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July 03, 2004

Polio Outbreak in Nigeria, Suppression of Dissent and the Origin of AIDS

I've always shaken my head in wonderment about the anti-vaccination hysteria we've seen from some quarters over the past few years. Thankfully, there haven't been wide spread epidemics resulting from this behavior. Until, now that is. This report from Nigeria confirms a large scale polio outbreak:

A suspected large-scale polio outbreak was reported Friday among children in a heavily Muslim northern Nigeria state that had boycotted immunization campaigns, and local authorities appealed for urgent action to stop the spread.

On Friday, local officials in the Kano state city of Rogo disclosed that they had recorded dozens of suspected polio cases in recent weeks. Rogo is 60 miles southeast of the state capital, also named Kano.

[. . . ]

Since Kano suspended polio immunization, there has been a resurgence of cases across 10 African countries previously polio-free, with strains traced to Nigeria.

Nigeria has reported 259 polio cases this year. The figure represents more than 60 percent of the 339 cases reported worldwide.

It accounted for nearly 50 percent of 784 cases reported in a total of 15 countries in 2003.

Six of those countries — Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria and Pakistan — are classified as polio-endemic by WHO.

Abiola has blogged on this in the past and what is clear is that much of the hysteria has to do with conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact. Simply superstitions. They bring to mind the Western fear of a causal link between the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, used in some vaccines, particularly the MMR vaccine and the development of autism in children. As this May 17, 2004 report from the Institute of Medicne of the National Academies makes clear, no evidence of such a relationship has been able to withstand scrutiny.

However, in the world of vaccination related illnesses there is still one unresolved mystery: did AIDS arise from poor quality control in the manufacture of polio vaccines in the late 1950s in present day Zaire.

This hypothesis first came to light in 1992 when Tom Curtis wrote a piece for Rolling Stone Magazine entitled The Origin of AIDS. It resulted in a debate between Curtis and Dr. Hilary Koprowski of Philadelphia's Wistar Institute at which a vial of the vaccine from the late 1950s was discovered and tested negative for Simian Immunodefiency Virus. Understandably Curtis's position was shattered and Koprowski won a libel suit against Rolling Stone.

Fast forward to 2000 and with the publication of Edward Hooper's The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS the debate was reopened. Unlike Curtis's earlier work, Hooper was more methodical in his investigations and tracked down archival documents, film footage and has eye witness testimony to the activities centered on Camp Lindi, in the Belgian Congo, the center for Dr. Hilary Koprowski's work.

Dr. Jonas Salk perfected the first vaccine against polio and what followed was wide vaccination and the eradication of polio. In the following years however, a few hundred children died as a result of the Salk vaccine and this started a race for a new version. There were two competing teams, one led by Dr. Albert Sabin and one by Dr. Hilary Koprowski, and the Sabin vaccine eventually won out. Much of this history is covered in Hooper's book, and Atlantic Magazine published a detailed review of Hooper's book where it also investigated the controversy that erupted after its publication.

Some are referring to the Oral Polio Vaccine - AIDS Hypothesis as the grassy knoll of vaccine theories - plauasible bot wholly lacking in evidence and based on mere conjecture. This criticism would be more credible if the scientific community had more fully and openly examined and debated the hypothesis. Instead, both Nature and Science rejected submissions for publication from eminent scientists who offered support for the hypothesis and sought to silence the debate. This type of behavior, if anything, only adds to the belief that a conspiracy is taking place. [ Godless comments: I don't agree with this interpretation. Science and Nature only accept 10% or so of all submissions. If the work was solid it would have been published in a lower quality journal. ].

In a nutshell, the broad strokes of this hypothesis are that Dr. Hilary Koprowski vaccinated about 900,000 children in the Congo and surrounding areas and coincidentally that is where the earliest clusters of HIV/AIDS were discovered. Tantalizing correlations but lacking in details to explain causation. Polio vaccines are cultured on a substrate, even today with our mastery of recombinant DNA technology, of simian kidney cells. The simians used for the Sabin Vaccine are from a species that doesn't harbor Simian Immunodefiency Disease (SIDS). In correspondance between Dr. Sabin and Dr. Koprowski when the research race was still ongoing, Dr. Sabin, after examining a sample of Dr. Koprowski's vaccine, wrote that there were problems with the batch that was examined because they detected an unknown virus, which they labeled "Virus-X" to which Dr. Koprowski had no substantive reply. Shortly thereafter Dr.Sabin's vaccine was chosen to be the one to replace Salk's vaccine.

Koprowski's vaccine did find use is some areas of the world and was grown in labs in Europe and Africa. What distinguished the vaccine produced in Africa from those in parts of Europe was the choice of simian substrate. Chimpanzees were occasionally used in Africa but never in Europe. Chimpanzees are hosts for the SID virus. Of course this was unknown at that time. Dr. Koprowski disputes this allegation and has produced samples of the vaccine from that era which originated in Europe and claims that chimpanzees were never used. Hooper, however, has testimony from African nurses and technicians employed at Camp Lindi, and archival film footage of chimpanzees being disected for their kidneys and the testimony supports his claim that these kidneys were used locally as the substrate within which the vaccine was grown.

As the Atlantic Magazine article points out there have been claims and counterclaims on a host of issues surrounding Hooper's hypothesis. This battle is intensifying in these past months because of the release of the documentary Origin of AIDS which presents the archival film footage, the audiotaped testimony, and presents the dispute to a wider audience than those who read Science and Nature. Having seen this documentary I offer the opinion that it does present a compelling case for Hooper's hypothesis and elevates it above the grassy knoll category. Here is a review of the film. There are still unresolved issues which could certainly invalidate Hooper's hypothsis but in the background of this debate is a wider battle dealing with suppression of dissent,

If you're interested in following the debate, here is a source which documents Hooper's charges, the refutation of some of the charges, and the counter-refutations from Hooper and others. The siteowner is a social scientist who documents instances of suppression of dissent. The journals Science and Nature, acting as gatekeepers and opinion shapers should be taking a value neutral position. Instead they are miring themselves in a controversy of their own making by following the Scientific American suppression of dissent tactics employed against Bjorn Lomborg (here is his rebuttal to their article) and Eric Drexler (here is his rebuttal to their article) where either dissent is not publlished or legal threats are made. The editorializing on scientific issues by these journals is jeopardizing their impartiality.

Finally, if the Nigerians, and others, have concerns about vaccinations, they should base those concerns on substantive scientific data, not anti-Muslim plots that purport to make girls infertile. The AIDS/polio connection that Hooper hypothesizes is an intruiging historical and scientific puzzle but should in no way be used as a basis for concern about the safety of today's vaccines, nor about past vaccinations in the majority of the world.

Godless comments:

I am unsympathetic to this theory for several reasons. First, there have been several other theories about AIDS (such as Duesberg's, the CIA plot to kill black people, etc. ) that have been debunked. This has made scientists cautious about politically charged conspiracy theories about the origin of AIDS.

Second, the idea that Science and Nature are "suppressing" this information is unlikely. Either the work is worthy of publishing or it is not - and there are MANY more journals in the world than Science and Nature. If these guys had solid but controversial evidence, I'm sure that PNAS or the New England Journal or JMB or whoever would take the paper. Scientific journals *must* be opinionated and harsh, as there is a lot of junk out there and journals serve as valuable filters for a scientist's limited time.

Thirdly, even if it is true that the emergence of AIDS is an accidental consequence of experimentation with the polio vaccine - so what? Sometimes accidents happen, and we just couldn't have known that the virus would jump to humans. The idea that we should only pursue medical procedures that are already known to be safe would discourage all medical innovation. Brain surgery, pig heart transplants, open heart surgery, and vaccination...developing these invaluable tools *did* result in accidental deaths. Should we abandon the promise of gene therapy because of a tragic death?

Finally, I would take the criticisms of the people in this article with a major grain of salt if they accompany their attack on Koprowski with a call for massive subsidy of AIDS drugs to Africa. The thing is that Koprowski was fighting a killer disease and could not have known the consequences of his actions *even if* things took place the way Hooper alleges. Second guessing the man who was the first person to successfully vaccinate someone against polio is Monday morning quarterbacking which neglects the urgency of the polio situation.

By contrast, modern day proponents of massive AIDS drug subsidies are - or should be - informed about the danger of partial compliance with a drug regimen:

Unfortunately the very success of the drug treatment of tuberculosis has been the catalyst for the emergence of a new wave of drug resistance. Patients have been allowed to take their medication at home completely unsupervised. The experience of the early single use of streptomycin taught us that taking one drug on its own for tuberculosis would lead to drug resistance. There is a danger that if the patient is sent home with three separate drugs, he or she might take a single drug at a time. In the patient with extensive lung disease taking a single drug for just a few days may allow drug resistance to emerge. If a patient happens to be resistant to one drug and takes a combination of two drugs including the one to which he is resistant, drug resistance to the second drug will emerge. Similarly if the patient is resistant to two drugs, and takes these two drugs and a third only, then resistance to the third will emerge and so on. In this way a combination of poor compliance and poor medical supervision may result in multi-drug resistance.

In other words: those criticizing Koprowski for lack of foresight are guilty of the exact same thing, with less of an excuse. By denying that those likely to contract AIDS are unlikely to have the conscientiousness necessary to comply with a drug regimen, they are in part responsible for the rise of new drug resistant strains of AIDS :

Anything short of full compliance with one's assigned antiretroviral regimen can lead to incomplete suppression of viral replication -- and to the development of drug-resistant viral strains (R). The result of poor compliance is shown in this column, in which the original mix of strong and weak virus (seen in Column 1) is being replaced by a new type of super-strong, drug-resistant virus.

Which are already popping up in Africa:

The unregulated supply of Aids drugs in the non-industrialised world threatens to accelerate the development of drug-resistant HIV strains.

Misuse of Aids drugs is common in Africa
That is the conclusion of a study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, just published in the British Medical Journal.

The study urges governments and international agencies to deal with the problem now.

Drawing on evidence from Africa and Asia, the study shows that uncontrolled prescribing of anti-retroviral drugs is widespread and rising. ..

The study's author, Dr Ruairi Brugha, says that often patients do not take their drugs as they should.

"These drugs are not being used according to the correct regimens. For instance, monotherapy - just giving one anti-retroviral drug - is definitely bad practice. And we see evidence of that both from Zimbabwe and Uganda, and I'm sure it's happening in other countries too."

Dr Brugha also found that in some places patients are changing medication frequently, taking the wrong dose, or stopping treatment in periods when they cannot afford it.

This is exactly the set of conditions in which a virus quickly becomes drug-resistant.

And unlike Koprowski - who I doubt is "guilty" - they don't even have the defense that they couldn't have foreseen the consequences.

TangoMan Responds

Godless raises some concerns that I think are tangential to my post, and while important on their own, they are premised on a thesis that I don't make.

I don't view the Origin of AIDS question as expressed by Hooper as being political, rather it is more of a scientific detective work. No one, to the best of my knowledge, and this includes Curtis, Hooper, and the documentary filmmakers, have ever expressed the opinion that Koprowski should have known about AIDS, about Simian Immunodeficiency Disease, or that by using chimp kidney cells as the substrate at Camp Lindi, they may have created the mechanism to foster the jump between species. These issues were simply unknowable. If the hypothesis is sustained, then we can finally understand the puzzle of hows AIDS jumped species and write it off to unintended and unknowable consequences of good work done for humanity.

Secondly, again to the best of my knowledge, no one associated with this hypothesis is calling for AIDS policy towards Africa to be changed. The points Godless makes are important but I don't think they stem from the substance of my post.

Thirdly, Hooper's hypothesis has been called the killer hypothesis by those involved with vaccination issues. Almost all involved prefer the bushmeat hypothesis but are at pains to explain the recent appearance of AIDS against a history of bushmeat going back for centuries. The implications of AIDS having been developed and initially propogated via vaccination would create a climate of fear in present-day vaccination receptivity and would present a daunting task for rebuilding the public's confidence towards vaccination.

Lastly, I don't dispute the issues that Godless raises just his inference that I was making the points that he uses in order to frame his rebuttal .

Posted by TangoMan at 06:58 AM | | TrackBack

July 02, 2004

Beneath the "text"

In my post below Ikram & Luke get into it over the issue of the importance of axiomatic or foundational facts in the shaping of modern day Islam. As I asserted before, Islam is diverse enough that generalizations are by definition difficult. But, this applies to all religions, partly because I feel in many ways religious beliefs are opaque to a straight-forward application of reason. That is, analysis of texts and statements by the founders of any given religion can lead individuals to drastically varying conclusions. Upon further examination, one might find that for many the conclusions one comes to about any particular topic when seen in light of a religious text seem suspiciously congruent with a whole suite of opinions set apart from religious issues. In other words, God does not dictate a person's beliefs as much as justify and buttress them.

I agree with congitive scientists Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer that all religions share various features that appeal to and trigger psychological needs and templates. This explains why it is so plausible for peope to assert that "all religions are the same at heart," that they are the expressions of the same truth in various guises. To some extent, Allah, Jesus, Krishna or Avalokitesvara are the just alternate names for the same individual, that is, the generic supernatural agent which the majority of human beings intuit must exist. Some religious traditions, like Hinduism, make this explicit, while others, like Islam, tend to be more circumscribed, for example asserting the unity and uniqueness of the God of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammed. But even in the case of Islam, there are exceptions to the rule, for instance, Sufi leader Zir Khan says: "They had different terminologies, different systems of practice, but there was an essential unity. I believe that essential unity can be discovered in all religious traditions" (he studies with the Dalai Lama, so one assumes this is not cant).

Just as there are horizontal differences between religions, there is a vertical spectrum of the understanding of religion and its experience. The evolutionary psychological viewpoint, which emphasizes the common features and the empirical reality of religious experience, is highly relevant to the majority of humans. Though believers typically hold counter-intuitive and fantastical beliefs about gods, they also interact with them through prayer and devotion as if they were personalized beings who experience time serially. The litany could go on, but the gist is that all religions tend to manifest a particular core of behaviors, assent to certain beliefs and fill various needs. This is what makes understanding of cross-cultural religious expression and practice rather easy, humans have an intuitive understanding of the various facets of religion on the emotional and practical levels.

But, it is a reality that there exists on top of the universal religious mode notional differences, couched in abstract language, which implies that religions must be very different. Quite often, to recognize the differences between notionally distinct sects, one must be culturally fluent and able to pick up the cues and shibboleths that people throw out to mark themselves. There are numerous historical examples of this. When the first European Catholic missionaries ventured to the Far East, they dressed like Buddhist monks in a process of acculturation. Confucian mandarins and Japanese daimyos assumed that they were a an exotic sect of Buddhists. This is in keeping with persistent conflations of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the pre-modern era in China, to the Chinese, all these seemed to be the same religion. Similarly, when Buddhism entered China, many assumed it was a variant of Daoism. Finally, the most amusing confusions can be found in multicultural entrepots like Calicut in Southern India.

Here you have two cases where:

1) The Chinese assumed Hindus were Buddhists, though they were familiar enough with Muslims at this point to recognize them for what they were.
2) The Europeans assumed Hindus were Catholics, though they were familiar enough with Muslims to know what they were.

Though above I have highlighted how easy it is to not be able to see much difference between religions when you are not cultural fluent, this obviously does not translate normally into everyday experience, where people are aware that they are of a particular religion. Though the differences are often notional, a changing of terminology seems to trigger strong responses in people, and like attachment to sports franchises, people can become fanatic about something which to outsiders might seem trivial. Remember, wars were engaged in the 4th and 5th centuries over debates about the nature of Christ, philospohical issues that were beyond the understanding of most common people.

So who can understand the details that display the deep differences that are supposed to define various faiths? Generally, they are religious professionals and members of the literate elite. These individuals are, I believe, atypical of most human beings in their psychological profile. I believe this segment of the population has more than its fair share of those prone to hyper-rationalization and bouts of emotionally charged mysticism. This matters, because this segment of the population is usually responsible for mobilization and direction of communal resources toward (ostensibly) group ends.

Rationalizing religion is futile and logically impossible (religion isn't rational!). Works like Aquinas' Summa Theologica are peculiar, because they are explicit in that there is a way for the elite (reason) and another for the masses (faith). But even in this work, there are constant appeal to Church Fathers and axiomatic assumptions based on faith. The founding works of a religion are often the products of decades of haphazard and collaborative compilation. The thoughts and ideas expounded by a religious leader are often shaped by the context of the times. Human communication is often characterized by varying levels of fidelity and internal incoherency.

Hyper-rational individuals often take a group of texts which are often contradictory and convey a message which is obviously conditioned by the needs of the time, and reformulate it in a fashion where a predictable chain inferences is extractable (from their vantage point). Unfortunately for the rationalizer, the axioms are often unclear and give little direction, so the resultant work is often itself contextualized by the time and colored by personal perspective. The result is that hyper-rational believers working in isolation often produce works and ideas that are sharply in conflict in which other, even though they come from the same religious tradition and are working from the same text. Examples include the debate over predestination & free will within Christianity, the validity of the trinitarian theology, whether the Quaran is created or uncreated, a monistic or dualistic metaphysics in Hinduism, and so forth.

So how do religious elites come to a consensus about "truths"? As I just implied, it is developed through consensus. The early Church councils of Christianity are explicit forms of this, as clerics came together, advocated their own positions or texts, and eventually a majority consensus was reached, which most of the minority would assent to. Many of these decisions are likely sensitive to initial conditions and almost random. If there was no churchman with the force of personality of Athanasias, it might very well be that his creed would not have become the standard in Christianity for 1,700 years. Perhaps this particular theological point was a coincidence contigent upon the existence of Athanasias. Similarly, the filoque controversy was probably contingent upon the political and historical events of the era. Nevertheless, though points of belief can emerge randomly out of chaotic historical and social processes, subsequently, these beliefs can make their own history because of the emotional hold they may have upon elites [1].

So where are we?

  • There is a common template of religious belief, shared by the "masses."
  • This is often modified by the elites through rational modes of thought that are a poor fit to religious texts and truth assertions.
  • These modifications are often unpredictable and random, though resultant theological distinctions often mark the boundaries between various religions.

But there is a serious problem with this story: religious life throughout the world is not characterized by almost random cells of believers with variant theologies. Rather, there are broad groups of faiths. That is, various Islams, Christianities, Hinduisms and Buddhisms. Some of these sects within the broad religions can veer off almost in a random-walk fashion, and sometimes sects in different faith families can begin to resemble each other. But sects are subject to constraints within the texts above. That is, though the majority of a religious text tends to be incoherent, a few principles are often rather clear. Though some sects veer off the conventional path, like "balancing selection" in biology, a few major point of belief tend to constraint most sects within a religious system between, so that there is an core equilibrium that serves as a beacon that determines deviancy and orthodoxy. For example, the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam is considered non-Muslim and heretical by most Muslims in the world because it seems to violate the axiom that Muhammed is the seal of prophets (that is, he is the last prophet). Ahmadiyya will dispute this, but there seems a general consensus among non-Ahmadiyya that they have violated this crucial axiom. Similarly, the National Council of Churches does not allow the Unitarian-Universalist Association to join because they perceive them to be non-Christian. That is, some Unitarian-Universalists may call themselves Christian, but many are not, and the denomination does not affirm a religious creed.

These general principles give religions a general tendency toward approaching a certain median in the outward appearence as far as matters elaborated by elite practioners and adhered to by elite worshippers. The outward appearences also matters to the masses on the emotional level, as a marker that signifies their adherence to a certain "truth" brings psychological rewards.

But do the general broad axioms have any impact on the diversity that we see around us in the different expressions of faith characteristic of each tradition? This post was triggered by Luke's assertion that the example of Muhammed, his status as a warlord, has had long term affects on the development of Islam. The reality, which even the most clever exegete have a difficult time explaining away is that Muhammed was a temporal leader who gave the order to kill other human beings. In contrast, the historical Jesus is more of a blank slate on this level. I do find it plausible that the example of Muhammed tends to place a constraint on the development of a rationalized pacifism within Islam. This is not to mean that Islam is by its nature violent, rather, I suspect that the argument at elite levels for pacificsm that some by their personality might have been prone to make might have had less power because the example of the religious founder refuted it too easily. This does not mean that human cleverness can not reverse the situation. During the medieval period it seems that Christians reconciled their warlike tendencies with the more quietist message of Jesus by looking toward saints who served as more plausible martial models. Muslims could also look to sufi saints as quietest models to justify a thorough pacifism. But, Jesus trumps the saints, and in the end, world-wide Christianity seems to have receded from militarism once it was no longer in the service of the state, that is, the present manifestation might be its "lowest energetic state," a stable equilibrium. In contrast, the example of Muhammed must be explained away to justify a Quaker-like pacificism (I am using the extreme example to illustrate the point).

Finally, let me end by making a few observations. Much of the above speculation is informed by the perception that "Islam has bloody borders" (to quote Samuel Huntington). I am mildly convinced there is something to this, and it is mostly due to what I perceive to be the violent reactions of Muslim minorities in comparison to non-Muslim minorities in positions of religious persecution. In other words, Muslims might take a more pro-active message from Muhammed's early Ummah, which fought back against persecution, while Christians mind tend to find a different message in the example of the martyrs. Nevertheless, "the bloody borders" might be the result of other factors. A map which displays the religions of the world shows something crucial: Islam's spatial distribution guarantees that it has many borders. In contrast, Buddhism is more compact, while much of Christiany's expanse is self-contained and insulated. Another fact might be that bloody borders are a combination of the spatial distribution and axiomatic factors. Or, it might be that the spatial distribution (constant interaction with non-Muslims) resulted in the emphasis of certain axiomatic factors. In other words, it's complicated.

I might totally agree that something is wrong, but I am not so sure what went wrong. And the latter point is crucial, because proposed solutions are always contingent on the chain of reasoning that leads from cause to effect.

[1] The most ridiculous examples are heated religious debates that emerge out of what are, to the eyes of scholars, typographical errors by ancient scribes!

Posted by razib at 03:56 PM | | TrackBack

The Olsen Twins: MZ or DZ?

In a news report on the Olsen Twins (of whom I was blissfully ignorant until recently) I was surprised to see it stated that they are not 'identical'. From the photos with the news report they look like MZs to me.

Of course, even MZ twins are never literally identical. The report mentioned that one twin was an inch taller than the other, but this would be well within the usual range of differences between MZ twins. But it was also said that one twin had blonde hair and the other brown. A difference in natural hair colour would be a strong indicator of DZ status. But is the difference natural? In the photos it looked to me like one twin had a dye-job.

It is not unknown for DZ twins (or even non-twin siblings) to be strikingly similar except for details like the earlobes and the precise shade of eye-colour, which are not visible in the photos of the Olsens. Does anyone know the facts? Even the parents don't always know the true zygosity of twins, because they are misled by the (false) belief that MZ twins always share a placenta and birth membranes.

Posted by David B at 03:08 PM | | TrackBack

The Fountains of Paradise & Blue Eyed Houris

Here is a long Wired piece on the social & economic climate in Dubai. Below, I noted that there is something in the "Muslim" experience that seems to result in a subset of individuals who have psychopathic tendencies becoming prominent figures, Dubai is a counter-example, "the other end of the distribution," so to speak, as it seems rather familiar in its motivations and values to the typical Westerner.

Here are some statistics on the city of Dubai:

Population: 1,040,000
Ethnic mix:
60% Indian, Pakistani and Filipino, 25% Emiratis, 12% Arab and 3% Western ex-pats.
57% Muslim, 20% Hindu, 20% Roman Catholic and 3% other.

The Economist City Guide seems to indicate that Dubai has a moderate religious climate (the fact that places like Dubai and Oman have Hindu temples must enrage the Salafi/Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, since it could argued that this is reintroduction of polytheism to the Arabian peninsula). Even this site that tracks persecution has little to say negative about Dubai, though religious equality is not the norm, naturalization is limited to Sunni Muslims, and Non-Muslims may not proselytize publicly or distribute religious literature.

Prostitution and sex are not difficult to come by in Dubai City, though bring condoms! (according to the The World Sex Guide) Some Muslims aren't happy about this situation.

Of course, perspective is important, there are 200 million Arabs, and we are talking here about a city dominated economically by self-selected non-Arabs (though mostly Muslim). A general assertion of the squalor of the Arab world can not be refuted by Dubai unless you live in a world of idealized forms and truths. Rather, Dubai might serve as a goal, a light which some people might wish the Arab would drift toward (a glow of hedonistic capitalism & the pleasures of the flesh in the distance).

Posted by razib at 01:51 PM | | TrackBack

A really good interview

I just had a fascinating interview with Dr. Robert Hintzmann a behavioral geneticist up at OHSU. I thought GNXPers would be interested in his research and a few insights he gave. I would also appreciate any advice on whether this would be a good lab and anything I could do to increase my chances of landing the position (he did say I could email him questions) Now, onto research from his website;

The goal of our research is to understand how genes regulate complex behaviors, particularly complex drug-induced behaviors. The behaviors of interest include the stimulant response to ethanol, haloperidol-induced catalepsy, exploratory behavior, acoustic startle and prepulse inhibition. The genetic dimensions of these behaviors can be studied in laboratory animals (generally mice) using classical genetic techniques such as selective breeding and recombinant inbred strategies. Molecular genetic strategies can then be used to map the relevant gene loci and eventually isolate the relevant genes. Recent studies have shown that a single base pair substitution in Cas1is associated with marked differences in ethanol response. Cas1 is the gene that codes for catalase, an enzyme responsible, in part, for brain ethanol metabolism

He also gave the insight that "if you live long enough everyone gets Parkinsons disease"

Posted by scottm at 12:18 PM | | TrackBack

Guys Gone Wild?

Guys Gone Wild:

(A recent screening for a group of friends -- male and female -- elicited squeals of appalled laughter, followed by embarrassed fascination, followed quickly by boredom and shutting off the VCR.)

But Horn also expects the videos will to appeal to gay men. "There's a certain amount of gay women who purchase 'Girls Gone Wild,' " he said.

Guys gone wild is stupid because women don't fantasize about slutty men.

Posted by razib at 12:16 PM | | TrackBack

July 01, 2004

Another Homo?

The misty origins of our species a few million years back gets more confused:

Hominin fossils from the African mid-Pleistocene are rare despite abundant Acheulean tools in Africa and apparently African-derived hominins in Eurasia between 1.0 and 0.5 million years ago (Ma). Here we describe an African fossil cranium constrained by 40Ar/39Ar analyses, magnetostratigraphy, and sedimentary features to 0.97 to 0.90 Ma, and stratigraphically associated with Acheulean handaxes. Although the cranium represents possibly the smallest adult or near-adult known between 1.7 and 0.5 Ma, it retains features observed in larger Homo erectus individuals, yet shows a distinct suite of traits indicative of wide population variation in the hominins of this period.

Abstract from this month's Science.

New Scientist has a article meant for popular consumption. What does this all mean? The lead author seems to believe that the new hominid might be of a distinct subspecies that was subject to genetic isolation and selection pressures that resulted in a reduction of its size. Other scientists seem to be suggesting that this is all part of the normal range of variation that might be found among H. erectus. Knowing how variegated our own species is in form (the tall Tutsi live in close proximity to the tiny "Pygmies") and feature (the dark skinned Caucasoid Assamese live in close proximity to the light skinned Mongoloid peoples of the highlands in northeast India), I would be cautious of siding with "splitters" and those who favor a "bushy" tree for our lineage. It all comes back to the point that the term "species" is a lot fuzzier than many people think it is. In the context of ancient hominids, the "Other" might be many things, all the way from immediate food to distant family.

Posted by razib at 06:53 PM | | TrackBack

No authority higher than He

Slate has an interesting piece on the question of who has authority to say what is Islamic. First, it makes journalists look like idiots for not looking up some of their questions in the Koran or the Hadiths that are easy to get in translation/transliteration online. Second, it highlights the problem of appealing to people who have their own interests above and beyond what the "text might imply" (and sometimes, they flat out lie!).

We could settle these disputes if we could ask God, but he doesn't seem to be amenable to arbitrate. So rule of thumb:

1) If you want to make Islam seem pro-liberal, go talk to a liberal scholar.
2) If you want to make Islam seem anti-West, quote from the non-trivial number of insane psychos.

Islam is peace/submission, or Muslims believe in sexual equality/domination of men, and so forth. These stark dualities are the stock & trade of journalists who communicate to non-Muslims what Islam is all about. They also show up in the writings of apologists who set up a straw-man opponent, show how its case is not airtight, so the other option must be correct, since it is the only one in evidence.

Here is part of exchange I had with Cosma Shalizi:

Razib: "I see Islam as a naturalistic entity of the human psyche...."
Cosma: "I think it's more accurate to see it as a large population of entities in many human psyches (multiple entities per psyche), which like any biological population has considerable variation over space and time, as well as within any give region, and where many of the linkages are merely changeable statistical tendencies. The rational core of, say, Edward Said's criticism of orientalist scholarship is that they thought of Islam as a certain _type_, based on a limited range of sources, and consequently ignored the actual variation in the population."

To highlight issues of ignored substructure, I found this criticism of the Jamaa'ah at-Tableegh order which some members of my family are active in under "deviant groups" over at the Fatwa Online site. Many of the criticisms have to do with the fact that the Tableegh seems apolitical, quietist, and focused on person-to-person persuasion (a good analogy would be active evangelical Christian groups in the United States). Nevertheless, I have a hard time characterizing the Tableeghis as anything but fundamentalist, as they hew to a strict interpretation of Hanafi Sunni prescribed behavior in their personal life, and encourage this upon others (incessantly I might add!).

When commentators speak of "moderate Islam" vs. "fundamentalist Islam," there are serious typological issues here, as some moderate Muslim dictators are far more vicious and deleterious to the cause of individual rights and conscious than the more quietest fundamentalist Muslims. There are multiple cross-linkages that need to be characterized, and the fine-grained topography has to be studied before detailed analysis can be made (as opposed to rough-and-ready generalizations). Additionally, the correct way of stating it should be Islams, not Islam, at least from the perspective of a non-believer who sees Islam as simply one of many coalitions of belief systems.

Finally, I would end by saying there are some serious problems with the distribution of Muslim attidues and beliefs world-wide. No matter the distinctions within, one particular subset of the Ummah, characterized by intersecting values that place them on the tail ends of multiple distribution curves act out in a violent manner, all across the Muslim world and beyond. Certainly, similar things might be said of some obscure radical-right-wing Christian groups in the United States, often associated with Christian Identity racialism, but judging by the numbers, it seems that the intersection of values at extreme ends of the distributions are rather rarer in modern Christianity [1]. This to me suggests that the center of gravity of Islam is shifted over so that the violent and socially distruptive subset is a far larger faction of the total area under the curve. If Islam is to coexist in amity with other faiths and cultures, the mean must be driven in the other direction so that the numbers of the violent subset become trivial. Time will act as a solvent, as will economic development, the key is whether this will happen fast enough so that the destructive subset does not bring destruction down upon the House of Islam, and perhaps the world....

[1] As I like to say, in modern Christianity you see the God of Abraham gelded. He is no longer a God of Wars, but a God of Love, as his testosterone:estrogen ratio dropped after the loss of his God-man-parts during the Wars of Religion and Enlightenment.

Posted by razib at 04:34 PM | | TrackBack

Breakfast at Wimbledon?

Pass the Maria Sharapova please....

Tennis is a sport where the female athletic' performance peaks simultaneously with their nubility, and they wear short skirts.

Maria = (Anna) X (more skills) + 4 inches

Posted by razib at 02:47 PM | | TrackBack

Stories of the past

The most radical critiques of the conventional view of the interpretation of "facts" to construct models of the past, and of the present, argue that it is all just a "story," a subjective narrative that tells you more about the storyteller than "reality." Many of these people are not too familiar with the methodology in the natural sciences, where a stumbling self-correcting methodology often reaches a consensus based reproducible empirical data in concordance with theoretical models. When it comes to the social sciences, and history, this doesn't work out so well, but I would contend that the methods to tease out facts and faslify or support theoretical assertions are getting better, making the past generation's criticisms somewhat dated.

I believe one of the key reasons that appeals to the "storyteller" model of history resonates with the public is that it is a rather close fit with the heavily digested and filtered end-product they receive from the mainstream media and the more rare hardcover "popularizations" of the past that stock bookstore shelves. In concert with various political and social forces at any given time, the view of the past held by the common man might resemble a fad more than genuine knowledge.

As an example, I might present the current fad for "multiculturalism." Since all races and cultures are of "equal worth," the past is presented as the idealized melange that modern movers-and-shakers feel it to be. Notice the difference between the sword & socery films The Scorpion King (2002) and Conan the Barbarian (1982). The latter, set 20 years back, does represent the a world of multiple races, but they are clearly separate peoples, with their own traditions and ways. On the other land, The Scorpion King seems to revel in the fact that it acts as if it isn't a big deal that ancient tribal hordes would be composed of people of very different races as if they fit together as a seamless whole (exemplified by the multiracial lead) [1]. The flip side to this is that those who are, justifiably, skeptical of these recreations of the "mythical past," will also interpret reality through a simplified lens. As an example, one month ago, I posted an entry on the new Arthur flick, and one reader noted "Multiculturalism strikes again! I wonder which ethnic group will Merlin belong to?" Yet ironically, in many ways 5-6th century Britain was very "multicultural". Though the story presented in the film is very fantastical, there might have been many permutations of culture that would seem "exotic" to modern viewers [2]. The moral of the story is that renderings of the past tend to be depicted like 2-dimensional black & white with contemporary "hairstyles," while the reality was multicolore and, filled with depth.

Sometimes, these trends can manifest themselves in a more salient fashion than on celluloid. In today's intellectual climate there is much discussion of Islam, or, more properly, Islams. Indonesia is held up as an exemplar, "Another Way." In truth the reality is more complex than that, especially in light of the fact that the 20th century has been one of national myth-creation for the "Indonesian" elites. The story of how Indonesia came to its nervous pluralism can help elucidate some the theoretical issues which have overall policy ramifications, and I will post on that in the near future....

[1] While Conan is a "Cimmerian," a real barbarian people beyond the borders of the classical world, Mathayus is an "Akkadian," a people whose language in the ancient Near East was the equivalent of French in 17th and 18th century Europe. None of this is relevant to the films, as the names are simply plucked out of the basket, but I do find it kind of funny.

[2] After the Roman Empire withdrew its legions early the 5th century, raiders from Ireland, Picts from the north and Germans from Frisia and Jutland, descended on the "British." The British at that time were a mix of the Brythonic Celtic substrate, overlain with a partially Latinized elite which had dollops of influence from all over the Empire (remember, there were Mithraeums in England, a religion that has its origins in an Persian god).

Posted by razib at 02:27 PM | | TrackBack

Kerry to Face Charges

Things were getting a little stale in the world of politics, with Iraqi soveriegnty, Canadian election, and all. Yawn

Nothing like a little fire and brimstone as we contemplate Senator Kerry facing charges of heresy. Here is the legal complaint in its 18 pages of glory. Here is the full story.

A Catholic lawyer has filed heresy charges against Sen. John Kerry with the Archdiocese of Boston, accusing the Democratic presidential candidate of bringing "most serious scandal to the American public" by receiving Holy Communion as a pro-choice Catholic.

The 18-page document was sent to the archdiocese June 14, but released to the public only yesterday by Marc Balestrieri, a Los Angeles-based canon lawyer and an assistant judge with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' tribunal, an ecclesiastical court

Posted by TangoMan at 01:33 PM | | TrackBack

Friends don't let friends use IE....

You know that we are reaching a tipping point when Slate publishes a pro-Firefox article. I'm not alluding to its Microsoft connection, rather, Slate is a wonkish non-tech site, so the fact that the editors there think their readers should pay attention to this (as opposed to the readers of Slashdot) says something.

I've been using Mozilla to browse the web for a few years, and Firefox is a cleaner & leaner experience. If you have a broadband connection, what are you waiting for? It's only a few minutes download!

Posted by razib at 01:53 AM | | TrackBack

June 30, 2004

God yes!!!!

What's in a face

In recent years cognitive scientists have identified "domains" within the brain that are geared toward processing certain kinds of information. One of the most obvious instances of a cognitive specialization where humans can access gestalt knowledge is the uncanny ability we have to recognize faces. Here is a bizarre case from Survival of the Prettiest (page 165):

For the past ten years I have been conducting an intensive case study of a man in his mid-forties who suffers from the rare syndrom called prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosics are unable to recongize people by face, including their children or their own faces in a mirror. This man's wife has to wear a special ornament-a ribbon of a certain color or a distinctive hairclip-when they attend public events so that he will be able to find her. As I drove him home once, I saw two childre in his driveway. I asked him if they were his children and he replied, "Must be, they are in my driveway."

Posted by razib at 05:56 PM | | TrackBack

Less brown slouching than I thought

A week back I commented on the VDARE article "Bad News About Those South Asian Model Immigrants." Here is data I calculated from a 2002 table titled "Immigrants admitted who were adjusted to permanent resident status by selected status at entry and region and country of birth":


Bangladesh   13.4% 18.5% 44.4% 3.3% 20.1%
India  16.0% 60.3% 21.2% 3.6% 0.0%
Pakistan  21.3% 24.3% 42.7% 3.4% 7.9%
Total  16.7% 52.3% 25.9% 2.4% 2.5%

1) Note the differences between the various immigrant streams by nation and the trend of poverty and employment rate correspondingly.
2) Seems like the degradation I was assuming isn't really happening (at least as of 2002). Since Indians are a disproportionate fraction of South Asian immigrants, they are skewing the percentages to look much better than I'd expected for the total. One thing that it tells us is the the "Diversity Lottery" is jack, my personal experience with people who won the lottery is that they are losers (note how many Bangladeshis come that way).

Update-Related brown news: Manish points me to this story about an Indian American who won a Republican primary run-off in South Carolina. A few points....

  • She was born in the U.S. in 1972.
  • Her parents are professionals.
  • She is married to a white American (maiden name "Nimrata N. Randhawa," she goes by Nikki Haley).
  • You have to look close at her photo to tell she's brown (she's from a Punjabi background).
  • Raised Sikh, she "believes in Jesus," and her children are baptized Methodist, though they still attend a Sikh Temple as well.
  • Finally, her kids are named "Rena" and "Nalin," not typical southern names. Nalin has a Hindi origin and Rena is Hebrew, though both ambiguous enough to sound South Asia or conventional American. But if she was a "sell-out," you figure they would be named Rachel and Nathan.
Anyway, this woman is probably typical of many of the "first wave" who are assimilating in the United States....

Posted by razib at 04:07 PM | | TrackBack

Fallacy Files

While following up the subject of "Galton's Fallacy" (on which I may post some other time) I stumbled across (oh, all right, it came up on Google) a rather nice website, Fallacy Files, which deals concisely with all sorts of fallacies, including many I had never heard of. I haven't read all the entries by any means, but those I sampled are pretty good. And I didn't find myself violently disagreeing with anything, which as you know is rare for me!

Posted by David B at 01:35 PM | | TrackBack

Penguin Puzzle

I was watching a BBC natural history programme the other night, and it included an extract from David Attenborough's Life in the Freezer series about life in Antarctica. This classic scene shows a flock of (male) Emperor penguins huddled together on the ice in a winter blizzard. The commentary explains that the male penguins incubate the egg, holding it on their feet to keep it off the ice. As the icy wind blows, penguins gradually peel away from the windward side of the group and waddle round to the sheltered leeward side. As the voiceover explains, they are 'taking it in their turn on the outside to suffer the harshest conditions' (or some such phrase).

But hang on... as good Darwinian I must protest! Why should individual penguins 'take their turn' on the outside if they could help it?

I haven't got the scene on tape to re-view it, but from memory I think the following account would be consistent with the facts: each penguin has the following order of preference: (1) on the inside of the huddle (2) on the leeward side (3) on the windward side. At the beginning of the brooding period the biggest, butchest penguins muscle their way to the inside. But as soon as the wind blows, penguins on the windward side slowly waddle round the outside until they reach the leeward, which means that some of the leeward penguins are no longer on the outside. (They can't move very fast, because they have to keep the egg balanced on their feet.) This exposes more penguins to the wind, so they in turn move round. Eventually, some of the butch penguins in the middle are exposed, but it is not worth the effort and danger of trying to muscle their way in again, so they also move round. Over a period of time, all the penguins spend some time in each position in the group, but this is not a result of any noble propensity to share the worst positions, just a side effect of the selfish movements of all, combined with the constraints of moving while carrying an egg!

I wonder if any penguin expert has considered this? The test would be to observe the movement of the group as a whole: if I am right, the centre of the group will gradually move in the same direction as the wind. Of course, if the wind shifts, so will the group.

Posted by David B at 07:53 AM | | TrackBack

June 29, 2004

Much ado about what?

Doing a search on PUBMED, I get:

  • 6 responses for spandrel
  • 28 responses for punctuated equilibria
  • 107 responses for evolutionarily stable strategies
  • 110 responses for inclusive fitness
  • 263 responses for kin selection

"Not scientific" as they say. But when I hear people saying that "Stephen Jay Gould was a world famous evolutionary thinker," I wonder if they have ever heard about punctuated equilibria. Stephen Jay Gould benefited from the Julia Roberts Effect, despite being horsey, she is one of America's beauties, because she is America's A-list actress, while she is an A-list actress because she gets big roles...because she is one of America's beauties.... Stephen Jay Gould was one of the century's greatest evolutionary thinkers because he had so many columns and was such a public presence, and he was a public presence who got to comment on baseball because he was one of the century's greatest evolutionary thinkers (something milder seems to have happened to Stephen Hawking, though his ideas are not nearly as kooky from what I gather [and can admit he was wrong], and at least he suffers from a disease which makes his survival somewhat miraculous).

Posted by razib at 06:52 PM | | TrackBack

Does this matrix make sense?

Check it:

  Particularistic Universalistic
Exclusivistic Judaism   Islam/conservative Christianity 
Pluralistic Hinduism/Daoism/Shintoism   Liberalism/liberal Christianity/Buddhism   

Does this make any sense? Just a general impression that I wanted to recast in matrix form. There seems a contradiction in pluralistic universalism....

Addendum: Please note that I'm making idealized generalizations about the systems of belief. In practice, the typical Jew, Muslim, Hindu and Christian are quite similar in their day-to-day behavior, to a far greater extent than a axiomatic reading of their religious system would indicate. The differences begin to manifest themselves when you sum up the collective behavior of groups of humans and you intregate over time

Posted by razib at 12:52 PM | | TrackBack

Regression to the Mean: a puzzle

We all like to think we understand regression to the mean, as it arises frequently in statistics, genetics, psychology, economics, etc.

Roughly speaking, wherever there is a correlation between two variables, we expect the more extreme values of one variable to be associated with less extreme values of the other, which is said to ‘regress’ towards its mean value.

More precisely, for any sets of variable x and y, measured in units of their own standard deviation, if there is a correlation other than 0, 1, or -1 between x and y, then, for any given value of x, the mean value of the y’s corresponding to that value of x will be closer to the mean of all y’s than that value of x is to the mean of all x’s. Since correlation is a symmetrical relationship, the same proposition will be true if we substitute y for x and x for y throughout.

This, or something like it, is the definition usually given of ‘regression to the mean’, and it is commonly said that it is a necessary consequence - or even a ‘mathematical necessity’ - wherever there is an imperfect but non-zero correlation.

So I was disconcerted to find an example that apparently violates the general rule: a case where there is a non-zero correlation (and in fact quite a strong one) but no regression to the mean...

Godless comments: There is a fallacious assumption here, which is that the linear conditional MMSE formula applies to the case of non-normal random variables. See inside .

David B comments: My original post anticipated this objection, saying: "I suppose one response to this puzzle, or paradox, is that the relationship between the variables in this case is not linear, so the standard Pearson formulae for linear regression and correlation are not appropriate. I would agree that the Pearson formulae are not ideal for this case, but I don’t see that in any strict sense they are invalid. The correlation does account for about half of the total variance, which is better than many correlations that are accepted as meaningful."

So I don't accept that the use of a linear regression formula is strictly a 'fallacy'. I note that the statistics text that Godless links to seems to take a similar view, saying: "Such linear estimators may not be optimum; the conditional expected value may be nonlinear and it always has the smallest mean-squared error. Despite this occasional performance deficit, linear estimators have well-understood properties, they interact will [sic: presumably the author means 'well'] with other signal processing algorithms because of linearity, and they can always be derived, no matter what the problem."

In the present case, a linear regression is not 'optimum', but it accounts for about half the variance, which is not bad, and I'm not sure that any other formula would do much better.

Draw, or imagine, a scattergram as follows.

First draw the x and y axes, with x = y = 0 at the origin, and mark off 2 units (in inches, or whatever) along each axis in both directions from the origin.

Then draw a square with sides of length 2 units in the upper right quadrant, with its lower left corner on the origin. Draw a similar square in the lower left quadrant, with its upper right corner on the origin.

Now fill each square evenly with dots, except that no dots are to fall on the axes themselves.

Let each dot represent a pair of associated x and y observations.

It is evident that:

a. The mean of all the x observations is 0. Similarly, the mean of all the y observations is 0.

b. The mean of all the positive x observations is 1. Similarly, the mean of all the positive y observations is 1, while the mean of the negative x and y observations is -1.

c. The standard deviation (sd) of the x’s is equal to the standard deviation of the y’s. They are both greater than 1. (I estimate that they are around 1.2, but the precise value does not matter.)

d. The pairs of x’s and y’s have a positive covariance, since they all fall in the ‘positive’ quadrants of the scattergram. The covariance is approximately 1.

e. There is a positive correlation between the x’s and y’s. Assuming 1.2 for the standard deviation of the x’s and y’s, the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient is about 1/1.44 = approx .7.

f. However, there is no regression to the mean. For each positive x value, the mean of the corresponding y values is 1, while for each negative x value it is -1. For half of the x values (those between 1 and 2 or between -1 and -2), the mean value of the corresponding y’s is closer to the mean of all y’s (0) than the x value is to the mean of all x’s (also 0), so it could be said that for these values there is a regression towards the mean, but these are exactly balanced by the other half of the x values, where there is a ‘regression’ of equal size away from the mean. So overall there is no regression. This conclusion is not affected if we measure each variable in sd units.

So it appears that we have correlation, but no regression to the mean. Of course, we can still formulate a ‘regression equation’ to predict the value of x given y or y given x. Since the sd’s of the two variables are the same, the regression coefficients are equal to the correlation coefficient. The predicted values of the dependent variables are always closer to their means than are the given values of the independent variables. So there is a predicted regression. But the actual observed values show no regression to the mean, as usually defined.

I suppose one response to this puzzle, or paradox, is that the relationship between the variables in this case is not linear, so the standard Pearson formulae for linear regression and correlation are not appropriate. I would agree that the Pearson formulae are not ideal for this case, but I don’t see that in any strict sense they are invalid. The correlation does account for about half of the total variance, which is better than many correlations that are accepted as meaningful.

Perhaps a better response is that the ‘population’ of observations is really a combination of two different populations, within each of which the correlation is zero, but which have different means. It is known that a combination of populations with different means gives rise to a correlation sometimes described as ‘spurious’, or an ‘artifact’. However, real-life populations are also often a mixture of heterogeneous sub-populations, and it seems to be a matter of taste how far it is legitimate to combine them together.

Anyway, I thought the puzzle might be of interest, so I would welcome any comments. Of course, the example is a very simple one, but there may be more complicated real-life examples where there is less ‘regression to the mean’ than might be expected simply on the basis of correlation coefficients.

Godless comments:

The mistake here is in assuming that E[Y | X] = r X for arbitrary *non*-normal random variables X and Y. The conditional MMSE minimizer is not a linear function of the measurement (= rX) in the case where X and Y are not jointly-normal random variables.

Reference on the MMSE (= minimum mean square estimator) for Y given X. Note that the estimator for Y given X only has the simple form "rX" in the case where Y and X are correlated standard normal random variables with correlation coefficient r. In the general bivariate normal case, Y = aX+b where a and b are complicated terms. [1]

In the general case, where X and Y are (say) correlated gamma random variables, E[Y|X] need not take on the form of a simple linear function. In general, E[Y|X] = f(X) is a nonlinear function of the measured variable X with which we are predicting the expected mean of the variable Y, and may exhibit behavior such that E[Y|X] = f(X) is GREATER than the measurement X. This is the opposite of the expected behavior in the linear formula when r is less than 1 (as |r| |X| is less than |X| always). That is, it violates the regression to the mean rule, which is only strictly valid when E[Y|X] = f(X) and |f(X)| < |X| for all X, of which E[Y|X] = rX with |r| less than 1 is a special case.

Reference on linear vs. nonlinear MMSE.

A further subtlety: E[Y|X] need not be the same as argmax P(Y|X). That is, the mean need not equal the mode in the conditional probability distribution.

This situation is purely mathematical and has nothing to do with Galton's "fallacy". Perhaps I will make a fuller discussion of this in a later post.

[1] They aren't *that* complicated. You can easily remember them through the projection formula, as the set of zero-mean random variables is an inner product space and all the standard formulas apply (with the inner product (X,Y) = E[XY]).

Posted by David B at 03:10 AM | | TrackBack

Yes, more sex
Posted by razib at 01:27 AM | | TrackBack

June 28, 2004

Abortion numbers

Seems like there is some "tacking" going on in this article which argues that abortions are eating away at the demographic base of liberals/Democrats[1]. Normally, this sort of tacking goes on by pointing out the high African American abortion rates, ergo, the loss of reliable Democrats. Here is some abortion data by timing, age, race and religion. Some of the data confuses me, after all, it is true that "Born Again Christians" have lower abortion rates, but I can imagine a situation where women are non-religious, have an abortion, and later have a "Born Again" experience. This sort of mutability of religious or political affiliation make me a bit skeptical of extrapolating on this issue, since one's self-perception might be contingent on having had an abortion (that is, a women who is a conservative Born Again Christian Republican has a ideological & religious epiphany due to an unplanned pregnancy).

[1] The polling firm's founder brags about a close relationship to the late Ronald Reagan, so the firm has partisan origins from what I can gather. Also, the foundation of their argument is based on asking about abortions in the social circles of Republicans and Democrats. I suspect Republicans might know less about abortions that their friends & family have had simply because there is more social stigma attached to having one in that context. Why not just survey whether one has had an abortion? I suspect there would likely be under-reporting in this circumstance from women who avow socially conservative views.

Posted by razib at 05:56 PM | | TrackBack

The eternal recurrence of elite betrayal

Steve Sailer's latest column considers why the black American elite is now turning against immigrant blacks and their children as far as affirmative action at elite universities goes, while neglecting to say a word about the allotment toward Hispanics. The short answer is that it doesn't help them out to reduce the Hispanic allotment, since their own is fixed at around 8%.

But what does this have to do with most of black America? It seems arguing over who gets into Harvard is beyond the pale of most black Americans as far as everyday experience, let alone most Americans. But it matters to the elites, and in this case, the black elite. I think what we are seeing is a heightening of the differences in priorities between the black elite, and the masses of African Americans they claim to represent.

It is a paradox of "mass movements" that they need leaders, and so birth their own elites. Senator Robert C. Byrd might be of working-class Appalachian antecedents, and those might be the folk he represents, but over the decades he has been given an education by those same people, and now waxes eloquently with the diction of America's elite. One might wonder if the descendents of Robert Byrd will have the same emotional attachment to their ancestor's working class origins, or whether they will join the "elite" that he so despised in his youth? In victory does the power of the masses drain away, suborned by the ambition toward advancement that lurks in the hearts of all men, most of all the "leaders" of the meek not born to power.

About 6 months ago I was reading the history of the Han dynasty, China's defining epoch, the dynasty which gave the majority Chinese their term of self-appellation. Near the end of the "Former Han," and during the interregnum of the "usurper" Wang Mang, a series of natural disasters let to a host of uprisings. Peasants and brigands roamed the country-side, and the great lords of the previous age fell from grace. But a time came when they needed to select a leader, and who did they choose? A variety of great men rose, and one of them was a distant scion of the old Han house. He went on to found the Latter Han, and that dynasty in the end recapitulated the fall of its predecessor.

I can give a host of similar examples cross-culturally. But in the end, the moral is the same. From the masses rise men and women who are fueled by their fury at injustice, wishing to make a better world, who wish to do good for the toiling common man, their own kith and kin, in words and deed if not their self-interested hearts. A new order rises, tight in execution and focused on higher moral purpose. As the generations progress, the initial ardor diminishes, and the Mandate of Heaven, the acclamation of the populous, fades. The made leaders of the first generation give way to the born leaders of the next, and so forth. The masses and those who they chose to lead them drift apart. And so another generation of made leaders is born, and the terminal generation of the last dispensation is tossed aside.

Between the cross-purposes of human nature we fabricate the abstract mental superstructure of ideologies and religions that give purpose and compel us toward the "greater good." But in the end, there is the foundation of our nature that drags us down as time works its so-called wonders. The traditional Chinese acknowledged both elements and fused it into a compound ideology, lionizing the atomic importance of family, but scaffolding it with the importance of public virtue, and reformulating non-kin relations as ones of familial import. The Mandate of Heaven was nothing more than a word, a force that encapsulated the entropic unwinding of the Chinese social order over a period of centuries and its resurrection with the rebirth of the Great Idea of the Son of Heaven and father of the nation.

As far as this nation is concerned, the black American elite seems to be complacent in its assured role, ignorant or contemptuous of the fates of elites who naturally over time betrayed their mandate. Clever with words, gifted with connections with a patronizing white companion class and rich accumulated social merit, they swim on the glory of past deeds. But memories fade, interests change, and there is always a new righteous elite ready to take on the mandate of the people and do "justice," unhesitant and brutal in their sense of purpose.

As they say, "Only the paranoid survive."

Update: Thanks to David Orland on some editing advice. Though I would ask for the indulgence of readers, this post was hacked out in 20 minutes.

Posted by razib at 04:30 PM | | TrackBack

PTC, part II

For those who read my previous post on PTC taste/non-taste, and my ruminations on its implications for general gustatory preferences, I have read the full text (thanks to a gracious reader) of the recent paper which suggests that the PTC locus is being buffeted by "balancing selection" (you can download the paper here in PDF format). I think the authors have made a good case that internationally the PTC locus can be characterized as being under the influence of balancing selection, where heterozygotes have a some fitness advantage which results in the maintenance of high frequencies of both major alleles. I also agree with the authors that there is a strong likelihood that particular local populations might be more shaped by founder effects or positive selection for one of the alleles.

So why balancing selection? Basically, in balancing selection the frequencies of both alleles reach an equilibrium where the percentage of heterozygotes is maximized in a random mating population. The most powerful illustration of their argument is a graph which shows the "number of populations" as a function of the frequency of the "non-taster allele." The graph is shaped like an inverted "V," with a mode and mean in the region of the 50th percentile. As one shifts toward 0 or 100 percent, the number of populations displaying those frequencies drops.

One might note that some (many in fact) populations show frequencies shifted far from the central region of the graph. That might be suggestive of local positive selection for one of the alleles or random genetic drift. But note the most common trend is toward a cluster near the center of the graph. This is the pattern one would expect if one imagined that the frequencies have a tendency toward equilibriating where both are maintained within the population.

If you had positive selection for one of the alleles, it seems rather obvious that the frequencies would be heavily skewed in one direction (that is, most populations would show high frequencies of one of the alleles). On the other hand, what about a situation where there is no selection pressure. Well, in this circumstance, one would expect that the populations would cluster at either end of the graph, around 0 or 100 percent for the non-taster allele in this case.

In the event of random genetic drift being the exclusive driver of genetic change, the allele frequency moves in a "random walk" fashion up and down. If you had 100 populations where the allele frequency was initially at 50% (for simplicity), all these subpopulations would drift in a variety of directions as time progressed. But, if the frequency in a subpopulation hits 0 or 100 percent, you have reached "fixation," and the subpopulation would no longer change in frequency (we are assuming no mutation). As time progressed, naturally more and more subpopulations would reach fixation, and the 0 and 100 percent cluster would keep increasing, until all intermediate frequency populations were eliminated.

In other words, in a situation where random genetic drift is dominant, the graph should have been somewhat "U" shaped. In a case where positive selection was dominant, there should have been a strong skew toward one end of the graph. Instead, what you see is a mixed strategy in evidence in most populations.

The authors point out there do seem to be exceptions. Native Americans for example. But, they have good answers to the questions (founder effect and so forth), and already concede that they offer one (likely the major) answer, not the only one. I attempted to use PUBMED to see what the rates of Asian Indians of PTC non-taste were. There are several hints that this population has high rates of non-taste, the higher frequency of this phenotype among the Gypsies (in comparison to Eastern Europeans) is for example used to diagnose an exoganous South Asian origin for them. But, I found several high caste, likely vegetarian, populations which had high frequencies of tasters (far higher than the 40% quoted in the Tepper paper I commented on last year). Since the South Asian populations are generally assumed to have a lot of substructure, random genetic drift might have shifted several populations far off the "optimal" frequency. But, the 40% number no doubt comes from a summation of all the various populations. I do note that the authors of the current paper had 10 Pakistanis in their sample for the South Asian portion. This warrants further investigation, and I might actually email the head author, since he probably knows a lot more about the evidence for positive selection than I, as he must have combed the literature.

Addendum: Also, please note that the clarification of three possible phenotypes, with a middling taster group between the non-tasters and super-tasters, should be cautionary about the oversimplifications that go into making population models. And one must remember that even the authors of the above paper note that there are other alleles that exist at extremely low, but non-neglible, frequencies.

Posted by razib at 03:54 PM | | TrackBack

Miss Universe 2004

I tabulated some data on Miss Universe 2004 competition. You can download the excel file.

The mean height was 69.4 inches, a little over 5'9 (1.74 meters).

Here were the top six in "looks" from my perspective:

Katrina Wigander, Sweden
Venessa Fisher, Canada
Catherine Manchola, Colombia
Kathrine Soerland, Norway
Yanina Gonzalez, Paraguay
Ksiena Kustova, Russia

I ranked all the contestants on a 0 to 10 scale. The mean for the girls was 7, and I gave Sweden a 9, and the others an 8.5. All the data is cut & pasted below.

Name Country Age Height Hair Eye Looks
Telma SoAngloa 18 69Black Brown 6
Ann-MariAntigua 25 70Brown Brown 7
JenniferAustrali 20 71Blonde Blue 7.5
Daniela Austria 23 69Black Brown 7
Raquel HBahamas 24 67Brown Brown 8
Cindy MaBarbados 19 70Brown Brown 7
Lindsy DBelgium 21 69Brown Green 6
Leilah PBelize 23 69Brown Brown 7.5
GabrielaBolivia 21 72Brown Brown 7.5
Icho KeoBotswana 24 67Black Brown 5
Fabiane Brazil 19 72Black Green 7.5
Ivelina Bulgaria 18 68Brown Brown 8
Venessa Canada 18 68Blonde Green 8.5
Stacey-ACayman I 25 71Black Brown 5
Chile 23 70BrunetteGreen 7
Meng ZhaChina 23 69Brown Brown 6
CatherinColumbia 21 69Brown Brown 8.5
Nancy SoCosta Ri 23 72Brown Brown 7.5
MarjinanCroatia 18 70Brown Brown 7
AngelinaCuracao 19 69Brown Brown 7
Nayia IaCyprus 21 67Red Green 6
Lucie VaCzech Re 19 71Blonde Brown 7
Tina ChrDenmark 22 69Brown Green 7.5
Larimar Dominica 20 72Brown Brown 7.5
Susana REcuador 24 70Brown Hazel 7
Heba El-Egypt 22 69Black Brown 7.5
GabrielaEl Salva 19 66Brown Brown 6.5
Sirle KaEstonia 22 69Blonde Blue 7
FerehiyeEthiopia 18 70Black Brown 6.5
Mira SalFinland 23 69Brown Green 7
LaetitiaFrance 23 69Brown Brown 7.5
Nino MurGeorgia 21 70Brown Brown 7
ShermineGermany 21 69Brown Brown 7
Menaye DGhana 23 71Brown Brown 7
Valia KaGreece 23 71Brown Brown 7
Marva WeGuatemal 20 70Black Black 8
Odessa PGuyana 21 69Brown Brown 5
Blanka BHungary 19 67Brown Brown 8
TanushreIndia 20 67Black Brown 7
CathrionIreland 23 66Brown Hazel 6.5
Gal GadoIsrael 19 71Brown Brown 7
Laia Manetti 23 69Brown Blue 6.5
ChristinJamaica 24 70Brown Brown 7
Eri MachJapan 20 68Black Brown 6
Anita MaKenya 21 68Black Black 6.5
Yoon-YouKorea 20 68Brown Brown 7
Marie-JoLebanon 19 70Brown Brown 6
Andrea FMalaysia 19 71Black Black 7
Rosalva Mexico 21 71Brown Brown 7
Lindsay Netherla 21 69Brown Brown 7
MarifleyNicaragu 22 67Brown Brown 6.5
Anita UwNigeria 19 70Black Black 7
KathrineNorway 24 69Blonde Blue 8.5
Jessica Panama 22 71Brown Green 7.5
Yanina GParaguay 24 70Brown Brown 8.5
Liesel HPeru 24 71Black Brown 8
Maricar Philippi 21 68Black Brown 7
Paulina Poland 21 69Brown Brown 8
Alba ReyPuerto R 22 72Brown Brown 7.5
Ksiena KRussia 20 71Brown Green 8.5
Dragana Serbia & 19 72Brown Green 7
Sandy ChSingapor 19 70Brown Brown 7.5
Zuzana DSlovak R 19 68Red Green 7.5
Sabina RSlovenia 22 69Brown Brown 7
Joan RamSouth Af 25 67Black Brown 7
Maria GaSpain 21 71Brown Brown 8
LaFerne St. Vinc 20 70Black Black 7
Katrina Sweden 21 67Blonde Blue 9
Bianca SSwitzerl 25 69Brown Brown 7.5
Jane HsiTaiwan 26 70Black Brown 7
Morakot Thailand 20 67Black Brown 7.5
DaniellaTrinidad 26 69Brown Brown 7
Fatos SeTurkey 22 Brown Green 7.5
Shamara Turks & 19 Brown Brown 7
OleksandUkraine 22 70Brown Green 7.5
Nicole GUruguay 20 69Brown Brown 7.5
Shandi FUSA 25 71Blonde Blue 7.5
Ana DelgVenezuel 19 72Blonde Brown 7.5
Hoang NgVietnam 19 71Black Brown 6

Posted by razib at 12:44 PM | | TrackBack

June 27, 2004

Argue it, don't prove it!

We can all talk. Most people can enjoy fiction. We can vaguely make out a verbal argument. On the other hand, as Barbie once noted, "math is hard."

In any case, I finished The Mating Mind, and I found the last chapters very interesting. That's probably because they are the most focused on specific elements of substance. I was intrigued by Miller's hypothesis that language serves primarily to aid men woo women[1]. This explains, in his opinion, why women tend to perform at a higher level on verbal comprehension tests (they have to judge), while men tend to be better at creation of verbally oriented products (that is, as writers, speakers, etc.). He thinks adaptationist theories of language that focus on the communication & processing of information about the world "out there" are going at it the wrong way, and he is not alone in this idea, as Robin Dunbar's "theory of gossip" is similar in deemphasizing the transmission of utilitarian facts and ideas. Miller even ends by suggesting that g might be a general fitness indicator (yes, that g) [2].

But a question, if you are asked to bet a substanial sum (say $10,000 American dollars) on which set out of two groups of males will have more children at age 65 from the following selections, which horse you back?

  • Males who scored a 500 (~50th percentile of test takers) on the verbal section of their S.A.T. and a 750 (~98th percentile of test takers) on the mathematical section.
  • Males who scored a 520 (~50th percentile of test takers) on the mathematical section of their S.A.T. and a 750 (~98th percentile of test takers) on the verbal section.

Or restated, extremely successful lawyers, or extremely successful engineers? While shows about the lives of lawyers are a dime a dozen, can anyone recall one that focused on the life of an engineering firm? Of course, I guess the C.S.I shows indicate that science can be sexy, but the criminal element seems crucial. Legal shows also tend to focus on "sexy" topics of course, but by their nature, lawyers can argue about the issues in a way that clarifies plot lines and develops depth-of-character (or lack of).

[1] He notes that men start talking about intellectual topics and use rarer words when women come into a room.

[2] From page 410 of Miller's book: 'So, what is this "general intelligence"? I have mentioned intelligence repeatedly throughout this book as an important criterion of mate choice, but I have not discussed it explicitly in much detail. There are two reasons for this. First, intelligence research remains controversial. A few vocal critics who do not understand modern intelligence research have had an undue influence on public opinion. Despite the fact that more is known about the nature, importance, and genetics of intelligence than about almost anything else in psychology, I do not not want to get side-tracked into such debates. Perhaps my ideas are already controversial enough....'

Posted by razib at 07:27 PM | | TrackBack

An observation on the lords of dance

So, Britney Spears is engaged to her dancer? A few years back, J-Lo married choreographer/dancer Chris Judd. Christina Aguilera's first relationship was also supposedly with her back-up dancer. Perhaps Geoffrey Miller is right, and "dancing" is a fitness indicator that has been sexually selected? I have no idea, but readers might find David B's entry on "The Handicap Principle" interesting (note that Britney's love interest already has a child from a previous relationship, wonder if he danced his way into her pants too).

Addendum: Following up on the themes of dance & sexual selection, here is a snippet from Michael Bailey's book:

Michael agreed, and he embarked on a most ambitious study. Before it was over, he had interviewed 136 professional dancers from around the country, including several well-known choreographers: 48 gay men, 42 heterosexual men, 45 heterosexual women, and 1 lesbian.

One of my college roommates had an ex-girlfriend who was a dance major at Brigham Young University, mecca of Mormon youth, and she one day confided to him that almost all the male dance majors were closeted homosexuals. This is pretty weird. When I danced in clubs in college [1], sometimes I would worry that I was dancing "too gay" (I was dancing to meet chicks to date them, not become their girlfriend). I don't know, I dated and stuff, so my dancing couldn't have been that gay, and it is reassuring that most believe they can distinguish straight and gay dancing so that one isn't displaying in vain.

Dance has a long history, and obviously a non-homosexual one by & large. But the opening of a niche for homosexual males in public life seems to have tinted it more toward becoming a signal for a subculture.

[1] Another phenomenon was the process by which:

  • Gay dance club attracts straight women.
  • Which attracts straight men.
  • Which drives the gays out.
  • Which means fewer straight women show up to dance.
  • Which means fewer straight men show up to dance.
  • Club closes and re-opens with a new name and personality.

Posted by razib at 06:47 PM | | TrackBack