I don’t have time to comment in depth on the new Siberian genome paper. But I would like to mention that the text and the supplements both mention that this individual lacks the “Basal Eurasian” component which seems ubiquitous in modern West Eurasians, and was likely brought by Middle Eastern farmers. The Siberian genome seems to solidify the intuition that the non-Basal Eurasian Out of Africa populations diversified on the order of 50-60 thousand years ago. But another issue that comes to mind is that it looks like the Khosean of southern Africa might have diverged from other human groups ~200 thousand years ago. When considering the “mysterious” Basal Eurasians perhaps we should consider the possibility of a lot of population structure among anatomically modern humans within Africa. The ancestors of modern Eurasians may have been one of many African lineages, perhaps resident in a “Green Sahara” environment.
The last few weeks have been pretty busy with traveling and such, so I haven’t had much time to blog. I’ll be putting up an ASHG post, where I note what I saw and insights from the sessions. But not right one. This post will be a quickie.
First, traveling lets me spend some quality time with books that are in my stack as I’m going through security and sitting around on a plane with really slow internet. I finished China: A History: From Neolithic Cultures through the Great Qing Empire, (10,000 BCE – 1799 CE) on the airplane. It’s a rather quick read, at least at the relatively general level it is written. I’d recommend it as an introduction to this topic. Though it is a broad survey, I am not tempted to do a deep dive into Song dynasty, which I’ve neglected since reading The Age of Confucian Rule. Next up is The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, which I’m quite enjoying.
Second, I was shooting the shit with some friends, and I’ve come to the conclusion that one way to characterize the state of genetics in this young century is that the 2000s were about learning to read. The 2010s were about learning to read well. The 2020s will be about learning to write. The last is a reference to CRISPR.
Third, it’s probably skewed by the nature of the conference goers, but it seems that I’m now more well known for my Twitter presence than my blog. It was a pleasure catching up with everyone though.
Finally, Larry Moran has a post up about me.
I’m at ASHG.
The above is a map which illustrates life expectancy for white males and females by county in the United States from the paper Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States. I’m reproducing it because it shows the wide variation in life expectancy for white Americans. Second, the results show the huge disparities in life expectancy by ethnic group:
When race-county combinations are considered, life expectancy disparities are dramatically larger. For example, Native American males in the cluster of Bennet, Jackson, Mellette, Shannon, Todd, and Washabaugh Counties in South Dakota had a life expectancy of 58 y in 1997–2001, compared to Asian females in Bergen County, New Jersey, with a life expectancy of 91 y, a gap of 33 y.
Life expectancy is important because it can’t be contextualized and reinterpreted with sophistry. Asian Americans tend to live longer than white Americans. How’s that a model for you? (yes, I know, the immigration systems selects for longer lived Asians!)
The whole issue is on my mind because of a post over at the Aerogram, Debunking the Model Minority Myth with Humor: The Rise of the South Asian Comedian. How exactly does the piece illustrate how South Asian comedians are “debunking” the model minority myth? Honestly I have no idea. The piece itself states:
…The stereotypical “American Dream” for South Asians includes children equipped with an above average education. As the model minority, 64 percent of Indian-Americans had a Bachelor’s degree or higher according to the US Census of 2004. In addition, 60 percent of Indian-Americans had management or professional jobs, compared with a national average of 33 percent.
First, what the hell is with the quotes? Shouldn’t the American dream be about equipping children with above average education? The author of the piece herself has a biography which runs like so:
Born and raised in California, Lakshmi is a journalist and educator currently based in Berkeley. Over the past few years, she has worked with newspapers, radio and magazines from Gaborone, Botswana, to Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Pitzer College where she studied global communications and studio arts. She is presently pursuing her master’s at UC Berkeley School of Journalism.
“She” sure seems “educated” to “me” (I have no idea why I put quotations here). Second, she is honest enough to straight up admit that Indian-Americans have social statistics which are perfectly in keeping with the idea that on average they are a model minority.
What’s going on here? The problem here is simple: a particular class of educated Asian Americans schooled in post-colonial critical race theory posits a model of the world where everything is dichotomized into white people with privilege and poor oppressed “people of color.” Another symptom of this tendency to think in a binary is to talk about the “Global North” and “Global South.” No matter the word games which might be offered to obscure the overall thesis, this model removes most agency from “people of color”, and makes white people the movers and shakers of the world’s phenomena (e.g., stuff like facial symmetry is asserted to be Western beauty standards). But, critical race theory inverts the moral valence which one finds among white supremacists and their ilk, with whom they share key presuppositions (e.g., white people are sui generis). Where the model for white supremacists is that white people have a particular virtuous genius, for critical race theorists white people are the “Ice People” who introduce the contagion of bourgeois oppressive patriarchal values. It is in many ways a resurrection of the theory of the Noble Savage, as the idyll of nonwhites was shattered by the all consuming nature of the colonial experience which the white devils imposed upon them.
You can see how then that the Asian American model minority is “problematic.” Asian Americans do better on a host of social statistics than white Americans. But since white privilege is the all determinative variable which explains all social phenomena this outcome is perplexing. The solution from what I can tell is a long campaign of obfuscation, lying, and outright propaganda. Asian American activists schooled in critical race theory simply assert that the model minority concept is a myth, and trust that their sympathetic audiences will ascent to their knowledge of this domain. Mind you, they do bring up examples such as the Hmong to highlight how Asian-Americans are diverse, and not all are Taiwanese or Indian professionals. But the fact is that the Southeast Asian refugee experience is a secondary narrative numerically. The inversion of weights in this case is purely in the service of propaganda, which is persuasive to their innumerate audience. It would be like debunking white privilege by pointing out the reality of the whites of Appalachia, and much of rural America. All of a sudden these race hustling sophists would point out the importance of averages.
Of course theory is information for free. And a false theory can implant false information in the minds of many. Another paper, The White Ceiling Heuristic and the Underestimation of Asian-American Income:
The belief that ethnic majorities dominate ethnic minorities informs research on intergroup processes. This belief can lead to the social heuristic that the ethnic majority sets an upper limit that minority groups cannot surpass, but this possibility has not received much attention. In three studies of perceived income, we examined how this heuristic, which we term the White ceiling heuristic leads people to inaccurately estimate the income of a minority group that surpasses the majority. We found that Asian Americans, whose median income has surpassed White median income for nearly three decades, are still perceived as making less than Whites, with the least accurate estimations being made by people who strongly believe that Whites are privileged. In contrast, income estimates for other minorities were fairly accurate. Thus, perceptions of minorities are shaped both by stereotype content and a heuristic.
Basically those whites who are very conscious of white privilege as an idea underestimate Asian American income. This tells us that the propaganda is working, though that’s not a surprise as most people are stupid and uninformed, and use theory to explain the world.
In the comments below there was a question as to why outcomes for offspring from parents can vary a great deal even without regression toward the mean. First, about regression. It’s a confusing and misunderstood concept. There is a general statistical phenomenon here, but let’s focus on genetics. Often in the comments of this weblog I’ll get the rhetorical question which has the general form of “but what about regression toward the mean?” Usually this is a good clue that the person has no idea what they are talking about. What about regression toward the mean? It’s not a magical force which shifts populations back toward a set point in an orthogenetic fashion. Basically when you select an individual based on their traits, and infer about the likely character of their offspring, you can predict the expected impact of genes on the outcome. The phenotype is an intelligible signal of the nature of genes in a heritable trait, and genes are predictably transmitted to offspring. In contrast there is an “environmental”* component which you don’t understand, can’t control, and can’t account for. This component is often not transmitted across the generations, so fluke contingencies which lead to individuals who are sharply deviated from the average of a population are not replicated in subsequent generations, and individuals are expected to be more typical. A perfectly heritable trait would not regress at all on the population level.
But you can predict only so much from heritability. The above plot is from John Hawks’ anthropology class. You see that the regression line is 0.72, so the heritability as inferred from these data is such. That means that 72% of the variance in the phenotype, height, can be accounted for by variance in genes. That’s a population wide statistic. That doesn’t mean that height is “72% genetic” on the individual level. That’s not even wrong. Since heritability is a population wide measure, so you need to be judicious when inferring toward individuals.
Yet still tall parents tend to have tall children. If two tall parents had hundreds of children, then you could make some inferences about the average height of the children using the breeder’s equation. But observe that there’s still noise in the prediction. There’s going to be a distribution of outcomes. Height in the developed world is 80 to 90 percent heritable, but the correlation in heights between siblings is on the order of 0.5. Similarly, IQ is on the order of 50 percent heritable, but the correlation between siblings is on the order of 0.5. Presumably segregation and recombination are working in a fashion to mix and match the genomes of individuals so that even heritable polygenic traits aren’t quite as predictable as you’d think.
* Before someone points it out, I am aware this component often collapses non-additive genetic variance, such as epistasis.
1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;
2 male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.
3 And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth:
4 and the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:
Over at National Geographic Virginia Hughes has a very interesting follow up to her feature in Matter, Uprooted. It told the story of a woman who finds out that the man who she thought was her biological father was not, an her attempt using genetic genealogy to attempt to find blood kin. The ultimate ending was bittersweet, as the protagonist found a friend, but not a sister. But spoiler alert, it turns out that she did in fact find out who her father was! Nevertheless, not everyone was appreciative of the ending. Here is the first comment:
I don’t really understand why people do these things. This story worked out well enough, but it could have worked out very badly indeed, given the superstitious excitement some people have about ‘blood’. If someone was not part of one’s life in the world, even by report, then it seems to me they’re totally irrelevant.
This is a common sentiment. But the reality is it doesn’t really reflect much of our experience in revealed preferences. It’s common for many people, especially when they are young, to assert that there are so many children that need families that they’ll adopt. If I check on Facebook all the people who asserted this it turns out most of them ended up having biological children. There are practical reasons one can make for this in terms of one’s own life. Many traits are highly heritable, such as intelligence and personality, and children who are somewhat more like are easier to relate to. But this is really rationalization. Having biological children is a deeply human thing, selected for by evolutionary processes as a basic tautology. Those who lack this impulse do not flourish over the generations.
The whole reflex to dismiss biological ties as ‘superstition’ reminds me of something I saw on Facebook several years ago. A medical doctor of my acquaintance posted about “National Infertility Awareness Week”, and one of his “friends” decided to comment that he didn’t feel infertility was something to be sad about, seeing as anyone could adopt. This is again not a line of discussion that’s going to lead to reasoned argument. Obviously as a family we haven’t had to face infertility, but when you have children at an older age it’s someone you do think about it, and you are much more aware of the trauma and strain it causes in those who have experienced it. To just tell these people to adopt may seem “rational,” but actually it’s callous.
Ultimately it comes down to the facile assumption by some that they can reduce what the “Good Life” is to a few spare axioms and then infer for the rest of the human race what they should want. My post Against Vulgar Mohism for Our Age argues that attempts to reduce these sorts of highly textured and complex life decisions to rational elements of manipulable utilitarian algebras is futile and inhumane. Sometimes it is just best to smile and be happy for someone when they reach the end of a long hard road toward fulfillment, even if it isn’t your particular cup of tea.
It seems that rather regularly there is a debate within evolutionary biology, or at least in public about evolutionary biology, where something new and bright and shiny is going to revolutionize the field. In general this does not pan out. I would argue there hasn’t been a true revolution in evolutionary biology since Mendelian genetics and classical Darwinism were fused in the 1920s and 1930s during the period when population genetics as a field was developed, and the famous “synthesis” developed out of the interaction of the geneticists with other domains of evolutionary relevance. This does not mean that there have not been pretenders to the throne. Richard Goldschmidt put forward his “hopeful monsters,” neutralism reared its head in the 1970s, and evo-devo was all the rage in the 2000s. Developments that bore scientific fruit, such as neutralism, were integrated seamlessly into evolutionary biology, while those that did not, such as Goldschmidt’s saltationism fell by the wayside. This is how normal science works.
But every now and then you have a self-declared tribune of the plebs declaring that the revolution is nigh. For decades the late Stephen Jay Gould played this role to the hilt, decrying “ultra-Darwinism,” and frankly misrepresenting the state of evolutionary theory to the masses from his perch as a great popularizer. More recently you have had more muted and conventional revisionists, such as Sean Carroll, who promote a variant of evo-devo that acclimates rather well to the climes of conventional evolutionary biology.
Nature now has a piece out which seems to herald the launching of another salvo in this forever war, Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? It’s written in the form of opposing dialogues. I’m very much in the camp of those believe that there’s no reason to overturn old terms and expectations. Evolutionary biology is advancing slowly but surely into new territory. There’s no problem to solve. The one major issue where I might have to make a stand is that it focusing on genetics is critical to understanding evolution, and dethroning inheritance from the center of the story would eviscerate the major thread driving the plot. The fact that evolutionary biologists have the conceptual and concrete gene as a discrete unit of information and inheritance which they can inspect is the critical fact which distinguishes them from fields which employ similar formalisms but have never made comparable advances (such as economics).
One elegant model of the origin of modern humans as we understand them is that we exploded upon the hominin scene, and swept all before us with our suite of cultural creativity. This is the “Great Leap Forward” thesis, supported by the sudden appearance of symbolic expression in European ~40 thousand years ago. In this telling our “archaic” cousins were pre-humans at best, evolutionary dead ends. The archaeology in this case dovetailed with an extreme interpretation of the “Out of Africa” thesis, whereby H. sapiens sapiens issues fully formed in all its glory, and unleashes a demographic supernova on its cousins. Richard Klein’s The Dawn of Human Culture encapsulates this view in totality.
This model had many upsides. One of them was simplicity. Another is that our mental image of ourselves as sui generis, made in the imagine of the gods themselves, is suitably flattered. Unfortunately it seems entirely the case now that this model is wrong. The New York Times reports on the discovery of haunting symbolic expression on the island of Sulawesi, Cave Paintings in Indonesia May Be Among the Oldest Known:
A team of researchers reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday that paintings of hands and animals in seven limestone caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi may be as old as the earliest European cave art.
The paper in Nature is Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Note that these findings are in Wallacea. Modern humans were certainly there around this time, though it is likely that there were also other lineages, such as H. floresiensis around. What all this is telling us is that we don’t know as much about the past as we think we did, and, that it was complex and multi-faceted.
The Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher and Sam Harris debate about Islam is all over the interwebs, and seems like something of a Rorschach test. On my Twitter some people seem awfully impressed by Ben, while others (including me) think that it’s a pretty good illustration of the shallowness of contemporary Left liberalism when it comes to religion. One response is that “you can’t generalize about 1.5 billion people.” No, I don’t mean Catholics, I mean Muslims. When it comes to Christianity, or white males, Left liberals seem comfortable generalizing about a pattern of patriarchy or oppression, no matter that some white Christian males were at the forefront of movements such as abolitionism. Words like “problematic” or “complex” and “nuanced” don’t come up when people begin to hold forth upon the “white male Christian patriarchy.” It’s a vast monolith. Imagine if someone stated there was a problem with child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and the response was that “you can’t generalize, most Catholic priests are not child abusers!” True. But enough are that it’s a problem. Affleck’s immediate response is that Maher and Harris’ assertions were “Gross and Racist.” This emotive explosion is really at the heart of it, criticism of Islam triggered a disgust and aversion response, not a rational reaction. Not that we should expect Ben Affleck to engage in deep analysis, just as Maher and Harris are not deep thinkers on religion either. One strange thing I note about Ben Affleck’s angry reaction is that he challenged Maher and Harris on their lack of deep scholarly credentials in Islam. Now, if a Muslim had demanded this it would kind of make sense, but I don’t understand why a secular liberal would talk as if only the ulema could speak authoritatively about Islam. This is somewhat similar to the Yale Humanist association objecting to Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking about Islam, and demanding that someone with academic credentials be invited as well. Shall we impose the same criterion when it comes to Christianity? Only pastors and priests need apply?
Over at The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog there is a post up, Ben Affleck and Bill Maher are both wrong about Islamic fundamentalism. First, this idea that there is a “moderate Islam” and a “fundamentalist Islam” is only useful to some extent. A genuinely textured argument needs to introduce more multitudes, from the philosphically esoteric Ismaili sect, which in its most numerous Nizari form tends toward what one might call a liberal form of modern Islam, to various traditionalist Sunnis who reject the Salafi/Deobani views but still express very conservative perspectives. The assassin of Salman Tarseer was from the Barelvi movement, which is the “moderate” traditionalist alternative to the various Salafi and Deobandi “conservative” currents which have been roiling Pakistan over the past few generations. I put the quotes because the Salafi and Deobandi movements are reformist, and to a great extent the products of the past few hundred years and strongly shaped by a modernist viewpoint, even if their modus operandi strikes us as reactionary. The fact is that traditional Islam has accepted as a majority consensus that apostasy from Islam should result in the death penalty. But there was also a lot of latitude in this area, and in pre-modern times political entities were not totalitarian. These sorts of edicts may not have been enforced much at all (analogy, Theodosius’ banning of public paganism in the late 4th century probably was not enforced across much of the Empire, though it did allow for interventions in some cases, such as the destruction of the Serapeum). Additionally, the reality is that for particular classes and individuals there was a wide tolerance toward free thought. The great physician al-Razi clearly would be considered a free thinker, while the poet al-Ma’arri was a caustic atheist (no surprise that ISIS beheaded one of his statues).
The modern age is arguably one of more conformity due to the ease of communication & travel, and the homogenizing power of the force of the state and mass media. In any case, Wonkblog assertions:
Overall, the picture that emerges of fundamentalism among the world’s Muslims is considerably more complicated than either Affleck or Maher seem to realize. There’s no doubt that, particularly among some Middle Eastern Muslims, support for intolerant practices runs high. It’s quite easy to criticize these practices when a repressive regime is inflicting them upon an unwilling population. But things get much more difficult when such practices reflect the will of the people, as they seem to do in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt.
On the other hand, majorities of Muslims in many countries — particularly Western countries — find these practices abhorrent. Maher tries to speak in broad brushstrokes of a “global Islam,” but Pew’s data show that such a thing doesn’t really exist.
How to be polite about it? This is stupid. First, repressive regimes fall back on Islamic populism when they are weak. The Baathist autocracies were Arab nationalist and secular. What they are doing when putting Islam front and center is pandering to public sentiment, which is becoming more and more conservative over the generations. And things don’t get more difficult when barbarism reflects the will of the people. When the people are tyrannical their will is irrelevant. That’s presumably why you have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not surprising that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam endorsed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference did not vouchsafe that one could change religions. Second, numbers are of the essence. Western Muslims are important to Western people, because they live among us, but they are numerically trivial. Wonkblog provides the fraction of selected Muslim nations (or Muslims in selected nations) where proportions agree that apostates from Islam should be executed (which is truly the historical traditionalist view, even if there are details of implementation which make it difficult, and there are some dissenting views which are becoming louder). Pew also helpfully provides the number of Muslims in each nation estimated for 2010.
|Nation||% death penalty for apostates||Muslim Population||Muslim Population death penalty for apostates|
The nations surveyed represent about half of the world’s Muslims (>800 million of ~1.5 billion). These data indicate that 36 percent of the these Muslims favor the death penalty for apostates. Much of the balance in terms of population is going to be in Africa and other Middle Eastern nations (e.g., Iran) and India. I don’t know how things will shake out, though Nigerian Muslims are not particularly liberal, and I am curious if Indian Muslims would be any more liberal than Bangladeshi Muslims. In any case, we are faced with a glass half empty and half full situation. The majority of Muslims certainly do reject the death penalty for apostates today. But the minority who accept it as normative represent hundreds of millions of individuals. I tend to see the half empty aspect because I really don’t care what peaceful Muslims who focus on their mystical inner life do. They’re free to practice their superstition in the privacy of their homes, or in public spaces which they own, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. The problem is that the hundreds of millions who have what I might say are “problematic” viewpoints, if I was a pretentious liberal who enjoyed equivocating, would quite likely break my leg. This is not an academic concern, I agree with Shadi Hamid that democracy and liberalism have not made their peace in much of the Arab world. To some extent the masses will always be suspicious of liberalism, because they are a dull and uncreative sort. The American populace supports banning flag burning, and often curtailment of various kinds of speech. Elites, whether on the Left or Right step in to block these sentiments through the courts. Elites in Muslim nations need to grow some balls in this area, though the pattern of assassination of those who speak against the barbarians in their midst from Tunisia to Pakistan illustrates how deadly serious these issues are.
According to witnesses cited in the report, Islamic State fighters dumped more than 60 Turkmen and Yazidi children in an orphanage in Mosul after they had witnessed the killing of their parents by the fighters. “It appears some of the older children may have been physically and sexually assaulted,” the report notes. “Later, ISIL fighters returned to the orphanage and made the children pose with ISIL flags so they could take photos of them.”
In a barbaric pre-modern age the children would have been killed. So perhaps ISIS is not quite as 7th century as they like to proclaim. But the intersection of modernity, taking the photos, and barbarity on display here is reminiscent of Rwanda more than anything else. But this is more worrisome to me:
The report said the Yazidi girl who was abducted by Islamic State fighters when they attacked her village on Aug. 3 was raped several times by different men before she was sold in a market.
“Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale,” the report said. “The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently ISIL was ‘selling’ these Yazidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks.”
Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria do have rational self-interested reasons to align with ISIS, at least temporarily. The barbaric behavior meted out to Shia and non-Muslims is generally not something they have to worry about themselves, and some have even collaborated for material gains. Though there are impositions on their personal freedom, from the perspective of a Sunni Arab the erstwhile Maliki regime and that of Assad’s may not have been better bets. But no one forces you go to a slave market and buy slaves. Civilization seems to rest lightly upon the shoulders of some. That is gross. You may not want to generalize about the religion of 1.5 billion, but if I was a Christian or Yezidi in the Fertile Crescent and I saw Sunni Arabs I know what I would do. Run. Don’t ask if they are moderate or fundamentalist. Just run.
Addendum: It is here that my friend Omar Ali may ask if I am perhaps giving succor to the average Fox-News-watching imbecile . In other words, being frank and honest about the warts and all of international Islam might cause problems for Western Muslims. I don’t have suggestions for my Middle Eastern friends, but for South Asians there’s an easy recourse: bow down before the idols of your ancestors. Arabs, Turks, and Persians think you’re black Hindus anyway, so why not go whole-hog? (so to speak) You’re just replacing a thousand little idols for one black stone you otherwise worship. A simple name change will suffice. Of course the idiots will think you’re Muslim anyway, but eat a ham sandwich and prove them wrong.