A bioartistic project for the Long Now Foundation

With all the crazy talk about George Church and an adventurous young woman conspiring to bring back Neandertals, I do think it is important to keep in mind that we can bring back an individual with a predominantly Neandertal genome in a very old fashioned manner: controlled breeding. The most humane and viable manner in which you might do this is simply start a religion in a Bene Gesserit fashion where the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach is a Neandertal. Over the generations by selecting individuals within the population (which could draw in converts) enriched for Neandertal ancestry to mate assortatively one could slowly increase the proportion of that ancestral component. The population would become more and more “Neandertal,” probably to the point of being phenotypically distinctive in a dozen generations (even a minority of non-modern human ancestry is probably significant, just as many individuals who are 3/4 European and 1/4 African still exhibit features of their minority heritage). One could apply the same logic to the Denisovans.

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Phylogenetics implies Austro-Asiatic are intrusive to India

Most people in South Asia speak one of two varieties of language, Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. These two are not particularly closely related. Indo-Aryan is an Indo-European language, as is evident in the plethora of obvious cognates with other Indo-European dialects. I have a minimal fluency in Bengali, the easternmost of the Indo-European languages, and quite a bit more fluency with English, one of the most westernmost, and it was evident to me rather early on (e.g., grass vs. gash, man vs. manush, nose vs. nak). In contrast to me Dravidian languages are peculiar because the accent and cadence are clearly South Asian, but they are utterly impenetrable (though there are many loan words into Indo-Aryan from Dravidian).

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Spinoza: genius is as genius does

An Emperor of Nothing

This morning in Slate I encountered a rather peculiar piece, The Original Jewish Genius: How the Gaon of Vilna helps explain Jewish intellectual achievement. The reason I found this piece peculiar is that it strikes me as something of a rewriting of the conventional historical narrative for anyone who is not what we today term an Orthodox Jew. The Gaon of Vilna may have been a luminescent mind, but a figure such as Moses Mendelssohn, also an Ashkenazi Jew of approximately the same period, is much more the spiritual ancestor of the typical modern Jewish intellectual, who synthesizes their cultural identity within the broader currents dominant in the gentile milieu.

The Gaon of Vilna was the culmination of over 1,000 years of Rabbinal Judaism, an intellectual tradition which had marginal impact on the gentile world, as Christianity and Islam sealed off the Jews from the outside in the centuries after the Babylonian Talmud came into being. The Lithuanian Mitnagdim who looked to the Gaon ultimately became foes of the Jewish Enlightenment, which witnessed the emergence of identified Jews as prominent figures in Western civilization for the first time in 2,000 years (since Josephus and the Jewish courtiers who were familiars with the Julio-Claudians). In short the Gaon of Vilna is rightly a marginal figure from a gentile perspective, no matter his parochial brilliance.

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Diminishing returns to communication in scholarship?

Year Event
1000 BC Alphabet
500 BC
0 AD The codex
500 AD
1000 AD
1500 AD Printing press
2000 AD The internet

There has been an issue I have wanted to bring up, but my thoughts have been rather inchoate. If you read this blog closely it won’t surprise you that in general my idealistic sympathies in regards to “access” of scientific publications are in line with Michael Eisen‘s. He (and others) do a good enough job in this area that I don’t feel like I have much to add, aside from cheering, or noting an open access success now and then.

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Unleash the chatter!

I’ve been saying for a few weeks that this weblog’s comments are going to be improved with a Disqus system. Worry no more, I have a “hard date.” I’m not going to give it to you because my personal experience with hard dates in I.T. is that things come up, and delays are routine. But, it won’t be much longer. In the range of weeks, not months. All the features that I missed will be back, and you should be able to leave comments with Twitter or Facebook authentication.

The importance of open data in genomics (and in everything!)

Yesterday a friend of mine who happens to be of doughty German and Scandinavian upper Midwest stock messaged me on Facebook and explained that her father’s results for 23andMe had come in…and he was 43 percent Sub-Saharan African! Her mother’s results came in a few hours later, and she was 35 percent Sub-Saharan African. I went to my account, and my parents were also in the same range. Oh my, overnight I became an underrepresented minority! Obviously this was a bug. The key clause is obviously. There are people who receive results suggesting that they are 5 percent Sub-Saharan African and such. Or someone like Dan MacArthur, who has likely South Asian ancestry, but in the 1-2 percent range.

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A correlation between acacia trees and tonal languages?

At A Replicated Typo, Most important paper on cultural evolution that includes acacia trees published. The lessons here can be generalized obviously:

Last month saw the publication of a paper by James and I (our first paper!) on the so-called ‘nomothetic’ approach to links between language structure and social structure. In it we review the recent trend of using large-scale cross-cultural statistical analyses to find links between cultural traits and social structures (e.g. Lupyan & Dale, 2010). We show that statistical tests can be misleading because of the nature of cultural systems. We also argue that using statistics alone does not provide strong explanatory power. However, they can be a valuable part of a pluralistic approach to problems – especially generating hypotheses and as a catalyst for debate. Other approaches can help support the suggestions made by nomothetic studies, such as experiments and models.

The paper is open access, Social Structure and Language Structure: the New Nomothetic Approach.

Cultural sorting in the University of California system

My question is simple: why so few Asians at University of California Santa Barbara? Freshman admissions profiles are easy enough to get for the UC system, while Ron Unz has put his demographic data online. For what it’s worth 27 and 9 percent of the children in the California educational system (primary and secondary) were non-Hispanic white and Asian in 2010-2011.

Freshmen admitted profile:

GPA ACT SAT Reading SAT Math SAT Writing White Asian
Berkeley 4.16 30 674 701 692 30.3 37.4
Davis 4.03 28 611 658 632 33.6 37.7
Irvine 4.02 27 588 645 611 20.2 49.1
UCLA 4.11 30 659 702 681 31.5 34.3
Merced 3.57 23 525 559 533 19.5 29.3
Riverside 3.7 25 550 595 566 15.6 37.6
UCSD 4.07 29 639 691 661 24.3 45
UCSB 3.96 28 614 654 635 44.6 15.9
UCSC 3.78 26 573 597 586 42.4 20.8

My impression is that Santa Barbara is relatively weak in the sciences in comparison to an equivalent school like Irvine. Note that at four of the UC’s non-Hispanic whites are underrepresented, using the source population profiles as the benchmark (and in fact, if I limited it to just 18 year olds, a cohort which probably has more than 27 percent non-Hispanic whites, then they may be underrepresented at a few other campuses).

Words rule life (?)

As an aside in a fascinating City Journal piece on educational policy, A Wealth of Words:

Vocabulary doesn’t just help children do well on verbal exams. Studies have solidly established the correlation between vocabulary and real-world ability. Many of these studies examine the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), which the military devised in 1950 as an entrance requirement and a job-allocating device. The exam consists of two verbal sections (on vocabulary size and paragraph comprehension) and two math sections. The military has determined that the test predicts real-world job performance most accurately when you double the verbal score and add it to the math score. Once you perform that adjustment, according to a 1999 study by Christopher Winship and Sanders Korenman, a gain of one standard deviation on the AFQT raises one’s annual income by nearly $10,000 (in 2012 dollars). Other studies show that much of the disparity in the black-white wage gap disappears when you take AFQT scores—again, weighted toward the verbal side—into account.

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Neurodiversity and genetic diversity

In the links below I alluded to a controversy over the “Neurodiversity movement”. The basic issue is that people with Asperger syndrome and high functioning autism are being accused of putting their concerns above and beyond those of the large number of mentally disabled autistic individuals (some of whom are non-verbal, and exhibit severe cognitive deficits) in the grab for “rights.” Rights here understood as the rights which black Americans, women, and gays have claimed, to be recognized as equal before the law and endowed with the same value in the eyes of society. As a deep philosophical matter I’m skeptical of Rights in a fundamental sense. As a conservative I’m skeptical of the push for a huge array of rights by a plethora identity groups. Socially recognized rights are valuable, and are cheapened and debased by dispensing them too liberally.

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