« April 03, 2005 - April 09, 2005 | Main | April 17, 2005 - April 23, 2005 »

April 16, 2005

Beyond social work....

James Watson, of Watson & Crick fame, once said that "There is only one science: physics. Everything else is social work." In Naturalist E.O. Wilson recounts the intellectul war that broke out in Harvard's biology department in the 1960s between the molecularists and the more traditional organismic biologists. The result was that the life sciences at Harvard were split down the middle between an organismic and a molecular department.

I have always found it rather ironic that Wilson reacted so angrily to Watson's dismissals of organismic biology, as Watson's reductionism was channeled by Wilson 10 years later during the sociobiology controversy, where the latter declared boldy that social science would be reduce to a branch of biology. The conflict between molecularists and organismic biologists is also reflected in the career of Lynn Margulis, who pioneered the theories that symbiogensis of porkaryotic organisms resulted in the development of the eukaryotic cell. Margulis once said that "Like a sugary snack that temporarily satisfies our appetite but deprives us of more nutritious foods, neo-Darwinism1 sates intellectual curiosity with abstractions bereft of actual details -- whether metabolic, biochemical, ecological, or of natural history." Margulis had a thorough training in evolutionary biology and mathematical modelling under James Crow. Watson's undergraduate background was in zoology, the field that he would assail after his triump with Crick.

But science eventually fills in its gaps, and I notice that Watson wrote in his preface to Behavioral Genetics in the Postgenomic Era that perhaps the time has come to seriously examine the nature of organisms now that many (though not most!) of their molecular foundations have been more firmly elucidated. And of course there are many theorists today who study evolution on the level of DNA base pairs, fusing the theoretical assumptions of evolutionary biology with empirical models drawn from molecular data.

1 - She is speaking here of the Modern Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, which is generally considered the fusing of population genetics rooted in Mendelian assumptions with traditional Darwinian evolutionary biology, with a smattering of supplements from ecology and paleontology. Most of the process was completed before the molecular revolution.

Posted by razib at 01:23 PM | | TrackBack

Largest Arms Exporter Per Capita? Not Sweden!


Government and industry data on national arms exports since 1994
Updated 12 November 2004
Copyright: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute


Population: 8,986,400 (July 2004 est.)

value of actual deliveries of military equipment, 2002: $354 million
Exports of military equipment and other equipment, services and software to military users, 2002: $676 million

per-capita arms exports for 2002: ~$75

Population 6,199,008

Value of defence export deliveries $2,000 million
Value of defence contracts with export customers: $4,180 million
Value of defence exports: $4060 million

per-capita defence exports: $654

Posted by greg at 01:21 PM | | TrackBack

April 15, 2005

Largest arms exporter per capita? Sweden! [whoops]

Update: Sweden is not the world's largest per capita exporter of arms, contrary to what NationMaster says. SIPRI data confirms this, as does data from IISS, the U.S. Department of State, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. See Greg Cochran's post for more info. This is why they peer review stuff in academia!


And for those who missed it, Sweden is also the world's largest consumer of nuclear energy per capita. Also be sure to check out dobeln's "Nordic Ammunition" post if you haven't already.

Courtesy of NationMaster.

Posted by Arcane at 11:13 PM | | TrackBack

April 14, 2005

Kenny redux

Moira on Kennewick again, full linkage to what's the talk of the bones & stones town. I can't add much except as I said in a thread below: all the gods are dead, the colored ones too.

Posted by razib at 07:35 PM | | TrackBack

Empirical flesh on logical bones

R.A. Fisher, the geneticist and statistician who gave us the greater portion of the theoretical basis for the "Neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis,"1 was an ardent eugenicist who applied evolutionary principles to his understanding of history. Fisher explored the human past on his spare time through readings of the great scholars of his time, Gibbon and Frazier for example, and attempted to extract from it empirical lessons that he applied in a genetical context. Reading R.A. Fisher: the Life of a Scientist I came across his thesis that infanticidal cultures by their nature are doomed to extinction. He even expressed this opinion in front of a group of eugenicists who were favorable toward contraception, an audience that included Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.2 The logic is sensible: those who are predisposed to procreate are the ones who have descendents, and Fisher obviously assumed that the ideological disposition toward pro-natalism had some heritable component. Assuming a few basic facts it is difficult to argue with the chain of propositions.

But here is where the problem comes in. From what I can gather Fisher believed that these selection pressures drove cultural change. He seemed to hold that the anti-natal pagan European culture gave way to Christianity because of the latter's positive view of fecundity, and attributed the rise of Islam partly to the anti-infanticide jeremiads of Muhammed. My first reaction was that this is historically implausible.

My rationale is this: while selection happens gradually over a few generations (unless you have a sweep induced by a super-plague), the shift toward pro-natalism as a matter of ideology occurred rather quickly. In the case of Christianity its victory over paganism occurred in the 4th century (at least in the Roman Empire), while Islam banished infanticide in one generation. This does not seem to jive well with a Fisherian gradualist model, unless one assumes radical fitness differentials or an incredible amount of heritable variation on the point of natalist sympathies (both of which I find implausible).

Of course an immediate critique is that a "critical mass," or threshold, was reached at which point the culture "flipped" into another mode. Cultural mores can change far more quickly than genetical predispositions. Once the cultural value changed one would assume that the fitness differential decreased as the Church and State now was on the side of abandoned infants and punished parents who attempted to discard them.

But there is another layer to this issue, there is often a difference between ideology and practice. Unlike the pagan Gauls the Roman Catholic French of the 18th century opposed infanticide on principle. But in reality the mortality rates were in excess of 90% before the age of five for many of the "foundling" orphanages where parents who could not or would not raise their infants abdicated their responsibility. Though de jure there was no infanticide, the reality is that the morality rate for these foundlings was so high that the reproductive difference attributable solely to the abolishment of infanticide might have been minimal. Additionally, many individuals married extremely late or remained unmarried.

My point is that all the contentions above are "true" to some extent. Fisher's genetical logic is clear. The pro-natalist ideology of early Christianity and Islam in contrast to the more ambivalent attitude of the pagans is also textually attributed. Scholars who study the rates of pre-modern adoption and abandonment also find that the de facto difference between cultures that exist in the same environment3 but espouse different ideologies is far less than one would gather from the official textual sources which address the point specifically. Just because one aspect of an argument is logically or empirically supported does not mean that it is prima facie the "correct" position. One must keep digging and exploring for soft spots, and try and see if it looks the same from another angle. This seems like an obvious point, but there is a problem with all sorts of scholars getting carried away with their own particular methodological paradigm and draining nuance from their paintings of the past and present. Economists live in a world of rational choice & the invisible hand, evolutionists see natural selection at work replicating its magic via its universal algorithm, while anthropologists conceive of a flux competing cultures. All of these answers are slices of the truth. Undernearth the various trends in history there is the reality that those who procreate inherit the future genetically. Nevertheless, how culture works upon these genetic changes and how evolution feeds back into culture can be a very complicated affair. We can't blame Fisher too much for his naiveté, he lived in an age where scholars were still asserting big bold ultimate answers based on some rather meager sources. But we don't have the same excuse.

1 - Others would include Wright, Mayr, Dobzhansky, Huxley, Simpson and Haldane.

2 - Though concerned about the procreation of the "lower orders" my impression from the reading so far is that Fisher was more focused on "positive eugenics" than "negative eugenics" in the day to day world. That is, he wanted the "fit" to reproduce and spent less time considering how the "unfit" shouldn't. He himself had 8 children.

3 - I would argue that pro-natalism and anti-natalism is far more clear when it comes to different lifestyles, for example, the Bantu of Bostwana vs. the Khoisan. While the former are pro-natalist farmers the latter are anti-natalist hunter-gatherers. An elucidated ideology is unnecessary when the realities of life and its needs dictate the pattern of behavior.

Posted by razib at 05:35 PM | | TrackBack

Top 10 threats to the world?

What do you think is the greatest threat to the world? The Guardian published a piece today asking ten scientists this very question with some very unique answers varying from black holes to climate change (surprise!). For once, overpopulation was not mentioned, however something far more interesting than black holes was: telomere erosion.

"On the end of every animal's chromosomes are protective caps called telomeres. Without them our chromosomes would become unstable. Each time a cell divides it never quite copies its telomere completely and throughout our lifetime the telomeres become shorter and shorter as the cells multiply. Eventually, when they become critically short, we start to see age-related diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer's, heart attacks and strokes.

"However, it is not just through our lifetime that telomeres get shorter. My theory is that there is a tiny loss of telomere length from one generation to the next, mirroring the process of ageing in individuals. Over thousands of generations the telomere gets eroded down to its critical level. Once at the critical level we would expect to see outbreaks of age-related diseases occurring earlier in life and finally a population crash. Telomere erosion could explain the disappearance of a seemingly successful species, such as Neanderthal man, with no need for external factors such as climate change."

I wonder how he explains why we are living for longer than ever before? Not only that, they gave it a "danger score" of 8 out of 10. Whatever one may think about it, the article is certainly worth checking out. I'll admit, it gave me a pretty good laugh, especially when they ranked climate change with a "danger score" of 6 out of 10, yet viral pandemics and nuclear war only had scores of 3 and 8, respectively.

As for me, I think this whole "end of the world" silliness is just that: silliness.

Posted by Arcane at 05:00 PM | | TrackBack

Gene Splicing

New study explains process leading to many proteins from one gene.

"Alternative splicing appears to occur in 30 percent to 60 percent of human genes, so understanding the regulatory mechanisms guiding the process is fundamentally important to almost all biological issues,"

“Using computers, the UT Southwestern researchers scanned the human genome and found that the presence of certain DNA sequences called "tandem repeats" that lie between exons are highly correlated with the process of alternative splicing. They found a large number of tandem repeats on either side of exons destined to be spliced out of the pre-mRNA. The tandem repeat sequences also were complementary and could bind to each other.

"The complementary tandem repeat sequences on either side of an exon allow the DNA to loop back on itself, bind together, pinch off
the loop containing a particular exon and then splice it out," Dr. Garner explained. “

“Tandem repeats are "hot spots" where errors can easily be made during the copying process; for example, an extra CA could be added or deleted from the correct sequence. These errors could then result in a gene improperly splicing out an exon, thus making the wrong protein, Dr. Garner said.”

Fly comment: This may be an example of how the animal genome supports fast evolution. The DNA hot spots mutate causing protein pieces to combine in new ways to form new proteins. The protein pieces could be viewed as subroutines that can be combined to form new functions.

Posted by fly at 01:10 PM | | TrackBack

Frank Salter refresher

I see that the theories of Frank Salter on Ethnic Genetic Interests are attracting enthusiastic attention on 'White Nationalist' sites. (Excuse me if that is the wrong term, but I am not familiar with the nuances of that sort of thing. Apparently the followers of Genghis Khan get very offended if you confuse them with the followers of Attila the Hun.)

Some of the commentators have referred to the 'gnxp position' on Salter's theories, and challenged 'gnxp' to defend it. As regular readers will be aware, there is no 'gnxp position' on anything other than the desirability of free scientific research and discussion. gnxp's contributors are individuals with their own unique views.

But in case anyone comes to gnxp wondering what all the fuss is about, here are my own previous posts on Salter:

Ethnic Genetic Interests
Ethnic Genetic Interests: Part 2
Interracial Marriage: Salter's Fallacy.

I really don't have anything to add, and I haven't seen any comments I think I need to reply to.

One point I would emphasise is that Salter's attitude towards 'genetic interests' is ultimately mystical rather than scientific, which may be why it seems to be attractive to some.

Posted by David B at 03:30 AM | | TrackBack

April 13, 2005

To care is hominin

Nature reports that a hominin in the Republic of Georgia which dates to nearly 2 million years B.P. seems to have survived with only one tooth (popular summation).1 This isn't that surprising, I've been reading a few books on what we used to call Homo erectus and it seems other aged individuals in various states of decrepitude have also been recovered. Over the past 20 years with the explosion of mitochondrial Eve and the "Great Leap" theories "human nature" has often been conceived to be the preserve of Homo sapiens, to such an extent that Homo sapiens neandertalis is often excluded from the party. Visual arts which express a symbolic capacity are essential facets of our humanity, but so is compassion and empathy, too often I suspect that we have simply viewed the pre-human homonids as bipedal apes, but it seems logical that emotional sensitivity would long precede fluency in its artistic expression. Anyone who has watched a David Attenborough special has probably engaged in some level of "anthropomorphism," but though animals do not feel as we do, it does seem plausible that they have some of the same emotional responses to given inputs as humans. In fact, the second chapter of Why We Love explores "animals in love," and I was rather surprised how much many mammals resemble humans in this aspect of our shared personalities.

1 - This seems to be of the Dmanisi group which shocked scientists with how soon they had left Africa, as well as a few anatomical peculiarities which suggested that they were a localized Homo population.

Posted by razib at 09:01 AM | | TrackBack

April 12, 2005

Spencer Wells' Next Project

Spencer Wells, working with The National Geographic Society, has bold ambitions to resurrect the ill-fated Human Genome Diversity Project with plans to sample 100,000 blood samples from indigenous populations from around the world. Nicholas Wade reports in the New York Times:

The program is an effort to accomplish the goals of the Human Genome Diversity Project, an initiative that was proposed by population geneticists in 1991.

That project ran into a political furor that prevented it from receiving substantial government support. It was denounced by some cultural anthropologists, who said that looking for genetic differences among populations was tantamount to racism. And advocates for indigenous peoples portrayed it as a "vampire project" for extracting valuable medical information from the blood of endangered tribes while giving nothing in return.

The proponents viewed their plan as complementing the Human Genome Project, then getting under way, because it would show how the sequence of DNA units in the human genome varied from one population to another. The project did proceed on a more modest basis, eventually collecting blood samples from 52 populations that were converted into 1,000 cell lines. The first major analysis, published in 2002, showed that the subjects' genomes fell into five major clusters corresponding to their continent of origin and, in effect, to their race.

Of course, the critics are already staking their ground.

But Dr. Kenneth Kidd, a population geneticist at Yale University, expressed reservations about the plan to preserve the blood samples as raw DNA. Because the DNA is finite, it cannot be shared with every scientist who may ask for some. In the Human Genome Diversity Project, by contrast, white blood cells from a sample were made essentially immortal before storage. Though it would cost an additional $200 to $300 to immortalize each sample, the cells last forever and the supply is inexhaustible.

Dr. Kidd you may recall co-authored a paper with Dr. Robert Sternberg in the American Psychological Association's last attempt at obscurantism on the question of whether race is more than a folk taxonomy.

My personal hope is that the power of the cultural anthropologists has waned from their heydey a decade ago, especially in light of the remarkable advances in genetic sciences, and that the same forces that killed the Human Genome Diversity Project a decade ago can't today marshall the forces to take on the celebrity of Dr. Spencer Wells, the intense public fascination with this type of research and the reach and respected brand of the National Geographic Society.

Addendum from Razib: Check out The Genographic Project over at National Geographic. Spencer Wells is a maverick scientist without an academic affiliation, and The National Geographic Society is not a traditional "Ivory Tower." The results aren't always pretty, but as Craig Venter showed, those who work outsides the "establishment" channels can shake things up and affect more change on the dynamics of The System from the outside than from within. Spencer Wells might very well be the monster that Richard Lewontin birthed....

Update from Razib: Radio interview with the lead researcher on the project (not Spencer Wells, some British dude).

Posted by TangoMan at 09:09 PM | | TrackBack


Steve isn't sure that variance of mutational load1 betweein individuals is responsible for important differences in beauty. Well, no doubt it isn't responsible for the whole range of aesthetic countenance, but I would be curious to see how much it accounts for differences within a range of siblings.

Here is the equation for mutation-selection balance of deleterious recessives:

In other words, the equilibrium frequency of q (the presumptive non-wild type) is ~ the square root of the mutation rate divided by the selection coefficient. Here is the derivation.

Obviously for a single locus the frequency for a potentionally lethal allele is rather low within the population, but consider the circumstance where you have a trait where the developmental stability and expression is tightly controlled by a wide range of loci. Remove lethality of a homozygote and assume additivity (so that deleterious mutations are not masked by a "good copy"). Complex organisms like human beings are a literal flux of bubbling mutational froth against which selection barely keeps up.

I have mentioned before that evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller has suggested that the human brain is so overdeveloped because it serves as a signal for mutational load, so many genes contribute to the cognitive phenotype that the character of the mind is a reasonable proxy for the overall health of the genome. Of course physical beauty is another assessment of genetic health, as only individuals with low a mutational load can devote the resources to the expression of a gaudy and aesthetically extravagant phenotype.

This is all an excuse to post two pictures of Jessica Alba below the fold.

Related: If you are curious, check out the faddish epiphenomenon that is "Runaway" Sexual Selection.

1 - I was sloppy with definitions and used the term "genetic load" before when I was speaking in the individual context when this term is usually used in a populational context. Sorry.


Posted by razib at 06:28 PM | | TrackBack

"How many did you have?" "Four!"

Saturday's New York Times

"We are using too many raw materials to sustain this growth," said Pan Yue, China's environment minister, in a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. "To produce goods worth $10,000, for example, we need seven times more resources than Japan, nearly six times more than the United States and, perhaps most embarrassing, nearly three times more than India.
Are you telling me there's room for the price of Chinese manufactures to go even lower?

Don't tell Wal-Mart.

Posted by jeet at 11:15 AM | | TrackBack

Evidence for natural selection between populations

In February we discussed a new Science paper, Whole-Genome Patterns of Common DNA Variation in Three Human Populations.

They genotyped 1.6 million SNPs in 71 unrelated individuals from three populations: 24 European Americans, 23 African Americans, and 24 Han Chinese from the Los Angeles area. While this was a tool building exercise, they did perform a number of interesting analyses on the data they collected. One that caught my eye was an analysis that looked for evidence of selection between populations. Their analysis made use of Fst calculations (a measure of how much genetic variation is between rather than within populations) for each SNP. In summary, they found that Fst was higher for SNPs in gene-containing (genic) regions than gene-poor (nongenic) regions and that Fst was higher in coding than non-coding regions. Put another way, there is greater genetic variation between the populations in the regions of the genome that are most likely to be functional. These differences were small but significant. They interpret these findings as evidence for local selection. However, when they asked the question of whether the SNPs that provided evidence for natural selection were private to a single population, they did not find this to be true. From this they conclude that most functional genetic variation is not population specific.

Any one interested in looking at this closer can find the data online here. It might be interesting to ask which genes are associated with SNPs that show high Fst.

Here is the associated text from the paper:

Evidence for natural selection between populations. It has been suggested that natural selection distorts the observed distribution of FST across the human genome and that large FST values can be used to identify candidate loci likely to have undergone local selection (13, 19). If this is true, then larger FST values should be found near functional genetic elements. We looked at the distribution of FST for SNPs that were genic or nongenic, coding or noncoding, and synonymous or nonsynonymous. We performed the analysis within subsets of SNPs grouped by MAF, so that effectively, we looked at the fraction of between-population variance for SNPs with the same total genetic variance (fig. S3). Common SNPs in genic regions do have slightly but significantly higher FST values than nongenic SNPs with the same MAF [analysis of variance (ANOVA), P = 1.8 x 10–46], and common coding SNPs have slightly higher FST values than noncoding SNPs in genic regions (ANOVA, P = 1.1 x 10–4). We did not see a significant difference in FST between synonymous and nonsynonymous coding SNPs, but our sensitivity is limited by the small sample sizes and expected correlations among SNPs within the same transcript. These results are consistent with local selection changing the distribution of FST near functional sequences. However, because the distributions of FST among genic and nongenic SNPs are very similar, large FST values by themselves appear to be very weak evidence of selection.

We performed a similar analysis to see if there is also an association between private SNPs and functional genetic elements. When conditioned on MAF, we saw no difference in frequency of private SNPs among genic and nongenic SNPs or among coding and noncoding SNPs (fig. S4). This indicates that the SNPs responsible for evidence of local selection in the FST analysis tend not to be private and instead are segregating in multiple populations. Although there are known examples linking population-specific SNP alleles to phenotypic differences (20–22), our results are more consistent with the conclusion that most functional human genetic variation is not population-specific.

Posted by rikurzhen at 12:43 AM | | TrackBack


Nothing titillating for this post. Just a new PNAS paper that provides a nice example of pharmacogenetics: Genetic predictors of the maximum doses patients receive during clinical use of the anti-epileptic drugs carbamazepine and phenytoin.

David Goldstein's group at University College London have identified genetic variations associated with dose response to two anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs): phenytoin and carbamazepine. A broad range of doses are used with these drugs, and the final "maintenance" dose for each patient is normally determined by trial and error.

In this paper, they report that a known functional polymorphism in the CYP2C9 gene is highly associated with the maximum dose of phenytoin (P = 0.0066). They also show that an intronic polymorphism in the SCN1A gene shows significant association with maximum doses in regular usage of both carbamazepine and phenytoin (P = 0.0051 and P = 0.014, respectively).

How does a polymorphism in an intron affect drug metabolism?

This polymorphism disrupts the consensus sequence of the 5' splice donor site of a highly conserved alternative exon (5N), and it significantly affects the proportions of the alternative transcripts in individuals with a history of epilepsy.

If their findings are corroborated, genotyping could be used by doctors to more quickly determine the proper maintenance dose for these drugs.

Here are some fun parts from their discussion:

We have associated functional polymorphisms with the dose used in regular clinical practice for two leading AEDs, phenytoin and carbamazepine. For phenytoin, a well known low-activity variant in the CYP2C9 gene associates with dose, as does a functional variant in the SCN1A gene, encoding the target of phenytoin. The SCN1A variant is also highly associated with dosing of carbamazepine, thus providing functional replication of the effect of this variant. This functional replication, together with the apparent function of this polymorphism, makes a strong case that the association reported here is real. However, although the case made here is compelling, as is usual with association genetics, our results cannot be considered definitive or ready for clinical application until they are confirmed by independent replication. To our knowledge, this SCN1A variant is the first polymorphism in a drug target associated with the use of an AED and one of only a handful of target polymorphisms for which there is strong evidence of an effect on clinical drug use (22). Furthermore, our study demonstrates the pharmacologic significance of alternative splicing in a human sodium channel. Although there are other examples of alternative splicing in other human sodium channel genes, none has been associated with functional effects (23).

This polymorphism is potentially of more general importance because of the prominence of sodium channel blockade in the treatment of epilepsy (and other neurological conditions). For example, more than half of epilepsy patients treated pharmacologically in the United Kingdom receive a drug that principally targets the sodium channel (24).


Our results support the view that the major target, transporter, and drug metabolizing enzyme are good starting points to study drug response and that pharmacogenetic traits, therefore, are more tractable for genetic analyses than are those for common disease predisposition (22). We also emphasize that a haplotypetagging strategy (14) identified a previously unknown functional variant in the SCN1A gene. This functional variant was found 91 bp away from the nearest exon known at the time of the study, illustrating the need for exhaustive tagging.

Overall, our findings suggest that using genotype data may make it possible to safely reduce the time required to reach an effective dose. Therefore, it is also a priority to assess the utility of dose adjustment on the basis of genotype for these medicines in a prospective clinical study. Prospective studies of carbamazepine and phenytoin, informed by a detailed retrospective study, would also serve as a useful model for future pharmacogenetic studies (25).

Posted by rikurzhen at 12:06 AM | | TrackBack

April 11, 2005

Heretical reflections and projections

As all of you know John Paul II has passed. Unlike many I have few strong opinions about the last Pope. My interests tend to skew toward the past rather than the present, as the latter is often a deceptive slice of the canal that the world uses to glide through time. After all, old Jules Verne can tell you all about the steam driven paradise of 2000!

Nevertheless, the Church as an institution is of great interest. A plain assertion should suffice. Qualitative references would also convince most. But to get a true handle on its significance, consider the numbers. Over 1,000,000,000 followers. 2,000 years, 100 generations, of uninterrupted history. The dominant religion in Latin America, the most numerous confession in Europe, North America and Australasia, and possibly Africa. In Asia, the only Christian majority nation is Roman Catholic, while in South Korea the past two presidents have been Roman Catholic. To understand the world you need to brush against the reality of the Church. Its hand extends through both time and space, and no doubt it will continue to reach out into the future.

The title, "Heretical reflections and projects," is grounded in the reality that I am an unbeliever, and strictly speaking I am a "heathen" rather than a "heretic," I make no pretense toward True Belief and never have. My own personal background colors my perceptions of the concrete manifestations of the Church, the people who profess loyalty to the Bishop of Rome as the heir to the rock of Christ's original Church and the "smells and bells" which mediate the Roman Catholic religious experience in the physical realm. As a child my peers were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. This I know because every Tuesday the Roman Catholic children at my elementary school left class one hour early and engaged in some Church related activities. Those who were left behind were a pathetic remnant. My classmates were mostly of Irish or Italian extraction, culturally as well as religiously embedded in the Church. When I reached adolescence my experience of Roman Catholicism shifted greatly as I moved to a locale where Mormonism and evangelical Protestant Christianity were the dominant faiths. My classmates who were evangelical Christians peculiarly distinguished between "Christians" and "Catholics," as if the latter were not simply a subset of the former, while my Mormons friends tended to exhibit more hostility toward the Roman Church than other traditions because of their perception that it was in Rome that the purity of the original Christian doctrine was fully debased with philosophy.1

From a purely personal perspective my own religious influences buffetted me in anti-Catholic directions implicitly. Though never a "believer" in a deep sense, and in fact an explicit and conscious atheist by my 8th year, I was soaked in the cognitive inputs of a conventional Islamic faith. This shaped my mental "templates" or schema toward specific responses to a given range of inputs. Much of life is not conscious, reflexive rather than reflective. As a child I learned little of Christianity, rather, my parents were shaped by a South Asian milieu where Hinduism was the great "rival." In their social interactions Hindus still loomed large in the small circle of South Asians who began to form networks in the early 1980s. And so my mother told me of the Hindus, their love of dance, music and idolatry. Their fixation on bright colors and bestial gods. She made it clear that I must be wary of their temptations, their faith was the anti-thesis of the One True God who we worshipped. On a conscious level I disregarded much of what I was taught, and yet in hindsight it is quite clear that my Islamic "indoctrination" shaped particular cognitive reflexes which were to color my experience with the world around me for years.

My parents occassionally went to social events that were fixed at a local Presbyterian church. It was a rather plain and spare creature of an older austere Protestant tradition. And yet there was a room that elicited in me a profound unease: the worship hall (?). Though now I realize that the depiction of Christ with his disciples was a rather low key affair as far as such representations went, I was still disturbed that there could be so much color, such an explicit depiction of the human form, in a place of worship! At the time I had a hard time elucidating to myself why I was so disturbed, but now I suspect that background schemas were being triggered, my mental reflexes cued toward "Hinduism" were being tripped and automatic responses were washing over me. Keep in mind that I was already an unbeliever in gods at this point, nevertheless, the past of religious inculcation leaves a deeper footprint that many of us heathens are willing to admit. One can imagine my response to a Roman Catholic Church, with all its pageantry and lush color. While a person of Catholic origin, whether they believe or not, might experience through the visual depiction of their central religious motifs a connection with an ancient Church and a deep and rich faith, essentially opposite schemas of revulsion at "idolatry" seem to well up from my self-consciously iconoclastic being.

But the past is past, and we are more than creatures of schema, we can reflect and transcend our instincts if we so choose. My perception of the Roman Catholic church on a more cerebral level became mixed as I matured as a human being. On the one level in the contemporaneous context I saw in Roman Catholics "reasonable" religious people who had made their peace with modernity, as opposed to evangelical Christians who revolted against the consensus of modern science (especially evolutionary biology) or Mormons who set themselves apart as a "special" people. And yet intellectually I was also discovering the rich past of the Western tradition, of Greece and Rome, and I began to empathize with the last of the pagans, with the pagan Prefect of Rome, Symmachus, who pleaded for religious tolerance to that most orthodox of Emperors, Theodosius, or Damascius, the last head of the Platonic Academy, heir to an admittedly debased pagan philosophical tradition that stretched back 1,000 years to Thales and Heraclitus,2 who fled with his followers the religiously sanctioned closure of his school under the Emperor Justinian.3

The Church which I found to be a reasonable, intelligible, institution of the modern world I found to be the hand which suffocated the classical world. History is more complicated than a few spare generalizations or naked assertions. But, I will state now that I do not necessarily think that the incipient Church killed the classical world, nor do I think it was a necessary condition of the transmission of that world's intellectual traditions into the future. The past is the past, and I have made clear in the past that words have great power, but can also deceive. The Church of John Paul II was never the Church of Gregory the Great. Thomas Hobbes said that "The Papacy is nothing other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof." But even ghosts change, their essence shifted by the sands of time so that they become wholly different spirits altogether. How many Roman Catholics know that the term "diocese" is derived from the name of the last and greatest persecutor of Christians, Diocletian? (please see the erratum below!)

The Roman Catholic Church was gestated by the West's first universal Empire. It still bears the hallmarks of that infancy and childhood, but adulthood has transmuted its character so that there is no central essence, rather the Church is an enormous empire of mental predispositions and physical institutions, woven together by the glue of common credos and verbal affirmations, affixed into one whole by a shared historical experience. Where I live, breathe and exist, the Church is generally no friend of "theocracy," for though it is the largest of religious bodies it is not a dominant one. Additionally, the intellectual elite of the Church has long made its piece with the practice of science and even ingeniously coopted the more provocative findings of the profane as simply manifestations of the sacral.4 On the other hand over one century in the past the Roman Catholic Church was an enemy of liberal nationalism, hostile to such an extreme that the Pope refused to leave the Vatican grounds and venture on to the soil of the newly constituted Italian republic. In places like Ireland or Chile the Roman Catholic Church remains a powerful institution that informally constitutes an "estate" or "pillar" which must be consulted publically on the issues of the day. In South Korea the Roman Catholic Church was identified with dissent from the dictatorial regimes of the past, and now is the faith of choice for an avante guarde affluent bourgeois which is the most advanced in the long march to post-Confucian liberalism. In much of Latin America the Roman Catholic Church became identified with elites and authoritarian regimes, to the extent that the underclass in Chile has been effectively ceded to the Pentecostal movements. In contrast, in other Latin American nations the Roman Catholic Church is strongly infused with Leftist libertarian theology. In 18th century France the Roman Catholic Church was identified with the peasantry who dwelt far from Paris, and they were the bedrock which served as the springboard for several savage revolts agains the tyrannies of the Republic and the Cult of the Goddess Reason. In the 4th century the pagani were the rustics who worshipped the old gods, and the Christian Church was an institution of the cities and the market towns. Christian intellectuals even mooted the possibility that the semi-humans of the country even need not be introduced to the One True Faith, and in fact deep into the medieval period, that symbolic apogee of unified Christendom, many of the country folk were operationally pagan in personal piety if not outward genuflection. With the breaking of Christendom into factions in the 16th century there was a renewed emphasis on inner belief and proper outward orthodoxy among both Catholics and the newly arisen Protestant movements. The collapse of de facto Roman Catholic universalism in the West gave rise to a need to enforce "orthodoxy" across the width and breadth of society, proper Christian behavior was no longer the reserve of monastic communities who lived the sacred life on behalf of profane society.

My point in tediously restating facts, some well known, and some not known, is to suggest that the One True Church is a cognitive illusion, bound together by shibboleths of verbal fealty which trigger wide-ranging allegiances built upon the gossamer threads of the reflective rational mind. This does not negate the importance, the salience, the predictive power in sociological models of the "Catholic mind," but the reflective mind is only a small portion of who we are, and a far less significant fraction of our decisions and behaviors are controlled by its precepts and preconceptions than we might think. This is perhaps illustrated in the fact that the greatest mother of doctrinal heresy in Christendom has been the Church itself. Arius was a presbyter and Luther was a monk. Even today the Church is affiliated with intellectuals who run the full spectrum of opinion and assertion, all tenuously unified by affinity to a common verbal creed, a doctrinal unity affirmed at rare intervals. Until the raw schismatic energy of the Radical Reformation5 was unleashed heresy was the province of the clerical caste itself, after all, the Hussites followed a priest. Additionally, Catholic ritual and practice as it is lived varies a great deal, from the cool discipline of the Germanic confessions to the old indigenized traditions of Latin America or the new African congregations which draw upon models of the primitive Church to justify their dabbling in old magics. All shed tears over the death of the Polish Pope, and yet all live their faith in radically different ways. This is nothing new. The tale of the decline, absorption and assimilation of the "Celtic Church" toward the Roman fold is well known, beginning during the age of Gregory the Great, maturing during the reign of Brian Boru, finally culminating in the identity of Celtic Irish identity with Roman Catholic faith during the Cromwellian period. But who tells the tale of the Visigothic liturgy which disappeared after 1000 as the kingdoms of northern Spain once more became part of the Christian world as Al-Andalus retreated? What of the Anglo-Saxon translations of portions of the Gospel by the Venerable Bede? What of the living alternative traditions of the Eastern Rite or the Syrian Christians of Kerala?

Over one billion individuals on six continents are "unified by diversity," but that diversity is not new, it has been part and parcel of the Church since its beginning. Today many secular intellectuals think of the Church as a conservative institution, but this was once the institution which rose to rival the Roman Empire itself, dissenting from its claims to authority and giving birth to radical and sometimes violent movements like the Montanists. And yet in the 4th century it went from being the counter-Rome to fusing with the institutions of the Roman state itself, so like the minerals that suffuse and replace the original substance of bone but retain the general structural condition, the Roman Catholic Church is the one last uninterrupted remnant of the first universal Empire, an age when the power of European potentates stretched from the Scottish moors to the banks of the Euphrates, from the deserts of Libya to the mists of the North Sea. The Roman Catholic Church is like an ancient cloak, stretched out over nations, even continents, retaining crucial elements of its original fabric as those who don the raiment pass through the revolving door of history.

Which brings me to what I believe is one of the threads which binds the Church of the past with the Church of the present, the Church of the second century with that of the third millennium. And that is internationalism, universalism, transnationalism. Some nationalistic thinkers who are nonetheless faithful Roman Catholics attempt to argue that their faith supports their particularistic political beliefs. Certainly Franco used the Church to buttress the Spanish state (though he won the Civil War with many North African troops!). Charlamagne used the Roman Catholic faith to unify his many subordinates, and waged wars of religious conversion against the pagan Saxons on account of his God. We can weave from the axiomatic creeds whatever patterns we wish to see in them if we wish to pay the price of intellectual contortion. And yet at the most basic level I think one thing that must be remembered is that the ancient is often preferred to the more recent in the religious pantheon of ideas. Though the medieval period was characterized by fragmented states, some Catholic authors argue that the Church was a cosmopolitan glue (there were Syrian popes even after the rise of Islam!). And projecting back into time, the chrysalis of the Church was the universal Roman Empire, a political entity where citizenship spanned oceans and languages. As the chrysalis of the Empire was shed the Church took upon itself a new role that transcended the bounds of the barbaric realms which arose in Western Europe. The man who brought Christianity in its official form to the English was an Italian by birth, while the early missionaries who founded monastaries in the heights of the Alps during the Merovingian period in the 6th and 7th centuries were of Irish origin.

How much do models, historical precedants, truly matter? The common binding of Catholic faith did little to prevent the Bavarians from slaughtering fellow believers in the 19th century under Prussian Protestant officers. The Catholic French intervened on behalf of Protestant German princes against the Holy Roman Emperor, on account of the commands issued by a Cardinal of the Church no least! The power of the reflective mind to shape history must be tempered by the reality that this mind can reshape the past in its own image. The Normans of Sicily were defenders of the faith, nevermind their Muslim bodyguard! Nevermind the brutal harm that they did to the Byzantines by periodically assaulting them from the West. Nevertheless, the officers of the Church are educated men, and I suspect that on the whole the commanding heights are dominated by men who live through their reflective mind. Unlike all of us moderns they know Latin and can read the classics in the originals, and not just the pagan authors, but their own clerical ancestors. And they perhaps recall that St. Augustine taught that the pagans of Rome who declared that the Visigothic sack was punishment from Rome's old gods were denying the primacy of the City of God, that no matter the material descent of the world it was spiritual salvation that mattered. Augustine and other Church Fathers declared that the universal Empire was simply the predecessor of the universal Church, that its existence was simply a precondition, a tool, for the Gospel to spread through the known world, that brotherhood before God transcended kin and kith in the final calculus.

Such extravagent idealisms are not necessarily the norm, especially in an institution headed by the Prince as well as the Pope. But, in our world the Prince is long dead, and the power of the Roman Catholic Church is more spiritual than temporal, as it was during the times of Rome. And as in the Roman days it is simply another institution among others, and in many nations it is one confession among many.

So...to projections. Those who wish for the ressurection of a muscular, medieval, nationalistically friendly Church, will I think be disappointed. If you read later pagan intellectuals like Zosimos you see that it was the Church which was the noveau force in society, which pushed radical changes and departed from the traditions of the ancients. The pagan rearguard action to cherish the old ways often dissipated in the face of Christian triumphalism. In his debate with the aforementioned Symmachus St. Ambrose declared "There is no shame in passing to better things." Out with the old, in with the new and true. We live in the afterglow of an age when secular intellectuals declared that a post-Christian era was one of those "better things." Despite the protestations of those who show that the populace in most nations are still believers, we must look beyond the platitudes and into the hearts, and I suspect that in our everyday life we are extremely de-sacralized. I will avoid explaining this process, whether it be the atomizing influence of Protestantism and a Catholic Reformation, or the acidic power of "modernity." I simply state that operationally in many ways Christians do navigate a pagan world, where Caesar mouths the words that give dominion to Christ, but retain the powers of this world for their own ends. Some conservatives applaud the possibility of a Third World Pope, while others fear such a transition of power away from the continent which incubated Christianity for 2,000 years. I suspect that the change is inevitable, just as the original Jewish Church became a Greek Church, and a Greek Church became a Roman Church, and the Roman Church became a European Church. Today it is truly rather close to a Universal Church, and the new believers, the new officers of the faith, arise from soil untouched by 2,000 years of European history. They will look to the 4th century, not the 14th. Their rejection of female priests and homosexuality is not drawn from a European traditionalism, but a human traditionalism, a traditionalism which was often (contrary to Christian stereotype) shared by pagan intellectuals of old.6 African priests today argue that magical exorcisms and other rather antiquated practices draw upon the same tradition as the ancient Church. The new officers will not look to the examples of the Popes of the "Age of Discovery" who partitioned the pagan world between European superpowers, rather, they will look to more ancient and authoritative models of righteous and radical piety in the face of Caesar, awash in a cosmopolitan world and perhaps unrepentant of the decay of the pagan cities in which their faith flowers.

Many Western liberals, secular, often from non-Roman Catholic post-Protestant and post-Jewish backgrounds, depicated the last Pope as a "conservative." Such words are loaded with all sorts of peculiar and contextually framed inferences. I do not believe that the last Pope was "conservative" in the context of the Princes who ruled the Church for a thousand years after their grant of land from Charlamagne. The last Pope was not a "conservative" like Pius IX, I believe he had made his peace with the liberal democratic nation-state. The "conservatism" of the last Pope was in many ways the conventional conservatism of the human race, patriarchy, sexual separation of roles and a bias toward procreative relationships. Such things many who are not Catholic, but non-Western, or pre-modern, could have seen as "normal" or "conventional." Why such biases are conventional I will forgo for another day, but nevertheless I do not see in the Church a radical reactionary spirit, rather, it is a reflection of norms which dominate the non-Western world but have become out of place in the post-Christian West. And the ancien regime is gone, rather, the days of Rome are at hand, a cosmopolitan gaggle of transnational corporations and a post-ethnic corporate elite travel the world as if the Pax Romana had stretched its hand over the world. So, I predict a return to the form and mode of the ancient Church, oppositional, radical and profoundly other-worldy in the eyes of the powers that be. There will be no ressurection of the old Western order which coalesced out of the machinations of Gregory the Great and the compromises made with barbarian warlords after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. We live an age cognate with that of the era after The Edict of Milan, but before the Council of Nicea, the Church ascendent is no more, but neither has another Diocletian arisen....

Take home: The Church may be an organically developed creature, but its raison d'être was always to be a proposition propogation machine.

Erratum: Dienekes pointed out to me that diocese is a Greek term, and not derived from the name Diocletian. My confusion was caused by the fact that Diocletian's administrative reforms resulted in the diocese attaining some level of atomic importance during his reign, along with the decline of the provincial unit (which was too large). In any case, my error does not undermine my general point, that with the establishment of the Church as the official religion of the Empire it coopted imperial forms and institutions to the point where it was the standard bearer for romanitas once the civil and military edifice fell by the wayside. And to some extent it remains the voice of romanitas in the modern world.

1 - Of course, it was in the Greek Church that the greatest philosophers of the early Church made their contributions. Men like St. Augustine were in many ways clarifiers of truths originally exposited by thinkers like Origen.

2 - The Neoplatonism of this period seems exceedingly superstitious and obscurantist in comparison to the high minded ethics of the Stoics, the hard-headed materialism of the Epicureans or the paradigmatic simplicity of the Skeptics.

3 - Both were termed "The Great." Remember, the Church not only passed on the much of the classical corpus but also the words that frame the memory of the past.

4 - The Roman Catholic Church has no doctrinally dictated position on human evolution, but operationally its intellectual elite and priestly class have made their peace with the grosser features of descent with modification.

5 - People forget there were several "Reformations." The Lutheran Reformation was surpassed by the Reformed Reformation (the genius of Calvin was the driving force behind this), but in the end the apex of Reforming zeal was encapsulated in the maelstrom of the Radical Reformation which birthed not only conventional sects like the Baptists, but also modern day theological heretics like the Unitarians or strange antinomian cultists like the Levellers.

6 - In the late 4th century St. Ambrose made Theodosius repent of the slaughter of Thessolanicans who had killed his officials. One thing left out of many of the stories is that the Thessolanicans accused one particular general of engaging in forced homosexual acts against them. The story illustrates that even a Christian Emperor like Theodosius believed there were greater sins than homosexuality in the world, in this case, rebellion against and murder of the hands of his power.

Posted by razib at 02:29 PM | | TrackBack

April 10, 2005

The hereditary effects of smoking [or neo-Lamarkianism]?

From The Sunday Times:

The study suggests that some of the chemicals in smoke can permanently alter the DNA of those exposed to it in ways that can be inherited by smokers’ children, grandchildren and possibly subsequent generations too.

The researchers analysed asthma rates in both the children and grandchildren of women who smoked during pregnancy.

They found the grandchildren of such women had 2.1 times the normal risk of developing asthma. The children of women who smoked in pregnancy were 1.5 times more likely to develop asthma.

. . .

They found children whose mothers and grandmothers both smoked had the highest risk, with a likelihood of developing asthma 2.6 times higher than normal.

Hat tip: Drudge Report

Download file: "Maternal and Grandmaternal Smoking Patterns Are Associated With Early Childhood Asthma" from the April 2005 edition of Chest

Posted by Arcane at 04:24 PM | | TrackBack