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The world of new Tolkien

Since Amazon is working on new Tolkien products, we’ll be hearing about the author and his works more. Most of the scuttlebutt is that the new series, set in the Second Age, is going to align with the cultural Zeitgeist. For example, the Hobbits, who don’t show up in the legendarium before the Third Age, are going to be multiracial. That’s to be expected. Part of me wonders if they didn’t draw on the Silmarillion because it is so clearly fleshed out it didn’t provide the level of freedom from the source text they wanted.

Deviation from stuff like correct anthropological description and ‘race-bending’ or whatever isn’t a killer in my book. For example, to my knowledge, none of the adaptations of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea universe correctly depict the racial characteristics which are quite explicit in the series. Le Guin wanted to do a bit of inversion, and the central characters and protagonists were brown-skinned, while some of the marginal characters and antagonists were white-skinned (with the European-looking Kargads being barbarians). But the fact is there is was no way that a major production in the 2000’s was going to cast Ged with dark-brown skin, because they wanted the audience to identify with him, and the audience was mostly white.

That being said, the problem with deviations from Tolkien’s legendarium is that his world-building was essential to many aspects of the story, and too many deviations are going to really cause objections. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if it is popular, but I suspect at some point it won’t “hang together.”

But more generally, as Tolkien’s work comes back into the spotlight, you are going to get really strange comments and interpretations. I’m thinking here of a bizarre but widely read Medium post, No, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t Christian. The author, to be candid, seems kind of dumb. Titles like “Did Tolkien believe in the Bible?” indicates that the author interprets Christianity in such a manner that the religion is basically just a form of sola scriptura Protestantism (I am aware that Catholics have nuanced views regarding the Bible, and am not saying they don’t believe in the Bible!).

One can quibble with Tolkien’s contention that the world he created was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” The author can say what he thinks, but the way others take his creation is clearly much broader than his Roman Catholicism, and critics have argued that he was muting the pagan influence. But that’s a very different thing from saying Tolkien wasn’t Christian. If Tolkien wasn’t Christian then I’m not an atheist. By any reasonable definition J. R. R. Tolkien was a very devout Roman Catholic, but expect a lot of unreasonableness in the next few years.

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R1b-L21 and Goidelic Celtic

The new paper, Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age, did not resolve the origin of the Celts. But one thing I was curious about:

Evidence for a substantial contribution from the C/EBA population to later populations also comes from Y chromosome haplogroup R1b-P312/L21/M529 (R1b1a1a2a1a2c1), which is present at 89±5% in sampled individuals from C/EBA Britain and is nearly absent in available ancient DNA data from C/EBA Europe (Supplementary Table 9). The haplogroup remained more common in Britain than in continental Europe in every later period, and continues to be a distinctive feature of the British isles as its frequency in Britain and Ireland today (14-71% depending on region19) is far higher than anywhere else in continental Europe (Extended Data Fig. 5).

If you go online you can see the frequency of R1b-L21 varies a lot in England, with rather low frequencies in East Anglia, and higher fractions in western Britain. In Ireland, the frequencies may exceed 80% in the western counties. Lara Cassidy noticed early on that the Rathlin sample from Bronze Age Ireland, an a Bell Beaker individual, carries this mutation. On the continent, the mutation is found in Brittany, subject to migration from Britons, while in Spain it seems to be found in lower frequencies, mostly in the western provinces.

One of the insights of the new paper above is that there seems to have been an Urnfield-related migration that arrived in England around ~1200 BC. Did they bring Celtic speech? I think they were  Brythonic and P-Celtic speakers. I believe that R1b-L21 and the Bell Beakers brought Goidelic Q-Celtic languages, and there are some who argue that Celtiberian was a Q-Celtic language.

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Our New Elite


The Dredging – She was an Ivy League student with an inspiring story. Then her university started investigating (free registration):

One Monday morning in the fall of 2020, Mackenzie Fierceton received an email asking her to meet with Beth Winkelstein, deputy provost of the University of Pennsylvania. That afternoon, she spoke via Zoom with Winkelstein and Jane Morris, executive director of the university’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. “There are questions that now need to be answered,” Winkelstein informed her, according to Fierceton’s recollection. Who were her parents? Did her mother go to college? Was she given a car? Who was Darren? Would medical records show she had broken ribs? What about injuries to her face? The questions kept coming. At one point, Fierceton took a sip of water and began to cry.

When I initially read this story, it was somewhat sensationalized. I read the whole thing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and here are my conclusions:

1) Mackenzi Fierceton clearly violated the spirit of what the application essay was asking for. She had a grandparent who was college-educated at a time when most Americans did not graduate high school, and her mother is a doctor. She was not “first generation” university-educated, though she was first-generation elite university educated. Her mother is a radiologist, she grew up affluent.

2) Mackenzie Fierceton does believe she underwent serious trauma. She wasn’t lying in her perception. She did go into foster care for a year.

3) The system incentivizes high-achieving students from upper-middle-class backgrounds to emphasize how they are victims. Mackenzi Fierceton provided them with what they wanted, albeit a bit too thoroughly.

4) If the university went looking into the applications of many students they would find shadings of the truth and exaggerations. Not to the same extent, but the difference would be quantitative, not qualitative.

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A white French aristocrat from the 18th century inspiring a Bengali Muslim woman in the late 20th

My cousin Shoma was obsessed with Antoine Lavoisier. She had a bunch of books about him as a teen. I know this because I visited Bangladesh at 12 and there were all these Lavoisier books strewn across her bedroom. In 2004, I went back to visit my cousin in Dhaka, and by then she was working as a computer engineer. That was her undergraduate degree. But she had a master’s in physics, and her concentration was in cosmology (that is, she wrote her thesis on that topic).

I asked her about it, and she said it was Lavoisier in the back of her head. He was such a great scientist whose life was cut short by the Revolution, and one of her main inspirations in science as a young person. She knew ultimately she’d go the practical route and work with computers (she now has a high-level job at a Malaysian company and commutes back to Bangladesh), but she did the master’s degree because of her early passion for basic science drawn from this long-dead Frenchman. She had to honor it before life’s responsibilities made it impossible.

I bring up this anecdote because it’s pretty understandable for me. I too admired the dead white men of science. I didn’t care they were dead or white or men. I cared about their science. This is perhaps an old-fashioned view, but many of us still hold it. Today many people talk about things like “representation” and seeing people who “look like them” in positions of science and power. I understand, it’s very human.

But there is a world out there. That world doesn’t care about human skin color, ancestry, social status, religion, or sex. The world is what it is. That’s what scientists traditionally focused on, even though scientists were of this world, this social world, and so they sometimes missed the mark. But over the last few years, I feel many younger scientists now believe that it wasn’t missing the mark, that science’s social aspect must be embraced as a good, not as an accident that has to do with our frail humanity rather than the great science we aspire to.

But here we are. Dissenters. I am one of those, and I doubt I’ll ever change my mind. I also doubt my cousin, a hijab-wearing Asian Muslim woman, would disagree with me. Whatever ideological differences we may have, we agree about what science should be.

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Lest darkness fall: E. O. Wilson in 2009 with Alice Dreger

In 2015 Alice Dreger published Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice, and writing now in almost-2022 I feel there’s a Cassandra-like character to what she was saying. Academic culture is far more radical, political, and a lot of people with courage or openness to heterodoxy are just exiting, leaving the field to the most authoritarian personalities. It’s really strange to me that she published right before “the Great Awokening.” She has timing, that’s for sure.

It’s hard to remember, but when a journalist wrote a libelous book about Napoleon Chagnon in 2000, most scientists criticized the author and the work. I don’t think that would be the case today, as the presumption of guilt would be on Chagnon and James Neel. I read about this controversy in Salon, a very left-wing magazine, and the piece was broadly sympathetic to Chagnon and Neel. 2000 was different. It gets worst, sometimes.

Today Dreger published her conversation with E. O. Wilson from 2009 in Quillette. It’s an interesting read because Wilson clearly had no idea that in 2009 he was speaking during the last gasp of an intellectual interglacial. The beginning of the piece makes his naivete clear:

Alice Dreger: I know you’ve spoken about it many times before, but I would like to begin by asking you about the session at the 1978 AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] conference during which you were rushed on the stage and a protester emptied a pitcher of water onto your head. By all accounts, the talk you then gave was very measured. How on Earth were you able to remain so calm after being physically assaulted?

Edward O. Wilson: I think I may have been the only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea. The idea of a biological human nature was abhorrent to the demonstrators and was, in fact, too radical at the time for a lot of people—probably most social scientists and certainly many on the far-Left. They just accepted as dogma the blank-slate view of the human mind—that everything we do and think is due to contingency, rather than based upon instinct like bodily functions and the urge to keep reproducing. These people believe that everything we do is the result of historical accidents, the events of history, the development of personality through experience.

That was firmly believed in 1978 by a wide part of the population, but particularly by the political Left. And it was thought at the time that raising the specter of a biological basis for human behavior was not only wrong, but a justification for war, sexism, and racism. Biological gender differences could justify sexism, and any imputation that we evolved a human nature, or that human qualities might differ from one race to another, was dangerously racist.

…I knew things were going to work out—there was so much evidence accumulated already for a somewhat programmed human brain. By then, it was already coming from many directions, including genetics and neuroscience. There was no doubt about where things would go. There may be hold-outs but the inevitable conclusion from neuroscience and anthropology and genetics is for this way of thinking. [American anthropologist] Nap[oleon] Chagnon was present and he was certainly a leader in thinking about human nature and how valuable it is, and what its motivations are, by studying groups like the Yanomamö.

I knew history was on my side. I was young enough that I thought I would live through a good part of it. I was annoyed! But I wasn’t under stress in an extreme way. Before going home, I went to the next session, at which an anthropologist made the mistake of stating that I believe every cultural difference has a genetic basis, so that I am a racist. Of course, I rebutted that, but that was the kind of thing being exchanged at that meeting.

I wish I’d gotten a chance to talk to Wilson. I was actually assaulted at the 2013 ASHG on account of my ideology (the grad student made his reasoning plain during an earlier hour of drunken harassment), and something similar almost happened the next year in 2014 (but I had taken precautions after 2013 so people wouldn’t hassle me). So I had that in common with him. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there.

History is clearly on his side in the long term. But in the long-term we’re all dead. History is not Whiggish in the short term. The openness of 2009 was gone by 2019, and definitely by 2021.

Read the whole thing. There’s a lot of juicy stuff about how Dick Lewontin and S. J.Gould operated. Gould’s sliminess wasn’t really political, as much as it was personal. He wanted to be the glamorous celebrity scientist, which he did become. The particular point that Lewontin sent activists to harass other professors at Harvard in the 1970’s is interesting because there are a thousand Lewontins operating in academia now. The future belongs to him, and not the likes of Wilson. I’m heartened to see so many people praising Wilson online this week. But to be honest most of those people would avert their eyes, just like Wilson’s colleagues did in the 1970’s, if the Dick Lewontins of the day came after the Wilsons of 2021 (who are frankly all mostly closeted anyway).

It is pretty well known that Wilson was instrumental in getting Lewontin hired at Harvard. But the interview in Quillette is painful to read when he outlines how it all played out, and Wilson’s innocence is pretty clear:

I’ll tell you a story about all of this. Around 1970, we were searching for someone in population genetics. He looked very good then. And he had this brilliant personality in conversation, this brilliant presentation, a real theatrical power. The search committee decided he was the best person, but this was after he had just adopted his political and public persona and he was known to be joining protests. I remember watching a news report one day about the takeover of a stage at the University of Chicago, where some government functionary had come to speak at the height of the anti-war protests. And to my astonishment, I saw Dick Lewontin rush up and take the microphone!

We had a meeting to take the final vote on Lewontin at Harvard, and a group of the older professors said they were worried about reports of his behavior at Chicago—that he might be disruptive or might have gotten away from genetics, and so would not be the right sort of person to be at Harvard. I made the speech I will regret for the rest of my life: I said we should never accept or reject someone because of their political views. I felt so good about myself making that political speech! “I know several key people at Chicago on the faculty,” I said. “Let me ask them about the key question: Is Lewontin’s new political activism affecting his performance at the University of Chicago, or affecting anything connected with his duties?” And they said, okay, ask and let us know.

So, I called several people who I knew personally. We were all young guys then and they all said, “No, it’s not causing any problems here. He’s doing fine.” That turned out not to be the case. I reported that, and Lewontin came, and then our troubles with him began. I could tell you stories about him and the department that would make for a hilarious evening. But I won’t, except to say that the whole anti-sociobiology thing broke out about three years after he arrived. It was Gould and Lewontin and Ruth Hubbard, mostly oriented by Lewontin, looking to attack sociobiology and to discredit me.

I held up. In response to those attacks, I wrote On Human Nature, which came out in ‘78, and it won a Pulitzer Prize, which helped strengthen my position considerably. I was increasingly confident in my own reputation and my security at Harvard. I wrote [entomologist] John Law, who was then a close friend who had done work with me on pheromones. I said, “John, we’ve had Dick Lewontin here three years”—so this would have been about ‘76—“so now it’s your turn to take him back for three years.” John sent back a message on a scrap of paper written by the President of the University of Chicago, who was also named Wilson coincidentally. The note said: “From one Wilson to another, no way!” Apparently, they had already been having real problems with him.

There are plenty of Lewontin characters today. The main difference now is a lot of people, including some people who are friends, say “that’s good actually.” Unlike Wilson’s day there’s no need to worry about political considerations, everyone knows that only certain types of political ideologies are acceptable. It’s open now in a way that one doesn’t even need to say it. What is agreed by all needs to be spoken of by no one.

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E. O. Wilson, 1929-2021

Hopi Hoekstra has announced that E. O. Wilson has died. Not on Wikipedia yet as of this writing, but she would know. The obituaries will come flowing in. Wilson was an important figure, a contentious figure.

Right now, I want to highlight Ulica Segerstrale’s Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond, which documents what happened when Wilson attempted to introduce a biological framework into understanding human society in the late 1970s. Basically, he was attacked, and his character was assassinated, and he was also physically assaulted by left-wing students at a conference. Most of the principals in this cultural-scientific debate are gone. W. D. Hamilton, long gone. John Maynard Smith and Stephen Jay Gould died in the 2000’s, while George Williams in 2010. Richard Lewontin died recently, while Leon Kamin died in 2017. A lot of the “bit players” are around, like Richard Dawkins, Noam Chomsky and Steve Rose. But Wilson was at the center of the action, and he was still alive and kicking. He gave an interview to Vox earlier this month. I suppose Bob Trivers is still around…but well, Bob Trivers is going to do his own thing and he’s barely in academia anymore.

Wilson wrote many books after his brush with infamy in the 1970s, and he rehabilitated himself as a big environment guy, so he was somewhat in the good graces of the liberal intelligentsia after the sociobiology wars faded. But ultimately he never really changed his deep views on the importance of biology in human nature. I know from people who asked him at Harvard and knew him personally and felt comfortable probing deeper. If you want the real deal, Wilson and Charles Lumsden co-authored Genes, Mind, and Culture – The Coevolutionary Process. It’s a radical book, more ambitious than even what L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman, and later what Pete Richerson and Robert Boyd, attempted. It was probably too ambitious (have you ever heard of a “culturegen“?), but Wilson was an audacious guy willing to push the envelope and offend people.

This is important because I am starting to worry the next generation of scientists won’t do that. Wilson was politically naive and became savvier. But I fear that modern scientists are too politically savvy, as I read some population geneticists explaining they don’t study polygenic selection because of its political implications. That’s fine, but pretty soon it’s clear that people will shy away from human population genetics in general (some are). Science subordinate to politics is a thing that’s been around for a long time, but it’s not something to celebrate. In the last few years, I’m getting lots of inquiries of the form “you seem very interested in human population genetic history…are you into skulls too? Why are you interested in humans so much?” It’s basically anti-intellectual, but espoused by intellectuals. You know the type.

Here’s a piece from the Harvard Crimson in 1977 from a Wilson critic:

The Sociobiology Study Group has also pointed out Wilson’s explicit sexism. Wilson traces male dominance in modern human societies to the alleged universal division of labor between male and female humans in hunter-gatherer societies. He treats males as the active agents of evolutionary progress and females as “only DNA’s way of making more DNA.” Consequently, Wilson argues:

My own guess is that the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and egalitarian of future societies. Thus, even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science. (New York Times, 10/12/75)

CAR agrees with the Sociobiology Study Group that “Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.” CAR has further declared, however, that Sociobiology is dangerously racist. Although Wilson has nothing explicitly to say about race in his book, consider for a moment what a sociobiological analysis would be like…

Granting that Wilson was pretty sloppy and to my mind honestly outran the evidence for his speculations, the reaction was pretty hysterical. But it’s familiar. Wilson spent 40 years on his reputation. I can’t imagine someone being as bold as he was in the near future.

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Open Thread – 12/26/2021 – Gene Expression

Has anyone read The Dawn of Everything? What are your opinions? What are the best reviews?

My prior is to be skeptical because economic historians and economists tend not be big fans of the coauthors, and I generally agree with the economistic crowd more often than not. But everyone is reading and reviewing it, and I am probably going to be that in that camp.

This Matt Yglesias ($) post Human history in the very long run wouldn’t surprise or seem novel to readers of this blog, but for a lot of Yglesias’ readers, it probably is. Glad he’s pushing this stuff to the fore.

You should subscribe to Cold Takes by the way, it’s good.

Floating the idea that “Basal Eurasian” common migration source is the reason that a lot of tests show that West Eurasians have more affinity to Sub-Saharans Africans than East Eurasians. Thoughts? After nearly a decade we’re still not there will getting a “pure” Basal Eurasian, but it looks like if they existed they’d have diverged 60-80 Kya and perhaps they mixed with other groups soon after?

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Back migration into Africa by Eurasians

Two preprints/papers.

Identifying and Interpreting Apparent Neanderthal Ancestry in African Individuals:

Admixture has played a prominent role in shaping patterns of human genomic variation, including gene flow with now-extinct hominins like Neanderthals and Denisovans. Here, we describe a novel probabilistic method called IBDmix to identify introgressed hominin sequences, which, unlike existing approaches, does not use a modern reference population. We applied IBDmix to 2,504 individuals from geographically diverse populations to identify and analyze Neanderthal sequences segregating in modern humans. Strikingly, we find that African individuals carry a stronger signal of Neanderthal ancestry than previously thought. We show that this can be explained by genuine Neanderthal ancestry due to migrations back to Africa, predominately from ancestral Europeans, and gene flow into Neanderthals from an early dispersing group of humans out of Africa. Our results refine our understanding of Neanderthal ancestry in African and non-African populations and demonstrate that remnants of Neanderthal genomes survive in every modern human population studied to date.

Basically, this paper concludes that Eurasian back-migration related to Europeans/West Asians seems to be around 30% of Sub-Saharan African ancestry. They carry about 30% of the Neanderthal ancestry of Eurasians.

Then, a preprint that uses a pretty sophisticated method, Ancient Admixture into Africa from the ancestors of non-Africans:

Genetic diversity across human populations has been shaped by demographic history, making it possible to infer past demographic events from extant genomes. However, demographic inference in the ancient past is difficult, particularly around the out-of-Africa event in the Late Middle Paleolithic, a period of profound importance to our species’ history. Here we present SMCSMC, a Bayesian method for inference of time-varying population sizes and directional migration rates under the coalescent-with-recombination model, to study ancient demographic events. We find evidence for substantial migration from the ancestors of present-day Eurasians into African groups between 40 and 70 thousand years ago, predating the divergence of Eastern and Western Eurasian lineages. This event accounts for previously unexplained genetic diversity in African populations and supports the existence of novel population substructure in the Late Middle Paleolithic. Our results indicate that our species’ demographic history around the out-of-Africa event is more complex than previously appreciated.

This paper estimates 35-40% back-migration from the ancestral proto-Eurasian population, with less (~20%) in African hunter-gatherers. This paper didn’t detect Neanderthal ancestry and argues that the back-migration predates the West vs East Eurasian split. It plausibly argues African effective population sizes are inflated by the admixture event.

The two results here clearly contradict the details.

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Recent human origins in 2021

I wrote three long pieces for my Substack:

  1. Yo mama’s mama’s mama’s mama… etc.
  2. Our African origins: the more we understand, the less we know ($).
  3. What happens in Denisova Cave stays in Denisova Cave… until now ($).

I’m thinking about where I’m going to go in relation to this topic, and i think it may be in the direction of Eurasian back-migration to African and what we know now.

Also, I’m at nearly 60 podcasts after more than a year of the Substack. Please remember to rate it positively.