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September 04, 2004

"Buying organic 'gives you boost'"
"Buying organic 'gives you boost'", BBC News, 2004 September 4.

New research suggests that buying organic food can make people feel better, even before they eat any of it.

Supermarket chain Sainsbury's says simply making the choice to buy organic can induce a sense of well-being.
One nutritionist says people feel organic food can even boost emotional and mental health, increasing their sense of wellbeing and optimism when they choose the food they think is healthier, BBC correspondent Nicola Carslaw says.

Yes, it's called the placebo effect, you scientific illiterate. It means that something's effect on the human body is, as they say, "in the mind". In other words, someone who's actually taken high school biology will realize that your article actually discredits assertions about the inherent benefits of an organic diet rather than supports them, as you seem to intend. And this from someone who does most of his grocery shopping at farmers' markets and Whole Foods.

I've come to expect biased news coverage, not just from the BBC, but from everybody. But lazy, unquestioning science coverage?

Posted by jeet at 10:28 PM | | TrackBack

An observation on history & science

I read a lot of history books. I read a lot of science books. There are other sorts of books I read, but these are the two primary types. One thing that I have noted is how persuasive some historians can be, but that it is hard to evaluate phrases like, "it is generally agreed," or "this seems to be the most likely reason." The lack of numbers makes fact-checking hard. You basically have to take the erudition and honesty of the historian at face value (as a lay person). So, reading The Reformation, I take MacCulloch's word that the importance of the various points and facts he is presenting before me are really relevant, but it would be nice if he backed up the importance of a particular theological argument by noting that textual analysis showed that this dispute showed up "45% of the time in letters recovered from this period." Perhaps there is stuff out there like that (I've heard of it, and sometimes it even shows up in the popular books), but I would like more of it. Am I going to "fact check"? Not really, but, I have a more precise understanding of a given percentage than I do "significant."

I am come to this thought for this reason, I have read several books about caste in the Indian subcontinent. The authors often note:

  • Caste is fuzzier, more malleable than most South Asians realize.
  • The authors I have read tend to reject the idea that the British invented caste, and that is, the position that it has a short history as a social feature of the Indian subcontinent.

Well, duh! The recent genetic studies that have been coming out of laboratories seem to point out that:

  • Many markers are found up and down the caste hierarchy.
  • Many markers are shifted toward one end of the caste spectrum.

These two facts tend to argue for a moderate view, in contradiction of the radical "social constructionists" and Hindu fundamentalists. But there is another point that I have found striking: different "high caste" groups tend to cluster together. That suggests that caste has not only been a long standing feature of Indian society, but to some extent, caste mobility has not been high enough to break apart genetic affinities at the top of the spectrum! The persistence of M17 patrilineages over thousands of years for example on the Gangetic plain at the upper ends of social strata really puts into perspective writers who wax on about the importance of social mobility of brigand tribes (adivasis) during the interval between Mughal decline and the British Raj (to be specific). These are plain numbers at work here. It would be nice if I saw this type of material being injected into the new scholarship. Analysis of the archives and oral history to refute a particular model is fine & good, but historians, in this particular context, have some strongly suggestive genetic studies they can appeal to.

This line of thought was precipitated by the fact that an acquaintance of mine, a South Asian graduate student who knows an encyclopediac amount of facts on the region, was totally surprised by possible genetic affinities of high castes and differences between them as a group as opposed to low castes (though he was aware of textual evidence about the migration of Brahmins to South India and so a priori did not assume that caste came about in the 18th century). Unfortunately, when this work does get out, it is through popular press pieces that oversimplify to reenforce popular myths ("Aryan" vs. "Dravidian"). Right now there aren't enough studies that lay persons can appeal to "established opinion." Once you have 500 studies on English vs. Welsh genetics, or North Indian vs. South Indian genetics, non-scientists will have a large field of data to mine and use to buttress or refute models. I hope they make good use of it, not least of which because the scientists themselves and the popular press will mangle the history (if you read the "Discussion" section of many historical genetics pieces you do see some howlers that indicate no historian who specialized in a given region was given a draft of the paper).

Related: Spencer Wells has a new special this fall, Quest for the Phoenicians. I'm skeptical of this level of specificity, but I'll wait until the special comes out.

Posted by razib at 05:12 PM | | TrackBack

Dissolution of a meme

In a post below Frank McGahon notes that I have a "problem with memetics." Yes, I do, because I think people get so enraptured by the metaphor that they use it to put forward all-encompassing explanations. Nevertheless, I link to both The Meme Machine and The Journal of Memetics because I think modestly envisaged memetics might have a future. I don't a priori close off avenues of inquiry, rather, I am concerned that lay people have taken memetics and applied it to their own real world political or social concerns. Even established sciences don't necessarily map well in the normative non-scientific realm, so this is something to be concerned about.

In any case, I am currently reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation: A History, and was intrigued by this paragraph (page 80):

...The mere fact that for a thousand years the Latin Church had based its authority on a translation was significant when scholars heard for the first time the unmediated urgency of the angular street Greek poured out by Jesus' post-Resurrection convert Paul of Tarsus as he wrestled with the problem of how Jesus represented God. The struggle sounded so much less decorous in the original than in the Latin that the shock was bound to stir up new movements in the Church and suggest that it was not so authoritative or normative an interppreter of scritpure as it claimed. If there is any one explanation why the Latin West experienced a Reformation and the Greek-speaking lands to the east did not, it lies in this experience of listening to a new voice in the Next Testament text.

As noted before, I am skeptical of common axiomatic expalantions of societal change (that is, books or ideas being constantly transformative in human society in a salient fashion). Nevertheless, in this case, at this point in history, with the confluence of rag paper, the printing press and the glut of Greek texts brought by refugees fleeing Constantinople, one can make a compelling argument that tens of millioins died between 1500-1700 because of intellectual crises fueled by paradigm shifts among the elite

I will explore the issue in more detail after I finish the book (I am halfway through), but the case above shows the results of a dissolution of a dominant meme, that of the late medieval Latin Church, and the chaos that resulted during the period when new memes crystallized. This is not to deny social changes, national tensions, corruption of Church practice and considerations of realpolitik in aggravating the Wars of Religion, but I think these issues were ancillary to highly abstrue and estoeric theological disputse that issued out of seminaries and colleges.

I view this from the perspective of someone who thinks that theological disputes are generally semantic arguments that arise from the reality that the "facts" being addressed are beyond verbal encapsulation. There were sharp disagreements in logic because the axioms, being "transcendent," would always elude precise definition by definition, they were attempts to translate internal impressions and emotions that became coalitional markers.

Something similar is happening today, Islamists often claim that they detest the West because of its moral degeneracy, yet various other conservative/traditionalist cultures do not display the same tendency toward violent projection of this attitude. At the root is the reality that a substantial subset of Muslims are motivated by these verbal coalitional markers, the need to compel non-Muslims to eventually profess the shahada, even though God is beyond comprehension, even though the general consensus of Sunni Islam favors the circularity of predestination. Such trifles do humans shed blood over.

Posted by razib at 02:11 PM | | TrackBack

The three jewels hypothesis

Since I have been blogging (the past ~3 years) , I have toyed with the idea that the vitality and success of the Western intellectual tradition, with natural philosophy (science) as its centerpiece, over the past 5 centuries has been influenced by equal integration and contribution of three primary tendecies: rationalism, skepticism and empiricism, the "three jewels" [1]. These features of the human psyche are universal, though one can find formalizations of them in philosophical movements throughout the world to various degrees (the Athenian Academy was under the domination of Skeptics for many centuries before the rise of Neoplatonism).

In any case, one idea that I have formed about the lack of genuine scientific progress in the ancient civilizations of India and China is that they emphasized only one element of the three jewels. Perhaps Chinese "common sense" empiricism prevented the rise of systematic rational models that could make novel predictions in a broad sweeping manner (my impression is shaped by the book The Geography of Thought and my readings on the period of The Hundred Schools). In contrast, South Asian rationalism, in the service of mysticism, was entirely decoupled from ends oriented utilitarianism. I would offer that ancient Greek science & engineering was not nearly as seamless in its intellectual culture as modern science, with exceptions like Archimedes proving the rule, and the rationalistic fixation on paradoxes and philosophical discursion serves as a commonality between India and Greece [2].

But this is all retrospective. And yet there are products of ancient Chinese and Indian natural philosophy in the modern world: Chinese and Indian "traditional "medicine! I don't know enough about these topics to really falsify or validate my hypothesis, so I am wondering what readers have to say. Is Chinese traditional medicine too short-sighted in its empiricism? Is Ayurvedic decoupled from the real world out there? I will explore this topic when I have more time, but if my hunch is obviously falsified in this case, I would like to know since it would save me the trouble.

[1] I would offer that modern "Post Modernism" is a variant of Skepticism taken to the extreme. People who have been influenced by Post Modern thinking have told me point blank that they believe in neither logic nor evidence.

[2] Unlike China, India and the Hellenistic cultures were directly aware of each other, the Greeks referring to Indian mystic/philosophers as "gymnosophists," that is, the "naked thinkers" (perhaps a reference to the "sky clad" school of Jains and other ascetics). Plotinus himself embarked on a trek to India, though he never made it that far, while Pythagoreanism seemed to have a South Asian tincture. On the other hand, I have read less about the influence that Bactrian Greeks might have had on Indian culture except for the coinage and the craft of sculpting. India's main scripts derive from Aramaic, so we know the importance of Western influences, so I would not be surprised if the various philosophical streams of Hinduism received an ancient injection of Hellenic thought that is not possible to tease out at this juncture.

Posted by razib at 01:41 PM | | TrackBack

September 03, 2004

Anachronistic devotion in a time of digital media

30,000 books were destroyed and the Duchess Anna Amalia Library was gutted by a fire this Thursday. During the fire library workers risked their lives to save historical texts from damage or destruction.

My question, is this rational in an age of digital media?

I know the old duty of a librarian; to protect orginal written works from destruction, whether that destruction be fire, age, war, mildew, or the slow destruction caused by innacurate copies slowly altering the intent of the author. But in the age where electronic scans can be made, and saved intact in multiple copies, is it truly rational for these people to risk their lives for a bunch of old books?

P.S. I know that the content of the actual text is not the only historical relevant part of the book (just look at the importance of the Gutenberg Bible in the evolution of the printing press), but it is the major part. So should educated, intelligent human beings (who are more likely to take a job protecting antiquated texts) risk death, instead of creating new works of their own?

Posted by scottm at 08:54 PM | | TrackBack


Anwar Ibrahim has been freed.

Officially it was Malaysia's courts who overturned his conviction for sodomy (but not the one for corruption, for which he completed the full sentence a year or two back). Unofficially Abdullah Badawi has once again shown himself to be a class act.

As Prime Minister of Malaysia, I am not a leader of Muslims, but a Muslim leader of all Malaysians. Therefore, I have a responsibility not just to my fellow Muslims, but also to Malaysians who profess other religions as well. It is my duty to ensure that their rights are protected, that they are free to practice their faith, and that they are not persecuted because they are not from the dominant majority. It is my duty to spread the message of tolerance among all; especially to the Muslim majority.

Posted by jeet at 01:38 AM | | TrackBack

September 02, 2004

HERO: Gorgeous Propaganda?

In Zhang Yimou's Hero, last week's #1 film in America, Hong Kong matinee idol Jet Li is Nameless, a mysterious stranger who engages a battle of wits with the Emperor. Li spins a series of pastel tales that open one into another, like Chinese boxes, as the Emperor & the audience try to puzzle out truth from lies.

Yimou drenches - some would say smothers - the movie in sensual poetry: sheets of arrows riddling a garrison, Maggie Cheung's swirling many-colored silk sleeves, a balletic duel across the surface tension of a lake, raindrops, blood-red leaves. Images crowd out the characters, & only Tony Leung, with his heartbreak eyes, & scene-thief Zhang Ziyi manage to hold their own.

    Is it a fascist movie? In the film, an assassin aborts a plot against the Emperor, concluding that the kingdom needs a strong hand. Yimou: "My idea was to convey the message of peace." Li: "It talks about how violence is not the only solution." It does? This is a movie made in Communist China, a totalitarian state where only ghosts bear witness to Tienanmen Square, & filmmakers can only comment on society via metaphor & the panorama of antiquity.

The message of the film isn't pacifist, it's passivist (much like America's confused 'antiwar' crowd), its rebels finally endorsing the iron fist of the Emperor, a brutal warlord with imperial ambitions. No wonder Beijing likes this message of peace. American movie reviewers - one hesitates to call them critics - who previously gushed all over Agitprop 9/11, have been just as forgiving to Hero. Notable exceptions:

Joshua Tanzer, OffOffOff: "A beautiful parchment on which is written, in the most elegant calligraphy, a manifesto for evil."

Andy Klein, LA Citybeat: "The moral of Hero supports all the worst aspects of Chinese communism, disguised as support for the 'benevolent despotism' of the First Emperor."

Jeffrey Chen, Window to the Movies: "If we follow this logic through, we could find ourselves pitying any fascist-leaning dictator who believes peace is only available through forced submission."

J.Hoberman, Village Voice: "There's more than a bit of Leni Riefenstahl. Hero's vast imperial sets, its glorification of ruthless leadership and self-sacrifice on the altar of national greatness, are all redolent of fascinatin' fascism."

Don't get me wrong, it's amazing artistry, & I tend to Oscar Wilde's view: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well-written, or badly written." Hero is well-crafted propaganda. It's also a wrenching love story. CAST:

Jet Li: Born Beijing 1963. Began studying wushu in 1st grade. Won 1st martial arts gold medal at age 11. Performed for Richard Nixon on White House lawn in 1974. Paid 12¢ a day for 1st movie 25 years ago. Manager shot to death by organized crime. Pissed off Jackie Chan with High Risk, which featured no-talent sellout actor played by 'Jacky Cheung'. Turned down lead in Crouching Tiger because wife pregnant. Next up: Unleashed, aka Danny the Dog, with Morgan Freeman.

Maggie Cheung: Born Hong Kong 1964. Family moved to England in 1972. Runner-up 1983 Miss Hong Kong. Has made over 80 films. Best Actress, Cannes 2004 for Clean, directed by ex-husband Olivier Assayas. Memorable movies: Irma Vep, In the Mood for Love. Next up: sci-fi 2046.

Tony Leung: Born Hong Kong 1962. Quit school at 15 to work as paper boy. Tempestuous tabloid love life. Best Actor Cannes 2000 for In the Mood for Love (with Maggie Cheung). Played gay expatriate in Buenos Aires in Happy Together (Cannes Best Director 1997) with Cantonese pop star Leslie Cheung (Farewell My Concubine), who committed suicide last year. Also memorable: Infernal Affairs, Chungking Express. Next up: sci-fi 2046 (with Maggie Cheung & Gong Li).

Zhang Ziyi: Born Beijing 1979. Trained as dancer, joined Beijing Dance Academy at 15. Zhang Yimou cast her in first movie The Road Home. Rumors of affair led Chinese press to dub her Little Gong Li, after Yimou's previous dalliance/protege Gong Li. Ang Lee passed over more well-known Hong Kong actresses to cast her in Crouching Tiger (Best Actress, Toronto Film Festival). Next up: Memoirs of a Geisha with (gulp) Gong Li.

• For a remarkably stupid take, see Liza Bear's interview with Yimou, in which she's not just oblivious to fascist overtones, but tries to connect red, white, & blue color sequences to American 'empire'.

• Also see detailed report on Human Rights Violations in China, and interesting Taiwan blog A Better Tomorrow: "Hero is a complete sop to the Chinese Communist Party."

Posted by jeff at 07:08 AM | | TrackBack

Educational standards

In Britain and elsewhere there is frequent concern about whether educational standards are declining, but it is difficult to get hard data, as those who set the standards have a vested interest in obscuring the issue.

So it's interesting to see a study in the current British Journal of Psychology, (vol. 95, part 3, pp.355-70) by Gerry Mulhern and Judith Wylie, on the basic math skills of new entrants to psychology courses in their own University in Northern Ireland (Queen's University Belfast.)

Here's the abstract:

Teaching statistics and research methods to psychology undergraduates is a major pedagogic challenge. Knowledge of students' conceptual problems in mathematics is important in the current climate of widening access, a burgeoning interest in psychology, and fears about declining standards of numeracy and other quantitative skills. This study compared the mathematical knowledge of two cohorts of undergraduates who entered psychology a decade apart - one in 1992, the other in 2002. Six broadly defined components of mathematical thinking relevant to the teaching of statistics in psychology were examined - calculation, algebraic reasoning, graphical interpretation, proportionality and ratio, probability and sampling, and estimation. Both cohorts were also compared with a 1984 cohort on a subset of items reported in a study by Greer and Semrau (1984). Results revealed highly significant differences between the two cohorts on all six components, with 1992 students outperforming their 2002 counterparts. Males were also found to perform significantly better than females on a majority of components. Level of qualification in mathematics was found to predict overall performance. Comparison with Greer and Semrau's (1984) sample revealed an alarming decline in performance across the two decades on a selection of test items.

The decline is partly due to a compositional change (increasing proportion of female students), but this isn't the whole explanation. There may also have been some widening of the student intake, but Queen's University has a fairly selective entry (among the top 20% of UK universities in terms of entry requirements), so I doubt that this explains it either.

Update from GC:

Alex has the full text PDF, if you're interested.

Posted by David B at 03:42 AM | | TrackBack

Genetics can't explain jack (sometimes)

Dienekes links to a new article that examines the male and female lineages of Lithuanians in relation to their neighbors.

- Estonians speak a Finno-Ugric language (close to Finnish).
- Latvians speak an Indo-European language of the same sub-family as Lithuanian, Baltic.
- Russias speak an Indo-European language of the Slavic sub-family (there has been debate about whether affinities between Baltic and Slavic languages is due to geographic proximity, ergo, cultural exchange, or common ancestry. Some linguists suggest a "Balto-Slavic" group, indicating affinity).

The abstract suggests that Lithuanians are genetically more variant from their neighbors on the Y lineage. This makes sense if you assume patrilocality. But, the finding (again) is that their Y lineages seem closer to those of Latvians than Slavs (not a big surprise) and Estonians (ergo, Finns), even though the latter are non-Indo-European speakers. One can spin many hypotheses from this data, but it just seems this is a case where genetics muddles more than informs. You have to take a step back and look toward analogs in other regions. If more and more studies like this come out, you would think that ideas about an Indo-European genetic expansion would die down, but then you hear about the M17 marker that many Indo-Aryan South Asians carry that might indicate a distant relationship to Eastern European peoples. The fact that another Indo-European people, the Welsh, have Y lineages that resemble Basques (pre-Indo-European speakers) more than many English, though again, the mtDNA (female line) is much less variant, suggests that cultural transmission was important (as archeologists love to claim). If the camp who argue that arguments for a dominant exoganous Y line in India are wrong are validated over time, that will fit the pattern (cultural transmission). Wel'll see....

Here is my own muddled speculation on this topic (Lithuanians) from a few years back.

Posted by razib at 02:13 AM | | TrackBack

Implications of philosophy: what would Nietzsche do?

Gottfried Wihelm Leibniz wore many hats, trained as a lawyer, forced to be an archivist and even a dabbler in mine engineering. But, it is as a philosopher and mathematician that he is most famous today. Though Newton & Leibniz both presented calculus to the world simultaneously, it is Leibniz' notation that reigns supreme. In contrast:

  • How many people know what a monad is?
  • How many refer to a monad outside of the context of a pretentious quasi-intellectual joke?

In the age of Leibniz the various disciplines were more tightly conceived, and he would have protested perhaps that both monads and calculus emerged from the same mold. This was a man who quested for the universal computer, unified knowledge was something he thought he could taste.

But not all philosophy is as inconsquential as Leibniz' monads, sometimes all too tragically. One might argue that Hegel is just as ludicruous and garbled as Leibniz' Most Perfect of World monads, but just because it might be thought of as ludicrous does not mean it was inconsequential, at least if you judge that Hegel had a strong influence on Marx. Shall we damn Hegel for his connection to Marx, and Marx for his connection to the deaths of millions in the 20th century? (Karl Popper blamed Plato)

To some of us, philosophy, narrowly conceived, is a play on words that somehow spawned an academic field. If philosophy transmutes itself into something that is of direct utility and import, it is rebranded (natural philosophy - > science, political philosophy -> public policy). But philosophy itself seems to be as persistent as religion. Of questionable lucidity? Perhaps, but no one said that the world abbhored garbled thought.

Above I pointed to Hegel as the grandfather of Communism. I will leave aside this point and reflect upon another grandfather: Nietzsche. This man, an aphorist for the ages, was appropriated by the Nazi regime in Germany as a philosophical precursor. No matter that there was little confluence between Nietzsche's philosophy and Nazi politics. Just as the actions of some in the name of God would outrage the founder of their faith, so the Nazi genocide would likely have elicited revulsion in Nietzsche.

The mutability of Nietzsche's work toward unexpected ends is no surprise. Though often preening and posing in rationalistic garb, as I note above, the rational often emerges from its philosophical pupae as something totally unrecognizable. To master the recursive loops that cycle through one's brain is a futile task, philosophy is a prisoner in evolution's penitentiary.

But just like the gullible women who fall prey to the charm of a serial killer behind bars, again and again the self-styled ubermensch fall under the sway of the prose stylists who pretend to wield axioms in the service of Truth and Understanding. If religion is the opium of the masses, philosophy is the marijuana of the elite. Each generation some individual attempts to resurrect the implementation of the intellectual perpetual motion machine, before succumbing to the limits of their own cognition. It is no surprise that men like Justin Martyr were once aspiring philosophers before their turned to that other unimaginable edifice, the God Hypothesis.

Several weeks ago I expressed distaste at the tendency for the followers of Ludwig Wittgenstein to ape his manners and habits. I suggested that some of this might be explained by the "imitation factor," that is, the human (and animal) tendency to imitate high status or charismatic individuals. They were simply marching to the tune of evolution as it turned the lights on or imposed intellectual "lock down." Men like Wittgenstein, philosophers, cogitors to the utmost, often assumed that they are touching the edge of rational transcendence (Wittgenstein felt he was a puzzle-master by the end). I would argue rather they are peculiar specimens who possess a combination of genes and underwent various experiences that rendered them susceptible to the self-delusion that salvation could be attained through the quest for the Truth. Some element of this trait can be found in all individuals, the "God Shaped Hole" in the brain that Carl Sagan wrote about. In some individuals God is replaced by philosophy, and the hole is a crater that has blasted away other intellectual functions, especially good judgement.

This is not necessarily negative, the compulsive and eccentric urges and visions of "natural philosphers" led to science. But as I noted above, philosophies can sometimes resemble religion sociologically, the main difference being the narrower focus and the rational conceit. Truth be told though, philosophy seems to usually just be spastic art garbed in luxurious verbal silk to distract from the termors and lack of self-control. The aphorisms of Nietzsche are imprecise enough that men who gassed small children were affiliated with a form of Nietzsche's teachings. One could assert that the teachings were garbled, but I am skeptical that they were much more than impressionistic renderings of the great philosopher's periodic mind-storms in the first place.

It seems that the age of prophets and god-men is gone. New Great Religions seem not to arise in our skeptical age. But philosophers do not offer magic, and so the modern age does little to corrode their spells and dilute their incantations. They think that they think, therefore they are, but in truth, they might be because of balancing selection favoring some alleles in heterozygote combinations, even if a homozygote monster is birthed on occasion.

Posted by razib at 12:50 AM | | TrackBack

September 01, 2004

In the path of the One?

Bernard Lewis once observed that "Muhammed was his Constantine." That is, the prophet of Islam was also a warlord of the Arabs. It is only a few steps of logic and intuition to wonder if perhaps Islam's modern muscularity might not be a projection of its founder's character.

Let us ignore the nuances of intra-religious variance and semantic precision, and consider the following dyads of prophet/teacher/messiah/God and religion:


Many would assert, I think correctly, that there is a definite concordance between the founder of a religion and its subsequent character, at least superficially (recall that I dismissed the issues of substructure and semantic quibbling that tend to encumber me when wading into this territory).

But I think there is an unexamined assumption here.

How do we know that what the proponents of a given religion tell us about their putative founder is in any sense accurate? Unlike Joseph Smith, for example, the aforementioned individuals' historicity is not established. Personally, I suspect that Jesus, Muhammed, Siddartha and Confucius did exist in some form, but, I am less sure that we know the true nature of the character of these individuals. Who can say that early proponents of any given creed transmitted an accurate picture of the religious founder? Books like The Quest for the Historical Muhammad offer an alternative, more skeptical, view of the narrative that orthodox Islam presents of its genesis. I don't know if the revisionists are correct, but their tack suggests that we should be cautious about assuming an arrow of causality from founder - > religion. The fact that the life stories and character traits of a given religious founder tend to accord well with the idealized expression of religious practice and belief as understood by the consensus of the faithful seems to be no great surprise.

What we do know from religious founders who operated in the light of history, like Joseph Smith, is that their own character had idiosyncratic and unpredictable affects on the development trajectory of the religion they founded. Certainly, Smith the shyster does not reflect the character of modern pious Mormons, but what Latter Day Saints will tell you about the character of Joseph Smith would make the man out to be a saint! Thank god we have other sources to contradict this sunny concordant image between the wholesome man and the whole contemporary congregations.

Posted by razib at 11:41 PM | | TrackBack

Two sources of Cholesterol

Just a minor note, but as I was cleaning up I heard this line from a Pharma ad on the TV. "Ask your doctor about the two sources of cholestrol: diet and family" Not a big deal for GNXP readers but this article shows it might be a revolutionary concept for most Americans.


"When asked about the sources of cholesterol, most, more than three-quarters of respondents incorrectly identified the diet as the main source of the cholesterol in the body," Dr. David Cohen of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston told United Press International in a telephone interview. "In fact, three times the amount of cholesterol is naturally produced by the body than is obtained in the diet each day.
Posted by scottm at 08:21 PM | | TrackBack

Friendly Faces

Sorry if this is a repeat, but it was the first that I've seen of it. There is a study in the July 7th Journal of the Royal Society that claims that we seek similar faces to our own in our friends, but divergent faces in our partners.

Here is the BBC News story: Familiar faces seem more friendly

Posted by Thrasymachus at 04:27 PM | | TrackBack

Obstacles to democracy

Warning: this is another of my long self-indulgent posts, so if you don’t like that kind of thing, ignore it.

In comments on a recent post, the point was made that there are very few functioning democracies outside Europe and countries with populations of European origin (such as the USA and Australia).

I think this is broadly true. (See Note in the continuation.) On that assumption, it is worth considering why democracy is so rare. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) claims to support democracy in principle, so why is it rare in practice?


Some readers may be tempted by the hypothesis that people of European ancestry have innate qualities essential to democracy, while other people do not.

This is possible, but I don’t see much reason to believe it. To begin with, evolutionary psychology suggests that the basic capacities for conflict and cooperation are likely to be much the same throughout the human species. It is only in large-scale political organisation that Europeans possibly show some special features, and large-scale political organisation is too recent on an evolutionary time-scale for special adaptations to have evolved to support it. Conceivably some people have genetic traits of behaviour or personality that just happen to ’preadapt’ them to democratic forms of government, but I’m not aware of any evidence for this.

Nothing can safely be inferred from the peculiar history of the last few centuries. Any historian will be suspicious of claims about ’national character’. The pacifist Swedes were once Vikings; the tolerant Dutch were once religious fanatics. If Europeans have any special flair for democracy, they have only discovered it recently. In the garden of civilisation, democracy is a late and delicate bloom. Apart from some short-lived examples in ancient Greece, it is difficult to think of any recognisably democratic system of government anywhere much before the end of the 18th century. Within living memory, most of the peoples of Europe have been governed by dictatorships or one-party states. If we take the ’European race’ as having existed for at least ten thousand years, probably less than 1 percent of its lifespan (averaged across constituent groups) has been passed under democratic government. It would also be historically naïve to suppose that Europeans were usually better at living peacefully together than, say, modern Iraqis or Afghans. Go back to medieval or renaissance Europe, and you will find an environment of violence, feuding, and corruption that a modern Iraqi would feel quite at home in.

It may also be argued that a precondition for democracy is a high level of intelligence in the population, and that nations with mean IQ below, say, 80 are simply too stupid to make democracy work. But this doesn’t explain why democracy is still weak in East Asia, where, according to Richard Lynn and his groupies, IQ is generally higher than in Europe or the USA. And it overlooks the fact that a hundred years ago IQ in western countries was probably below 80 by current (2004) norms (see my post here), yet the USA and some European countries already had successful traditions of democracy.

A more plausible explanation for the rarity of stable democracies is that they require circumstances which are actually quite rare and difficult to achieve.

Democracy (in the modern sense) gives power to a majority of the population. This is better than giving it to a minority, but rule by a minority (or an individual, like the enlightened despots of the 18th century) does have some advantages. A prudent minority ruler will exercise self-restraint in exploiting the majority. In contrast, a government representing the majority of the population feels little need, either on practical or ethical grounds, to restrain itself in dealing with minorities. In turn, the oppressed minorities will feel no loyalty or obligation towards a majority regime which exploits them without giving them effective constitutional means of redress. They may then turn to violent means, leading to a cycle of repression and rebellion, and ultimately to the collapse of democratic institutions.

This suggests the principle: successful democracy is only possible if there are no deep divisions in the population.

Two major qualifications are needed. First, if a minority is small and weak, it may simply acquiesce in its own oppression, migrate out of the country, or (if possible) be assimilated into the majority. Second, if conflict between groups is very prolonged, they may eventually reach a compromise. The result may be a devolution of powers within a federal system, entrenched constitutional rights for minorities, or other limits on the powers of the majority. This in itself is a step away from pure democracy.

In most of the states in the modern world, deep divisions do exist in the population. The boundaries of most non-European states were set arbitrarily in colonial times, and contain mutually hostile ethnic groups, like the Shona and Ndebele in Zimbabwe, Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, or the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Expecting these groups to get along harmoniously in a single polity is like tying rats up in a bag and then being surprised if they fight.

Another obvious source of division is religion. Today the topical examples are Sunnis versus Shias, or Muslims versus non-Muslims (Sudan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Philippines, Kashmir, etc.) Four hundred years ago the topical example would have been Catholics versus Protestants. Except in Northern Ireland, where the religious division coincides with an ethnic one, Catholic-Protestant conflict has generally died down. This might offer some hope for the future of other religious hostilities, but don’t hold your breath. In most European states, peace between Protestants and Catholics was finally achieved, after a century of so of brutal wars and persecution, by the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing. By the end of the 17th century most people were so fed up with religious wars that a degree of tolerance did emerge. This was reinforced by the spread of Enlightenment values among elites in the 18th century, as reflected for example in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, with its guarantee of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Unfortunately much of the world has never had an Enlightenment. (Note also that the constitutional exclusion of the state from religious affairs is a limitation of democracy. In a pure democracy, why shouldn‘t the majority impose its religious beliefs on others?)

Another serious obstacle to democracy is gross inequality of wealth. There is little prospect for unity in a country divided between a small minority of very rich people and a large mass of very poor ones, as is the case in many third-world countries. Assuming that the rich minority is initially in power, it will take any steps necessary to preserve its dominance, because it knows that the impoverished majority will despoil it if they get the chance. Extreme inequality of wealth is also a fertile ground for Communist subversion and terrorism, which is countered by torture and ’disappearance’. These factors are sufficient to explain the general failure of democracy in Latin America until recently, along with US foreign policy, which supported dictatorial regimes so long as they opposed Communism.

In poor countries another problem is kleptocracy - a government of crooks. If the only way for an able man to make a good living, and help his numerous relatives, is to get into government, and then to milk the public through bribes, corrupt contracts, and extortion, then that is what will happen. (This was routine practice in Europe before the 19th Century, and sometimes later.) Once in power, the kleptocrats will do their utmost to keep it.

Perhaps also some religious or cultural traditions are inherently more favourable to democracy than others. Is there some cultural/religious reason why democracy has survived, despite threats, in India, while it has failed in Pakistan? In East Asia, does the Confucian and Buddhist tradition encourage submission to authority? This is more Razib’s field than mine, so I won’t speculate on it.

All this may sound pessimistic about the prospects for democracy, but there are some positive factors. One is the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This has created some fairly genuine democracies in Eastern Europe and the former USSR itself, and Soviet-funded subversion has ceased, which in turn reduces the temptation for the US to support authoritarian anti-Communist regimes. Democracy now seems to be getting more firmly established in countries like Brazil, Argentina and South Korea.

The general growth of the world economy and freer trade are also positive factors. Anything that reduces sharp divisions between rich and poor, and helps create a prosperous and moderate middle class, also reduces the obstacles to democracy.

Wider literacy and education might also be expected to reduce religious extremism, a major source of conflict, but as yet there are few signs of this. A little literacy may be a dangerous thing, just extending the influence of demagogues and religious fanatics.

There remains the problem of ethnic divisions within the artificial boundaries of ex-colonial states, especially in Africa. I suggested in an earlier post that wider application of the principle of self-determination would be useful. The main obstacle to this is that there are vested interests in preserving the status quo (e.g. the Russian interest in the oil of Chechnya). One can only hope that the problem will resolve itself in time, either by redrawing of boundaries (the Sudan would be a good case for this), by giving autonomy to regional minorities (e.g. the Kurds in Iraq), or by movements of population. The last of these is not an efficient solution: it should be easier to move boundaries than people.

I have been focussing on obstacles to democracy rather than positive factors that make it possible or have historically led to its emergence. Just one point to note on this: in the English-speaking world stable democracies have emerged by the extension of representative institutions (such as the English House of Commons and the assemblies of colonial-era America) which originally had limited powers and/or electorates. (Most western democracies started out with a limited franchise, based on ownership of property, and extended it in stages to all adults.) It is difficult to go from despotism to full democracy in a single step. When any of the obstacles discussed above apply, it may be impossible.


A useful source of basic information about electoral systems and parties throughout the world is at www.electionworld.org/

I haven’t attempted to define democracy. See this Wikipedia article. I suggest that in practice there are four key requirements:

a) opposition to the government can be freely organised and promoted, and opponents are not subject to arrest, assassination, etc.

b) elections are fairly conducted, without major fraud in counting of votes etc

c) an unpopular government can in practice be voted out of office, and a winning party can take office without facing military coups, etc.

d) democracy in the modern sense requires universal suffrage: all adult citizens have equal voting rights unless disqualified for some good reason.

By these criteria few countries outside Europe and the Anglosphere are indisputably democratic. India and Japan probably qualify, and maybe a few others. Criterion (c) is sometimes difficult to assess, because a single party or coalition may be so dominant (as in Mexico, Singapore, or Japan) that the possibility of a change of government is seldom put to the test.

Posted by David B at 04:14 AM | | TrackBack

Mother Nature: a complicated and morally ambivalent tale

Of all the books on the sidebar, Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate is the most "clicked." It deserves the accolades it receives, but perfection is generally an ideal, not an attainment. You can read my review of Pinker's book from 2 years ago, but I have to say that there were two problems I had with The Blank Slate:

  • Instead of demolishing one idol, Pinker decided to also topple "The Ghost In The Machine" and "The Noble Savage." I think that this distracted from the main aim of the book, that is, introducing the general public to advances in evolutionary psychology, behavorial genetics and the "study of human nature" in in the broad sweep.
  • The second problem, when viewed in light of the "core" audience of this blog is that the book is aimed toward the general public. Very few people adhere to a genuine "blank slate" paradigm anymore, but GNXP readers are more likely to be open to biologistic causes and underpinnings to phenomena traditionally explained or assumed without recourse to natural science. Additionally, most of the readers of this blog are surely somewhat cynical about "The Noble Savage," while a poll I took a year back indicated that about 3/4 of of readers are religious unbelievers (ergo, no need for "The Ghost In the Machine").

The Language Instinct on the other hand is a more tightly focused book, that nevertheless can offer insight into the general framework Pinker brings to the table and is involved in fleshing out through his research. It is in this spirit that I highly recommend Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. The title alone tells you what you are in for, an ostensibly tight beam that manages to shed light on the broader human condition. 500 pages of text and 50 pages of notes assault you with data point after data point, yet all the while Hrdy manages to interject both amusing anecdotes about the scientists that have shaped our understanding of human evolution & nature (eg; Robert Trivers' ganja habit) and more serious reflections on the personal & private factors that mold the form of scientific knowledge (the juggling of work & family that many female scientists must accept figures importantly in her narrative).

This is not a dry text, rather, it reads like a scientific autobiography. In the main the author neither explicitly advocates her social & ethical norms nor does she make a great attempt to mask the assumptions that form the basis of her world-view. Blaffer strikes me as a moderate liberal, and I feel she injects her own experiences and values in framing the arguments in her book respectfully. The argumentation rarely turns into polemics or advocacy. I will admit that I tend to share her moderate social liberalism, so I found the occasional tincture of sermonizing innocuous. But even if you sharply disagree with her politics, you shouldn't pass up opportunity to feast upon the data Blaffer presents you.

There are three threads in Mother Nature that I want to focus on:

  • Stepping beyond simplistic "genetic determinism" or "essentialism."
  • Contingency in human behavior.
  • And the naturalistic fallacy.

Much of Hrdy's book takes shape as a counterpoint to the conception of a simple "Maternal Instinct." The colloquial phraseology is somewhat imprecise as to what "instinct" is. Nevertheless, most people generally agree that women are characterized by strong tendency toward nurturing their offspring. Not only is this the norm, Hrdy argues that people tend to conceive of this instinct as a monolithic phenotype that has one "normal" expression. If a woman does not adhere to the expectations set by her essence, many might wonder if she is ill, that is, malfunctioning.

By analogy, it is as if those who possess the maternal instinct had the conventional complement of fingers, while women who do not display the requisite behavorial patterns are lacking in some essential digits, the exact number being irrelevant because the dichotomy is between "normal" and "abnormal." In other words, the maternal instinct is conceptualized as a class genetic trait, likely with a low heritability. The predominant phenotype is so much more "fit" than the alternatives that they are trivialities.

Hrdy would disagree with this assumption. In many ways, she is repackaging in scientific language what many people already assume. Genes can express themselves in different ways depending on their environmental context, polyphenism. Not only can a variety of contextually dependent behavioral patterns be on display within a given population, Hrdy argues that the mother-child interaction is characterized by co-adaptation. Adaptation implies evolutionary change, and usually evolutionary change implies some variance within the population of the phenotype due to variance in genotype, that is, a continuous heritable trait.

Hrdy does not limit herself to one layer of illustration. Much of her work (she is a primatologist) focuses on ethology, behaviors, and ultimate evolutionary ends. Nevertheless, she often tunnels down to the molecular & physiological level, spending a considerable amount of time discussing the work of David Haig, the Harvard biologist whose reasearch on genomic imprinting and the "tug of war" that goes on between the fetus and the mother during pregnancy that have made him rather well known to the lay audience. With her focus on the relationship between mothers and their offspring, Hrdy touches upon the reccuring tendency toward infanticide that characterizes humans, and to marshall her argument she draws upon the works of historians who suggest child abandonment has been an endemic feature of our species and fully expressed in many cultures, to the point where at any given time 1/2 of adults might have given up a child, likely to destitution or certain death (from the Romans to the early modern French).

Yes, human females have a tendency toward nurturing their youth, but Hrdy points out that in many ways our species has a more tense mother-infant dynamic than that that characterizes monkeys. Evolution might not be an ascending ladder that we scale in the moral realm. To her liberal readers who support abortion rights, she broaches the fact that in many ways the newborn infant can be thought of as a fetus, and that many cultures do not imbue the newborn with "personhood." Hrdy notes, with some obvious concern, the fact that some hunter-gatherer people who are characterized by relative health and prosperity also engage in high levels infanticide as a form of rational family planning, taking the phrase "no child should be born unwanted" to a new level. Variability is a constant in human evolutionary history. If one personality type, one behavior, one cultural tradition, was ideally "fit," it seems implausible that 1/3 of humans are "introverts" to some extent, or that polygyny and monogamy are both common features of the species. Multiple strategies seem to coexist in response to varying environmental and social inputs. Concise and succinct narratives are difficult to extract from the Ph.D. theses of thousands of scientists who study how we tick. Trying to extract or map conventional ethics is a tricky business in this area. Where someone like Margaret Mead might see in various behavorial and cultural adaptations creativity and an outward bound spirit, Hrdy sees rational and evolutionary reactions to constrains and competition, all is not possible, but many options and equilibria are probable.

The author also notes that there are many misconceptions about the pace of evolution in humans and emphasizes that adaptation did not stop 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Standard arguments like the spread of lactose tolerance are highlighted, but she also is bold enough to offer that women of Southeastern European heritage tend to begin their menses earlier than women of Northwest European heritage, and she does not flinch from a biological possibility as the root of the variance. Hrdy also leaves broaches the idea that the sex skew among East Asians is a result of thousands of years of cultural norms that favored sons. These topics are not so provocative when set against chapters that discuss infanticide and euthanasia as social and biological "adaptations."

She has enough on her plate, disabusing the public of simplistic notions of motherhood, that I don't want to mislead that the book is about inter-group variation. Rather, it is about variation, complexity and the unpredictability (from the human standpoint) of adaptation. Varied populations react to selection pressure more readily (there is more variation to select from), ergo adaptation. This sort of knowledge is a consiliated whole, the same variables and inputs that shape mothers also shape various groups and families. Typologies have their own internal topography, and making language map well to the reality of this diversity can be an arduous task.

Not only are there a host of factors that result in any given behavior and its various morphs, there is the issue of the serial nature of our psychology, that is, input leads to response which might elicit a certain specific range inputs from another individual. Human behaviors are contingent upon each other, and etch out probabilistic pathways. Not only do humans display multiple phenotypes, in the realm of behavior these phenotypes smear into each other in the same individual over time. That is, an introverted individual is sometimes extroverted, which might lead this person down a peculiar behavioral pathway that they have never experienced before. Nevertheless, this might not be the human norm, or the norm for the individual. Data needs to be viewed within its context, not in a standalone fashion.

Hrdy points out that the essentialist vs. environmentalist dichotomy benefits adherents of both positions, who are disadvantaged against those who would take the more factually supported position that one has to be cautious about making perfect generalizations and accept the fuzzines of the phenomena in question as a fact of nature. A French feminist falsifying biological explanations for motherhood by pointing to counterexamples simply won't cut it, because human behavior is not deterministic, it is probabilistic and it is contingent upon internal and external variables. This is plain to common sense and statistical modelling, but reframing it in elegant prose can be rather difficult, especially in contrast to the categorical and logically tight (though not empirically sound) oppositional viewpoints.

Elegant typologies in the domain of psychology has left the public aware of concepts like the conscious and subconscious, and for those more evolutionarily inclined, "the swiss army knife mind." But these are metaphors and analogies, imperfect models of reality. Conscious decisions trigger probable pathways and "hard-wired" response patterns within the mind, resulting in a certain range of conscious decisions which might in their turn trigger "mental reflexes" and be shaped by hard-wired biases informed by our evolutionary past. Might, likely, possible, trend, in general, all of these are wimp words, but they are all so appropriate when talking about our self-conception.

This leads me to the "naturalistic falllacy," drawing ought from is. To some extent, one might think this is a strawman, after all, our ought is somewhat constrained by the is. Reality is a given, how we respond to it limited by its bounds. But the line between the fuzzy spaghetti of hyopthesis, theory and data within a probabilistic framework and a axiomatic system of social organization is frought with assumptions, the very squishy bane of surety. As I noted earlier, Hrdy brings her own history as a working female scientist, a person of somewhat liberal views, all the while conscious of the negative reaction some feminists have toward biology.

Of course there are limits to these prevarications. There are some truths that can't be dodged. Men and women are different. Even in the most anti-biological mode, ignoring the reality that it is the female that gestates is folly. That very experience will cause an average difference between males and females. If 1 out of 1 million women were strong enough to join the military, it seems plausible that building ladies' restrooms in military facilities is silly. If on the other hand 40% of women were strong enough, vs. say 60% over men, the difference is small and the overlap great enough, that many people would dispute female exclusion on the grounds of physical strength alone (I am going to leave the complexity of that specific argument out of it). Women by their essence are more qualified to be "Hooters Girls." If only life were so easy! But how can one justify excluding women from the professions when their mean intelligence is basically the same as men? (though there might be more male variance, the difference does not show up until rather high in the percentiles, or rather low)

These are complex questions, and biology alone will not answer them, at least for now. A field dominated, at this point, by speculative models, hedges and qualifications is a shaky explicit guide for norms [1]. Nevertheless, biology does point strongly to certain human constraints. No matter Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's feminist orientation, one can sense anguish as she speaks of the difficulties that intellectually gifted women must make when it comes to a career or a child.

You get the feeling after 500 pages that the author has still left much unsaid, that she wishes she could explore and exhaust every accessible nuance. That which is dearest to us, a complete understanding of our nature and the natures of those we love and care about to some extent eludes our grasp (for now!). But striving does not hurt, and knowledge is always to the benefit in allowing us the greatest freedom in the portion of our world where consciousness and volition reigns supreme.

[1] I am thinking more of organismic than molecular biology in this context.

Posted by razib at 03:45 AM | | TrackBack

Return Revenge of the Buddhists
"Iraqi militants kill 12 hostages", Reuters, 2004 August 31.

"We have carried out the sentence of God against 12 Nepalis...believing in Buddha as their God," said the statement by the military committee of the Army of Ansar al-Sunna.

"12 Nepalese Hostages Said Slain in Iraq", The Associated Press, 2004 August 31.

"We believe most of them were simple-minded and tempted to come to Iraq," Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, a spokesman for [the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential Sunni Muslim group believed to have links to insurgents], said of the Nepalese. "We wished they could have been released by the kidnappers so that they could have become messengers for their brothers to warn them not to come to Iraq."

Good to see Islamic scholars condemning these killings so unequivocally.
Protesters attack mosque in Nepal, BBC News, 2004 September 1.

Hundreds of protesters have attacked a mosque in the Nepalese capital to protest against the killing of 12 Nepalese hostages by Iraqi militants.

"We want revenge," demonstrators shouted as they stormed the Jama mosque in Kathmandu.

Better a thousand years late than never.

Give in to your anger. Use your aggressive feelings. It is the only way you can save your friends.

Posted by jeet at 12:42 AM | | TrackBack

August 31, 2004

The Real Issues of the Campaign

John Derbyshire has made the point that Republican women are generally better looking than their Democratic counterparts. I have yet to be impressed by the photos of Anne Coulter that he has offered in support of his argument.

But the other day, one of my apolitical coworkers happened to be near the city convention center when Bush stopped for a campaign visit. His one impression? How hot Republican women are.

My theory is that maybe the females on the Democrat side are hot too, but they just don't know how to show it. A recent post by Palooka supports my argument: 1, 2, and 3.

Posted by Thrasymachus at 07:26 PM | | TrackBack

More demogogic media coverage of science

The publication This is London screamed this hysterical headline today;

Doctor has cloned cells from dead baby

Gasp! Shock! (naive readers will ask "did he kill the baby?" "did he steal it's corpse?")

Then the first line read;

Controversial fertility specialist Panos Zavos today revealed plans to clone a dead baby.

What?!?!? he's trying to clone a cute little baby

but then we learn;

One involved a child of a one-and-a-half who had died during surgery. For an undisclosed fee from the parents, Dr Zavos and his Kentucky team inserted genetic material from the child's skin cells into a cow egg, where they continued to grow. The resulting embryos were then terminated.

Uh? What? he's got the parents consent and he's terminating the embryos? But you said he wanted to clone a cute widdle baby.

Then we get to this line at the end;

"This was not about created a pregnancy, we are using cow eggs to refine our techniques. This is pure experimentation."

Ah crap, you just contradicted your opening line.

The hysterical attitude that inspired the reporting slant in this article reminds me of the attitude that early anatomy students had to endure as they studied their discipline, forcing them to running around in the middle of the night stealing corpses.

Finally, do you think China would have problems with a researcher "refining his technique" by using donated cells of dead persons?

Posted by scottm at 03:57 PM | | TrackBack

August 29, 2004

Getting the Facts Right; or, Occam's Razor

It's a basic assumption among GNXP posters that the study of human biodiversity is an important contributing factor to the study of humanity in general. At the same time, though, it's important to keep in mind that human biodiversity isn't the only factor involved in the construction of early 21st century societies.

Take South Africa, for instance. The topic of South Africa has been frequently debated on GNXP. The main thing to remember about modern South Africa is that it's a fundamentally unequal society. Even a decade after South Africa's formally ended the policies of apartheid, many observers--for instance, Bryan Rostron in The New Statesman--have observed that South Africa remains a society where wealth and status continue to correlate strongly with the country's racial divisions:

In his book A History of Inequality in South Africa, the economist Sampie Terreblanche acknowledges the growth of a new "colour-blind" middle class, but argues that the country has simply shifted from race-based to class-based disparities.

South Africa's population of 45 million, he suggests, can be divided into three socio-economic classes of about 15 million each. The first group, an affluent middle class, comprises four million whites (that is, all but roughly 500,000 of South Africa's whites), along with 11 million blacks, Indians and mixed-race "coloureds". The second group is a struggling working class, mostly black. The bottom 15 million is almost entirely black: an underclass in dire poverty, property-less, mostly uneducated and still "voiceless, pathetically powerless" in Terreblanche's words.

According to the UN Development Program's 1994 report, South Africa's HDI was 0.650--for whites 0.878 and for blacks 0.462 (compared to 0.881 for American blacks and 0.986 for American whites). If white South Africa had been a separate country, it would have ranked 24th in the world in income per capita rankings, just below Italy and Spain and above Portugal in per capita income rankings (6500 US dollars at market exchange rates, 14920 US dollars at PPP). Black South Africa, in contrast would rank 123rd, below Botswana, Gabon, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe (670 US dollars at market exchange rates, 1710 US dollars at PPP).

The question that many at GNXP have asked is whether or not this remarkable division of South African society, strongly correlated with race, reflects innate differences between the different racial groups of South Africa. You can argue this, I suppose, if you wanted. I'd argue that history, though, is a much more potent explanatory force; indeed, history is so dominant a force that arguing in favour of lower or higher IQs for people of different races based on genetics is nonsensical.

Consider that South Africa compares in many ways to Russia, or even Brazil. These three countries both have middle-income economies marked by extreme inequality, while they have recently emerged to establish democratic regimes (with varying levels of success) and are currently coping with a wide array of social pathologies, including exceptionally high rates of violent crime, serious income inequality, and deteriorating health standards. All three countries are marked by very serious social divisions, by extreme inequalities of wealth and health and political power.

Take violence, for instance. South Africa has, unfortunately, one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, ranking alongside (again) Russia and Brazil. Violence, though, has a long history in South Africa. Balicki's study of the Netsilik Eskimo and Chagnon's study of the Yanomamo, among many other anthropological studies, have demonstrated that not only are Iron Age cultures not natively peaceable, but that they are actually prone to exceptional levels of violence by the standards of early 21st century industrial and post-industrial societies, with pervasive assault and murder. In South Africa's case, the 19th century was particularly traumatic thanks to the mfecane, which radically transformed society in the modern Zulu homeland of KwaZulu-Natal by establishing the ancestral state to the modern-day Zulu monarchy. It also devastated African societies throughout the interior of the modern-day Republic of South Africa at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dead, sent sizable contingents of refugees at least as far as Zimbabwe (the Ndebele). Unsurprisingly, this degree of devastation allowed Afrikaner migrants armed with superior weapons technologies to enter the affected areas and create the Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State.

Of course, the South African state under apartheid was quite willing to use violence in order to maintain the racial hierarchies. It's not many governments which manage to get their own agents listed in databases of serial killers like CrimeLibrary.com. (Wouter Basson, incidentally, was responsible for the murder through biological and chemical warfare of some two hundred prisoners.) Not everything was as spectacular as Basson's crimes, although the broad scope of the apartheid regime's destabilization campaigns--wars against the Lusophone Marxist states of Angola and Mozambique at the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian dead, an ongoing campaign against the Namibians protesting their colonization, support of the Rhodesian dictatorship, terrorist campaigns waged against South African refugees in neighbouring countries--comes close in a different area.

The maintenance, at every level of society, of an intrusive police state which regulated what jobs people could perform, what people they could relate to socially, what ideologies they could profess, what places they could live--in short, which sought to determine for people their proper place in life--and felt entirely justified in using massive amounts of violence to make people obey, was quite an endeavour. That it also delegitimized the police as a legitimate force was another, secondary, consequence of note mainly now that the police is needed for non-repressive activities.

Differences essentially political have caused rapid divergences between closely related populations. In Weimar Germany, for instance, East Germany contained in Saxony and Berlin some of the most advanced industrial areas in Germany. In the 1930s, Estonian living standards were in advance of Finland's, and Czechoslovakia had a more sophisticated industrial economy than Austria. Poland, with a relatively buoyant economy and a not-inconsiderable military, was certainly on the same level as Spain, and arguably not much behind Italy. And now? How things have changed, for the worse. If politics in the form of prolonged and destructive Soviet occupation hadn't interfered, the economic gap between western and central Europe would be substantially smaller if it existed at all.

The grand scheme of apartheid made economic progress difficult to impossible for non-whites. These policies made it impossible for non-whites to enter modern society on equal terms. The 1913 Natives' Land Act, for instance, marked the first stage in a general dispossession of non-white lands. Residential segregation laws made it impossible for non-whites to securely own residential property:

District 6, established circa 1867 on the fringes of downtown Cape Town, was a community of character and characters. Bars and brothels competed for space with two-story homes and shops and theaters. Dance halls were packed on weekends, and the busy cobblestone streets were used as cricket grounds and soccer fields. A boisterous carnival snaked through the hilly streets to mark each new year.

By the 1950s, shortly before the removals began, "District 6 was an exuberant and vibrant place despite its deliberate neglect by the authorities," notes a display at Cape Town's District 6 museum. "It was a place of warmth and gaiety, struggle and sadness, of respectability and rascality, of despair and creativity. It hummed with a zest for life."

The passage of the 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act not only created hierarchies of local governments for Blacks and assigned them specific national territories, but it artificially froze distinctions between groups, dividing the Sotho and Nguni groups into subtribes which could supposedly be better managed and were more natural. The Group Areas Act made it impossible for non-whites to access white-dominated segments of the economy (or vice versa).

Is anyone surprised that living standards and economic output are so poor for those South Africans who aren't white? The planners of grand apartheid could hardly have done a better job of wrecking the South Africa economy. Fortunately, things are changing.

What could have been? Well, the 1996 UN Human Development Report (drawing on 1993 data) gave South Africa a HDI ranking of 0.649, 100th place. Botswana scored 0.741, 71st place. Since then, the collapse in life expectancies caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic has pushed HDI levels down for both countries, Botswana more than South Africa.

The Botswanan economic miracle is, admittedly, fragile, based on a single commodity, manifesting in a middle-income economy with sharp income inequality. Even so: If Botswana, with sparse human resources and a natural-resource bonanza of questionable value, was able in the space of a generation to match and exceed South African levels of human development, then what might a South Africa freed of apartheid have accomplished? Absent Communism, Czechoslovakia (or its components) would have remained in the top rank of European economies alongside Austria. Might not an apartheid-less South Africa have done a rather better job at catching up to the First World? In 1950, after all, South Africa was richer per capita than Portugal, Greece, Japan, and South Korea. Cutting out three-quarters and more of your population from any but the most menial segments of your economy is deadly.

Oh, there’s the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It’s worth noting that in the early 1990s, Thailand and South Africa were at roughly the same stages of the epidemic, driven in both countries by migrant labour and by heterosexual sex. Thailand had the benefit of abundant economic resources in the middle of a political structure which (particularly after 1992) was recognized as basically legitimate. South Africa did not. Had the transition from apartheid taken place a decade earlier, South Africa would at least have had the benefit of a legitimate government unconcerned with regime transition. Perhaps it might even have had the economic boom.

It comes down to Occam's razor, in the end. Could human biodiversity explain South Africa's difficult history? Perhaps. It's much simpler, though, to recognize that, in fact, South Africa's problems were produced by a racially-motivated pattern of systematic mismanagement that lasted for generations before its dissolution, not even having the courtesy to clean up its horrible messes for the post-apartheid regime.

Can human biodiversity explain the race-associated divergences in the South African economy? History--a simple legacy of consistent harsh neglect and oppression--does a much better job than the former. People shouldn't turn to race to explain purely cultural phenomena.

Posted by randymac at 08:50 PM | | TrackBack