing taxonomy of personality types one encounters on the Net. Here are two types we're all very familiar with:

Ethnix is an extremely powerful Warrior who effectively exploits his minority status and the general nervousness about race to gain advantage in battle. Ethnix deftly wields his ethnicity and can instantly shift from defense to offense, keeping even the most skillful Warriors off balance. Impostor, covetous of his power, often impersonates Ethnix, but he can seldom maintain the ruse. While all Warriors are wary of Ethnix, he is most feared by Weenie.

There are two distinct varieties of Ideologue, conservative and liberal, but each being smug and self satisfied in his certitudes, they are really flip sides of the same coin. Though Ideologue's "opinions" merely represent a loose collection of intellectual conceits he is nonetheless astonished, bewildered and angered when his views are not immediately embraced as Truth. He regards honest disagreement as a form of cognitive dissonance that can only be cured by relentless propagandizing. The conservative iteration of Ideologue parades himself as a logical, clear thinker, while the liberal version trumpets his higher level of mental, spiritual and social awareness. Troglodyte is the natural ally of conservative Ideologue, and for liberal Ideologue it is Weenie. Whether conservative or liberal, Ideologue is a fierce, but very predictable Warrior

Posted by jason_s at 06:17 AM | | TrackBack