Open Thread, 07/22/2019

Fun time sat the ISIR 2019 meeting in Minneapolis. Lots of deviltry, but that’s for the open thread.

I will tell readers that James Lee has more to come after 2018’s Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in 1.1 million individuals. And Greg Clark has something in the works on the heels of A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World and The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility.

Probably the most interesting and but unsurprising empirical result at the conference is that recommendations add pretty much zero toward evaluation possible admittees to graduate school.

Again I’d recommend John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book. There’s an interesting section on why the early Christians tended to distribute what became the New Testament in the codex as opposed to scroll form. It’s not totally clear or coherent, but highly informative.

As I noted in my other weblog, India After Gandhi has a Kindle sale right now. This is not a book without controversy or dispute, but it is probably worth reading nonetheless.

India Launches Mission to Land a Rover on Moon’s South Pole. There’s a link within the story with the text “an increasingly competitive space race”, that describes the race between China and India. Welcome to the 21st-century.

Lessons in genome engineering: opportunities, tools and pitfalls. We’re not even 10 years into the CRISPR-Cas9 engineering era.

Selection against archaic DNA in human regulatory regions.

The Lessons of a Hideous Forest. No surprise.

An approximate full-likelihood method for inferring selection and allele frequency trajectories from DNA sequence data.

Localization of a feline autosomal dominant dwarfism locus: a novel model of chondrodysplasia.

Cross-border agonies: Dhaka’s middle-class Hindus lead a dual life straddling two countries. Basically in Bangladesh educated Hindus experience a “glass ceiling.” For professional or social advancement they have to leave for India, so of course, they do.

Genome diversity and species richness in mammals.

Pervasive introgression of MHC genes in newt hybrid zones.

Cultural evolution by capital accumulation.

DNA Testing Creates Wrenching Dilemmas for the Family Historian.

Microsoft’s Cloud Business Drives Record Sales. I feel like the 2000s for Microsoft was a bit like the 1990s for Apple, where there was a period where the brand was in sharp decline before its bounce back. While the Silicon Valley firms have been dealing with PR nightmares, Microsoft seems to have stayed under the radar.

Paternal age in rhesus macaques is positively associated with germline mutation accumulation but not with measures of offspring sociability.

Are We Monogamous? A Review of the Evolution of Pair-Bonding in Humans and Its Contemporary Variation Cross-Culturally.

Genetic architecture influences when and how hybridization contributes to colonization.

A synthesis between cosmopolitanism and nationalism

As many of you know my reading habits are quite catholic. Many years ago I read a quite idiosyncratic book, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church. The author, H. W. Crocker III, does not try and present an even-handed narrative. If you want to read nasty snide barbs toward Martin Luther, this book for is for you!

That being said, Triumph opens up a window on a different vision of the world and how it should be organized than you would usually see. One of the Crocker’s contentions is that the Reformation destroyed the cosmopolitan commonwealth of late medieval Western Christianity. The author of Triumph is an arch-reactionary, but he is also a skeptic of the Protestant-inflected Westphalian system that emerged in the 17th-century. Nationalism. Crocker bemoans the transformation of Christendom, a set of interlocking polities and principalities united by the superstructure of the Church and the broad ethos of Western Christianity, into the West, a more rationalized system which stitched together Western Christian nation-states separated by confessional conflict.

Diarmad McCullough’s The Reformation still records that the shadow of the old unitary Christendom actually persisted pretty deep into the post-Reformation period. Some of this was due to the prestige of Latin, which was widely understood and used as a lingua franca. So Protestant Hungarians from Transylvania were known to travel to England, and study at Oxford, and lack all knowledge of English. But they could communicate in Latin.

There are vigorous debates as to the role of religion in the emergence of national identity in the wake of Reformation. I think it is hard to deny that widespread distribution of Bibles in a local dialect, which might set the standard for the national language as a whole, aided the association between nationality and language that came to be normative in later centuries. Luther and his fellow travelers occasionally made appeals to the honor of the “German nation,” as opposed to the cosmopolitan forces which marched under the Habsburg banners. In contrast, Roman Catholic preachers exhorted Catholic German peasants to show more solidarity with the Spanish soldiers of the Emperor than the Protestant German knights. Religion before nation.

These arguments persisted deep into the modern period. The institutional Roman Catholic Church was suspicious of the ideology of nationalism and the creation of nations from small polities, even if Catholicism became instrumental in the formation of the French, Polish, or Spanish, national identities. This was most strongly illustrated in Italy, whose unifiers had an ultimately hostile relationship with the Pope in Rome.

So all this has to be understood in the context of the fact that Senator Joshua Hawley has been accused of being anti-Semitic because of his reference to “cosmopolitans” in a recent speech on nationalism. To be frank, I think he has a different experience in the use of words than his critics and doesn’t understand that some of them are fraught with meaning. Or at least that his critics would take them in that manner (the conference was organized by an American Israeli Jew, and many Jewish people attended).

The association between the usage of the word cosmopolitan and Jews has a strong resonance due to our history with the two major totalitarian ideologies of the 20th-century. But, one of my major points on this weblog that I repeat over and over is that the long 20th-century is coming to an end. In the early 21st-century, 45% of the world’s Jews live in Israel, a very nationalistic, and rooted (sorry Arabs), people. Because of Israel’s high total fertility rate, the proportion of Jews in the world who live in Israel will likely go above 50% in the next few decades.

Historically the image of the cosmopolitan Jew is strong, but in the present day, that is becoming far and far less accurate. Additionally, even that stereotype is historically ephemeral. The Jews who were so threatening to the Nazis and Communists were the Jews who took advantage of the Enlightenment and the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) to become full-fledged members of Western civilization and society without assimilating (necessarily) into Christian culture in totality. They shed their shtetl garments, but they did not quite become just like their neighbors.

Armie Hammer
Armie Hammer

That is not the case today. Though places like England have huge numbers of haredi Jews due to their high fertility rates, the traditional Jewish community of Britain is in demographic decline. Part of this is due to low fertility rates, but a great part of it is due to full assimilation through intermarriage. They are becoming just like their neighbors. The fixation of the modern Left with Israel and Zionism is at least future-oriented. That is the future of the Jewry, along with people of some Jewish heritage. Like Armie Hammer, who identifies as half-Jewish (his great-grandfather was Armand Hammer).

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s world, for good or ill, is fading even in places like New York City. A world at a dynamic interface between the haredi and the gentile. Secular in religion, but unmistakably Jewish in ethnicity, and outward-facing and integrating with non-Jews.

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From the earth to the moon!

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

1,000 years into the future what names will still be known from the second millennium? I suspect Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Probably Charles Darwin. Perhaps Genghis Khan. Due to the likelihoods of demographics, I would bet that more will recall Mao Zedong than Joseph Stalin.

But the men who stepped on the moon, I suspect, will also be known as names. It was a singular accomplishment.

As a subscriber to The New York Times I decided to go look at some of the articles from July 1969. I was surprised to find this: SURVEY FINDS PUBLIC BACKS MOON LANDING:

With the Apollo 11 moon mission to start tomorrow, the American people now favor landing a man on the moon by 51 to 41 per cent, according to a new poll by Louis Harris published yesterday in The New York Post.

Support was much more equivocal than I would have guessed. The public was quite aware of how expensive it all was.

My own suspicion is that humans will go back to the moon. But I think it will be a private company or an effort led by China. I don’t think our culture has the will to engage in such a task anymore.

Hungarian nationalism and the ghosts of Turan

In Harper’s, The Call of the Drums Hungary’s far right discovers its inner barbarian:

The Great Kurultáj, an event held annually outside the town of Bugac, Hungary, is billed as both the “Tribal Assembly of the Hun-­Turkic Nations” and “Europe’s Largest Equestrian Event.” When I arrived last August, I was fittingly greeted by a variety of riders on horseback: some dressed as Huns, others as Parthian cavalrymen, Scythian archers, Magyar warriors, csikós cowboys, and betyár bandits. In total there were representatives from twenty-­seven “tribes,” all members of the “Hun-­Turkic” fraternity. The festival’s entrance was marked by a sixty-­foot-­tall portrait of Attila himself, wielding an immense broadsword and standing in front of what was either a bonfire or a sky illuminated by the baleful glow of war. He sported a goatee in the style of Steven Seagal and, shorn of his war braids and helmet, might have been someone you could find in a Budapest cellar bar. A slight smirk suggested that great mirth and great violence together mingled in his soul.

The whole article is fascinating. Though the author is clearly disapproving of Hungary’s current nationalist resurgence, the description of Turanism, the cult of Attila in Hungary may seem strange, but it isn’t surprising when you consider that Mongolia has a cult of Genghis Khan.

Hungary is unique in Europe because the people speak a language that is only related to two groups in western Siberia, the Mansi, and Khanty. Most linguists place these Ugric languages as a distant sister clade to the Finno-Permic group. But it seems incontrovertible that the modern Magyar people are culturally descended from a group of people who were in close association with various Turkic nomads (e.g., the Khazars) in the lower Volga region. Their migration westward seems to have recapitulated the movement of the ancient Huns, who were likely Turkic. Additionally, not only did the Magyar tribes absorb Turkic tribes as they moved out of Khazar territory but in later centuries gave they refuge to Turkic groups fleeing the Mongols.

The Turanism described in the article is a real thing, but much of it seems to consist of the co-option of the lifestyle of the Altaic nomadic peoples, Turks, and Mongols, to add glamor to Hungarian history. In fact, the inclusion of groups such as Scythians and Sarmatians (Indo-European Iranians) indicates that what is common is not descent or ethnolinguistic affinity, but a lifestyle. It’s the lifestyle and ethos that Christopher Beckwith writes about in Empires of the Silk Road.

The mobile steppe nomads were not born, they were made. For thousands of years, peoples that occupied the fringe of the forest-zone seem to have taken up the horse, and full pastoralism, and so become part of a lifestyle which was optimally suited to militarization and therefore extraction of resources out of wealthy sedentary societies. The transition was natural because humans would rather be predators than prey.

This reality, that what Turanism celebrates is the idealization of brutal martial past, mitigates the fact that genetically modern Magyars descend overwhelmingly from the conquered, not the conquerorsThe conquest elites did have an eastern affinity. But the best recent data indicates that modern Hungarians are only a few percent enriched for this ancestry. Rather, the ancestors of modern Hungarians probably are Slavic peasants as well as the post-Roman peoples of Pannonia.

One explanation for the discrepancy between elite burials from the Late Antique and Medieval period and modern Hungarians is that military conflicts between the first Mongol invasion and the Ottoman conquest took a disproportionate toll on the nobility descended from the Magyars and Turks. But I suspect a more prosaic one is that Hungary is an open plain, and gene flow with neighboring regions would have diluted the initial signature of admixture over the centuries.

Modern Hungarians are surely aware of the genetic realities on an intuitive level: they don’t look particularly different from their neighbors, and they know this. But, culturally they are distinctive, and that is due to the history and lives of the Turks and Magyars, and Hungarian nationalists nod to this reality in forming their own mythos.

The Magyarization of Pannonia requires a deeper investigation by both historians and cultural evolutionists. A pastoralist pagan people imposed their language on recently Christianized Slavs. How? Why? This is a sharp contrast to the Bulgars, who were Turks absorbed by their Slavic subjects.

“….for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

American culture in 2019


I think cultural influence and power outlasts and lags peak military or economic power. Greek culture with the rise of Rome, Roman culture during the post-Roman period in the West, and Italian art as the locus of power was shifting north in Europe during the early modern period. The glamor of culture, history, and the past, can echo down centuries after temporal power fades (ask the Bishop of Rome!).

So it will be with American culture. But there’s also something in our highly exportable popular culture which is becoming highly derivative, recycling 20th-century motifs over and over. Influential, but perhaps not original.

But should we be embarrassed by this? Or surprised? The Italian peninsula had a second efflorescence during the Renaissance, but Greece has never been as influential or original as it was in the 5th century BC.

The genomics of the Viking Age

A huge new preprint on Vikings (as well as the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and comparisons to moderns), Population genomics of the Viking world:

…we sequenced the genomes of 442 ancient humans from across Europe and Greenland ranging from the Bronze Age (c. 2400 BC) to the early modern period (c. 1600 CE), with particular emphasis on the Viking Age. We find that the period preceding the Viking Age was accompanied by foreign gene flow into Scandinavia from the south and east: spreading from Denmark and eastern Sweden to the rest of Scandinavia. Despite the close linguistic similarities of modern Scandinavian languages, we observe genetic structure within Scandinavia, suggesting that regional population differences were already present 1,000 years ago. We find evidence for a majority of Danish Viking presence in England, Swedish Viking presence in the Baltic, and Norwegian Viking presence in Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland. Additionally, we see substantial foreign European ancestry entering Scandinavia during the Viking Age. We also find that several of the members of the only archaeologically well-attested Viking expedition were close family members. By comparing Viking Scandinavian genomes with present-day Scandinavian genomes, we find that pigmentation-associated loci have undergone strong population differentiation during the last millennia. Finally, we are able to trace the allele frequency dynamics of positively selected loci with unprecedented detail, including the lactase persistence allele and various alleles associated with the immune response. We conclude that the Viking diaspora was characterized by substantial foreign engagement: distinct Viking populations influenced the genomic makeup of different regions of Europe, while Scandinavia also experienced increased contact with the rest of the continent.

A few notes:

– Though the broad patterns seem to have been established with the expansion between 3,000 and 2,500 BC from the Yamnaya steppe (at least in Northern Europe), some subtle details in genome-wide ancestry shifted in subsequent periods. This data set seems to show a decline in “Neolithic Farmer” and increase in hunter-gatherer and steppe ancestry after the Bronze Age, with some increase in the former by the Viking Age. This suggests that there is some sort of skew in sampling which misses populations enriched for hunter-gatherer ancestry (I suspect these groups live in the most marginal land and are the most mobile).

– There is structure by the Viking Age, which is not surprising. But the authors also report a few regions of southern Sweden where samples are enriched for Neolithic farmer ancestry down to the Viking age, suggesting that even ancient structure wasn’t well mixed (yet).

– Most of the selection for the phenotype which characterizes modern-day Northern European populations seem to have completed over the 2,000 years between the Bronze Age and the Viking Age.

On the genealogy of “Social Darwinism”

In my review of David Sloan Wilson’s This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution I observe that one of the author’s projects seems to be to educate a more general audience on a revisionist understanding of the history of evolutionary biology as applied to society:

…He notes that the opprobrium hurled at evolution’s application to social problems draws from Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. Hofstadter was a man of left-wing commitments writing in 1944, as the war against Hitler’s regime was still a live concern. His was not a dispassionate scholarly analysis. He aimed to produce something which could be deployed in the fight against “racism, nationalism, or competitive strife.”

This View of Life highlights how men as diverse as Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, and Thomas Malthus were not united in their views, nor were they the cruel anti-humanitarians that their detractors portray them as (Hitler’s own views were scientifically inchoate at best, and ignorant at worst). Wilson’s arguments are familiar to libertarians in particular, many of whom have long argued that Hofstadter misrepresented classical liberals.

The argument for the defense that one encounters in This View of Life may not entirely convince, at least in the chapter-length treatment Wilson provides. The great evolutionary geneticist R. A. Fisher’s central work, Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, contains a long exposition of eugenicist thought as applied to humanity…

I noticed today that Devang Mehta has put up a review of the same book, and he’s far less positive than I (we notice the same problems, but I’m considerably more charitable). There are many points where I disagree on details of interpretation with Mehta, but I want to highlight the criticism of David Sloan Wilson’s treatment of Social Darwinism:

Of course, this sets off all sorts of alarm bells about “social Darwinism,” the 19th century idea that socially powerful individuals are innately better than weaker ones, which underpinned early 20th century theories of race, justified colonialism, and rationalized eugenics and Nazi-ism. Wilson is at least cognizant of this connotation, and in fact spends a whole chapter early in the book trying to persuade the reader that Nazis (and the eugenics movement) were actually not “social Darwinists.” He claims that social Darwinism was not a term adopted by eugenicists, but in fact used as a pejorative by their opponents. This is a bizarre argument; regardless of who came up with the label, the shoe fit. In fact, it was Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton, clearly inspired by Darwin’s work, who sparked the eugenics movement, coining the term, and promoting the idea that eugenically “compatible” couples should be given incentives to marry and procreate. A modern understanding of evolution and genetics utterly refutes eugenicist ideas — but nevertheless, it’s important to not whitewash the field’s grim history.

Mehta zeroes in on exactly the same issue I alluded to above: the relationship between eugenics and what became evolutionary genetics is very close, and the two emerged at approximately the same time. But where I disagree with Mehta is assuming that “Social Darwinism” and eugenics were identical and substitutable. Mehta and the broader public seem to think this equality is warranted, but I disagree.

I was familiar with Richard Hofstadter’s misrepresentation of intellectual history through libertarian critiques long before I read histories of evolutionary biology. Obviously, libertarians take a very different from the stance of David Sloan Wilson. That people with such different ideological commitments agree on a misrepresentation of the historical record should make one come to attention, rather than dismiss Wilson’s attempt at revision as pure sophistry.

Many years ago I read Lee Alan Dugatkin’s book The Altruism Equation. It surveyed the early period, and how evolutionary thought shaped social thought, and it is far more diverse than the reductions to “Social Darwinism” we’re given.

This is relevant because my friend Eric Michael Johnson, a man of the Left himself, has done his own intellectual archaeology of the relationship between early evolutionary biology and social thought. A chapter of his Ph.D. thesis has now been published, The struggle for coexistence: Peter Kropotkin and the social ecology of science in Russia, Europe, and, England, 1859-1922. If you are curious about “Socialistic Darwinism”, then I suggest you read it. It shows exactly how Hofstadter overreached, and what he missed.

Buddhism has never been pacifistic

One of the major reasons that blogging became a big thing in the 2000s is media criticism. With the decline of blogs most of that has moved to Twitter, but Twitter operates on different principles. Often critiques of media focus around specific issues and concerns which are amplified by positive feedback loops.

But a recent piece by The New York Times, Buddhists Go to Battle: When Nationalism Overrides Pacifism A call to arms for Sri Lankan monks. Ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. A Buddhist faith known for pacifism is taking its place in a new age of nationalism, highlights how even the most ‘respectable’ of media outlets engage in shortcuts and superficial analysis. Part of me does wonder also if the secularism of the American elite media is one of the reasons they routinely flub anything related to religion.

In any case, the idea that Buddhism is necessarily a pacifist religion is to a great extent a Western fantasy. Much of the genealogy is rooted in Schopenhauer’s interpretations. Though Schopenhauer’s interpretations are as good as anyone’s, they tend to cast Indian religion generally in ethereal mystical terms at strong variance with how they manifest in cultures where they have been ascendant.

The Japanese, Mongols, and Tibetans did not stop being warlike when they converted to Buddhism. The patronage of Buddhism in China was fostered in the early centuries by non-Chinese barbarian military elites. There is nothing particular pacifistic about Thailand or Burma.

The fact that no editor of that well-reported piece even thought to consider these facts, and relied on Western stereotypes, is pretty disappointing, but not surprising.

The weird thing is 20 years on from the heyday of blogging the cultural elite talks and promotes multiculturalism orders of magnitude more. But the cultural elite is fundamentally just as lazy as it was back then, and uses simple heuristics which leverage what their readers know or believe,* rather than actually introducing new and true facts into the discussion.

* Buddhism and Sufism both are treated in American media through the biased and distorted lens of Western gurus and practitioners, rather than living traditions across a variety of cultures with deep and complex histories.

Corporations without borders in a world with borders

So there has been some stuff in the media about the international element of American corporations. In particular, Billionaire Peter Thiel to Google CEO Sundar Pichai: 3 questions on China that need answers. Thiel has been throwing broadsides at Google due to his participation in a conference on nationalism.

During the period of Chimerica, as documented in Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money, there was a sort of synergistic detente between the USA and China. That is obviously over. Part of it is Donald Trump’s stance, but there is a broader American suspicion, from the Left to the Right, toward the emergent muscularity of Chinese power abroad and its authoritarianism at home.  Though it is clear that I am broadly sympathetic to many aspects of Chinese culture and happy that the average Chinese is wealthier and healthier than they were in the 20th-century, it seems advisable for the American state to engage with the Chinese state in a wary manner.

Which brings me to Thiel’s comments, and one aspect of the demographics of Silicon Valley which might be a major headache: over 70% of employees are foreign-born. And many of these are Chinese nationals (over 50% of the engineering workforce at Google in the USA is now “Asian”). Obviously, most of the Chinese nationals are not engaging in espionage. But the relationship between China and the USA is now shifting to one of rivalry, rather than partnership, so it’s going to put many of these employees in a strained position.