Covering up your face and smothering liberalism

This long feature about the tendency for many young Muslim women to veil themselves in Europe is interesting. Granted, the author clearly abhors the trend, and much of the text is impressionistic, but with the Shabina Begum affair, it seems apropos. Back when I was a pretty doctrinaire libertarian I used to joke about Maggie Thatchers quip that “there is no such thing as society.” No longer, humans are social creatures and the norms that we espouse shape how we interact with each other, social conservatives and communitarian liberals both draw from a deep vein of human reality. My ruminations on religious pluralism should make it clear that I think increased diversity will generate social anomie.1

In the specific case of women declaring that their taking up of the hijab or niqab is a personal statement (i.e., “I am no longer evaluated for my sexuality”), I think in most cases it is clearly fabulation. My experience on the “inside” is that the number one reason given within the community is that the only men that should see women are their closest male relations and their husband. But an important social and psychological parameter has to be the need to demarcate group barriers. In One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them, the Reform rabbi comes close to taunting the Orthodox scholar1 about the fact that he “dresses like a 17th century Polish nobleman.” Now, granted, this jab was partly a reaction to the fact that the Orthodox scholar nakedly questions the Reform rabbi’s Jewish authenticity repeatedly. I was interested to note that the Orthodox scholar finally responded by making an analogy to a girl with tatoos and piercings who wishes to express difference and distinction from society. I have used this analogy in the context of women who ostentatiously (in my view) demand acceptance of both the most extreme forms of Islamic “modesty” as well entering into the public world where they are exposed to a level of interpersonal contact that would be shocking to “traditionalists.” I recall as a child listening to my father expressiong confusion upon hearing of a woman who he knew of who had recently had a “religious awakening” and veiled herself…but remained at her job as a loan officer at a bank!!! If you do not understand my father’s confusion, the common interpretation of shariah bans interest.

The last example suggests that in the case of veiling we need to decompose two aspects of the issue, 1) individual/personal driven factors, 2) the social-cultural context. Many of the women who are causing the greatest social tension do so because they juxtapose a modern and pre-modern worldview simultaneously, and demand that they be accepted on their terms. On a social-cultural level the withdrawl of women into purdah would be less tenditious simply because their visibility and friction with the mainstream would be mitigated. On the other hand, students and professionals who assert their modesty make it an issue by their projection into a world that does not share or understand their purported values or religion. I say purported because the simultaneous assertive modernity in goals (i.e., becoming a professional) of some Islamist women and their appeal to a melange of progressive (self-respect, liberty) and religious (“my religion demands I do this”) talking points is a disorienting phenomenon which I don’t see the mainstream being able to grapple with very well even though its legitimacy could be questioned through several angles of deduction from espoused axioms. When someone asserts that their religion demands a particular set of actions or beliefs, there is often a lack of retort that it is actually their interpretation of their religion. Without the latter there is an implicit marshalling of an entire religious tradition in the service of their personal opinion. To use another case as illustrative, I recall in high school an acquaintance of mine who declared in biology class that their “religion said that evolution wasn’t true.” I happened to know this individual and asked to confirm that they were Roman Catholic, which they assented to, at which point I offered that Pope Pius XII stated in an encyclical in 1950 that evolutionary theory was reconcilable with Catholic belief. This burst my acquaintance’s bubble rather well.

Another issue is the social stress that different cultural mores induce. Most non-Western, and frankly, non-Anglo-Saxon, cultures have a different idea of “free expression” than is norm in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The chilling of speech offensive to Muslims in Europe is a harkening back to the all-to-natural human norm. The attack on a theater in England by Sikhs was bestial. Not that absolute defense of freedom of speech is a universal characteristic of even all Americans, I recall back during the 1990s that William Donohue of the Catholic League floated ideas about enforcing sanctions against blasphemy via publically accepted community standards. In Catholicism and American Freedom I got the distinct impression that the Irish and Irish American hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church were uncomfortable both with the pluralism of American society and its minimal protections for the dignity of the Church.3 In fact, as the 20th century wore on Roman Catholic activists who had battled the WASP elites and Know-Nothings shoulder-to-shoulder with Jewish intellectuals felt betrayed when the latter would periodically align themselves with secular anti-clerical WASPs to attack the Church as an anti-democratic institution. Donohue didn’t have a coherent heuristic when queried in depth, but clearly there are those who would not shed tears at the death of liberty for Diderot.

I bring up the Roman Catholic example to emphasize to those sanguine about the rise of muscular Islam that elbow room offered to a marginal minority might be a tool used against the liberal order over the long term. Concessions in the interest of expediency and tolerance may be the first cracks in the high stress edifice of modern liberal democracy predicated on individual rights. Additionally, I believe the liberal democratic system is buttressed both by a particular relation between the state and individuals, and the pairwise interactions between individuals themselves. Clearly there are many segmented societies, but their social dynamics are often less than ideal. If social and political legitimization is granted a minority of “activists” from the increasing panoply of diverse communities, I suspect we will see a future where every man can be a Sharpton. As individuals and communities many will still thrive, but I believe the world will suffer the lack of liberal-individualistic witness.

What does the liberal democratic n
ation-state stand for? Well, sometimes it is easiest to define what one doesn’t stand for….

1 – Contrary to the title, Yaakov Yosef Reinman declares himself a scholar of particular legal issues, not a rabbi.

2 – The point of this post is that liberal individualism is good, so some social anomie is OK by me. My point is that systems have breaking points, and when you transform a society characterized by gentle graded variations into one clustered around particular modes the primary vehicle of social organization and expression will shift from the individual to the groups.

3 – Attacks against the Church, many of them clearly libelous, were not generated by secularists as much as Protestants in this case. Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church, despite its lack of affirmation for the separation of church and state until deep into the 20th century, was probably the single most importance vehicle for the push toward non-sectarianism in public schools from the 1850s on.

Functional Variant in a Bitter-Taste Receptor (hTAS2R16) Influences Risk of Alcohol Dependence

A new study in The American Journal of Human Genetics which relates to taste sensitivities and alcoholism:

…Individuals with the ancestral allele K172 are at increased risk of alcohol dependence, regardless of ethnicity. However, this risk allele is uncommon in European Americans (minor-allele frequency [MAF] 0.6%), whereas 45% of African Americans carry the allele (MAF 26%), which makes it a much more significant risk factor in the African American population.

From the discussion:

…To assess the distribution of the K172 allele across multiple populations, we typed this SNP in the Human Genome Diversity Project-CEPH Human Genome Diversity Cell Line Panel, which includes 1,057 individuals and represents 52 different populations (Cann et al. 2002). The MAF for rs846664 had a range of 10%-44% in African populations, but it was not detected or was present at very low frequency in non-African populations.

I talked about the K172 allele before in my post A bitterly positive sweep.


I was checking out NuSapiens and noticed that he’d been nominated for Best New Weblog on something called The Weblog Awards. First, congrats to Nu, he is certainly one of “Our Crowd.” Second, on a lark I decided to see if gnxp popped up, and I noticed that Jeff of Beautiful Atrocities nominated us for Best Group Blog. Thanks Jeff! Seems a little weird that there isn’t a “Best Science Blog” category though (and I would vote for John Hawks FYI)….

Posted in Uncategorized

Unnatural groups

We have talked in detail about the problems with group selection before, so before someone assumes that I am promoting that thesis in the generality I want to caution that I am not. But, it occurred to me today that I am convinced that a high ratio of intergroup:intragroup variance on cultural shibboleths is attainable. If your tribal members are characterized by a splotch of red paint on their forehead, while your traditional rivals brandish green forehead splotches, I think one can safely assume that variation of forehead color between the groups exceeds the variation within the group. This is in contrast to genetic variation, as neighboring groups (e.g., Serbs and Croats) will likely exhibit far more within than between group variation, in other words, the two population subsets will intersect over the preponderance of a given sample space.

In contrast to the genetic case cultural shibboleths can be directly and consciously manipulated. A trivial case would be the semi-hostility that was common in my middle school in western Pennsylvania when the Steelers and Browns would play each other. Sports ties and affinities are partly heritable, but, I also know of many individuals who consciously chose to diverge from the conventional familial allegiances to “make a personal statement.” Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that what you are really rooting for are the jerseys, if a given player is traded to a rival team you are likely to detest him, simply because he has switched sides. I would contend that this phenomenon, often puzzling to those who have little interest in organized professional sports, is not learned, but cued to innate cognitive mechanisms. Recall that Constantinople was almost destroyed by rioting as the rival chariot team factions of the Blues and Greens joined forces against the imperial regime of Justinian and Theodora, not only are these passions relating to sports not modern, they can be extremely powerful in mobilizing group action.

Research reported in The Nurture Assumption and Not by Genes Alone suggest that a reflexive “groupishness” does exist in humans. Some of this groupishness seems almost perverse, for instance, studies which show that people tend to give more to individuals who they don’t know, and will never meet again (controlled psychology experiments), when those individuals are arbitrarily labeled as members of the same meaningless group (e.g., “you are people whose favorite brand of cereal is Cheerios, while the other group likes Frosted Flakes”). But taking into account the behavior in relation to sports teams, I don’t know if we should be that surprised. In Grooming, Gossip and Evolution Robin Dunbar argued that the maximum size of “natural” social units probably does not exceed more than a few hundred individuals. By natural, I mean social groups which don’t need to be mediated by legal coda or formalized rules, but rather are managed through direct interpersonal interactions. It may be that there is a structural constraint upon how far the human mind can scale (the combinitorics of modeling social networks implies exponential increase in complexity as the number of individuals increases). It might also be that groups were never much larger than a few hundred individuals. I suspect it is likely a combination of both, though the former is probably a cap (to some extent) on the latter.

In any case, one could posit that for the vast majority of modern human existence small groups have been the operative units of human organization. One could take this to be the environment under which our innate intuitions were shaped. There are debates about the extent of massive modularity and the extent of hard-wired innateness. I will ignore the details and assert that though the extent of innateness may very, it seems highly plausible that some “mental organs” do exist. Language for instance is a good candidate. A minimal degree of innate social competence is also another one (a Theory of Mind). There are some that are fixed in human populations, while others may vary as a function of group, and likely there are many which vary throughout the population (perhaps because Evolutionarily Stable Strategies coexisting). But in any case, the omnipresence of groupishness across human societies indicates that it is a trait which has had widespread value, just as language has. This doesn’t mean there has to be a “group module” in the brain, lodged within the “social organ,” rather, there might be a few simple integrated heuristics, starting with “do with the majority does,” which generate the groupish behavorial phenotype.

I began thinking of the idea that humans are adapted toward cuing onto somewhat absurd shibboleths as group identifiers after re-reading this old post of mine over after Matt McIntosh quoted me in regards to how people have problems categorizing groups in the modern world. The gist of what I was saying is that it makes sense that categorization schemes that are optimized for small groups would be maladapted to the modern world where groups have become much larger and amorphous. This post is an attempt to be a bit more clear in regards to that point: in the pre-modern world small groups could enforce on group identifying markers or behaviors upon members to a very high degree, ergo, intergroup variance could be maximized so that generalizations would carry a great deal of weight and predictive power. But now consider modern American Jews. Many Jews by declaration eat pork, enjoy shrimp and work and play on Saturdays. But they are still “Jews.” Some still practice traditional Rabbinical Judaism, which was dominant between 500 and 1800 in some form throughout the Jewish world, but this group is not numerically the majority of identified American Jews. Infact, one could argue that in regards to many values non-Rabbnical Jews and gentiles now have more in common than non-Rabbnical Jews have with those who adhere to halakah in a strict fashion. In a similar vein, in The Future of Religion Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge found from survey data of habits and preferences that conservative Christians are a cultural outgroup in relation to non-conservative Christians and seculars. Even though Christians notionally belong to one group, in practice the norms and values of believers in this religion in the United States exhibits such a high level of intragroup variance that the “Left” half of the religious distribution intersects almost perfectly with the values of secular Americans who disavow any religious values or beliefs.

The big picture point is that we live in an age of unnatural groups and coalitions, where shibboleths that once might have had life and death implications (i.e., your tribe abandons you if you violate their taboos) have become cross-cultural affairs, and those groups now encompass billions (Christians and Muslims). Where in groups of 50-200 innate cognitive mechanisms could work to enforce strict adherence to a host of common practices and values to a group demarcated by narrow set identifying practies and beliefs, the same notions of group identity are now abstracted to “believers in Christ” or “the Ummah” where only the core practices and beliefs themselves are poin
ts of commonality. In pre-modern times groups were smaller, and lived in close proximity, today there is far less possibility of enforcement values across continents. Muslims might not eat pork, but I know from personal experience that South Asian Muslims prefer Indian food to Arab food, and that Arab Muslims prefer Eastern Mediterranean food, regardless of religion, over the food of Pakistan. Nevertheless, the same cognitive mechanisms which react to other groups can get triggered and make us react as if a group of 1 billion was functionally equivalent to a group of 100, even though the reality on the ground might be characterized by a great deal of variance in practice. A tribe of 100 is a far easier entity to generalize about than a tribe of 1 billion becuase a tribe of 100 can synchronize their practices and preferences far more easily. One might even ask if there can ever be truly a tribe of 1 billion in any real sense. One can see that these pancultural and continental groups, often under the aegis of universal religions, attempt to recapture the reality of small groups via their rhetoric of brotherhood and fellow feeling. And to some extent, it works, though not perfectly. The imperfection explains the temporary coexistence of liberal and segregationist Democrats within the same party for decades. In explains the modern day coexistence of libertarians and social conservatives within the Republican party. Residual notional affinity, often derived from past short-term utility driven alliances, can have a strong cohesive effect. But nevertheless, the reality is that the dynamics of the two structures, small groups and large quasi-groups are different on many points, and that is where our mental models start turning out unsatisfactory suboptimal results. The reality is that though liberal and conservative Democrats were of the same official kind, they divided their loyalties and had a host of other affiliations which worked at cross-purposes with their political identity (ACLU vs. White Citizens’ Councils). Multiplicity of group allegiance has always existed, St. Paul was a Jew, a Christian and a Roman citizen simultaneously, but, I would argue that the differentiation of identities has exploded in the modern era as small scale groups have dissolved in the face of modern nuclear families, consumerism and geographical mobility, and the power of modern communication which has resulted in the dominance of the macrogroup in the mindshare of most individuals (i.e., American vs. over resident of East Village, Muslim as opposed to a citizen of Britain!). The synergy between our cognitive templates and the power of grand group rhetoric result in the disjunctive tendencies in discourse and practice in everyday life.

Addendum: I could go on for many pages on the many examples of disjunction between a) macrogroup identity b) reality on the ground and c) the tendency to extrapolate lower order relevant cognitive biases onto a), and the tensions it causes with b). But, I want to suggest on example that I have wondered about, in part because of my own ignorance in this area: language. One of the major issues I would have with Cavalli-Sforza’s charts where he shows the concordance between languages and genes is that it ignores the reality that while gene frequencies are usually clinally varying as a function of space, languages are more sharply differentiated. Wait though, back up a minute…a few years ago I read in The Power of Babel by John McWhorter that the sharp boundaries between Slavic languages in the Balkans are artificial, that in reality the dialects graded into each other clinally. McWhorter said to the effect that “Bulgarian” and “Macedonian” on either side of the respective borders of these two nations would likely exhibit more similarity than two dialects of “Macedonian” at opposite ends of the nation. I know that in relation to Turkic languages this is clearly true, that the different national languages (i.e., “Uigher”) are to some extent a hodgepodge of dialects thrown together due to the vicissitudes of history.

OK, so those sharp boundaries aren’t always real. But it gets more complicated, because I’m sure you would object that “national Bulgarian,” which is the official language, is standardized and sharply differentiated from “national Macedonian.” Fair enough, but that gets into the issue of diglossia, the tendency for their to be a “high” elite literate language and a “low” dialect. While the high written languages might be distinct the low dialects grade into each other because of their scales of variation. A few years ago something really strange happened to me though…my “second language” is Bengali. Normally, the few Hindi movies I have watched I could only really make out 25% of the words clearly (depending on context and cues), so that they were basically unintelligible to me. When I heard spoken Hindi, or its sister dialect, Urdu, usually uttered by elite individuals (they almost always had Ph.D.s or M.D.s), it was also basically Greek to me (not quite, but it wasn’t intelligible in more than the vaguest sense). Nevertheless, an acquaintance passed recently to me a print story in a English newspaper where there was an exact transliteration of the local argot of eastern Uttar Pradesh state, where Hindi is the official language. And guess what, I understood 80% of it! And the honest truth is that “high Bengali” is almost as Greekish to me as Hindi. So here we might have a situation where the colloquial dialects across a wide geographic range share more commonalities than the elite languages which serve as their variant national vehicles.

The whole point of that digression is that this shit is complicated. If you think I have a hard time being pithy, well, you try to wrap up those nested realities and relations into a few sentences (that’s a rhetorical dare).

Addendum II: Another tendency, which I’d like to emphasize the back-projection of modern perceptions of differences between factions. To give examples, the Blues and Greens in the Nika riots are often said to be proxies for the aristocracy and aspiring mercentile classes, respectively. My understanding is that this is grossly over-exaggerated in the attempt to find a ‘rational’ explanation from the factions. Similarly during late republican Rome the populares are often portrayed as ‘progressive’ and the optimates as the ‘traditionalists.’ The reality is that the optimate dictator, Sulla, was as ‘traditionalist’ as the modern Chinese state is communist. The typologies gloss over the fact of capricious and stochastic nature of factional alliances contingent upon personal relations and random acts of history.

Ethnic Segregation in Britain: Part 2

In a recent post I commented on some research by Ludi Simpson and colleagues. I said I would return to the claim by Simpson that the main factor in the growth of the ethnic minorities in Britain is the age structure of their population, and not continuing immigration or higher fertility.

Simpson’s press releases say, inter alia:

After a couple of generations… the population growth of these groups [Black and Asian] will have slowed and probably stopped… Fertility [of ethnic minorities] has reduced rapidly from the high levels associated with immigrant families. It is the youthfulness of immigrant workers and therefore their low mortality which has caused population growth, not high fertility, and not further immigration.

A report in the Guardian says:

Immigration is not the reason for increased numbers of non-white Britons over the past decade… the increase in the number of non-white Britons is due to demographics rather than immigration. Ethnic minority populations are younger and have fewer elderly people than white communities. The number of Asian and black people is increasing because fewer die from old age and they have more women of childbearing age relative to white people. The author of the study, Ludi Simpson, said: “The common myth is that the growth of the ethnic minority population is due to immigration. That’s not true – it is more due to the growth of [ethnic minority] people born in Britain.”

These statements are unclear as to whether the growth of the ethnic minority population is wholly or just mainly due to the age structure of the population, and whether fertility of ethnic minorities has already fallen to average levels, or whether this is a prediction for the future. But taking all the statements together, it seems that Simpson’s position is as follows:

– the main factor in the recent growth of ethnic minorities [‘over the last decade’] has been the age structure of the ethnic minority population, and in particular its relative youthfulness

– immigration has been only a minor factor

– fertility of ethnic minorities has already fallen substantially and can reasonably be expected to fall to replacement level.

Are these claims true?

First we need to establish the size of the increase in the ethnic minority population. In England and Wales (where most non-white ethnic minorities live), the non-white population increased by about 50% between the 1991 and 2001 Censuses, from 3.2 million (6% of the total) to 4.7 million (9% of the total). This is a very rapid increase for a single decade. Some small proportion of the increase may be due to the availability of a new ‘mixed’ category in the 2001 Census. On the other hand, it is likely that the 2001 Census understates the true increase, since there was substantial illegal immigration during the decade, and the Office for National Statistics has admitted that the Census total for 2001 is too low. The increase is also likely to have continued, if not accelerated, since then.

The increase can be attributed to three factors:

a. age structure

b. immigration


c. higher lifetime fertility.

Simpson’s statements imply that (a) is the most important factor, and that (b) and (c) are relatively minor.

British immigration data are poor. However, figures for grants of settlement suggest that in the first half of the 1990s immigration from Africa and Asia was relatively low and stable, at around 50,000 per year. But this still represents an inflow of more than 1% of the ethnic minority population in a single year, and an increase of cumulatively around 15% in a decade, which would be a significant proportion of a 50% total increase. Moreover, immigration from Africa and Asia increased rapidly after 1997 (see pp. 14-15 of the ONS Social Trends for 2005.) By 2003 it had increased to around 100,000 a year, representing more than 2% of the current non-white population per year. There is no sign of any slackening. One relevant factor has been abolition of the ‘primary purpose’ rule for the admission of spouses since 1997. Under the primary purpose rule, spouses of existing residents were not permitted to settle in the UK if the primary purpose of the marriage was assessed by the Immigration Service as being to obtain entry to the UK. The abolition of this rule (which admittedly was difficult to apply) has increased the number of arranged marriages with spouses from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Another factor in rising immigration is the large increase in immigrants from Africa, often in the guise of ‘asylum seekers’ from Nigeria or Somalia. It should however be noted that there has also been a large increase in white immigration from Eastern Europe in the last few years.

Overall, it seems likely that about one third of the increase in the non-white population over the last decade can be attributed directly to immigration. This is hardly negligible.

The third element to be considered is lifetime fertility, usually expressed as the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) for women of child-bearing age. Ludi Simpson claims that fertility has already reduced rapidly from the high levels associated with immigrant families, and he suggests that it is likely to fall further.

I have not been able to find reliable recent ethnic fertility data for Britain (or England) as a whole, but there are some useful data for London in a study of ‘Fertility of Ethnic Groups in London’ by the Data Management and Analysis Group of the Greater London Authority in September 2003. This gives the following TFRs for women in London:

Black Caribbean………1.70
Black African………..2.28
Black Other………….1.51

It will be seen that most groups are below the replacement rate (just over 2 children per woman), the exceptions being Black African, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi. It is noteworthy that the Indian TFR is among the lowest, though not as low as White. It is also clear that the TFR for Bangladeshis and Pakistanis is still substantially above the replacement rate, and more than twice the level for Whites. This may reflect the fact that a larger proportion of women in these groups are first-generation immigrants (see the comments above on arranged marriages). However, Black Caribbeans and Indians, with low TFRs, are among the largest minority groups, so it may well be that the average TFR for all non-whites in London is around the replacement rate.

London is not entirely representative of Britain as a whole. It is difficult for young married couples to afford housing in London, so there tends to be a high proportion of single people, including single parents in subsidised housing. But a large proportion of ethnic minorities in Britain live in London, so the London data on ethnic minorities cannot be badly misleading. If the average TFR for all non-whites is around the replacement rate, then Ludi Simpson may well be right in claiming that the overall increase in the ethnic minority population in Britain in the last decade has had little to do with higher fertility. I did not expect to find this result when I started digging, so I am obliged to draw attention to it. On the downside, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups, which are still increasing due to higher fertility, as well as other factors, are among those with the lowest employment rates and the worst educational performance. They are also those with the lowest rates of intermarriage with other groups. So the prospect of increasi
ng concentrations of discontented, idle, Muslim youths, a la Francaise, cannot yet be entirely discounted.

Ancient and Recent Positive Selection Transformed Opioid cis-Regulation in Humans

Ancient and Recent Positive Selection Transformed Opioid cis-Regulation in Humans:

…In addition, the pattern of linked nucleotide and microsatellite variation among and within modern human populations suggests that recent selection, subsequent to the fixation of the human-specific mutations and the peopling of the globe, has favored different prodynorphin cis-regulatory alleles in different parts of the world.

John Hawks has detailed commentary. Some info on cis and trans regulation.

Clarification on "roots"

Jim Bender links to my post where I express some frustration with tree based thinking in terms of human ancestry. He says, “I take that to mean that there is a great deal of mixing between the so-called races over time” [my emphasis]. Terms like “great deal” are insufficiently precise. Fst 0.2 is often used as a boundary number between low and moderate levels of population substructure, but it is somewhat arbitrary (1 migrant per generations yields 0.2). My overall point was that beyond a few generations in the past our intuitionally grounded concepts start to deviate from how gene genealogies work. 50 generations into the past I have an x number of distinct ancestors, but a y number of these ancestors show up many times at the tips of branches. In talking about populations the easiest citations are mtDNA and NRY, the male and female lineages…which causes problems in adding empirical support to overall assertions derived from an understanding of the details of how the tree plays out as you progress back in time, because mtDNA and NRY isn’t always a good match (concordance) with the rest of the genome.

A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey

As promised, I did read A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey, the biography of human geneticist L. L. Cavalli-Sforza. I have to say that it was a very uneven work, but neither of the two authors are writers by profession (an anthropologist and geneticist). The main thing I took away from the book was that I will be curious to check out Cultural Transmission and Evolution,1 which is a theoretical work that attempts to transpose the models of population genetics into a cultural framework, and Bryan Sykes is a grand-standing ass. Since there are other data points in regards to Sykes, I am prompted to believe Cavalli-Sforza’s side of the story.2

There are short sketches of Cavalli-Sforza’s early work in bacterial genetics that might surprise some (I was aware of this from reading I’d done on R.A. Fisher), but there seemed to be a disproportionate focus on his work in relation to anthropologists. In particular, his somewhat scientific-reductionistic attitude toward the discipline, in contrast with the zeitgeist of the field within the past generation which has focused on criticism and contextualization, almost to the neglect of model building or positive assertion. Of course, the race-does-not-exist chapters are somewhat hilarious in their attempt to dance around semantically. A key issue might be that race-does-not-exist in the way that it is conceived of colloquially, idealized discrete types, but it does exist as predictable lumps within the soup of clinal variation. Sometimes the authors make embarrassing statments, for instance, “Pygmies are short because of the wet tropical climate.” The adaptive story is probably a lot more subtle than that. This is also pretty egregious in light of their emphasis on the neutral portion of the genome, as opposed to functionally relevant loci. Some of the unevenness might have been due to the fact that the two authors wrote alternating chapters, but that’s an explanation, not an excuse.

Of course, how much can you compress into ~200 pages? The major problem is that I’m not sure the authors knew what they wanted the book to be, the mathematical footnotes were interesting, but anyone who would take an interest in such details would almost certainly wince at the superficiality of the prose used to impart the concepts.

Addendum: One good thing about this bio though is that it shows how much Cavalli-Sforza’s life intersected with other prominent biologists, Joshua Lederberg, R.A. Fisher and Anthony Edwards. Also, Lynn Jorde has reviewed the book, similar general impression from what I can gather.

1 – What utility do mathematical models have in discussing something as amorphous and intractable as culture? The reality is that mathematics can often clarify exactly what you are trying to get at, so the upside might be precision in communication more than a utility in regards to predictive value (that is, predictions made from the models might be trivially obvious).

2 – Why do I link to The Seven Daughters of Eve? First, it is copiously cited in the semi-popular literature. Second, if you take it for what it is (rather than what Sykes tries to claim it), I think it is a decent survey of the H. sapiens mtDNA literature circa 2000.