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July 05, 2003

Losing the Race

Lance Morrow at DuckSeason: Losing the Race. In a nutshell, racism is a crutch for failure.

I would point out in this connection that any form of affirmative action based on race is, well, racism.

Posted by ole at 09:25 PM | | TrackBack

What's in a name?

Compare & contrast this rambling NY TIMES Magzine article on baby name popularity with this succinct one in Nature.

Posted by razib at 12:57 PM | | TrackBack

July 04, 2003

dear laura

Dear Laura,

I am writing to you from Los Angeles, because I think you should know more about Governor Howard Dean. Well, maybe.

See, Laura, I came to this dean2004.meetup.com event because I thought it would be a good way to meet chicks. "More trim than a barbershop floor," that's what I was thinking. But they crammed us into a small room at Zen Sushi (in retrospect I should have gone to the Knitting Factory event, even though it's farther from my house) where I got charged $4 (!) for a bottle of Budweiser and had to sit in a little chair in the middle of the room.

After a speech about different Dean campaign events (did you know he had a fundraiser at the hotel Bel Age? I didn't think so!), they decided to let us go around the room, introduce ourselves, and talk about why we liked Dean.

Well, Laura, these were people who clearly weren't used to having a public forum, so they blathered on ad nauseum about their favorite topics: how ashamed they were to be Americans, how disgusted they were by the (other) Democrats, how frightened they were when they woke up every morning, and how much Bush reminded them of Hitler ("Yeah, I know he hasn't done the whole ... er ... Jewish thing. But he's doing it to Muslims, you know, in Guantanamo...").

This took way too long. When it got to be my turn, I almost said, "I like Dean because he supports military intervention in Liberia," but I chickened out and said, "I'm just here to learn." (There were some cute girls I didn't want to alienate quite yet.)

So here's the kicker. They hand out all these sheets of paper, and explain to us that -- just as the movie studios woo Oscar voters -- we were going to woo Iowa caucus-ers. (It seems a little shady to me, but what do I know...). And so, even though I was there "to learn," I ended up with your name and address, and with a sample form letter which I've completely ignored (except for the "Dear (First Name)" part).

To be honest, Laura, I don't vote. And if I did, I'd probably vote for the libertarians. So I'm not really in a position to advocate Dean or anyone else to you. And since your one vote isn't going to affect the outcome, it doesn't really matter anyway.

We should get to know each other as Americans again and build our American community together. You can write me back or if you have email, save the postage and contact me at joelgrus-at-joelgrus-dot-com.

I'd also love to know what is happening in Iowa. Do you know my friend Kirsten? She's from Ames.


PS I infer from your name that you are a woman-American. Will you send me a picture?

Posted by joel at 05:06 PM | | TrackBack

The New South Africa

This article in The Spectator offers a peak under-the-hood of power politics in South Africa. The author does undersell the ANC's liberal faction (as opposed to the Communist/Left and Africanist/Pan-Africanist wings)-this is a nation that has abolished the dealthy penalty and has some very gay friendly laws. But in general he makes some cogent observations, the Xhosa domination of the state apparatus, the importance of dynastic ties of blood and the ignorance of much of the non-Afrikaaner white South Africa watching press of the differences between the black tribes.

Posted by razib at 07:39 AM | | TrackBack

Enter the godless hordes

The Cultural Left: Making the World Safe for Fundamentalism is an article published by The Secular Web, one of the oldest sites promoting a non-theistic worldview. I have commented before that two groups seem intent on launching broadsides against the soft-pedaling of Islam in vague-theism-friendly American culture: the Christian Fundamentalists (Franklin Graham et al.) and self-identified Secularists (Chris Hitchens & co. being exemplars). These are the two faces of the West at war with each other since the 18th century [1]-but perhaps there might be a truce to acknowledge the emergence of a new rival in the form of PoMo relativism and its foot-soldiers of the non-Western ancien regime. An excerpt:

The Cultural Left is not a movement, an ideology, or a philosophy. It is a set of attitudes and beliefs based on the prejudices of the modern intellectual elite, shored up by shallow and simplistic interpretations of modern philosophy (often Karl Marx) and pop psychology. These beliefs are a hodgepodge of moral relativism, Marxism and political correctness--topped off by an almost pathological hostility to traditional Western civilization and the values it is based upon.

The Cultural Left's belief system is a threat to secularism on many levels, but three reasons stand out above all others:
1.) extreme relativism,
2.) hostility to traditional Western culture, and,
3.) the view that academia, scholarship, education, science, culture and the arts are nothing but weapons for use in political and ideological warfare.

I don't agree with some of the specifics, I think most Christian fundamentalists are wacks and sound like wacks when debating PoMo cracks, but the general message is spot-on in my opinion.

[1] I am being a bit broad in my definitions, the "Fundamentalists" of the modern American scene are a direct byproduct of the anti-Modernist reaction among conservative Protestants in the early 20th century, but their roots can be discerned in the echoes of the First Greak Awakening which occurred concurrently with the ascendence of a secular Deism-the ancestor of modern Secularism.

Posted by razib at 12:07 AM | | TrackBack

July 02, 2003

Into Darkest Africa....

So, we're going to send troops to Liberia. Since the United States ran it as a quasi-colony, I suppose we have some special obligation. But after reading Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe by Martin Meredith the idea of American troops in Africa only depresses me.

Robert Mugabe was taught by Jesuits and has racked up six degrees (not just honorary degrees, real honest to god courses of study). Though his current wife is venal and greedy, Mugabe is relatively abstemious for a "big-man" who is more concerned with power than material acquisition. It is clear that Mugabe is a sly man who would sacrifice his nation on the alter of the worship of his own power & glory.

While Mugabe is relatively educated and Westernized many of the thugs of West Africa are racist dreams come to life, uneducated militaristic brutes that engage in modern day barbarities out of myth and actualize the most offensive stereotypes of black folk [1]. We will go into Africa with the same false promises of democracy & liberty that we prattled on about in Iraq-but the situation in Africa is even less promising. Iraq has a well-educated populace and 5,000 years of urban civilization under its belt. In contrast, most of Africa was jerry-rigged by European nations and formed fully-formed from the head of the colonial Zeus.

The racist Rhodesian government of Ian Smith was unpleasant and had a tinge of Latin-American style authoritarianism even in relation to whites, but it seems clear in hindsight that from a utilitarian perspective Rhodesia was a safer place to live than modern day Zimbabwe [2]. But at least for much of Mugabe's reign the majority of the populace had one-man-one-vote [3]. They have democracy now, though they ended up backing a totalitarian leader. Now the blacks are getting their land back, though they are starving because the cronies of Mugabe that are getting the farms don't know what to do with them. Justice without a full stomach.

There are no easy answers, only hard questions. I hope Bush knows what he's getting into....

Update from Godless:

See my comments below - to make a long story short, it is a MISTAKE for the US to get involved, because no matter how we spin it we will either kill people (and be seen as racists/etc.) or we will not kill people (and be seen as ineffectual UN-crats). In any case, we will have to eventually withdraw. When we do, the people will likely just go back to killing each other. And if you doubt just how war-torn Africa is - see this map from Global Security.org. Almost every country in sub-Saharan Africa is either at war or borders a country at war. Note that this does not even include the insane crime rates in South Africa. Murder, for instance, is variously reported to be committed at between 7 and 10 times the US rate. One guess as to the common characteristics of the perpetrators - and no, there is no prize if you get it right...

The whole Africa situation is to some extent reminiscent of the decades-long paroxysms of war that used to afflict Europe. Nowadays the Euros think they've "outgrown" war by really listening to each others' feelings. I happen to think that this is foolish, because the main reason that war is "unthinkable" on the continent is because Uncle Sam is standing over the potential combatants with a massive billy club. The secondary reason, IMO, is the presence of four nuclear states with interests in Continental Europe. But hey, that's just me...

Update 2 from Godless:

Rather than simply saying "Africa is in trouble", it's worth commenting on which countries in Africa are doing well, and whether their situations are stable and reproducible. I am already on record as saying that I've grudgingly come to the conclusion that the problems of sub-Saharan Africa are mainly genetic. This is because unlike other war-torn regions of the world (e.g. Vietnam, Iran, etc.), as far as I know there are very few mathematically competent expatriates coming out of Africa. With neither ancient civilizations, nor current success, nor many competent expatriates, I don't see much in the way of empirical evidence that enough mathematically able individuals exist to build and maintain technological societies. That said, I am very interested in this claim by John McWhorter that:

Yet many groups have triumphed over similar (or worse) obstacles—including millions of Caribbean and African immigrants in America, from Colin Powell to the thousands of Caribbean children succeeding in precisely the crumbling schools where black American kids fail.

Can anyone provide a citation with the statistical profiles of these groups? I googled for quite a while, to no avail. I'm interested in the absolute numbers, the countries of origin, and whether the numbers are incompatible with a Griffe-style back-of-the-envelope calculation.

A few other very non-PC points...there are some who believe that the wars and diseases that plagued Europe selected for higher planning/intelligence in the population. I'm skeptical as to whether this is the case. Note, however, that questions like this can in principle be answered by population genetic methods, e.g. by ascertaining whether putative IQ related genes suddenly became more prevalent around the time that black-plague resistance conferring alleles became common . Along the same lines, many have speculated on the natural selection effects of AIDS in Africa. It's very non-PC to say so, but AIDS exerts tremendous selection pressure for genetic tendencies that favor planning, self-restraint, and delayed gratification. Of course, this silver lining would come at the cost of the very dark cloud of millions of dead innocents, and is in no respect an argument against providing assistance to those with AIDS.

Ok. So now for positive things in Africa. I'm not very well educated in African history, and all my stuff is coming off the net (with links), so I welcome any corrections. Ogunsiron has nominated Cameroon:

Because of its oil resources and favorable agricultural conditions, Cameroon has one of the best-endowed primary commodity economies in sub-Saharan Africa. Still, it faces many of the serious problems facing other underdeveloped countries, such as a top-heavy civil service and a generally unfavorable climate for business enterprise.

and Gabon:

Gabon enjoys a per capita income four times that of most nations of sub-Saharan Africa. This has supported a sharp decline in extreme poverty; yet because of high income inequality a large proportion of the population remains poor. Gabon depended on timber and manganese until oil was discovered offshore in the early 1970s. The oil sector now accounts for 50% of GDP. Gabon continues to face fluctuating prices for its oil, timber, and manganese exports. Despite the abundance of natural wealth, the economy is hobbled by poor fiscal management.

Also worthy of mention is Botswana, which is perhaps the most successful all-black country in the world (stable + good diamond industry) , but IMO it's headed for a cliff because of its 40% AIDS rates:

Botswana has maintained one of the world's highest growth rates since independence in 1966. Through fiscal discipline and sound management, Botswana has transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in the world to a middle-income country with a per capita GDP of $7,800 in 2001. Two major investment services rank Botswana as the best credit risk in Africa. Diamond mining has fueled much of expansion and currently accounts for more than one-third of GDP and for four-fifths of export earnings. Tourism, subsistence farming, and cattle raising are other key sectors. On the downside, the government must deal with high rates of unemployment and poverty. Unemployment officially is 21%, but unofficial estimates place it closer to 40%. HIV/AIDS infection rates are the highest in the world and threaten Botswana's impressive economic gains.

The common characteristic of these countries is that they have impressive natural resources and relatively stable governments. Like the Middle East, these resources are largely mined and extracted by foreign firms, which probably have some interest in keeping the region stable. However, all three countries are suffering from punishing AIDS epidemics:

In Botswana, a shocking 35.8% of adults are now infected with HIV, while in South Africa, 19.9% are infected, up from 12.9% just two years ago. The adult HIV prevalence rate in Botswana has more than tripled since 1992, when it was an estimated 10%.

In Botswana, life expectancy at birth is now estimated to be 44 years instead of 69 without AIDS. In Zimbabwe, life expectancy is 43 instead of 65.

By the year 2010, crude death rates in Cameroon will have more than doubled as a result of HIV/AIDS. An estimated 340,000 people in Ghana are currently living with HIV.

When the UN is saying things like AIDS will kill half of African youth, IMO the stability of these countries is in doubt. Just to make things clear - it would, of course, be heartening if there was an African country that bucked the trend of AIDS, war, and commodity/loan dependence and developed a technological market economy...but I don't believe that will happen before the advent of genetic engineering. I'd love to be proven wrong.

[1] Child soldiers, mass amputations, ritual cannabilism, etc.

[2] One could protest that blacks were treated as second-class citizens by the regime. This is true, but Ian Smith killed far fewer blacks than Mugabe has. The Matabele people have certainly suffered more ethnic prejudice from the Shona elite under Mugabe than they experienced under the whites-ZANU-PF unleashed North Korean trained terror squads on Matabele villages who burned families alive in front of relatives and made mothers eat their own infants after it was boiled. Even the Shona people have suffered deprivation and the rising specter of an AIDS epidemic while the regime fights foreign wars and concentrates on the "white menace."

[3] Most elections in Zimbabwe have been characterized by intimidation and irregularities, but nonetheless, at least the blacks could vote.

Posted by razib at 11:20 PM | | TrackBack

Dark & sultry?

HAIR'S A SURPRISE: GUYS PREFER BRUNETTES says the NY POST title. I'm mildy skeptical, but I wish someone would do a large-scale survey of this sort of topic, the researcher in question interviewed 50 men and presented the results at a psychology conference. Sounds like contrarian research that can be manipulated by data sample selection bias (only 50 men, and done in an "interview" format), but it wasn't done as a paper in any case, so I can't look up methods & results.

Posted by razib at 09:55 PM | | TrackBack

Geographical notes

Kind of a strange post for me. First, I'm in NYC and am going to be in town until 3 PM July 4th (my plane leaves @ 8 from JFK). My days are kind of free, so if anyone wants to meet up, email me (I am around Gramercy Park).

I have spent the past 2+ weeks on the road and this is my second visit to NYC in a month. Kind of wack. I was in Columbus for a week, very flat, very midwestern. Like Chicago, the attractive women are more meaty than I'm used to on the left coast. Because of Ohio State there is a reasonable young-person's scene, but I swear-to-god that all the males are loaded up on Human Growth Hormone, they probably have fatty marbled flesh for any of the cannibals out there. The OSU library had 11 floors, very nice....

Then off to Vermont where I saw that there was a local "Icelandic Horse Farm." I have no idea..... I was in Montpelier for a week or so, and I really liked it. Small, homey, with several book stores. The only chain shop seemed to be MailBoxes Etc., so in general, it fit your stereotype of a small town, but it was relatively cosmpolitan, and I even saw some of the brown. Vermont is really strange, lots of affluent tiny towns filled with gays & Jews & cosmos alternating with Two-Teeth-Hamlets. And I swear to god the roads are impossible to figure out, they make sure that you really want to come to Vermont, because if you didn't, you'd just give up. American Flatbread had some great pizza, though they refuse to call it that, saying it's "flatbread." It's hard to find too!

Vermont and Columbus were a bit antipodal. While the former wants to keep people out but instead has a lot of bobos flocking in, the latter wants to attract affluents but instead hemorrhages them as OSU loses all its graduates to Chicago and other large cities. America is great, its size & diversity allow for a host of regions and micro-regions that cultivate their own sensibility. If you want cheap housing and less livability, go to Houston. If you want slim job prospects and high rent, but great livability, go to Montpelier (or Portland even!). To each their own....

Posted by razib at 09:44 PM | | TrackBack

"Run-Away Science"?

Everybody knows that you're either born a little boy or a little girl . . . that is of course, unless you're not. Then you can be all sorts of unique things, both in between and none of the above. As Jared Diamond points out, you can be a female pseudohermaphrodite with the female bits on the inside and the dangly parts on the outside or you can be a male pseudohermaphrodite with all the male bits on the inside and an *cough* all too female outside [1]. Or you can be just the plain old-fashioned double-equipped non-pseudo variety of hermaphrodite. You can have all sorts of rare sexual chromosome disorders such as the X-double-Y mythical "hyper-male" combination, or a triple, quadruple, and even quintuple X. But that's besides the point, which is that most people who weren't raised by wolves in the forest are aware of these kinds of biological possibilities and, subsequently that 'maleness' and 'femaleness' aren't some impregnable categories of Platonic essentialness. All possible ambiguities of biological gender have occurred already through Mother Nature's mistakes and they have been observed, recorded, and classified. This is part of the reason why this latest news story confuses me:

"Scientists in the United States have created hybrid human “she-males,” mixing male and female cells in the same embryo, in a move that has outraged fertility experts and anti-abortionists. DR. NORBERT GLEICHER of the Foundation for Reproductive Medicine in Chicago and a colleague injected male cells into female embryos in research which they believe could lead to better treatments or cures for single gene disorders. But their work provoked revulsion when they presented it to the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Madrid, Spain. “There are very good reasons why this type of research is generally rejected by the international research community,” Dr Francoise Shenfield of ESHRE said on Wednesday. “I cannot conceive of any situation in which this particular technique would be acceptable, and if it cannot be applied there is not much use in experimenting with it,” she added. Gleicher and his colleague used male cells because they were easier to track as they studied the development of the embryos up to six days. Their work also sparked outrage from abortion opponents who described it as run-away science. “This is gross manipulation of human life,” said Nuala Scarisbrick of the British anti-abortion group Life. “The creation of a ‘she-male’ is disgusting, but not surprising.”

Now come on, I can understand this kind of metaphysical outrage coming from the "life begins at conception" crowd, but I refuse to accept it from anywhere else. I mean, let's face it, a "male/female hybrid" is not some sort of unreal, shockingly alien concept, that would force us to re-evaluate ourselves and our place in nature and the universe (like say, a chimp/human hybrid), but an almost banal sort of medical abnormality; so the sci-fi sensationalism/outrage would be misplaced even if these cells weren't going to be destroyed before they took any sort of form visible to the human eye.

And calling this thing a "she-male"? Get real. Humans with a penis, a vagina, facial hair, and breasts already exist, and you can find them at the various porn sites scattered across the net that I avoid like the plague. Those are She-males. What Dr. Gleicher is noodling with, on the other hand, is just another organic lump of non-sentient sexless dirt. Please, this thing is not a male or a female, or even a human in any meaningful sense - it's a tiny clump of tissue with no value but what it can do for real people with real sentience and the real capability to suffer. These clods of skin hold many important secrets - secrets that might help dear old Granny from dying of a painful heart condition or Gram'pa from losing all his memories, like say, your name. Those are the humans we should be worrying about the well-being and dignity of, not some microscopic abstraction in a petri dish. And that doesn't just go out to the bona fide mystics, but to the media and everyone else who is susceptible to the anthropomorphic trap.

[1] From the article: ". . .[a male pseudohermaphrodite] looks like a normal woman. Indeed, “she” often conforms to the male ideal of feminine beauty even more than the average woman does because her breasts tend to be well developed and her legs long and graceful. Her complexion is usually flawless and she tends to have the added height of a man. Hence, cases have turned up repeatedly among female fashion models. ".

-Jason Malloy 7/2/03

Posted by Jason Malloy at 09:20 PM | | TrackBack

What is it?

Giant sea creature baffles Chilean scientists is a headline more usual in the late 1800s yellow journalism days, but seems like a weird monster washed ashore down south. Check out this cryptozoology site if that tickles your fancy.

Posted by razib at 01:22 PM | | TrackBack

July 01, 2003


Dave Appell has a post up titled Transhumanists vs. the Human Racists.

Via Paul Orwin.

Update: Ron Bailey reports.

Posted by razib at 07:13 PM | | TrackBack

Democracy - ain't it grand?

Some pretty hilarious stuff can be found on these websites which profile presidential candidates for the 2004 election. Take a look for instance at the site for Other Republican candidates:

Rev. Jack Fellure previously registered with the FEC as a Presidential candidate in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Days after the 2000 election -- but before the winner was known -- Fellure filed FEC paperwork to run again in 2004. Fellure believes that President George H.W. Bush was responsible for fanning "the flames of international, Satanic, Marxist socialism to the exclusion of our national sovereignty." Further, Fellure said that President Clinton subsequently "shifted into overdrive the socialistic, Marxist New World Order agenda." He says our country is "being destroyed by atheists, Marxists, liberals, queers, liars, draft-dodgers, flag-burners, dope addicts, sex perverts and anti-Christians." Fellure, clearly, does not buy into the whole "Big Tent" concept of the GOP. In 1992, Fellure qualified for the NH primary ballot and finished in 24th place (36 votes).

Hmm, he could appeal to some of the folks from VFR.

On the Independent side there's a very close contest for looniest candidate but this guy would have to be in the top 10:

Henri Calitri sent Politics1 a lengthy, handwritten note explaining that he plans to run for President in 2004. It also set forth his rather ... umm ... unusual platform. Here are some excerpts from Calitri's note: "My political party believes in expressing as many laws to put forth as can possibly be conceived ... My dreams consist of forming a unit composed of a modern couple who will assimilate information on the magic techniques of penis enlargement through articles in popular magazines and medical journals ... I am looking forward to creating a large research office in discovering immortality for a human being to live till the age of 925 years ... At this time, I believe that I must become the President of the United States of America, or something similar, to be able to effectively do this. I want human beings to survive, most certainly on earth, as a beautiful organism, in sync with all aliens also living in this zone of space, occuring in the dimension [of] Hell." Huh? From other info found on the net, Calitri is apparently an Aries, a tow truck operator and involved in pagan/wiccan groups. He's also written an article about how tow trucks would have been useful to the ancient Egyptians during the building of the great pyramids. No campaign site yet ... but I can't wait to see it!

Posted by jason_s at 12:01 AM | | TrackBack

June 29, 2003

What was M.E.?

My post about Mitochondrial Eve attracted a bunch of interest - thank you! - and several people asked a key question: what species was ME?

There is no direct evidence about ME at all - we have not found a fossil record of this particular individual.  We can infer logically that she must have existed, and we can deduce approximately how long ago she lived from the amount of variation in Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) among present humans - about 200,000 years ago.  This analysis also indicates the probable region in which she lived - East Africa.

From the age and region, we can deduce the species, see the following timeline:

modern human family tree

As you can see, homo heidelbergensis was the direct ancestor species for homo sapiens.  This species has been further divided into homo sapiens archaic and home sapiens modern; a distinction made based on recent fossil finds.  The earliest human skulls were recently found in Ethiopia, dated about 160,000 years ago.  ME was most likely homo sapiens archaic, although based on this date and region, it is possible she was an early homo sapiens modern.  [ thanks to Dennis O'Neil for the diagram ]

One fascinating point to make in this connection is that there is never a "first organism" for any species.  Much like ME itself, the crown of "earliest organism" for a species is retrospective, since speciation takes place over thousands of years and can only be discerned gradually.  The classic definition of species - organisms which can interbreed - is not as cut and dried as one would like; there are often cases where A can breed with B, and B can breed with C, but A cannot breed with C.

It is interesting to speculate on the early history of ME and her ancestors.  Was there a catastrophic event which eliminated many of ME's competitors, funneling the genetic ancestry through a single line?  Perhaps ME migrated into a region which was spared from a climatic or other environmental event.  Or perhaps ME embodied a mutation which conferred immunity from a particular disease.  ME's daughters and granddaughters might have followed a single evolutionary path, living together in the same region and contributing to a common gene pool.  Or perhaps one or more daughters split off, forming subspecies which ultimately died out.

The transition period from H. sapiens archaic to H. sapiens modern is about 50,000 years, or about 250,000 human generations.  Although that seems like a lot, this is actually a short timescale from an evolutionary standpoint.  The genetic changes over this period would be slight.

It is suggestive that ME apparently lived right at the earliest time where the fossil record indicates the transition from H. sapiens archaic to H. sapiens modern.  The family tree for ME must have contained thousands of branches which did not successfully make it to the present day, although we know from the very definition of ME that it does contain at least two which did!

Posted by ole at 12:08 PM | | TrackBack

Buy a spouse

  Bridewealth payment
Inheritance system
Mating system No Yes Even Sons favored

Monogamy 62% 38% 42% 58%
Limited Polygyny 46% 53% 20% 80%
General polygyny 9% 91% 3% 97%

Society Polygynous Monogamous Polygynous Monogamous

Dowry Absent 624 99 263 45
Dowry present 1 2 5 27

I just bought John Alcock's Animal Behavior for $5 at a used book store here in Montpelier (see my review of Triumph of Sociobiology by the same author). I was flipping through and found these tables in the chapter titled The Evolution of Human Behavior.

Alcock states that "bride-price," the practice of the groom's family paying that of the bride, occurs in societies where there is a shortage of women because wealthy men aquire many wives. In contrast, dowry tends to occur where there is a premium on high status males, in other words, societies where monogamy is enforced and even wealthy males are limited to one wife, who therefore gains all the accrued benefits. 66% of societies surveyed in the Ethnographic Atlas had some form of brideprice, while only 3% practiced dowry (the monogamous upper caste Hindu culture is the most famous of these). Also note that societies in with men can aspire to multiple wives tends to skew inheritance patterns-because sons are a far better investment in terms of returning grandchildren to the parents (at least among those with wealth to give!), while monogamous societies have more balanced reproductive outcomes and therefore patterns of giving to children of both genders.

Posted by razib at 08:00 AM | | TrackBack

Mitochondrial Eve

Of all the women who have ever lived, there was one woman who was special.  She was the common maternal ancestor of all women currently alive.  She was "Mitochondrial Eve".

Consider the set of all women who have ever lived.  Each had exactly one mother.  Now shrink the set of all women to contain only mothers.  Each of them had exactly one mother.  Shrink the set again to contain only mothers of mothers.  Again, each of these women had exactly one mother.  Again, shrink the set to contain only mothers of mothers of mothers.  Continue doing this until you have a set with exactly one woman.  She is the maternal ancestor of all living women; she is Mitochondrial Eve.

We don't know much about ME.  We do know that she had at least two daughters.  If she didn't have any daughters she couldn't be ME, and if she had only one daughter then her daughter would be ME

mitochondriaThe reason this woman is called Mitochondrial Eve is interesting and significant.  Inside all living cells are structures called Mitochondria, which function as the "power sources" for the cell.  Evolutionary biologists believe that mitochondria were originally separate organisms similar to bacteria, which were "captured" by cells long ago.  Mitochondria have their own DNA, separate from the cell's DNA.  All animals inherit their mitochondria and their mitochondrial DNA solely from their mother.  So Mitochondrial Eve is the sole ancestor to a long line of successful mitochondria, and her mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is found in all living humans.

Interestingly, geneticists believe that ME lived as recently as 200,000 years ago, based on the observed variation in mitochondrial DNA found in present-day humans.

When ME was alive, she was almost certainly not "the ME".  There would have been other women alive at the same time who would have had different female ancestors.  It is only retrospectively, as a function of the women alive today, that ME is "the ME".  Furthermore, in the future she may again no longer be "the ME"; the entire female line of one of her daughters may die off, leaving one of her daughters or granddaughters or great-granddaughters or ... with the title.

I find it fascinating that it is logically provable that ME existed.  You may too, or you may be thinking "so what?"  But aside from being an interesting concept, akin to "the tallest living man", what else about ME is interesting?  Well, the fact that mtDNA is inherited solely from one parent makes it a simple and interesting way to track variations in human populations.  It is both easier and more accurate than measuring variations in cell DNA.  Assuming that mtDNA mutates with a relatively consistent rate, and given that all living humans had one common mtDNA ancestor (ME), then measuring the average difference between mtDNA samples taken from human populations is a good way to measure the "evolutionary distance" between them.

mtDNA does not necessarily mutate with the same frequency as cell DNA, in fact, most human geneticists feel it probably mutates far less frequently, both because it is genetically "old", and because it only reproduces by fission, leaving less opportunity for "crossing over".  mtDNA therefore provides an interesting "fixed timeline" for comparing potential mutations and mutation rates in cell DNA.

I should mention that some have argued that mtDNA need not mutate with a relatively consistent rate, due to technical reasons involving the mechanisms of mitochondria formation within cells.  If it doesn't it would make mtDNA variation less useful in genetic studies, but it would not mean there was no ME, contrary to arguments others have advanced.

Mitochondria are essential structures in cells, providing as they do the chemical machinery for generating energy.  We can surmise that at one time there was tremendous selective pressure on mtDNA, leading to the present high peak in the valley of fitness.  Because all living humans have a recent common ancestor, they all have similar mtDNA and similar mitochondrial function, and hence there is little selective pressure.  There is evidence to suggest differences in mitochondria may result in differences in human aging.  This would be an important finding if true, leading to much fruitful research, but would not affect selection in the slightest; what is important in selection is how many children you have and when you have them, not how long you live after you have them...

Other than satisfying the definition given above, what was special about ME?  Well - nothing!  She was in all likelihood an unremarkable woman, not especially different from her contemporaries in any significant way.  Her coronation as ME owes as much to luck as to genetic fitness or any other factor.  But just think how much the course of history would have changed had some accident befallen her!  This is the butterfly effect in evolution :)

{By a similar argument, there was one man who was Y-chromosome Adam, the common male ancestor of all men who are alive today...  It is astronomically unlikely that ME and YA were contemporaries, and even more unlikely that they knew each other or mated together.}

[ This post owes much to Daniel Dennett's classic book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. ]

Comment from Razib: In Y: The Descent of Man the biologist Steve Jones asserts that of the tens of thousands of knights listed in The Doomsday Book (circa 1100) none has left a titled male descendent today.
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