Religion and science, a foggy battlefield

One of the similar responses from very different camps to my National Review piece on evolution was that I was wrong to assert evolutionary biology doesn’t have atheistic implications. This perspective came from both some religious evolution skeptics and from atheists who agree with Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.

My own view on this isn’t exactly subtle, but, it’s kind of muddled and has a few moving parts.

First, I am an atheist and have been self-conscious as an atheist since I was eight. Before the age of eight, I didn’t identify as an atheist, but with hindsight, it is clear to me that my views on God were primitive to nonexistent. I may have averred to you that I was a believer in Allah, but compared to the vast majority of people who would say such a thing Allah was not real to me as a person who really operates in this universe. Allah was an abstraction. And one of little deep interest to me.

Therefore,  I can say that my understanding of evolution has no implication for my atheism in its origin because I was an atheist long before I understood evolution. That’s just an empirical fact. It is also an empirical fact that there are a reasonable number of evolutionary biologists who hold various religious viewpoints. To my knowledge, there are no Protestant fundamentalist evolutionary biologists, as that’s a logical contradiction, but there are very diverse viewpoints excluding this.

These people are real, and I can’t deny their existence. Just as my atheism predated my understanding of evolution, their understanding of evolution did not necessarily result in a diminishment of their religion (though perhaps it modified it in some way).

Of course, these people could be logically wrong. And I think that’s what the religious evolution skeptics and fundamentalists of various sorts agree on. There are several issues with this. I think it misunderstands what religion as a phenomenon is: it’s not about a logical set of propositions. Even Aquinas’ effort is not airtight, and many are not convinced by Alvin Plantinga’s modern attempts utilizing modal logic. Religion is vague and amorphous enough as a phenomenon that I think it will always slip away from any formal refutation.

I am not here proposing ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. There are plenty of ways in which religion seems to intrude into domains of science or domains which can be scientifically informed. It’s just that religion is not a clear and distinct entity. And to be frank neither is science. Just as religion is often falsely reduced to a creed, so science is falsely reduced to a method. I do not believe there is an ‘out-of-the-box’ method that determines science. Rather, it is an outlook, sensibility, and culture, which iteratively attempts to explore patterns in the world around us and explain them.

Personally, I do think the scientific sensibility does lean one to a position of being skeptical of religious explanations. But this is more an intuition rather than a deduction. I don’t think science ‘disproves’ religion any more than religion ‘disproves’ science.

In the piece above I wanted to set aside my own personal views, which are tentative and inchoate, and simply observe that many scientists disagree with them in relation to their faith and their practice. The reality is that there are many great evolutionary biologists who are religious, and I have no issue with that. At this point in my life, I’m not too concerned that someone somewhere is wrong. I’d rather just learn things.

Note: I’ve been writing since 2002. I’ve probably held this sort of view since 2004 or so. I have probably written it before, but at this point, I guess I need to rewrite it. Also, I appreciate the “New Atheists” in their consistency, though I disagree with some of their assumptions about human psychology.

Open Thread, 05/12/2019

A History of Korea: From “Land of the Morning Calm” to States in Conflict is very cheap on Kindle right now. Seems less propagandistic (unwittingly to be fair) than some other Korean histories I’ve read. Basically, Korean histories seem less interesting in detaching from nationalism as they’re writing, and it can get grating (everyone has opinions, but you don’t want them leaking through all the time).

If you haven’t, you might want to check out my podcast interview with an epigeneticists who takes a dim view of some of the hype in the field. If you are a geneticist you’ll have all this before of course, whether you agree with it or not.

Harvard Drops Harvey Weinstein Lawyer as a Faculty Dean. A contrary take from Harvard students: ‘With Us or Against Us’: Current, Former Winthrop Affiliates Say Faculty Deans Created a Toxic Environment Stretching Back Years. Basically, some people who I know who were at Winthrop house are telling me that the administration took the move because the protests gave them the opportunity. It’s an interesting epistemological question here for all these ‘culture war’ conflicts. A lot of the time the underlying dynamics are more prosaic and personal than what you might read in the media, but it’s not in anyone’s interest to surface that.

Here’s reader survey as a .csv. No big surprises. Though some of you don’t want me to post about Game of Thrones. Well, that will a “done” thing soon anyhow. I doubt I’ll be blogging ten years from now when Martin comes out with the next book… (if…)

Evolution unleashed: Is evolutionary science due for a major overhaul – or is talk of ‘revolution’ misguided?. Kevin Laland. The usual response is “niche construction isn’t new.”

Evaluation of the Diagnostic Stability of the Early Autism Spectrum Disorder Phenotype in the General Population Starting at 12 Months.

Shadi Hamid is getting dragged on Twitter for working with a “Christian Zionist” organization (Shadi disputes the characterization). The weird thing is a lot of the critics are journalists who work for AJ+, which is a subsidiary of Al Jazeera Media Network, which is run by a royal family that rules a Salafi state, Qatar. There are good things and bad things about Qatar. But journalists who work for a techno-reactionary absolute monarchy should perhaps be careful about pointing fingers from their glass houses.

Asia Bibi: Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy case. The utilization of these laws to target minorities by people with personal disputes is really familiar, though the consequences are more extreme than what you would see in the West. A lot of the time the public is even tacitly aware of the personal nature of the original dispute, but they back the idea of blasphemy laws so much that innocence is no defense.

New podcast on anthropology and archaeology, The Arch and Anth Podcast.

Why falsificationism is false. Since I know a little philosophy of science I have known that Popper is passe within philosophy of science for a long time. But it is surprising to many scientists.

Is species a social construct? Some people have argued that rejecting the species concept by biologists is a deepity. The issue that biologists have is that the public has a different perception of what species are than what biologists have. The public perception derives from folk biology, augmented by stuff like the Bible (species = “kinds”). This drives biologists crazy.

5-HTTLPR: A POINTED REVIEW. Been hearing this from friends since 2007 or so.

Variable prediction accuracy of polygenic scores within an ancestry group. Important.

Pakistani Christian girls trafficked to China as brides. China’s demographic problems are going to leave a huge shadow over Asia.

Noah Carl’s response.

Comparing signals of natural selection between three Indigenous North American populations.

Don’t Let Students Run the University and Academe’s Extinction Event Failure, Whiskey, and Professional Collapse at the MLA.

Unraveling ancestry, kinship, and violence in a Late Neolithic mass grave. This week’s episode of The Insight will be with two of the corresponding authors of this paper.

Discovery of ongoing selective sweeps within Anopheles mosquito populations using deep learning. A podcast of The Insight in a few weeks will drop with the last author, Andy Kern. Though we talked about pop-gen and machine learning a lot, the last 15 minutes ended up about the issue of how pop-gen needs to reform itself in terms of large collaborations instead of small competing labs.

Why the Uyghurs as we didn’t know them didn’t exist until after 1000 AD

The period between 300 AD about 750 AD is sometimes termed the “Buddhist Age.” The reason for this is is that this was the period when Buddhism was established in China, and, was still a force in mainland South Asia. It is also when Buddhism was arguably the dominant religion in much of Central Asia. In fact, Buddhism probably arrived in China mostly through this route, via the city-states of the Tarim basin.

A point of interest for many in the public is that some of these Tarim basin Buddhists looked very “Western.” That is, they had European features and coloring. The reason for this is that their ancestors were the eastern edge of the Indo-European migrations on the steppe. Many of them famously spoke Tocharian languages, an extinct branch of the Indo-European languages. But others spoke Iranian languages. Iranian not in that they came from Iran, but that they were descended from proto-Iranians of the steppe.

A few years ago there was a discussion on this weblog and elsewhere about very recent admixture dates for the western and eastern admixture components in the Uyghurs. That is, after 1000 AD. This struck many as too recent. I think perhaps I have an answer for what happened.

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Inventing the whites, what hath fog wrought?


One of the first posts on this blog relating to archaeogenetics involved an essay by me involving reflections on the fact that a particular Y chromosomal haplogroup, N1c (N3a now), had a peculiar distribution which ranged from Siberia to Finland. The argument, at the time, was whether it was a lineage which moved east to west (as suggested by the decline of microsatellite diversity in that direction), or whether it moved west to east (as was suggested by the frequency, which was highest in parts of Uralic Europe).

Today we know the general outline of the answer. The N1c lineage seems to have moved westward along the forest-tundra fringe, along with Uralic peoples in general. Genome-wide evidence shows minor but significant affinities with Siberian people among many European Uralic groups, including the Finns, and to a lesser extent Estonians. Though the genome-wide fraction is small in Finns, 5% or less, because this minor component is so genetically different from the generic Northern European ancestry of this group, it shifts Finns off the normal dimensions of variation for Europeans (in addition to the fact that many Finns have been subject to bottlenecks). The fraction is higher in the Sami, and lower in the Estonians.

Additionally, ancient DNA suggests that the arrival of this ‘eastern’ Uralic mediated ancestry seems to date to the early Iron Age. The hypothesis that the Finnic languages were primal to Baltic Europe, is on shaky ground which has cracked open. Rather, the circumstantial evidence is that Finnic languages replaced Indo-European dialects.

A new paper from Estonia as some more detail to the general outline, as well as highlighting some aspects of adaptation. The Arrival of Siberian Ancestry Connecting the Eastern Baltic to Uralic Speakers further East:

In this study, we compare the genetic ancestry of individuals from two as yet genetically unstudied cultural traditions in Estonia in the context of available modern and ancient datasets: 15 from the Late Bronze Age stone-cist graves (1200–400 BC) (EstBA) and 6 from the Pre-Roman Iron Age tarand cemeteries (800/500 BC–50 AD) (EstIA). We also included 5 Pre-Roman to Roman Iron Age Ingrian (500 BC–450 AD) (IngIA) and 7 Middle Age Estonian (1200–1600 AD) (EstMA) individuals to build a dataset for studying the demographic history of the northern parts of the Eastern Baltic from the earliest layer of Mesolithic to modern times. Our findings are consistent with EstBA receiving gene flow from regions with strong Western hunter-gatherer (WHG) affinities and EstIA from populations related to modern Siberians. The latter inference is in accordance with Y chromosome (chrY) distributions in present day populations of the Eastern Baltic, as well as patterns of autosomal variation in the majority of the westernmost Uralic speakers [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. This ancestry reached the coasts of the Baltic Sea no later than the mid-first millennium BC; i.e., in the same time window as the diversification of west Uralic (Finnic) languages [6]. Furthermore, phenotypic traits often associated with modern Northern Europeans, like light eyes, hair, and skin, as well as lactose tolerance, can be traced back to the Bronze Age in the Eastern Baltic.

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Going beyond the sex “grip strength” binary

Jesse Singal brought this piece in Deadspin, She’s Got The Strength, But Who Has The Power?, to my attention.

Some very interesting sections:

When we shove the concept of athletic ability—strength, for instance—into the same black-and-white binary that we try to put gender into, we’re wrong. There is no stark line separating what men can do athletically and what women can. Some women, in fact, are bigger, faster, and stronger than some men. A large data set analyzed for a 2018 study looked at the body composition and endocrine profiles of 689 elite cisgender athletes in various sports. When it came to physical attributes there was complete overlap between the men and women analyzed, McKinnon pointed out. For instance, the shortest person in the data set was male, not female. The lightest male weighed the same as the lightest female. There were men athletes and women athletes who had testosterone levels that hit the top of the chart and the bottom. Simply put, the range of any physical characteristic within a sex, (like, for instance, the six feet of difference between the shortest man in the world and the tallest man) is far greater than the average difference in height between the average man and the average woman (five inches). And elite athletes tend to live at the far ends of these spectra anyway.

USA Powerlifting’s response to transgender athletes is head-spinning. The thing about all this talk equating hormone replacement therapy to doping, and the threat to “biological females,” and the “unfair advantages” of “male puberty,” is that it’s based entirely on social perceptions of gender.

“There’s absolutely no scientific evidence at all that supports their position,” said Rachel McKinnon, an expert on athletes’ rights and a professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston, and a world champion track cyclist to boot.

Recently a very successful person told me that mathematical intelligence is probably overrated in comparison to verbal intelligence. It is true that some women are bigger, faster, and stronger than some men, and therefore a lot of social policy follows from this truth? Well, empirically that seems to be the case today.

Despite the irrefutable sophistication of words, I decided to pull some data from the National Center for Health Statistics. These data are useful because they separate by sex and age (and in some cases race/ethnicity). Rather than focusing on ranges, I was curious about the distributions for two characteristics:

  • Height in males and females of a range of ages and between the sexes
  • Dominant hand grip strength in a range of ages and between the sexes

In some cases, there were age intervals, so I simply took the midpoint (e.g., 25-29 becomes 27). Also, they had an 80 and over category. I just left that as 80.

First, let’s look at the age. The figure below shows the distribution of height for males and females over the years, with intervals along with two standard deviations for each age.

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War before civilization in Late Neolithic Europe

A new ancient DNA paper, Unraveling ancestry, kinship, and violence in a Late Neolithic mass grave:

We sequenced the genomes of 15 skeletons from a 5,000-y-old mass grave in Poland associated with the Globular Amphora culture. All individuals had been brutally killed by blows to the head, but buried with great care. Genome-wide analyses demonstrate that this was a large extended family and that the people who buried them knew them well: mothers are buried with their children, and siblings next to each other. From a population genetic viewpoint, the individuals are clearly distinct from neighboring Corded Ware groups because of their lack of steppe-related ancestry. Although the reason for the massacre is unknown, it is possible that it was connected with the expansion of Corded Ware groups, which may have resulted in violent conflict.

The context is that these individuals were from the Globular Amphora culture (GAC), which preceded the Corded Ware culture (CWC), which itself was descended from the broad complex of Yamna and Yamna-related cultures of the steppe. The genetics here are not new findings. The GAC culture seemed to be dominated by individuals descended mostly from “Early European Farmers” (EEF), and on a genome-wide level, their broad genetic patterns were almost exactly the same as the Neolithic people of Ireland, thousands of miles to the west.

Genetically, and judging by the pigmentation loci, physically, the GAC’s closest analogs today are probably the people of Sardinia, who have the largest fraction of EEF ancestry among modern Europeans. Because EEF fractions are still rather high in Southern Europe, the late Neolithic people of much of Northern Europe are genetically more similar to modern Southern Europeans than they are to later Northern Europeans who succeeded them.

These later Northern Europeans, the predominant ancestors of modern Northern Europeans, had an ancestral component which comes out of the steppe and forest-steppe zones. In the context of the North European plain the massive replacement of Neolithic European societies by these post-steppe societies in the centuries after 2800 BC happened so quickly and substantially that the genetic differentiation between modern Northern European groups remains very modest (and is due to a combination of substrate admixture, accrued genetic drift, and in some cases later admixture from the east).

Rather than the broader human geographic context, the most fascinating thing about this paper is the granularity they bring to what was clearly some sort of directed violence that may have been genocidal in intent. I will quote extensively from the paper:

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The emergence of Han identity as autochthonous


Reader Matt points me to two new papers on the linguistic phylogenetics of the Sino-Tibetan language families, Dated language phylogenies shed light on the ancestry of Sino-Tibetan and Phylogenetic evidence for Sino-Tibetan origin in northern China in the Late Neolithic. You should read Matt’s whole comment, but one thing he mentions is that by ~3,000 years ago, individuals who were genetically similar to modern Burmese were already present in the territory of modern Burma. Burmese are quite distinct from Cambodians or Vietnamese because there is a distinct “northern” element, which perhaps resembles Tibetans.*

Matt observes that this means the expansion of agriculture into Southeast Asia occurred through a few pulses in rapid succession, rather than gradually over time, as seems likely the case in Europe and South Asia (“Early European Farmers” to Corded Ware, or Iranian agriculturalists to Central Asian agro-pastoralists). Austro-Asiatic speaking groups pushed out from the highlands of southern China 4-4,500 years ago. Meanwhile, people from further north seem to have pushed into the uplands of the western portion of upland Southeast Asia 500 to 1,000 years after this. Further east, Austronesians were sweeping along the coast and expanding into the maritime fringe.

But I am not intending to talk about Southeast Asia. Rather, I want to focus on China. Or perhaps more precisely the region and cultures that became China. Both the above papers suggest that the diversification of the  Sino-Tibetan languages occurred around ~7,000 years ago. And, that they began expanding from the zone of inland China, the upper Yellow River basin, from the area occupied by the Yangshao culture. This would explain some peculiar genetic facts. First, the northern affinities of Tibeto-Burman groups in northeast India and in Burma itself (which might otherwise require later Tai migrations) mentioned above. But second, about ten years ago when the early work on EPAS1 and high altitude adaptation was done on Tibetans, their genetic relatedness to Han Chinese was surprisingly close! In fact, some estimate of divergence put it as recently as 3,000 years before the present (I think this was an underestimate, but it gets at the qualitative result).

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Open Thread, 05/05/2019

I don’t know what’s going on with the plugins on this website, but one of them is causing the issues with memory. Will keep looking into it.

Starting to read The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall. This book, along with Nicholas Christakis’ Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, book and E. O. Wilson’s The Deep Origin of Societies were negatively reviewed in Nature. Knowing who the reviewer was it was predictable, just like it the review of Robert Plomin’s book was predictable when you saw who it was assigned to. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

A useful book, India: Brief History of a Civilization.

The Secular Jihadist podcast did an interview (for patrons only) with Tom Holland. Not sure I’ll read In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire because one thing that always comes through is how little we know about the first century of Islam once one applies the critical-rationalist lens that is taken for granted in Western historiography (and yes, I’ve read Robert Hoyland’s work).

You Will Never Smell My World the Way I Do.

Differential gene expression is associated with degeneration of mating-type chromosomes in the absence of sexual antagonism.

Multilevel selection in groups of groups.

Insights about variation in meiosis from 31,228 human sperm genomes.

When do individuals maximize their inclusive fitness?

Tracking Five Millennia of Horse Management with Extensive Ancient Genome Time Series.

Meta-analytic evidence that sexual selection improves population fitness.