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March 27, 2004

Genetic priorities

In an earlier post one commenter suggested that focusing on simple genetic diseases is more fruitful than exploring complex polygenic traits & diseases.

1) The causative factor beneath a disease like cystic fibrosis is pretty easy to communicate to the uninterested lay person.
2) Knocking one bird down can basically ameliorate the problem.

But...consider that only 1 in 1500 people of European descent are impacted by cystic fibrosis (1 in 20 are carriers-ie; heterozygous, with one normally functional gene). Compare this to schizophrenia, a disease that affects about ~1% of the human population. The genetic component of schizophrenia is divided between as many as 100 genes.

Unlike CF, there will never be one "smoking gun" that shows the path to defeating schizophrenia, advances will be incremental because genetic causative factors are so numerous. On the other hand, seeing as how as many as 60 million people world-wide might be afflicted, from a utilitarian perspective, one could very well justify advances in relation to large monetary outlays.

Simple dominant-recessive traits are easy to understand for the public theoretically, and practical concerns like greviously debilitating diseases put a human face to the theory. On the other hand, polygenic traits are more difficult to characterize since they are partitioned into many genetic, environmental & gene-environment interaction components. But, the normal distribution of these traits have great social relevance, and increments are worth being pursued. (schizophrenia is a multifactorial "threshold" trait, those who exhibit the disease are at the extreme tail of the distribution)

Aphoristic update: A small good for the many is equivalent to a great good for the few.

Posted by razib at 03:18 PM | | TrackBack

March 26, 2004


Finland rejects nearly all Slovak asylum-seekers. Finnish might sound like baby-talk, but Finns seem to have some spine:

The idea is to send them back as soon as possible, in order to discourage others to make groundless asylum applications, said Jaakko Heinilä of the Helsinki Police Department.

(the Slovak citizens in question were Gypsies claiming political persecution)

Posted by razib at 01:37 PM | | TrackBack

What Happened? Part III (or, the secret of the pyramids . . .)

This one's for you, Razib.

To recap so far: I am trying to bring up to date the question Rousseau once referred to as the origins of inequality -- or, in modern terminology, the establishment of dominance hierarchies at the dawn of history.

In parts I and II, we saw that whereas in hunting-and-gathering societies "reverse dominance hierarchies" were possible to sustain, the situation alters dramatically with the introduction of agriculture, which ties men down to a place, and makes it possible for one group to capture another and make them work for them.

But a single act of conquest, I suggested, would not be enough to destabilize the entire neolithic social order. As evidence I pointed to the existence of geographically isolated walled cities like Catal Huruk (I could also have mentioned Jericho) which predate the rise of civilization by thousands of years.

But then I invited everyone to imagine what would happen if a conquest occurred on an otherwise featureless plain, which was dotted with horticultural villages in reasonably close proximity to one another. (This, btw, is roughly the situation that existed in northern Mesopotamia in the early 4th millennium BCE.) So let's look at the dynamics of that situation.

The first thing to note is that when a conquest occurs within calling distance of other, similarly-situated agricultural villages, the event does not pass unnoticed.

The second thing is that the village which happens to have been conquered first will soon find itself (after a few harvest cycles) in a position to maintain a larger military force in the field than its neighbors. . .

This follows from the fact that the farmers in the first village have been subjugated, and are now being compelled to work much harder and longer than they would voluntarily choose to do (quite possibly to the limits of their endurance) in order to feed not only themselves, but also the new class of conquerors who stand over them. It follows that the latter group will be able to devote all their time and energy to the arts of domination (keeping their new peasant charges physically exhausted and submissive, above all) and warfare -- including further acts of conquest.

From this point, the process spirals ineluctably out of any man's control. It will be only a matter of time before a second neighboring village is subjugated and added to the first, and then a third (under a process that the Cambridge archeologist Glyn Daniel termed synoceism, from a Greek word signifying the union of several villages under a single head). Meanwhile, news spreads; villagers further afield begin looking suspiciously at their neighbors. Because they are possessed with imagination, the evil thought inevitably insinuates itself into their brains: "If we don't do it to them, and do it quickly!" or, at the very least, band together with our neighbors in a defensive alliance -- then it is only a question of time before they, or someone like them, will do it to us.?
Next thing you know, what was once a featureless plain dotted with Neolithic villages, gives way to a featureless plain dotted with walled city-states, each master of a collection of villages in the surrounding countryside, whose members are compelled to pay taxes and tribute to the central authorities, or else be roundly beaten with clubs if they dare show even the slightest signs of disobedience or insubordination. Thus, through a combination of offensive actions and defensive re-actions, the institutions of domination and submission are gradually propagated outward in ever widening circles, whose compass is limited only by the slowly advancing technologies of command and control (writing, record-keeping, road networks, etc.) City-states give way to local empires, which give way to larger regional empires, which give way in turn to even larger empires that eventually cover considerable portions of the surface of the earth (Sargon, Gilgamesh, Xerxes, Alexander, Caesar. . ..) The progress of civilization is well under way.

Posted by lukelea at 12:16 PM | | TrackBack

Baby Steps To Stop German Brain Drain

We've long been aware of a brain drain from Europe and the problems that stem from the flight of the talented. Now there are reports of a policy remedy being introduced but it seems to me that they've put the cart before the horse.

The brain drain problem has been endlessly reported and this Time Magazine report aptly defines the issues at stake.

All over the U.S., such research facilities are teeming with bright, young Europeans, lured by America's generous funding, better facilities and meritocratic culture. "In Italy," says Dorrello, "I'd be earning maybe €900 a month." At N.Y.U., he gets nearly three times that. "The U.S. is a place where you can do very good science, and if you're a scientist, you try to go to the best place," says Pagano, who likens researcher migration to football transfers. "In soccer, if you're great, another team can buy you." Science is the same, and the big buyer is the U.S.: in 2000, the U.S. spent €287 billion on research and development, €121 billion more than the E.U. No wonder the U.S. has 78% more high-tech patents per capita than Europe, which is especially weak in the IT and biotech sectors. (emphasis added)

Some 400,000 European science and technology graduates now live in the U.S. and thousands more leave each year. A survey released in November by the European Commission found that only 13% of European science professionals working abroad currently intend to return home.

Europe's bureaucracies, rigid hierarchies and frustrating scientific fragmentation also pushed people away — as they still do to this day. "Europe is a mess," thunders Christopher Evans, a biotechnology professor at four British universities and chairman of the venture-capital firm Merlin Biosciences, "a haze of overregulated and overcomplicated bureaucracies smothering the rare flames of true entrepreneurial brilliance."

The telling quote is from German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who notes "Only if we manage to keep our innovation at the top will we be able to reach a level of prosperity that will allow us to keep our welfare system in today's changing conditions." It is precisely the behavior modifying welfare system that is at the root of the problem.

European research Commissioner Philippe Busquin points to the root cause when he notes "It's easier during an election year to build an extra kilometer of highway than it is to build a new lab," he says. "Americans have made better long-term strategic choices."

The state has finite resources and the allocation of those resources to generous welfare systems for the everyman are politically popular and deliver immediate political support but the opportunity costs of such programs have longer range implications. What is shortchanged are human capital investments and the incentives to keep the talented people within the nation and capitalizing on their productivity and innovation.

It's not only the star researchers who are leaving Germany, as this report notes.

Besides the young professionals and academics who leave Germany for work, young Germans who have completed vocational training also have good chances of finding a job abroad. Eva-Elisabeth Weber, a job counselor at the central employment agency in Bonn, noted that hoteliers, chefs, managers and mechanical engineers, in particular, have good career opportunities beyond Germany.

Each year the agency locates jobs for some 6,000 skilled laborers, professionals and managers outside of the country. It also tries to coax them back home when Germany needs them. "There are many doctors who we have found jobs for abroad, and now we have a shortage of qualified doctors here in Germany. We are now trying to encourage those German doctors and nurses spread across the European Union to come back," Weber said.

So what is the baby step that Germany is taking to address the problem? Why they're offering free university education to lure American university students to Germany.

Now, Germany is determined to regain its preeminent role in higher education by offering an international degree program taught in English. Students are encouraged to learn German as a second language.

All three-year Bachelor degrees and the majority of Masters and PhDs are offered at public universities, which are free of charge.

International students can choose from more than 600 courses covering a wide spectrum of topics, including art, chemistry, computer science, economics, engineering, and psychology. Supplemental German courses are also offered, but knowledge of the language is not a prerequisite for admission.

“We hope that students from today will be our partners tomorrow,” Lemmens said.

“If they go back (to their home countries) and go into business, Germany will still be there first port of call for their careers,” she said.

This certainly is an innovative solution to the brain drain problem, just like putting a band-aid on an amputation is an innovative solution, unfortunately the solution doesn't seem to address the source of the hemorrhaging. The brain drain is occuring for structural reasons, not from lack of educational opportunities. Inviting more students into the German higher education system doesn't address the question of how those students will contribute to the economy upon graduation. If they are faced with the same structural constraints as presently exist, they'll actually have an easier time leaving Germany and individually enriching themselves in America where the underlying political & economic structure are more rewarding to initiative and the welfare policies are more aligned with personal economic decision-making. Now, I'm not saying that welfare policies are all bad. I favor policies that channel state resources into human capital investment opportunities, do not serve as disincentives to work and do not grossly distort economic behavior.

Quite frankly, as I've noted before, I'm opposed to lifetime welfare for the elderly (once they begin collecting Social Security their contributions are repaid after only a few years and then the welfare begins for the remainder of the person's life, so too with Medicare and drug benefits) while we're squeezing today's kids and tomorrows taxpayers with the higher burdens of education costs and at the margin preventing some students from continuing their educations. With education being an investment in human capital (unless of course it's some of the fluff studies and the soft disciplines) it is likely to have a positive return to the individual and society, while Social Security is a drain on society.

Fortunately, Germany has made international education arbitrage a likely strategy for some American students.

Meantime, university fees in the United States have skyrocketed in recent years. The cost of tuition, room and board for the 2003-2004 scholastic year averaged $10,636 for public universities, and $26,854 for private universities, according to the College Board, a nonprofit association that runs college programs and services.

With Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges flying off the scale, and public universities increasing prices by nearly 10 percent a year, young Americans are racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

If students opt for a German university, they should plan to spend between $600 and $800 a month on living expenses, according to the DAAD.

Deutsches Studentenwerk, the German student affairs association, offers a value-for-money service package for foreign students that includes a dorm room, health insurance, midday meals, and guidance counseling for around $400 a month.

The more one compares prices the more appealing three years of sauerkraut, bratwurst, and beer sound. And to sweeten the deal, scholarships are also available to the most qualified applicants.

Until Germany addresses the reasons for the brain drain, and state resource allocation and personal opportunity are at the heart of this issue, simply attracting American and British students to German universities will only accomplish instituting another cost on the state without offering any offsetting potential income. Reform, unfortunately, is often painful and unpopular, because if attacks vested interests and redeploys resources to other more productive sectors. Market forces, much more than political decisions, are better at making these allocative trade-offs because the decisions are price-signaled and instituted by diverse actors. The diffusion of market principles to the electorate and the curtailment of central planning is what will stem the brain drain, not gimmicks.

Posted by TangoMan at 05:57 AM | | TrackBack

An Extraordinary Window into the Past of Russia

I came across these color photographs of life in Tzarist Russia and they had me feeling like I was looking through a window into the past. Photos that are over a hundred years old always seem to be black and white and very posed. They leave me feeling quite distant. These photos drew me in. They look like they could have been taken yesterday. The children look so alive and yet they're long dead. The monasteries that once were would soon become concentration camps and orphanages.

Please take a look at the works of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii arranged into exhibits of Architecture, Ethnic Diversity, Transportation, People at Work,
and if you're interested look to the details of his color process.

Look here for an album of all 122 color images. This photo is amazing! Here is the album that contains all 2,608 images.

Addendum:In comments, Jason Malloy points me to this source and this one where Addison Godel, the siteowner, has mounted a personal effort to restore the photographs. As noted in the introduction Prokudin-Gorskii's art had the same impact on Godel as I felt.

These were dazzling, full-color shots of people long since dead, landscapes long since paved, and an empire long since overthrown. I discovered the online exhibit in mid-May and was, frankly, overwhelmed; not to knock the fine art of black and white photography, but I'd always felt that the past was somehow obscured by being viewed solely through a greyscale window. To see places, buildings, and especially people in color was to understand, on a very deep level, that they had at one time really, truly existed - that the "Typical Russian Peasant of Figure 32" was not merely some gaunt presence in the side of a textbook, but a genuine person who, if not for temporal chance, could have been my neighbor or my friend. It was touching.
Posted by TangoMan at 01:17 AM | | TrackBack

March 25, 2004

The chimp's jaw (not really)

Abiola has a good blog on the recent news about the mutation that led to changes in the hominid jaw, ergo, all you see before you....

Posted by razib at 04:50 PM | | TrackBack

Why being a curry muncher can be good

A few months ago a dispute broke out on the message boards of this blog about the validity of a group pressure strategy to no longer have South Asians be defamed, or at least be made the objects of ridicule, in the United States. There is a serious issue here, in that I believe that South Asians are fair game in a way that blacks, Latinos or Jews are not. Recently, there have been a spate of heavily accented South Asians on television commercials doing their sing-song entertainment for the masses. As a brown-guy-without-accent (BGWA?), it get's old after a while. It's been a long a time since I've been told "I speak English well," but it still happens now and then (I'm sure black guys get annoyed when told they are "well spoken"-but I wonder how often that happens now).

All that being said-I still think that South Asian Americans should be very cautious of pursuing a strategy like blacks or Jews in upholding standards of sensitivity.

1) I believe that the negative treatment that blacks & Jews have experienced historically is far more egregious than what South Asians go through today.

2) The downsides, the beasts that we unleash, can be hard to predict, and impossible to control.

40 years ago most African Americans experienced apartheid. I don't need to detail the circumstances, they are part and parcel of the American experience, and we all know what went down (or should). In response, black Americans went to the courts, and over a period of years, civil rights leaders pushed for implementation of court orders across the country that equalized legal standing of the races. The NAACP had finally born the fruit of its promise.

Today, race relations between blacks & whites are not ideal, but few would trade 2004 for 1960. Nevertheless, we now have on our hands the children, the beasts, also born of that revolution, the "leaders of the black community." Men like Jesse Jackson, the "President of Black America," a prominent politician and shakedown artist, or Al Sharpton-no more need be elaborate about that gentleman. This leadership class is to some extent parasitic. If there is no crisis, one must be manufactured. One could say the same thing about the leaders of most political groups & movements-they are always creating crisis after crisis to justify their existence. Like the appendix, they inflame to remind you that they exist.

But there are other, more personal, consequences of these men and their agendas. The keyword here is sensitivity. To illustrate of what I speak, let me recollect an anecdote....

About 6 months back, I was watching C-SPAN, and Diane Ravitch was promoting her new book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. I was interested in that topic so I watched most of her talk.

As question time rolled on, a black woman, about 60, rose. She explained that she was a teacher-so she had some interest in Ravitch's book. But, she wanted to add that she thought that only blacks should teach black history, since it was their history. Ravtich looked at her blankly. At this point, the woman went on, and said, "After all, I wouldn't teach you your history, you should teach me your history."

At this point I jumped up shouted, "Fuck you!" This was basically an emotional response on my part, as someone interested in a lot of history that isn't "mine," I took exception to someone acting as if you can't teach about cats unless you were a cat. Nevertheless, I waited for Ravitch to rip into this woman. After all, the topic of her book was about censorship, about the disortion of objective learning by subjective political considerations, the paramountcy of "sensitivity" that is infesting the curriculum of American schools.

There was no rebuke. No, response. No acknowledgement of how asinine the woman was being. Rather, Ravitch nodded, pretended like woman didn't say what she'd said, and went off-topic, like a politician would do when asked a hard question during an interview show.

Why didn't she respond? Was it because the woman was old? Ravitch isn't young. Ravitch is a woman, so let's not hope that gender was a problem. Perhaps because she was a teacher? But Ravitch respects the idea of education and educators, whatever issues she might have with its current implementation.

No, my hunch, based on nothing more than induction, is that Ravitch didn't want to say the woman was stupid because she was black. By this, I don't mean that Ravitch would imply that anyone would be stupid because they are black, rather, she did not want to even approach that implication by pointing out that the woman who asked the question was something of a moron (judging by the fact that she didn't comprehend the gist of Ravitch's book and went on a politicized tangent as if it would be welcomed). Not only was she a moron, she also happened to be black.

In everday life, people say stupid things. There are many stupid things that are asked and asserted during "question time" on C-SPAN shows. Very often, the speaker will make only the most cursory attempt as politeness before bring to bear the full arsenal of their intellectual blades. But when confronted by a black moron, many white liberals will demur the act of intellectual natural selection that demands to be enacted. This tendency can be extended to many minority groups. One benefit is that we can pop the bubble of political correctness, because many white liberals confuse intellectual rigor with dogma, and when we violate their dogma, we don't get chopped apart as we should, but are engaged in dialogue to "convert" us to the "just" position.

But the sum impact of this double-standard, of the inability to destroy intellectual opponents of color, to treat as equals, is that, for example, that black female teacher might never be corrected, or challenged, and so might transmit her bizarro ideas that only any given group can transmit information about that given group to her students. The modern Western intellectual tradition of empiricism, rationalism and skepticism, requires rigor, confrontation, and takes little account and sensitivities and feelings. The fact that minorities can be excused from this tradition does everyone, but especially the minorities, a disservice.

This tendency manifests itself in many ways, and transcends race, as Islam is not challenged with the same vigor by many liberal secular individuals as Christianity would be, based on considerations of "sensitivity," never mind that the tools to deconstruct one are appropriate to the other (by the way, this leaves the deconstruction of Islam to fundamentalist Christian wacks like Pat Robertson!). This "sensitivity" also puts up a barrier in interpersonal relations, as whites/males/non-muslims/non-disabled/etc.... must alter their behavior/speech/cadence/manner so as not to offend any given group. In contrast, when one is in the "safe zone," one can relax, and "let down their hair," and shoot the shit as they are wont to do.

This "safe zone" is where close friendships are cemented, where genuine understanding, intimacy and confidence is attained. In the quest for sensitivity, I do believe that barriers are being thrown up between people. In the workplace many men are terrified of harassment. Many whites of racism. Many young people of agism. And so on.

Now, in certain contexts, sensitivity is warranted. The problem is where to draw the line. In light of the racial situation in the 1960s or the plight of women in regards to their legal inequality, I can accept that the monsters of sensitivity are the acceptable byproducts of the move toward justice. But, I think that South Asian Americans will become enclosed in their own ghetto, and close off avenues toward becoming "mainstream," if they insist on being treated differently (look, I've seen enough smiling Italian-caricatures waving a pizza in the air to know it happens to white ethnics). Unlike the two above situations, we are not legally bounded and restricted, and in fact have benefited from the black civil rights movement.

Of course, as I note, all this matters if you want to be "mainstream." If existence within an ethnic enclave is acceptable, or preferable, than attempts to mobilize as a group is the rational decision that one would make.

As for me, I'll stay a curry muncher as long as I can insult back in kind, and then brag about all my non-existent sexual conquests....

Posted by razib at 03:49 PM | | TrackBack

Genetics for the people

A lot of the time I focus on stuff that interest's me-population histories and palaeoanthropology-but science does have human consequences. So, here is an article that focuses on the targetting of a gene that seems to be implicated in a serious neurological disorder. Read the fine print and you note only 3,000 children are affected nationally (the United States). But-3,000 here, 10,000 there, and pretty soon a medical revolution is on your hands.

Posted by razib at 03:33 PM | | TrackBack

March 24, 2004

Big boys....

The Panda's Thumb is an evolutionary blog collective of heavy hitters....

Update & commentary: One thing though...I would have much preferred the name The Blind Watchmaker for a blog focused on refuting anti-evolutionism. As the members of The Panda's Thumb acknowledge, one inspiration for their site's name comes from the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould performed courageously against the demons of Creationism & Intelligent Design, but, he was kind of a scientific oddball in biology (to be charitable). Don't take my word for it, look at what another non-biologist has to say, Paul Krugman:

Like most American intellectuals, I first learned about this subject from the writings of Stephen Jay Gould. But I eventually came to realize that working biologists regard Gould much the same way that economists regard Robert Reich: talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right. Serious evolutionary theorists such as John Maynard Smith or William Hamilton, like serious economists, think largely in terms of mathematical models...But many intellectuals who can't stand algebra are not willing to stay away from the subject. They are thus deeply attracted to a graceful writer like Gould, who frequently misrepresents the field (perhaps because he does not fully understand its essentially mathematical logic), but who wraps his misrepresentations in so many layers of impressive, if irrelevant, historical and literary erudition that they seem profound....

I think it's a bit risky for the knights of evolution to espouse an appellation that has an eccentric association when they are attempting to show (correctly to my mind) that the partisans of Intelligent Design are off in left field.

Posted by razib at 10:06 PM | | TrackBack

Breaking Taboos

Over at Global Guerrillas, John Robb notes: "Many people assume, wrongly, that [Islamicist] terrorists are poor and uneducated." After a brief discussion, he then concludes by agreeing with another blogger, "that the driving force in recruitment is religious intensity."

Which caused me to make the following proposal:

"If religious intensity is the driving factor, maybe that's where we should concentrate our attack. For the fact is, Mohammadism is extremely vulnerable to frontal critical assault. The guy modeled himself on Moses the warlord -- and then went on to ok lying and deception, make looting a way of life, and condone the murder of those who dared to make fun of him. Plus he bent the rules whenever it suited his convenience (as when he allowed himself to marry a nine year old girl). Islam has never brooked open criticism -- the very thing that the West, using the IT revolution, is able to deliver in spades. So let's put away all our scruples about "criticizing another man's religion," and give em hell Harry Truman style.

In open and unfettered debate, let's see who can win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. For our text, choose any standard biography of the prophet. Fire up the loudspeakers!

Naturally, this post elicited the expected response from a reader:

"It is hard for me to believe that anything you or I say criticizing the prophet would be taken seriously by committed Muslims. It would just be more evidence of how profound our sinful disbelief is."

To which I replied:

"Hard to say until you try it. They've never heard criticism of the prophet. More to the point, they've never disassociated the idea of God (which obviously is dear to millions of believers) and the name of Mohammad. Maybe the new slogan should be: there is no God but God, and Mohammad WAS his messenger -- until he left Mecca and went to Medina. There he became a violent and intolerant human being. Contrast his career with Abraham's, the guy who really invented (or if you prefer, discovered) God. If you have a heart, you gotta prefer the latter."

To which I appended a final note:

"Before he left Mecca, Mohammad proclaimed two important principles (later abrogated): first, there can be no compulsion in matters of religion; and second, there is no error where all are agreed. Since Abraham is the only prophet about whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims are in agreement, his story is a possible basis for mutual understanding. But for that to occur, it will be necessary to abrogate the abrogaters."

Now I gotta say I surprised even myself when these aggressive words came pouring out of my mouth (or off of my keyboard). Maybe I've been jousting with Abiola too much? Anyway, what do GNXPers think about my outrageous suggestion? Can we possibly make the Moslem world any madder at us than it already is? If there's no downside left, why shouldn't we risk the upside?

Posted by lukelea at 07:10 AM | | TrackBack

Animal Signals

In a post last year on Honest Signals I mentioned that a book on Animal Signals by John Maynard Smith and David Harper was scheduled for publication.

This has now been published in the series Oxford Studies in Ecology and Evolution. The details are:

John Maynard Smith and David Harper: Animal Signals Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0 19 852685 7.

This is not a popularisation, but a scholarly monograph. At a price of about $45 or £25 for a slim (160-page) paperback it is not cheap. But for anyone with a serious interest in the subject it will be valuable for its clarity and breadth of coverage.

The main problem in the field is to explain how signals can be reliable, given that there are often incentives to ‘cheat’. The most fashionable theory in recent years has been the Handicap Principle of Amotz Zahavi, which maintains that signals can only be reliable if it is costly to produce them, in such a way that it is more costly for a dishonest signal than an honest one. Maynard Smith and Harper argue for a more pluralistic approach. They show that there are several circumstances in which signals can be reliable without cost (beyond that necessary for effective transmission):

a) where the signaller and receiver place the possible outcomes of the signal in the same rank order
b) where dishonest signals are punished
c) where although signaller and receiver prefer different outcomes, they
share an overriding common interest (such as avoiding an escalated conflict)
d) where the individuals concerned interact repeatedly.

Where these circumstances do not apply, the Handicap Principle is one way of ensuring reliability, but there is sometimes an alternative. Maynard Smith and Harper distinguish between a Handicap, which they define as a signal whose reliability is ensured because its cost is greater than required by efficacy requirements, and an Index (plural Indices), which they define as a signal whose intensity is causally related to the quality being signalled, and which cannot be faked. A good example of an Index is the practice of tigers marking their territory by standing on their hind legs against a tree and scratching the bark as high up as they can, which gives a reliable signal of their height. An Index may or may not be costly to produce: its reliability depends on its causal relationship with the quality signalled, not on its cost.

Maynard Smith and Harper recognise that in practice it may be difficult to distinguish between an Index and a Handicap. Whether or not a signal is fakeable depends on circumstances, which may change. If tigers learned to stand on boxes (and had a supply of boxes) the tree-scratching signal would no longer be reliable. But fakeable signals may also become unfakeable. For example, in displaying its chest a bird may exaggerate its size by fluffing out its feathers, but if all birds do this, the display becomes a reliable indicator of size again.

The authors believe that both Handicaps and Indices exist among animal signals, but they are inclined to ascribe to the Index principle many examples (such as antelopes’ stotting) that Zahavi would regard as Handicaps. Zahavi would probably argue that there is no such thing as an unfakeable signal, and it is only the extra cost of faking that ensures reliability. But the distinction does seem valid in principle, and the authors' discussion of problem cases is persuasive.

In Googling for a paper referred to the book’s bibliography, I came across the following recent paper by Lachmann, Bergstrom and Szamado: Cost and conflict in animal signals. This is also very useful on the subject.

Posted by David B at 03:44 AM | | TrackBack

March 23, 2004

Global Economic Inequality

Sometimes a picture is worth much more than 1,000 words.  Take this one:

graph: global economic inequality

The Economist ran a great story recently about global economic inequality: More or Less Equal?  These graphs accompany the story.

The graph plots a circle for each country in the world.  The X axis is the current [1980] GDP per person, and the Y axis is the growth rate of the GDP per person.  Anyone looking at the top graph would conclude that the gap between rich countries and poor countries is getting larger; on average the rich are getting richer, faster.  But now look at the bottom graph, where the size of each country's population is reflected in the size of its circle.  China and India are poor, but their growth rate leads the world, and they are also the two most populous countries.  By considering population, now you might draw the opposite conclusion; that [on average] the poor are getting less poor, faster than the rich are getting richer. 

Now notice one more thing - the horizontal red line signifying 0% growth.  The countries below this line are not only poor, but they are getting poorer.  The large poor country at the lower left is Nigeria, a sad situation if there ever was one.  In fact for most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa (beige shading) the standard of living is getting worse.  This is due to AIDS and politics and wars and poor leaders and many other factors.  Clearly the third world is separating; Southeast Asia is very different from Africa.

Anyway it is a great graph, very thought provoking.  Edward Tufte would love it.

Posted by ole at 06:20 PM | | TrackBack

The God of evolution

I'm almost done reading the book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran. This is a much better book than A Theory of Religion (read: religion via rational choice) or Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (read: religion via functionalism & "group selection"). I would caution that it is somewhat dense & technical, though I don't think it will deter a determined lay person too much (I am a newcomer to cognitive science & psychology). I will offer my thoughts on Atran's book later, but I wanted to plug it here so that some readers will go out and read it, it's really an incredible work as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by razib at 02:51 PM | | TrackBack

Social Networks

In my post below in response to Ikram's query about the economic state of Canadian immigrants of color, I made an assertion relating to the importance of social networks. I think this needs to be elaborated further: in the public discourse there is much talk about the general large scale manifestations of social networks, that is, religious groups, races, classes, etc., but less talk about the basic phenomenon. Many times when people see trends they look at it through the lens of these surface categories, when social networks themselves offer a more prosaic and reductionistic explanation.

Let me elaborate with two anecdotes.

Last fall I was in the sprawl to the south of San Francisco and was talking a break in a strip mall. It was mostly a white and Asian crowd frequenting the small shops. As I entered a Jamba Juice, I noticed all the employees were African American. This seemed a little strange when there were very few African Americans in the local area, either as employees or shoppers. Then I noticed a young black woman sitting down filling out a job application. A friend was sitting behind the counter "shooting the shit" and laughing and joking. It was quite obvious that the woman filling out the application was referred to the job by her friend. The manager herself was African American. I doubt there was a conscious policy of hiring co-racialists, rather, the jobs were filled through the social network, as are the majority of the openings in the United States. That social network simply happened to be African American.

Second, when I was a child, my father and his friends would always complain that they would never make it into management, that they would be stuck at the level of "worker bees," because they were non-white brown-skinned Muslims. All of the persons in question were educated professionals, chemists, engineers, statisticians, doctors, etc. They complained incessantly about these problems. At the same time, I recalled that when my father was getting his sponsorship for immigration, he consulted an immigration lawyer to smooth the process, and one thing he was always told was to reverse his basic instincts in a social situation. The lawyer told him that Asian immigrants simply had counter-intuitive responses from the vantage point of an American, while my father might avert eye-contact so as to be respectful, an official might judge that a sign of deception, similarly, while my father might not speak unless spoken to, an official might wonder if he's being quiet because he has something to hide.

The overall point is that my father, and his friends, had a suite of social skills and orientations that were not appropriate in the context of the United States. Interpersonal interactions with those outside their cultural circle were often artificial, forced and superficial. The pre-existing discomfort resulted in conscious avoidance of social relationships with natives. By retreating into their "comfort zone," my father and his friends never had to develop the interpersonal skills that might allow them to handle a management position where technical competence is superseded by "people skills."

How does this relate to Ikram's point? In the United States, there are networks of extended families, nested within ethnic enclaves, that serve as placement agencies for jobs. Perhaps the dynamics are different in Canada, and nuclear families live a more atomic existence within ethnic enclaves. If the majority of jobs are filled through referrals, a generation or two might be needed for a local social network to fill out and form. In the long run, the Canadian context might serve for better assimilation because the extended family networks do not exist in the first place to insulate people from the vicissitudes of adjustment.

The point about social networks can also be generalized in terms of inter-ethnic relations. I once had a friend who was Jewish who told me that she could always find a job in whatever city she settled in as long as there were Jews. In such a situation, living in a "Jewish bubble" is practical, in that vocational and personal interactions may be limited to one's own "community," which is large enough to serve as a subculture. Other ethnic groups simply do not have the "critical mass," and interactions with, and a social network into, the general society is crucial to success.

I recently had a conversation (via email) with a few friends of South Asian ethnicity born & raised in the United States. They noted that the emergence of a "desi" subculture allowed them to face a social situation where they were not defined by their race and were not exoticized as the "Indian guy." They could just be themselves. I was cautious of this track simply because in the vocational world, interacting with "others" is the norm, and tendencies from personal life often transfer into the work world, so if you forget how to cope with "others" because of lack of personal familiarity, that might hobble you in the work world. Similarly, a recent documentary about black Americans noted how upper middle class black suburbs in Atlanta helped to give affluent black professionals a sense of belonging where they weren't the "token" or seen as "different." This is all fine and good, and understandable, but the reality of the work world is that whites are a majority, and the lack of overlap in black-white social networks is generally seen as a source of problems in our society already.

Immersing oneself in an "alien" social and cultural world is of course uncomfortable for individuals-frought with humiliation, misunderstanding and abuse. I was recently told of an Italian man who married a Finnish woman who moved to Finland. The social variance in personal comportment is very different in the two cultures, while Italians perceive lack of emotion with suspicion, Finns view emotion with dread and discomfort. The Italian man spoke of how difficult it was to interact with Finns, and how he had to change his own behavior. An inverse situation can be imagined where a conventional Finn finds it difficult to deal with the highly emotional manners of Italians. Neither behavior is "right" or "wrong," rather, they are the dominant forms in each nation, and deviance from them can be a cause for discomfort. One coping mechanism would be retreat into a group of like minded individuals, for instance, Italian or Finnish expats with whom one can "relate," but again, the cost might be the inability to ever full integrate with the host culture.

To make an analogy with biology-if a given trait is sexually selected, if an individual exhibits a deviant expression of that trait that might be more environmentally adaptive, if the deviation diminishes ability to attract mates, that advantage will be for nought. So, even if local customs and traditions are not optimal, "rocking the boat" will cause problems on the individual scale. Of course, if the group of deviants is numerically large enough, the problems relating to sexual selection may eventually be mitigated. Analogously, large ethnic enclaves allow one to maintain folkways and manners that deviate from the host society, while the lack of such subcultures enforce conformity to local ways, or isolation from society.

There is no free ride. Large things start from small pieces. If individuals (and by this, I mean the "minority" individuals, however characterized) concede to their basic instinct for comfort, familiarity, and personal ease, the short term upside will have long term consequences. Not only will these consequences impact the individual, they will have an impact on the society. To take the extreme case-many Americans are afraid of large black males. Many black males complain of the constant attention, fear and discomfort that they can see they evoke in others, without doing anything that might be provocative themselves (let us not address the point that stereotypes often do have a basis in statistical realities, but focus on the individual cases). These black males might have to be particularly polite, courteous and well-dressed when faced with mundane situations like going to a business meeting, shopping in an upscale district, etc. Everyday is faced with these sort of personal compromises. One solution might be to move to an affluent suburb in Atlanta where such men are common-place, where personal comfort is a given, not something that one dreams of. But, for society there is a downside, many whites will no longer interact with this man, and face someone who acts an antidote to their fears and stereotypes. In the short term, the anxieties of whites are mildly mitigated (no large black males to scare them) and the discomfort of the black male is removed (no terrified white people to face everday), but the long term impact on the society is that segregation proceeds apace.

Personal addendum: I will admit that my prescription for social fluidity and broad and diverse personal networks, at the cost of personal comfort, is self-interested, insofar as I'm rather extroverted and often oblivious to other individuals (their slights, insults, abuses have minimal effect on me). Additionally, a world where my own skin color has a weak association with a particular social network is beneficial to my own interests and preferences-I don't mind being the exotic as long as I socially dominate and dictate circumstances. That being said, I can understand how more retiring individuals do not find this congenial. I prefer that the barriers betweein various ethnic & social groups are low, fluid and highly permeable, at the possible cost of "social harmony." So my cards are on the table....

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March 21, 2004

The Galtonian Revolution is slow, but coming

I have been impressed that both AAAS and APA (yes, the same group that tried to have Arthur Jensen kicked out in the '70s) have developed Working Groups to discuss behavior genetics. One of the results from the AAAS is a layperson-directed paper entitled Genetic Differences and Human Identities, of which I have very mixed reactions.


A. The desire to bring behavior genetics to "the Public Conversation."

B. Acknowledgement of the Galtonian idea [1] that phenotypic differences are (at least partially) due to genetic differences.

C. The easy-to-understand difference between public-health oriented analyses (e.g., heritability) and more molecular analysis (e.g., linkage).

*these are all major steps in the right direction, at least from my perspective the in the "social sciences"*


A. The almost mandatory, defamatory swipe at Arthur Jensen and Herrnstein & Murray that most authors feel they have to make when discussing behavior genetics.

Of course, what is said about the authors' work is oversimplified and errant. For example, Jensen (1969) did not, as Parens says,

insinuate that, on average, whites score better than blacks on IQ tests because of a natural or genetic difference between races.

Instead, Jensen wrote that it is a testable hypothesis:

There is an increasing realization among students of the psychology of the disadvantaged that the discrepancy in their average performance cannot be completely or directly attributed to discrimination or inequalities in education. It seems not unreasonable, in view of the fact that intelligence variation has a large genetic component, to hypothesize that genetic factors may play a part in this picture. But such an hypothesis is anathema to many social scientists. The idea that the lower average intelligence and scholastic performance of Negroes could involve, not only environmental, but also genetic, factors has indeed been strongly denounced (e.g., Pettigrew, 1964). But it has been neither contradicted nor discredited by evidence.
The fact that a reasonable hypothesis has not been rigorously proved does not mean that it should be summarily dismissed. It only means that we need more appropriate research for putting it to the test. I believe such definitive research is entirely possible but has not yet been done. So all we are left with are various lines of evidence, no one of which is definitive alone, but which, viewed all together, make it a not unreasonable hypothesis that genetic factors are strongly implicated in the average Negro-white intelligence difference.

B. Ironically, in a paper that tries to make Behavior Genetics more accessible, the author makes a censoring swipe at Glayde Whitney's 1995 BGA presidential address, stating that Whitney made

unquoteably ugly remarks about the genetic explanation for the difference in the rates at which blacks and whites commit murder in the United States,

when what Whitney did was just present data and then draw conclusions from them. (Gasp!)

C. Parens tries to give the impression that there was never really a time when Behaviorism/Environmentalism reigned supreme, dismissing Pinker's nice work in the area, and instead quotes one of S. Freud's earlier works as evidence that people gave credit to both heredity and environmental influences. First, why would anybody use Freud as a definitive source? (OK, a little harsh). Second, why not look at the real culprits of Environmentalism such as J. B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, T. Hobbes, F. Bacon, et al? Even better, read a psychology book circa the mid-twentieth century; chances are, the environmental determinism is so think you could cut it with a knife.

Overall, Take Home Message

To me anyway, it looks as if we are headed in the right direction, but still have a ways to go.

[1] I realize that Galton did not first make this conjecture, and that it can be traced back (at least) to the ancient Greeks. Still, it is in large part due to Galton's, along with his protégé K. Pearson’s, prodigious work in the area and direct hypotheses (and methods to test the hypotheses) that phenotypic differences in quantitative traits are due, in part, to one's inherited characteristics that the “revolution” bears his name.

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What Happened? (cont.)

In the comments section of my previous post on the (re)appearance of dominance heirarchies in civilized societies, I posed the following thought experiment:

If two hunting-and-gathering societies impinge upon one another's territories and begin to fight over resources, what is the worst that one group can do to the other?

Compare that situation to one in which at least one of the two groups in conflict is a settled agriculturalist (the other being either agriculturalist, hunter/gatherer, or pastoralist). What are the possibilities now? What new outcome has become possible?

Since I obviously got a head start on this one, let me map out what I think the answers are. In the first case, the worst that one group of hunter/gatherers could do to another is to kill them or drive them away. . . .

What Happened? (cont.)

As a rule, one would suppose that the group that evidenced superiority on the field of battle (or in whatever form the contest in arms took place) would take possession of the territory under dispute, forcing the surviving members of the weaker group to go over the hill in search of greener pastures, where, quite possibly, it would find itself in conflict with yet another group already in possession of said pastures, and the whole cycle would start all over again. If we postulate constant demographic pressure -- ie, a tendency for human groups to multiply in numbers beyond what any limited territory can support -- such a mechanism would be sufficient to drive human migration over the surface of the earth.

But there comes a time when there are no more good hunting and gathering territories to be occupied. Then it becomes necessary to develop more intensive methods of wringing a living out of marginal areas in the countryside, if the weakest groups are going to survive at all. (I mean intensive in the sense of being able to support more people per unit area.) Agriculture and the domestication animals are the two ways that emerged.

O.k, now suppose we have a small horticultural village whose territory is invaded by a neighboring tribe, of whatever type, acting under demographic necessity. If the invading tribe is the stronger, then the two possibilities I described above are still there: the agriculturalists can be killed or driven away. But if there happens to be a genius among the invaders, a third possibility suggests itself: the agriculturalists can be captured and put to work double-time, as it were, feeding not only themselves but the invaders as well.

Two things about agriculture make this possible. One is that, if it is grain that is being cultivated, the annual food supply comes in a lump sum at the end of the harvest. This food supply is something that can be seized and doled out by an organized force. (Note, btw, the derivation of the English word "lord" from the medieval English word "hlafward" meaning "loaf keeper")

The other thing about agriculture, including tree agriculture (dates, orchards, etc) is that it ties the agriculturalists down to a place, so they cannot run away. If they are going to survive they have to stick around to tend to their crops. If they light out for the territory, they are going to come into conflict with hunter/gatherers already in possession of the countryside, who are (by assumption) stronger than they are. What's more, if they have been practicing horticulture for several generations or more, it?s unlikely that they even remember how to live off the fat of the land.

So, in a word, the new possibility that has appeared is conquest. Conquest, I submit, though seldom mentioned, is every bit as much of an innovation in human culture as was the domestication of plants and animals; it was the original sin that dare not speak its name.

But even so, we still haven?t explained what happened right before the rise of civilization. An isolated example of conquest -- and there are some, at Catal Huyuk (sp?), for example -- need have no consequences beyond its own immediate neighborhood.

So the real question becomes: what are the dynamics when a conquest occurs on an otherwise featureless plain that is dotted with horticultural villages? That's the second thought experiment I would like us to engage.

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