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March 13, 2004

Century City

I just saw a preview for Century City, a new TV series on CBS premiering on Tuesday, March 16, 9PM ET/PT with an additional episode on Saturday, March 20, 10PM ET/PT. The premise of this legal drama is that it takes place in the year 2030 and the clip I saw had the lawyers arguing against soccer mom genetic engineering as being dehumanizing. It looks like GE is a central theme of this vision of the future and I'm hoping that the science is portrayed accurately.

Here is more information. Click on the Enter Century City tab for lots of backstory.

Genetic screening has made the population as a whole more content, well adjusted, personally fulfilled, and healthier; indeed, many of the syndromes and diseases that afflicted people in the twentieth century have been eliminated. However, many people voice concerns that humanity is in danger of losing something essential by this trend toward normative homogeneity. They worry that the richness of human experience will be compromised if we diminish our ability to experience boredom, suffering, alienation, and even despair.

Medical techniques have advanced so quickly that it remains to be seen what unintended consequences they may have, socially as well as physically. The discovery of a "gay gene" has led even unbigoted parents to choose heterosexual children rather than risk the chance of their being persecuted for their sexual orientation. As a result, the nation is in danger of losing a vibrant subculture.

Going further than mere screening, a government program called the Genetic Prototype Project has succeeded in actively engineering people to be stronger, faster, smarter, happier, more resistant to disease, and less susceptible to fatigue, but they have also made them sterile lest their untested new genes escape into the population at large.

Most people are leery of human enhancement when it goes beyond counteracting physical or mental impairment. Augmenting the brains of retarded people with biomechanical devices is one thing, but pumping up athletes with lab-grown muscles, epo receptor mutations, and MGF injections so they can run 45 mph is unpopular with the general public, and enhanced athletes are banned from most sporting events.

I'll hand it to the writers, they're taking every issue in the news today and creating a new world for tomorrow.

Three people can get married, all at once, in Nevada, and the expanded nuclear family has been popularized by the hit sitcom "Mom, Dad, and Jerry." . . .

Law firms function in essentially the same way as ever, though some large companies have begun outsourcing their legal work to firms in India. . . .

Many of the crimes that have troubled human societies for millennia are becoming obsolete, thanks to near-omnipresent surveillance, made possible by the proliferation of small, cheap cameras with high resolution, coupled with sophisticated search algorithms and cheap digital storage. . . .

In an age when every aspect of our lives is monitored, recorded, and managed by computers, hackers have the ability to break the rules and get away with it. . . .

Some things stay the same: Mick Jagger is still touring, thanks to regular doses of telomerase activator.

Posted by TangoMan at 12:30 AM | | TrackBack

March 12, 2004

Here I Stand

In response to my negative response to godless' post/query about the Sunni-Shia split and its correspondence to the Protestant-Catholic division Aziz has offered his own defense of it from a personal angle (he is Shia). Here is the part of Aziz's post I find most interesting:

However, as a Shi'a myself, though, I still find the analogy useful when discussing religion with Christians, because there are some string parallels that I think Razib overlooked....

(My emphasis)

In The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science, "the passion for analogy" is fingered as the one great trait that has allowed sapient humanity to explode beyond its static past. Analogy allows various domains of intellect to communicate and cross-fertilize in a way that leads to further insights. I myself often use chemistry or biology analogies when thinking of public policy. These former are areas where I have a clear and coherent base of systematic knowledge which I can export to reduce unfamiliar concepts and phenomena into pieces that I can get a grip on (the use of diffusion equations in population biology after their extensive application in engineering and physics is an example of method exporation in the sciences).

Aziz is doing this for others when he uses the Protestant-Catholic analogy for the Sunni-Shia split, it leverages a familiar context and maps methods over so that Christians do not need to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, and begin from first principles. Unfortunately, I think the conflations and confusions simply outweigh the insights, this is a case where first principles (studying Islam before being exposed to these analogies) are crucial.

The analogy serves to convey information in a familiar way, and evoke common impressions and gestalt understanding over the bridge of disparate experience and perspective. Ends justify the analogy, if it serves as a valid short-cut, and allows one to have an accurate conception of an unfamiliar topic, the analogy works.

But sometimes things go wrong. To use an analogy-imagine that a civil engineer has two equations, both with some predictive power as to the state of a bridge under stressed conditions. Both are approximations-they are models that encapsulate salient variables, not exact replicas of every aspect of the bridge and the various conditions, and the equations might even simplify nuances of behavior or process to the point where someone might assert that it is an inaccurate description of reality. Nonetheless, one equation might be far better at modelling the reaction of the bridge under stress. In this case, the equation that one picks has important ramifications, lives hang in the balance, literally.

In this way-one might see how it is important that the analogies we use can have dramatic long-term consequences. The Islam & Reformation duet, closely tied to the Protestant-Catholic /Sunni-Shia analogy, shows up 30 times since 1996 in The New York Times, the United States' premier middle-brow journal. Sometimes you get columnists popping off about how Islam needs a Pope. These analogies and ideas are real, in wide currency, and sometimes permeate middle-brow discourse, and wend their way downward toward the masses in a dilute and spare form.

Back to Aziz's assertion that Shia resemble Catholics. His points seem to be centered around the quasi-clerical tendencies of the Shia, their mediation between lay and Lord via a clerical caste, the heirs to Ali. To me, this smells of a "look & feel" sort of argument. As someone who has always been rather secular, if not atheist, but from a Sunni background, I will admit frankly that Protestant houses of worship stink less of idolatry than Catholic houses of God. Sunni faith is often presented as starkly simple, a relationship between Allah and the believer, mediated by scripture alone (though as in Protestantism in practice "clerics" have as much power over believers as their more imam-ridden co-religionists).

But scratch further. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, and Protestantism has traditionally had a tendency to educate believers to read their scripture in the vernacular. There is nothing like this (at least traditionally) in the Sunni tradition. While The King James Version was compiled 400 years before the present, the Koran is a crystallization of 8th century Arabic. The lack of mediation between believer and God in Protestantism was facilitated by the lay being encouraged to study the Bible and absorb it first-hand. There is no real correspondence to this in much of the Sunni world, where only those of great piety or religious vocational aspirations read the Koran with meaning in mind.

I could go on, but to me this is one of the big flaws in pushing forward the prominence of "look & feel" when there are deep substantiative differences between Protestantism and any form of Islam. Those in the know will take points of substance in Protestant disputes with Catholicism and try to map them into Islam-when they are simply not relevant or not-applicable. Those who are less religiously rigorous will take their "general impressions" and transfer them over, with even more strange beliefs being ascribed in an alien religious landscape than in their putative spiritual homes.

Finally, to make an analogy between A and B, at least one party should know A and B inside out. My personal impression is that most Muslims simply do not understand the history and nuances of Christianity do this with the subtlety necessary. Perhaps more importantly, in the American context, many Protestants and Catholics simply do not have a very good conception of the historic relationship of their faiths to make any sense of the analogy in the first place.

Let me elaborate. Many Protestants (often conservative evangelicals) I know speak of "converting Catholics to Christianity." Some of the radicals still speak of Rome as the Whore of Babylon. Many American Catholics have little deep understanding of their faith, it is simply a cultural accoutrement, their religious life resembling middling Protestantism, their spiritual-talk being very similar to their Protestant colleagues.

In sum:

1) Most Muslims do not know enough about Christianity to communicate any possible analogy very well.
2) Many American Christians are rather fuzzy as to the axiomatic elements than define their faith as distinct within their religious tradition.
3) Even if 1 & 2 are not problematic, the analogy tends to convey an aesthetic/emotional sensiblity, when policy makers and "thinkers" should be exploring deep structural fault lines, they will get confused by the cosmetic typologies, and might make decisions as variance with the equation-of-best-fit.

Solution? Let's dump these analogies, and take the long hard path of learning Christianity and Islam from first principles. Individuals can then make their own decisions as to the applicability of these analogies.

Addendum: As a historical point highlighting the importance of mental analogies, when Jesuits first arrived in China, they saw their counterparts in the Buddhist clerics who were a prominent part of the life of the Orient. Soon enough they realized that these men had low status, and their switched their garb to that of Confucian Mandarins. In a similar confusion, many easterners viewed the Catholics in their garb to simply be attempting to propogate a new form of Buddhism. I have also read that in China Protestants and Catholics initially used different words for "God" (that is, appropriate translations of God into Chinese vernacular), resulting a larger chasm between the two faiths than might have been their intention.

Also, as to my suggestion to "go back to first principles," that does not preclude that these analogies might resurface, though in a more strictly defined fashion. One thing we need to look at are the definitions that we take for granted. Here is the definition for "catholic" from dictionary.com:

  1. Of broad or liberal scope; comprehensive: “The 100-odd pages of formulas and constants are surely the most catholic to be found” (Scientific American).
  2. Including or concerning all humankind; universal: “what was of catholic rather than national interest” (J.A. Froude).
  3. Catholic

    1. Of or involving the Roman Catholic Church.
    2. Of or relating to the universal Christian church.
    3. Of or relating to the ancient undivided Christian church.
    4. Of or relating to those churches that have claimed to be representatives of the ancient undivided church.

Posted by razib at 11:43 PM | | TrackBack

Generation game

Jim is Jack's uncle. But Jack says he is Jim's uncle. Is this possible, without incest or other naughtiness?

By 'uncle', I mean a relationship by blood, not by marriage, adoption, etc.

A solution is in the continuation. You may think of others.


John marries Jane. They have a daughter, Jill. Jill marries Julian, and they have a son, Jim. But Jill dies, and Julian marries Jean. Julian and Jean have a daughter, June. After about 18 years, John's wife Jane dies, and John, being a bit of an old goat, marries June - quite properly, as they are not blood relatives. John and June have a son, Jack.

Jim is Jack's uncle, since his half-sister June is Jack's mother. But Jack is also Jim's uncle, as his half-sister Jill is Jim's mother.

I dare say this has actually happened somewhere in Arkansas.

Posted by David B at 12:27 PM | | TrackBack

Hot or not

This attractiveness test over at Match.com is pretty wack. Takes about 15-30 minutes, and you need flash, but you can bookmark your results from the link in the email (via Dienekes).

Posted by razib at 12:19 PM | | TrackBack

March 11, 2004

Do what grandma says
Posted by razib at 04:34 PM | | TrackBack

Exogenous Etruscans?

Dienekes posts a study that indicates that the Etruscans had mtDNA similar to peoples of the southern and eastern Mediterranean. These are elite burials, so there is likely selection bias, but I think this is a big point in favor of the non-indigenous hypothesis for the origin of the Etruscans. One comment on Dienekes' blog suggested that this tells us nothing about the Y line-but other studies indicate that non-local elites tend to slant toward variance from the local genetic profile on the male line of descent, so the reality of noticeable exogenous mtDNA to me implies exogenous Y lineages. Of course, I might be wrong, the Etruscans might have been the result of matings between a sea-faring race of lady-merchants who set up shop with autochthonous males-as I have noted before, they were rather feminist in comparison to other ancient peoples, but I'm still skeptical....

Posted by razib at 03:35 PM | | TrackBack

McDonald on Manji

Randy McDonald has a nice post about Irshad Manji visiting his university. Randy notes that strictly applied, elements of Roman Catholicism would be in conflict with pluralistic liberalism in the way Islam seems to be. True, but from where I stand, in the American context, Catholics have solved the problem by becoming operational Protestants-neglecting doctrine and Church teaching that is uncongenial to them, and speaking about faith in a way that is distinctly individualistic. Oh, and it took a while too....

Posted by razib at 02:47 PM | | TrackBack

"Myth," "fact," and other such things....

From Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition 400-1400, page 59:

...Tacitus claims that German women enjoy legal and social rights far greater than those of Roman women and that marriage vows are respected, in contrast to the sexual immorality and easy divorce prevalent in Rome. In fact, while Roman matrons could escape the legal tutelage of male relatives if they had borne three children...German women in the early law codes remained under such tutelage for life. While Tacitus does note the institution of bride-price and the morning gift a Germanic husband gives his wife in contrast to the dowry given by the Roman bride's family...he omits the fact that some Germanic groups practiced polygyny.

Got that? The effete southron Latins were monogamous and granted more legal rights to their women-folk than the sturdy Germanic peoples who have birthed liberalism. How's that to conflate stereotypes?

I bring this up because some GNXP readers, and far more frequently in racial/ethnic nationalist (white, black, brown, yellow, etc.) venues, evince what I would term ethno-autism, roughly speaking, and inability to conceive other peoples and cultures as fully fleshed out organisms who have their own creativity, histories and genius, and most importantly values congruent with those of modern Western civilization. Just as Philo of Alexandria tried to show how his own Jewish culture espoused the same positive traits of the Hellenistic civilization of which he was a part, many modern day ethnic groups project their own values as being the wellspring of the universal Western culture they see, or at least the ideal that the Western culture aims for. This neglects crucial importance of human universals within the context of cultural malleability. In other words, while I find matriarchy implausible and at odds with our mental substrate, many human cultures have practiced matrilineal, bilineal and patrilineal descent, showing the importance of a flexibility within constraints.

I will move back to northern Europe and this issue of the Germans and their affinal peoples, but want to explicate of what I speak, ethno-autism, in more detail with two groups that I have observed it in.

  • When I read Shanti Magala's blog I understand that there will more than the usual number of Hindus. I encounter one opinion now and then, which contrasts Hindu tolerance and pluralism with "other religions." The implication, sometimes stated baldly, is that Hinduism is unique its toleration and acceptance of religious pluralism. This is of course false, but it is an idea that salves the individual egos of Hindus, as it ascribes to their culture a trait which is the aim of the universal Western culture that they reside in (I speak of non-resident Indians and the Westernized Indian elite). If you compare Hindus to Muslims, this is most certainly a true, and flattering, comparison. If you compare Hindus to Christians, there is again some truth in this. But there the contrast stops. The indigenous cultures of eastern and southeastern Asia have themselves integrated and accepted Hindu (Indian) religious ideas. True, there have been religious conflicts, but they are often of a political, rather than spiritual nature, and even within India one may point to individual acts of persecution of Hindus by Buddhists and Jains or the reverse (though I reject that this is symptomatic of the culture). Tolerance, acceptance of religious pluralism, and the lack of need to proslyetize do make Hinduism congenial to ascepts of Western liberalism. But one could say this about many groups, most prominently in the American context, Jews....
  • It always strikes me as peculiar that a Jewish rabbi could say, "Judaism, virtually alone among the religions of the world, is not a proselytizing faith and we actively discourage those who seek to join because we do not believe they upgrade their existence by doing so." This, on a religion website that has spokesmen from the many other religions that do have those exact same beliefs. Certainly this sort of myopia is not a Jewish sin, I note above that Hindus do not give Zoroastrians, Shintoists, Confucians and assorted other religious faiths their fair due.

Hindu and Jewish contrasts with Islam & Christianity exist in a particular social context. Jews, prior to the the restrictions of Islam and Christianity were aggressive, and sometimes intolerant, in proslyetizing. The Jewish preference for tolerance and pluralism is acceptance of a fact of their existence-not some deep-rooted ideal of the religion. Hindus, it is true, do not proslyetize aggressively or practice much intolerance, but then, but of course, caste acts as an integrative and segregative phenomenon that makes conversion or unified outlook unecessary. Tolerance and religious pluralism is gained at a rather repulsive cost (from the Western perspective).

I could go on with more examples, the Chinese and their common attitude that it-was-all-invented-in-China (the Chinese who were rather less than clever with the use of iron for far longer than western Eurasia) or the Muslims and their it-is-all-in-the-Koran dogma (the Koran that is sometimes obviously a second-hand copy of parts of the Jewish and Christian religious texts). Just as an isolated tribe are "the People," so that tribe knows that kindness, altruism and forethought are traits of "the People," and accidents or acquired traits in "Others." I always think this when I read commentary on the Hebrew Bible and a scholar speaks eloquently of the genius of ethical monotheism, as if ethics are a concept lacking from the Greek, Indian or Chinese civilizations (let alone the typical individual human!), created ex nihilo by the Lord God, rather than in the context of Zoroastrian and Hellenistic thought. This cultural narcissism is possibly a human universal, just as the good & the bad are in all individuals, and so the groups that they form.

Back to the Germans and their possible misogyny. It is certainly not conclusive from the quote above, and Norse sagas I have scanned do not indicate rife polygyny, though the practice is also not verboten, and does crop up. The early Church ecclesiastics like Gregory of Tours even noted that the practice continued among the Merovingians and the kings of the Burgundians, even after Christianization. Also, note that the quote above juxtaposes bride-price and polygyny, as if the former implied the high status of women, while the latter was a manifestation of females as objects. As I've noted before, bride-price is a tendency of polygynous cultures that are highly patriarchal! I have even heard Muslims disparage Hindus by comparison because they practice bride-price (not all Muslims do), indicating that they esteem their women-folk (good, because the West says so!), while traditional Hindus practice dowry, and so view them as a burden. Dowry seems to be a practice of highly socially stratified monogamous societies. Just like the Romans!

The Romans, like the Greeks, were generally a monogamous people. It seems plausible that the enforcement of monogamy as the norm among Christians is the result of the Greco-Roman character of the majority of the early Church, or at least the elite theoreticians, of that faith. In many Third World nations newly Christianized, such "Western" accreations are in fact being abandoned.

An "objective" evaluation of the "status" of women in ancient cultures can be difficult. For instance, Athenian women were famously segregated and excluded from the public square, in contrast to Roman women, who though not active players, were names to be reckoned with (Livia Drusilla, the Agrippinas, the Serverian Julias, and so on). But one must extend the granularity of generalizations, after all, Spartan women from what I know were more active players in their brutal oligarchic despotism, while Olympias of Epirus, the mother of Alexander the Great, was a prominent (if maligned) figure in the politics and intrigue of Macedonia and the early Hellenistic age. Among the northern peoples of Europe itself, the Celts seem to have had a prominent role for women in the public sphere, while among the early Japanese warrior-queens and matrilocality were not out of the norm. And lest one think that only the cold winds of Europe allowed the rights of women to flourish, the independence (often economic as well as social) of West African women is well known, while ancient Sumeria and Egypt both has considerations for the property rights of women in their law codes and traditions (in fact, Egyptian inheritance often had a matrilineal component).

OK, so now that I'm smeared fact, myth and preconception all over the canvas, let me get back to the Europeans. While Nordicist fantasies often depict a great white race coming out of the glens of Germany and its environs to give the fruits of civilization to the south, and the eventually degeneracy of those lands under the influx of non-Nordic genes, it seems to me that many social customs were exported and enforced northward, in particular, the Roman predeliction for monogamy, which was stamped on Christianity, despite its Hebrew origins (note that polygyny was acceptable among Ashkenazi Jews until the 9th century, and it is still halakah for certain Mizrahi Jews, like those from Yemen, though it is illegal in Israel itself). The Romans themselves are often thought to have put such a premium on the importance of females, their lineage and impact on their children, via their influence from the Etruscans, a people who might have had "eastern" (Asia Minor?) origins.

A coherent argument for the special character of "European" individualism, monogamy, etc. is made by the likes of Kevin MacDonald. His thesis is far less crazy than those presented by some of those who use his work, and I do not find it particularly objectionable, and see many interesting ideas in it. On the other hand, I am still highly skeptical of it, because I believe that MacDonald knows a great deal about Europeans and Jews, for instance, and less about other groups (though he has done work on Overseas Chinese and so forth, I would bet his knowledge of other groups is an order of magnitude less). He clumps India in with other regions of Eurasia, but today, Hindu northern India practices strict monogamy & village exogamy (Korean culture has a system of extreme exogamy). In contrast, genetically similar Muslim peoples of Bangladesh and Pakistan practice consanguineous marriage and some levels of polygyny, showing the enormous impact that cultural elasticity has.

To be fair, MacDonald says that European groups have a tendency, and does not make strict generalizations that are easy to falsify. He focuses a great deal on the Romans, because that is where the historical evidence supports him. But I do believe he plays hide & seek with the data in a way that could confuse readers. For instance, he notes that Roman civilization forms the robust cultural "core" of Western practices like monogamy, and in the next paragraph moves to the genetic predispositions in the "Nordic" experience. Of course, the Romans could provide the cultural framework while the Nordic peoples have the genetic tendencies that implement these principles well, but, throughout his piece MacDonald jumps across "Europe," though his special focus is "northwest" Europe. Are all European peoples forged in the same evolutionary cauldron? MacDonald quotes the "80% are Paleolithic" number for Europeans based on mtDNA. There are some problems with this:

1) The 80% value is likely a low-bound (others say 50%).
2) The 80% is not equally distrubted, in other words, the populations of Greece, and to a lesser extent Italy, have might be more "similar" (ie; more of their genome has a shorter coalescence time with A than B) with the populations of the Near East (in particular the northern Levant and Asia Minor) than those of far northern Europe.
3) The "80%" itself is not unitary. From the evidence that I have seen, it seems that during the last Ice Age "Europeans" (obviously, there wasn't a Europe, and dividing Asia Minor from the Balkans seems a bit artificial when there was an isthmus connecting the two) had three refugia, one in the southwest (~Iberia), one in the east (Ukraine?) and one in the Balkans (which obviously has a strong overlap with "Near Eastern Farmers" in the demic diffusion scenario). Subsquent to the warming there was a repopulation of Europe, and "northwest Europeans" are the result of the mosaic of various strands, so that Welsh show strong affinities with the Basques (from the Iberian refugia), while English have connections with Slavs via the Scandinavians ( via the Ukrainian refugia), and the "demic diffusion" from the Balkans/Anatolia/northern Levant muddies the watern considerably for much of southern Europe. One point I would like to submit is that similar climatic conditions can lead to parallel evolution, but it can also lead to different adaptations and evolutionary outcomes. For instance, if you agree that release of functional constraints and sexual selection resulted in blondism in the eastern European refugia (I find this plausible), one must note that the same did not occur in the Iberian refugia, after all, Welsh are notoriously dark, and though Spaniards are not as swarthy as some Americans might believe, the Basques are not a notoriously blonde people.

OK, enough, I've made my point. I urge scholars to be cautious in this area because the waters are muddied. Those who read scholarship should always be skeptical, and be on guard for ethno-autism. When I read Jared Taylor's Ways of Our Race in The American Renaissance, I noted that he asserted that respect for animals and the environment set white people apart. To this, I could only react in my own head by imagining the black-faced tribal people of India who kill poachers because of their worship of nature and its animals, or the snub-nosed Jain who will walk with a brush to sweep away ants. I'm sure there are other examples from other cultures-history can throw stereotypes on their head, after all, the hyper-puritan Muslim cultures of the Levant once practiced temple prostitution and engaged in the selling of the virginity of new brides to strangers in a public market for a coin and the favor of Ashtoreth-Ishtar (this is part of the context of Israelite objections to Caananite practices). Readers of Taylor's piece of course most likely did not know that Indian tribals (and Indian Hindu culture as a whole) have a respect for animals despite their black-faces and snub-noses in a tropical environment (and would probably not think of cowalatry in that moment). Perhaps they reflected proudly that white man in particular treats animals with humanity, a practice that is the norm in the great Western civilization, that is the unique product of white man. Are the protections accrued to pets in the United States the result of Indian/South Asian social norms? Of course not! But, I submit they are the outgrowth of a human universal of anthropomorphizing animal companions, a tendency that can be countervailed by cultural conditioning or need.

This is not to say that various populations might not differ-and that this might be genetically rooted. For instance, from Steve Sailer's blog:

The shy and phlegmatic men of the north face less competition for their woman's affections from the other shy and phlegmatic men around them, so they too need jealously less. It's the men in middle who need to be most jealous.

Steve is talking in the context of polygyny & monogamy, and I think that my cautions above show that I don't buy north = monogamy and south = polygyny (in Europe). I don't think it's a false assertion, I'm just pretty unconvinced. On the other hand, I do agree that northern Europeans are pretty shy. Southern Europeans on the other hand are pretty...well...not shy. Cultural stereotypes and national characters do change, but are these personality traits genetically rooted?

Well, we do know that personality has a heritable component that is rather large. I don't think we can really gauge from the historical record whether the men of the north were shy in comparison to the men of the south. But, a priori, I find it highly plausible that the northern Europeans, who lived at low densities far longer than southern Europeans (on the order of thousands of years in lag as far as agriculture, and far later attainment of "high civilization" and dense urban life), have social skills optimized for smaller groups, and especially with familiars. An outgoing personality might be beneficial in cementing new relationships and interconnecting a sedentary village, but less important (and an irritation?) in small family groups of slash & burn agriculturalists. I really don't know, as I'm not an anthropologist or psychologist. But...my point is that a tendency toward monogamy or polygyny can be an emergent tendency of these basic personality traits. Aggressive hyper-competitive individuals might be more reproductively successful in denser social contexts than in areas where low population density and life in a small band is the norm. Who knows? I don't, but I think this is a fruitful avenue of research. On the other hand, be prepared for a groundswell of contradictory data when addressing complex behavorial tendencies and trends. If you seek it, you shall find evidence.

Posted by razib at 12:35 PM | | TrackBack

Loose ends

Not sure this is worth posting, but here it is anyway...

Shortly before Christmas I discussed the Flynn Effect: the long-term increase in average IQ scores observed in many countries. I have been thinking about one of the points made in comments, which I didn’t do justice to at the time.

Roughly, it was argued that:

(a) the differences in IQ levels between different populations are constant over long periods of time; and

(b) this constancy supports the view that the differences have a genetic basis.

This raises a question of fact - are the differences between different populations really constant over time? - and a question of inference: assuming that the factual claim is correct, what can we legitimately infer from it?

I will come back to the question of fact, but first I want to pursue the question of inference. (Warning: continuation includes tedious methodological discussion.)


Suppose that in two or more populations the mean IQ of each population is observed to rise substantially over a period of decades, but the differences between them remain constant.

Strictly, the constancy of a difference implies nothing about its genetic or environmental origin. At the same time, one may feel that if the difference is
constant a genetic explanation is more plausible. I share this feeling, but find it difficult to pin down exactly why. One possible argument might run as follows.

If the difference between two populations is genetically determined, we would not expect it to change rapidly over time. Differential reproduction w.r.t. IQ within populations, at the rates usually observed, would produce a change in mean IQ of less than 1 IQ point per generation, so the maximum expected change in the difference between two populations would be less than 2 points per generation. If, on the other hand, the difference is environmentally determined, we might well expect it to change rapidly (on a time scale of a few decades), since environmental changes during the 20th century were large, but probably at different rates in different countries. So if we observe a large widening or narrowing of differences in IQ, the genetic hypothesis is prima facie refuted, and the environmental hypothesis is corroborated (in Popper’s sense). But if no substantial change in differences is observed, the environmental hypothesis is weakened if not refuted, and the genetic hypothesis is corroborated.

Alternatively, we might view the matter from a Bayesian perspective. We have two mutually exclusive and exhaustive hypotheses: either the difference has a genetic cause, or it has an environmental one. We assume that each hypothesis has a prior probability greater than 0 and less than 1. We also assume that the probability of observing a constant IQ gap, if the genetic hypothesis is true, is greater than its probability if the environmental hypothesis is true. Given these assumptions, it is easy to prove from Bayes’ Theorem that if in fact we observe a constant IQ gap, then the probability of the genetic hypothesis is increased, while that of the environmental hypothesis is reduced. As this conclusion holds whatever the prior probability of the hypotheses (provided it is not 0 or 1), we may conclude that the genetic hypothesis is strengthened by the observation of a constant IQ gap, without relying on the more controversial parts of Bayesian theory.

I therefore think that in principle the argument is sound, as far as it goes. I hope so, as I recently used a similar argument myself in relation to social mobility! However, the weakness of all such arguments is that they rely heavily on assessments of prior probabilities. We form expectations based on general knowledge or theoretical principles, and judge the evidence in the light of those expectations. But a priori expectations must always give way to observed facts. Improbable events do sometimes happen. If in fact IQ levels do change substantially over a period of decades, and we have good reason to believe that the changes are environmentally determined, then observed constancy of differences gives no support to a genetic hypothesis. Whether the initial differences were genetic or environmental in origin, the observations would be the same. A difference in IQ levels is merely a by-product of the actual levels, determined separately, and if these change by equal amounts, for environmental reasons, then we can infer nothing either way about the origins of the difference. (A + k) - (B + k) = A - B, whatever the reasons for the difference between A and B.

I conclude that the (assumed) constancy of an IQ difference does not in itself provide strong support for a genetic origin of that diference, given the facts about the Flynn Effect.

Some comments on my post however made a more specific point. This is that the increase in IQ due to environmental improvements must eventually reach some limit, determined by the genes of the population in question. Eventually all populations will reach their full genetic potential, and any differences between them will then be purely genetic in origin. If there are no genetic differences, then as the populations approach their full genetic potential, the observed IQ differences between them will narrow and eventually vanish.

This is a sound argument. However, there is little evidence that a limit to the Flynn Effect has yet been reached, even in advanced countries. Herrnstein & Murray (Bell Curve, p. 309) suggest that ‘the rising trend in test scores may already be leveling off in some countries’, and cite a 1986 paper by Lynn and Hampson in support. But the more recent paper by Lynn and Pagliari (1994) specifically set out to test this hypothesis for the USA, and found no slackening of the rate of increase (see earlier post for references). The only evidence for a slowing of the increase that I know of is Teasdale and Owen’s study in Denmark. (I think I have seen a similar report w.r.t. Sweden, but I cannot find the reference.) When the rest of the world has achieved Scandinavian levels of living standards and social equality, any remaining differences in mean IQ will be worth looking at. It is obvious that third-world countries are far from reaching this position.

The above discussion has all been based on the assumption that in fact IQ differences between populations are constant. On reviewing the evidence in Neisser and Storfer I think this is an oversimplification. All advanced countries have experienced a Flynn Effect, but its size has varied somewhat from country to country. It seems to have been particularly rapid in post-war Japan and some West European countries, but significantly slower in the UK and the USA, with the result that other countries have caught up with, or in some cases, overtaken them. In these cases IQ seems to mirror trends in economic development, which gives some support to an environmental explanation of the IQ differences concerned.

Posted by David B at 04:28 AM | | TrackBack

March 10, 2004

Web host recs

Anyone got webhost recommendations?

Here are the rock bottom specs:

a *nix shared host with....
1 GIG of disk space
30 GIG of monthly transfer bandwidth
Perl & PHP and MySQL
decent support, reliability, yada, yada....

GNXP currently gets ~ 15 GIG of traffic per month, and we are already using 400 MB of space because of all our old archives.

As an example of what I'm looking for: check this and look at the "Power" shared hosting plan.

Posted by razib at 05:02 PM | | TrackBack

OK, back...for now


OK-so we're back, for now. I'm mulling over what needs to be done to keep this blog going. I've installed haloscan comments. I don't know if I'll keep them indefinately, but they will take the load off my webhost's servers.

When I say "back," I mean back literally, I was off to San Francisco for a short vacation, and it sucked as far as free Wi-Fi is concerned. Of course, I'm spoiled, I live in a small town where Wi-Fi is so ubiquitous that Starbucks doesn't see the point in charging for a T-Mobile HotSpot (especially since there are free spots up and down the street).

While away I read Prehistory of the Mind (thanks Abiola). It got me to think I've never really read a good introductory psychology textbook, all my knowledge about the field is a byproduct of my interest in biology and other social sciences. Any recommendations?

Please read on if you are:

1) a blogger here
2) a very interested and long time reader

OK, so what's up with my webhost? Well...the problem is that I wrote a lot of db connections (pooled!) into the front page to get information about the commenting system. I know of ways to fix this, but I've crashed the webhost server too many times for the admin to have patience with my "tests." Previous, there had been problems with the mt.cgi script rebuilding all the archives (as I've noted). Previous, there had been problems with the mt-comments.cgi script-ergo, I'd done my own PHP hack.

A dedicated server seems too expensive to justify right now. But, I could probably find another webhost willing to tinker and play, and with the stuff I've learned about MT's scalability issues, there will be fewer goof-ups (and frankly, I didn't write the original commenting system for this many readers!). I also don't want any GNXP bloggers or readers to host the site on their own box-it will be too much of a headache in my opinion, and I don't know if it's wise to do it with a group blog where so many people have inputs & stakes.

Here are some options

1) Pledge drive
2) Blogads
3) GNXP friends & bloggers pooling

Ultimately, I don't think a different webhosting option will not be too expensive. From where I stand, I think #1 could keep the blog going for 6 months alone if the yield is good (I suspect it will be OK). So at this point, I'd like to avoid #2, since it seems present a possible constant annoyance.

Those are my current thoughts-I might post an administrative addendum in the near future.

Note for bloggers: I'm going to cut down the size of front page posts when they seem way bigger than a 768 vertical pixel screen can support. My own screen is bigger, but that's probably the median of our readers. I'll just re-edit and put the longish parts int the extended entry. So to prevent this, just re-edit accordingly.

Posted by razib at 03:52 PM | | TrackBack

March 08, 2004

Administrative Alert!

My webhost says that the scripts are crashing their servers again. This is more than MT, I've added a lot of PHP/MySQL scripts to do the commenting features.

My options are to

1) switch webhosts
2) switch blogging apps

I don't know if #2 will do it, since this site just gets too many hits at this point. As for #1, I'm not too excited about taking a on a non-trivial monthly cost to something that's basically a hobby. I'll have to talk to my fellow co-bloggers about this.

Until I figure out what to do, I'm shutting off new posts for the next few days. I'm on vacation out-of-town so I don't except a resolution or update until Wed. the 10th.

If you are a GNXP blogger, feel free to email me, but I'll be checking email once-a-day, max, so I might not respond.

If readers want to email me for some reason (since you can't comment any longer), razibk-at-gnxp.com will do....


Posted by razib at 02:35 PM | | TrackBack