Saturday, December 31, 2005

Highlights from 'GNXP 2005'   posted by Theresa @ 12/31/2005 10:53:00 PM

Well, 2005 certainly proved to be a compelling year here at GNXP. From the Larry Summers "scandal" to Ashkenazi intelligence "overclocking" and on to Bruce Lahn's research -- the year was definitely not a dull one!

Below the fold are some highlights from 'GNXP 2005' -- this collection is by no means comprehensive -- and, no doubt, I've left out some really great posts. But, we were spoiled for choice this year and it was difficult to narrow this list down as much as I did. Enjoy! -- and see you in 2006.


Anti-Racist Multicultural Math
On getting rid of "old, stodgy racist math" in Newton, Massachusetts.

Drive your kin before you....
Kin-slaughter and increasing individual reproductive capacity (a la Genghis Khan).

A different sort of r strategy in Europeans? -and- The "fertility inversion"
A gene inversion which seems to confer greater fertility most common in Europe (21%), followed by Africa (6%), then Asia (1%).

Much ado about women & Larry Summers
Summation of GNXP's take on the Larry Summers 'scandal'.

Ethnic Genetic Interests
On Frank Salter's idea that every individual has a genetic interest in copies of his own 'distinctive genes' found in close relatives AS WELL AS in the wider population.


Ladies' Choice
Jinn's readers' poll: Which Intellectual Superstar of Gene Expression Would You Rather Sleep With?

Race is obsolete...?
The battle over race in biomedical research.

Genetic variation is a fact of life
On "Heritibility and genetic constraints of life-history trait evolution in preindustrial humans."

"Gene expression" might matter
For those who haven't heard, biology is complex -- the genome is not an exact blueprint for how the organism will develop.

Gene + environment interactions....
Nature and nurture and social constraints.

Crime and Punishment
A look at UK prison stats on women from 'ethnic minorities'.

Taste and behavior genetics
Capsaicin (!) tasters and non-tasters.


An explication of assumptions
Blank slate vs. Evolutionary Psychology vs. Human Biodiversity (and so on...).

Love, lust and attachment
On human pair-bonding.

Male brain ~ more sons vs. female brain ~ more daughters?
"Engineers have more sons, nurses have more daughters."

Colon Cancer is a Socially Constructed Disease
An example of genetic medicine revealing how internal traits can vary from group to group.


Dissolving the dominance of dominance
Good reasons for focusing on the idea that in diploid organisms two copies of a given gene are expressed on any locus (rather than the dominant-recessive concept).

Evidence for natural selection between populations
Evidence of selection between three populations -- European Americans, African Americans, and Han Chinese from Los Angeles.

More on Social Mobility
LSE study on 8 countries shows highest social mobility in Scandinavia, lowest in the US.

Slow and diverse food
Diet and human biodiversity -- Razib on Gary Nabhan's "Why Some Like it Hot."


What's your s?
The basic paradigm which population geneticists arguing for Out-of-Africa vs. !Out-of-Africa are working with is faulty.

Measuring Genetic Diversity: Lewontin's Other Fallacy -and- Measuring Genetic Diversity: Part 2
How genetic diversity 'between populations' is measured.

Out of Africa by coast...once...maybe???
mtDNA variation in isolated "relict" populations (?) in southeast Asia supports the view that there was only a single dispersal from Africa, most likely via a southern coastal route.

IQ Irrelevancies
Alex's list of his favorite "arguments against using IQ instruments."

The Middle Model
Genomics refutes an exclusively African origin of humans.

Altruistic punishment
What is altruistic punishment and why is it important?


Group Selection (oh no, not again!)
Why 'group selection should be regarded as an explanatory last resort.'

On Cochran, Hardy and Harpending's Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence. Don't miss the discussion.

The Urban Sink
Civilization, urbanization and selection.

Bad science?
On criticisms of Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence.

The history of the Jews...a very special people...sort of
On Howard Metzenberg's Unnatural History of Jewish Population Genetics (a review of Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence).

Breakin' free of biology?
On the reality of the Biological Species Concept.


Through the rugged roads of gene land
Razib delves into Epistasis and the Evolutionary Process.

Model rising....(?)
Early modern humans (Out of Africa) and admixture with regional archaic humans.

The paths of polygyny....
Musings on polygyny and the Naturalistic Fallacy.

Inducing disgust

Expertise, knowledge....
Biology is a big field. How to keep up with the latest?!

Some musings on patent law
TangoMan on patents, genes and the Common Heritage of Mankind.

Not genes and not environment
Monozygotic twins are not really identical and neither are C. elegans individuals -- even when genes and environment are held constant.

Reader survey....
Everything you ever wanted to know about GNXP regular readers!


Drum's swipe at the Right's faux outrage
Evolution and politics makes for strange bedfellows....

People classify differently -and- "Asian" and "Western" thinking....
If it looks like a freshwater fish...and swims like a freshwater fish....

Pinker: A lie can't be left unchallenged
"Summers...never suggested that every man surpassed every woman in mathematical ability...."

Cousin be perty, part n
On being more than kissin' cousins....

Blonde Australian Aboriginals -and- Black and strawberry -and- Beyond MC1R
All about melanin and the expression of pigment in humans.

A tale of one ratchet
Razib on Tomasello's The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.

Cultured chimps
Chimps, humans and 'cultural conformity.'

What Copernican revolution?
The sun revolves around the Earth...right?


Non-adaptive immune adaptation?
Our innate immune system and admixture between proto-moderns and archaics.

Groups, price and culture -and- The importance of li and social conformity
On group selection and evolutionary cultural anthropology.

Canine theory-of-mind?
Do dogs have a 'human-biased' theory-of-mind?

Them and Us
Are we better equipped to deal with external threats rather than internal ones?

This is Bruce Lahn's brain on ASPM and MCPH1 -and- Bruce Lahn (Scientist interview)
Researchers say human brain is still evolving.

Know thy enemy - "Newton's rape manual"
TangoMan tortures himself with feminist ideas on science.

Dawkins on kin selection: a correction
DavidB rethinks the evolutionary advantages of incestuous matings.


Demon primate -and- Orangutans gone wild
Marmosets are chimeras! And, developmentally arrested orangutan males that rape.

A prayer for the Emperor -and- The Sacral State (from Nov)
On state and religion and a pluralistic society. Razib looks at Sullivan's The Impossibility of Religious Freedom.

Marriage, history, evolution and the unidirectional process....
"Why do people enter into love marriages in the first place?"

Trolley problem
Is the life of one American worth the life of several foreigners?

Genetics in the movies -and- Beyond the Punnett square, part n -and- Skin color loci - older work (from Dec)
DavidB on the "general disregard for genetics in films and TV" ... and Razib's addendum.

Small gains
Jason looks at the efforts of some parents to increase the height (via Human Growth Hormone) of their "vertically-challenged" sons.

Extremism in defense of precision is no vice -and- The True Believer revisited.... -and- I am a believer (from Sept)
Razib on his belief in science.

Chromosomes and evolution
David Boxenhorn muses on the evolutionary implications of chromosomes.

Quantitating the Cult
What, exactly, is diversity?


A wrinkled landscape -and- 8th grade math for the rest of us -and- Response, heritability and selection (R = h2 * S), little bits and reiterations
On correlated response, basic maths (don't be afraid of the math!), and R = h2 * S.

ID vs. creationism, what's in a name -and- The new center
On some differences between ID and creationism -- and why that matters.

10 questions for Derb
Interview with John Derbyshire.

Never be so stupid -and- The bounds of discourse
Razib wastes 30 minutes of his time on someone who hasn't done their homework.

Is Natural Selection a tautology?
DavidB answers - no.

Religion & evolution
Are religion and evolution at eternal enmity?

Genes and civilisation
Some reasons for being sceptical about any close links between genes and cultural achievement.

Unnatural groups
On the reflexive "groupishness" of humans.

Covering up your face and smothering liberalism
On Muslim women in Europe veiling themselves.


10 questions for Armand M. Leroi -and- 10 questions for Warren Treadgold -and- 10 questions for Dan Sperber
That's 30 questions, altogether!

Theological incorrectness - when people behave how they shouldn't...sort-of -and- Intercultural variance
On our models of other groups & how individuals within those groups behave. And, on evoked and epidemiological aspects of culture.

We are born Manichaeans -and- The gods of the cognitive scientists
"Just how banal and conventional many of the cognitive processes are which result in normal theism."

Nordic beauty wins again! -and- Gotta luv those Irish genes...
A little eye-candy.

Race is skin deep
On SLC24A5 and pigmentation in zebrafish and humans.

Endless forms most continuous
"Species are problems."

The Anglican origins of neo-Darwinianism?
The relationship between religion and "neo-Darwinianism" -- and why people do, or do not, accept evolutionary theory.

Evoking the season
"Culture is a bugger."

Friday, December 30, 2005

Books for the New Year   posted by Razib @ 12/30/2005 05:26:00 PM

What books are you going to be reading as 2006 unfolds? I suspect most of us are always behind and short of time, but I am curious as to what has caught the attention of GNXP readers. I'll be working my way through Will Provine's The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, somewhat parochial of course, but that's why I'm asking what you'll be reading....

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"Speciation genes"   posted by Razib @ 12/28/2005 10:00:00 PM

RPM has some extended commentary on the idea and reason behind the search for 'speciation genes.'

Aslan's in the house!   posted by Razib @ 12/28/2005 01:37:00 PM

If you haven't checked it out, you have to see the Lazy Sunday video where Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell rap about The Chronicles of Narnia.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Evoking the season   posted by Razib @ 12/27/2005 03:25:00 PM

"Culture" is difficult to define. Sometimes it is used to indicate a particular mix of preferences which have a strong correlation with the social elites, i.e., those who enjoy opera, live theater or classical music. In a more prosaic context it is usually thought of as socially transmitted behaviors and folkways that are particular to groups of humans. Some aspects of culture are universal, for instance, artistic expression. But the details of artistic expression allow us to demarcate various cultural units. Many pieces of cultural expression can be bundled together into a cultural unit, for example, the modes of behavior which are dictated by rabbincal Judaism and traditional Islam. But for each individual there are often multiple bundles of culture which coexist, axes of identification. For example, despite the common norms imposed by Rabbnical Judaism there are differences between Yemeni Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. Some of these differences might be the result of the broader cultural matrix in which these two Jewish cultures evolved, for example, Ashkenazi Jewish law forbade polygyny from the 10th century onward, while Yemeni Jewish law did not. It might not be coincidental that Yemeni Jews were embedded in an Islamic social matrix where polygyny was accepted while Ashkenazi Jews interacted with a larger Western Christian culture where monogamy was normative. In short, culture is a bugger.

This makes discussions about culture extremely slippery, and the potentional for miscommunication and misunderstanding are manifold. Discussions aboiut "Christian culture" or "Western culture" or "Islamic culture" are frought with difficulties in defining boundaries, or ascribing to a particular culture a fundamental diagnostic characteristic. I believe one flaw in most discussions is that the tendency to speak in terms of idealized types translates into a neglect of the reality that culture is a distribution of behaviors which ultimately exist in a flux within the minds of humans. Our discourse is often predicated on particular texts, or outward physical manifestations of cultural expression, but we neglect that much of what culture is can only be understood as a dynamic process which emerges out of the swarm of human social interaction, mediated by cognitive preferences.

With that in mind, I want to review a distinction I have made before between evoked and epidemiological culture. Evoked culture can be thought of as human universals which are naturally expressed when one develops within a conventional social and physical environment. Consider language, in the context of human socialization it seems to be an inevitable development. Though a particular language is not hard-wired, the consensus seems to be emerging that a powerful cognitive bias exists to generate complex and recursive syntactical structures buttressed by an enormous lexical memory. In a milder fashion, religious belief can also be thought of as an evoked cultural phenomenon, the existence of an agency detection bias in congress with various other cognitive processes might naturally result in the conception in one's mind that supernatural agents must exist. But, though these general tendencies are universally evoked, how they express themselves in the details may differ greatly. Chinese or English are not hard-wired in the brains of people speaking those languages, and belief in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob must also be learned (I know some theists would disagree with this, but I would argue that the 'innate' god does not exhibit the details of particular religions but is a generic entity). These details must spread by person to person communication, and this is where epidemiological culture comes into play, as it defines the texture and diversity across the cultural landscape. Though the constraints defined by our mental architecture seem to limit language toward particular canals of development and expression, why a language spreads or does not spread is likely not due to cognitive variables.1 Why have English and Mandarin Chinese spread? For that matter why have Indo-European languages been so successful? There are several variables that likely influenced the success of these languages in spreading, but the key one is likely historical luck, the people who spoke English (British conquerors) and Mandarin Chinese (bureaucrats of the Chinese Empire) were of high and successful status and so emulation and imitation resulted in the spread of these languages. Additionally, the tendency to emulate majority preferences amongst individuals would likely result in a 'tipping point' effect so that the process of linguistic spread would be somewhat sigmoidal as the defection of local elites and peers would result in accelerated transition from the old language to the new. But in some cases innate cognitive factors can play a role even in epidemiological culture. Consider Calvinism. Jean Calvin elucidated a neo-Augustinian view that rejected Free Will in his Reformed theology. In response to this theology there arose a faction within Reformed Protestantism of Arminianism, which rejected the logical conclusions of Predestinary Calvinism. To make a long story short, Arminianism won out in the Church of England, and to a large extent in American Protestantism (despite the Calvinistic roots of many denominations). Operationally Arminianism is the dominant system which humans seem to be working under, even if they verbally espouse an Predestinary theology (as many Reformed denominations and Muslims do). The point here is that the relative success of many Christian denominations at the expense of strict Reformed sects might simply be due to the fact that the compromises with operational Free Will that the former have made is more cognitively optimal than strict Calvinist Predestinarian theology. Finally, another way that a cultural trait can spread is through typical functional benefits. For example, agriculture likely spread simply because the fitness of individuals who adhered to this style of subsistence was higher than that of those who did not (as defined by descendents). Many early theories in regards to religion were functional in that they held that common gods served as expressions of communal unity which served to cohere the group against outside threats. In this paradigm the details of culture are less relevant than that individuals within a group share common norms and trade in interchangeable cognitive currency (swearing oaths to the same god, or fighting under the protection of a tribal god).

Which brings me to Christmas. As an atheist from a non-Christian cultural background who was raised not celebrating the holiday within the family (but partook of the general cultural zeitgeist) I have a peculiar perspective. On the issue of whether to say "Merry Christmas" or not, I generally take it as a default setting unless there are other factors which suggest it should be more appropriate to say "Happy Holidays" (reader surveys suggest that most readers of this weblog are not religious, so I would probably say "Happy Holidays" since I suspect that they have as little attachment to the name Christmas as I do). A few weeks ago I was in an email correspondence with a friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian, and I wished him a "Merry Xmas." He asked me if I celebrated Christmas, and how I felt about that if I did since he knew I was an atheist. The gist of my response was that I did celebrate Christmas, but, I did not think that Christmas was fundamentally a Christian holiday in any case, and I have no aversion to the name Christmas, just as he, a non-Catholic Christian, likely did not object to the historical relict of the Catholic mass that is still embedded within the term. I also explained that though I understand that most Christians assert that "Jesus is the reason for the season," I believe that he became the reason for the season. That is, the pagan origins of many Christian traditions are well known, and the association with Yule, Saturnalia and Natalis Sol Invictus are also common knowledge.

Which brings back to some of the ideas I introduced earlier: the public discourse tends to fixate on Christmas as if it is an idealized unitary type that we all have a common understanding of. Pagans will assert that Christmas is a pagan holiday (they'll change the name). Most Christians will assert it is a Christmas holiday. Some Christians will assert that it is a pagan holiday. Many will contend that it has been distorted and become a celebration of the God of the Market. And so on. The amusing reality that mostly Muslim African Senegal has taken up Christmas (as has Shinto-Buddhist Japan) should point us to the possibility that Christmas is a far messier and diffuse concept than the talking points that have erupted would let on. Going back to the idea of "evoked" cultural traits, I began to wonder if it was not inevitable that a prominent holiday would exist in the darkest days of winter amongst agricultural peoples in Europe. Saturnalia was a Mediterranean Latin affair. Yule was a northern European affair. The American Christmas seems to exhibit aspects of both. In a manner it might have been inevitable that the rise of Christianity as the dominant religious mode amongst Europeans would result in the transition of many non-Christian cultural elements into the Christian pantheon, that it would coopt cognitively optimal features of the native cultures. It is to me no surprise that the Christians who have been most prominent in rejecting Christmas as a pagan holiday are descendents of the Radical Reformation which explicitly attempted to revert back to "primitive" Christianity, shorn of cultural accretions and adhering to strictly scripturally approved norms and motifs.2 Some Christian thinkers have attempted to dismiss the pagan aspects of the Christmas holiday as minor trivialities, but the laundry list of holiday "traditions" which have pre-Christian roots is rather long (Christmas cookies, gift giving, the yule log, excessive celebration). I was surprised that even The Catholic Encyclopedia expressed a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the holiday.

Ultimately I suspect that pagans, Christians and non-theists who celebrate "Christmas" (whatever you call it) are evoking common cognitive states and recapitulating many of the cultural motifs which were in circulation across much of Europe prior to the rise of the Christian religion. The fact that Christmas trees can be perceived to be fundamentally Christian is an interesting commentary on the fluidity of cultural motifs. The debates over Christmas are not truly about Christmas, since the holiday itself is a melange of various cultural streams, and like a kaleidoscope can impart to the perceiver multiple conformations. It is an outgrowth of social anomie that results from disputes over who owns the meaning of particular cultural currencies. Though I have asserted multiple times that I believe that religious believers actually believe in the same cognitive God, that does not negate the reality that they will kill each other over disputes predicated on the particular abstract nature of that God, or the term they use for that God (in reality I suspect that the theological disputes are simply masks for a host of cleavages that make intergroup conflict inevitable). Though the general expression of Christmas is rather the same across various groups, what Christmas "means" has crucial significance as a group marker, just as whether the Son was inferior & created or coequal and eternal with the Father corresponded with barbarian-Roman divisions in late antiquity.

As a non-Christian who is part of the majority consensus in regards to the generality and details of the God hypothesis I am attuned to the dynamics of cultural ownership of symbols and ideas.3 But, I do not believe that Christmas is a particular prudent battle which should be waged by unbelievers simply because no matter what people might say, the practice of the holiday tends to exhibit cross-group similarities which bespeaks to the fact that is drawing upon universal evoked sentiments and cultural traits. Granted, non-Christians who adhere to alternative religions have a greater stake in the "meaning of Christmas," whether they want to reappropriate it (as the pagans do) or deny it its central place (as Jews or Muslims or Hindus might), but to me as an unbeliever such debates seem to be lexical details, not substantive differences.

1 - In The Symbolic Species Terrence Deacon does suggest that languages have been reverse engineeringed by our cognitive architecture to "fit" them optimally. But, Deacon is not suggesting here that modern languages are variant in their cognitive optimality, rather, this is a contention that is only intelligible in the grand evolutionary context.

2 - I recommend Antonie Wessels' Europe, was it ever really Christian?: The interaction between gospel and culture for the logical conclusion of Reformed examination of the fundamentals of Christianity. Wessels' examination of the pagan antecedants of many cultural motifs in "Christendom" is enlightening.

3 - From what I can see the "War against Christmas" is in large part driven by corporate-capitalist concerns of minimizing the risk of any offense.

A neo-neo-Darwinian Synthesis?   posted by Razib @ 12/27/2005 01:53:00 PM

Mike Lynch has a new sweeping paper titled The Origins of Eukaryotic Gene Structure over at Molecular Biology and Evolution. In it he attempts to marry population genetic theory with a broad evolutionary view of genomic architecture. I won't really attempt to summarize Lynch's paper, but if you have a biological background I highly recommend it. For those of you who aren't as fluent in the language of biology the last 2/3 of the paper which focuses on molecular genetics might seem a bit of an alphabet soup (TATA, UTR, mRNA, etc.). But I don't think the material is fundamentally difficult, and I believe that attempting to digest the details of genuine evolutionary biology which grapples with the microevolutionary dynamics that lay at the root of macroevolutionary diversity can impart to one a better sense of what the science of evolution is all about. For those without access I have uploaded the file as "lynch2005" in the gnxp forum. Don't be daunted when the Adobe tells you that it is "38 pages," as only 18 of them are text (the rest being citations and figures). I will quote a portion of the conclusion though that communicates the thrust of his argument:

Because evolution is a population-level process, any theory for the origins of the genetic machinery must ultimately be consistent with basic population-genetic mechanisms. However, because natural selection is just one of several forces contributing to the evolutionary process, an uncritical reliance on adaptive Darwinian mechanisms to explain all aspects of organismal diversity is not greatly different than invoking an intelligent designer.

This paper represents a first step towards the formal development of the general theory for the evolution of the gene that incorporates the universal properties of random genetic drift and mutation pressure...A significant area of future research will be take these observations on gene and genome complexity to the next level, to evaluate whether natural selection is a necessary and/or sufficient force to explain the evolution of the celluar and developmental complexities of eukaryotes

A few points on this conclusion. Molecular Biology and Evolution is not a popular press publication, so Lynch's jab at adaptationists is not meant to give comfort to Intelligent Design. Rather, much of his work over the past few decades has been to emphasize that random genetic drift is a very powerful force. The mutational meltdown theory is a case in point. It is interesting to me that Lynch is echoing some of the sentiments expressed in Why Men Don't Ask for Directions, making an analogy between strong adaptationism and Intelligent Design (The Blind Watchmaker is a lucid and accessible exposition of the adaptationist paradigm). I think the important point about Lynch's paper is tha it is reflective of the same mentality which suffuses Armand Leroi's The scale independence of evolution, that macroevolution and microevolution are operational categories which exist for sake of verbal convenience, not fundamentally distinct processes. In discussions with many lay persons who have some familiarity with the "evolution controversies" we almost always stumble over the problem that I do not assume anything of the kind, and I need to go back to ground zero and rework their perception of the models which are genuinely assumed in evolutionary biology. Even if an individual does not subscribe to a Creationist or Intelligent Design theory, they usually accept the terminology, distinctions and arguments put forward by Creationists and ID theorists as coherent and relevant. In reality these talking points emerge out of a parallel intellectual and theoretical culture from that of mainstream evolutionary biology, which, unfortunately, is much more intuitively comprehensible (see my argument in Endless forms most continuous?). In any case, though Intelligent Design proponents argue that evolution is on its last legs it seems to me that the rise of the post-genomic era, bioinformatics and evo-devo all point to a future where evolutionary biology becomes even more robust, with tendrils of consiliated unity arising from the common substrate of molecular biology and the formal language of population genetics.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Tis the Season to Learn Better   posted by michael vassar @ 12/23/2005 10:14:00 AM

With Christmas here, I have to wonder, how many kids recognize the parallels between Jesus and Santa and discard the former with the latter. I honestly don't know. It seems like it should be a lot, but doesn't seem to be that common. I was raised reform Jewish, so it took me a long time to figure out about Santa, but by that I mean it took me a long time (until I was 11 or so) to figure out that some children *did* believe in Santa. It took me much longer to figure out that actually the overwhelming majority of adults believed something even more silly, and still longer (until late in college) to figure out that no, they don't, at least if their beliefs are judged by their actions.

As I think about this, I realize that young kids really do believe in Santa however, and I wonder whether this is a function of neotony. Might it be the case that more neotanous people are worse at double-think, and thus that the cost of religion is much greater for them than for their less neotanous companions? Might this also make them less capable in politics and certain other sorts of leadership? Any ideas on any of this?

Bigger is better   posted by Theresa @ 12/23/2005 08:19:00 AM

Sandra Witelson (who examined Albert Einstein's brain), et al., have a paper in Brain which reports on their study on intelligence and brain size in 100 postmortem brains. They conclude that bigger is indeed better; however, they found differences between men and women.

From EurekaAlert:
In women, verbal intelligence was clearly correlated with brain size, accounting for 36 percent of the verbal IQ score. In men, this was true for right-handers only, indicating that brain asymmetry is a factor in men.

Spatial intelligence was also correlated with brain size in women, but less strongly. In men, spatial ability was not related to overall brain size. These results suggest that women may use verbal strategies in spatial thinking, but that in men, verbal and spatial thinking are more distinct....

Furthermore, from the journal abstract:
We report the results of such a study on 100 cases (58 women and 42 men) having prospectively obtained Full Scale Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale scores. Ability correlated with cerebral volume, but the relationship depended on the realm of intelligence studied, as well as the sex and hemispheric functional lateralization of the subject. General verbal ability was positively correlated with cerebral volume and each hemisphere's volume in women and in right-handed men accounting for 36% of the variation in verbal intelligence. There was no evidence of such a relationship in non-right-handed men, indicating that at least for verbal intelligence, functional asymmetry may be a relevant factor in structure-function relationships in men, but not in women. In women, general visuospatial ability was also positively correlated with cerebral volume, but less strongly, accounting for 10% of the variance. In men, there was a non-significant trend of a negative correlation between visuospatial ability and cerebral volume, suggesting that the neural substrate of visuospatial ability may differ between the sexes. Analyses of additional research subjects used as test cases provided support for our regression models. In men, visuospatial ability and cerebral volume were strongly linked via the factor of chronological age, suggesting that the well-documented decline in visuospatial intelligence with age is related, at least in right-handed men, to the decrease in cerebral volume with age. We found that cerebral volume decreased only minimally with age in women. This leaves unknown the neural substrate underlying the visuospatial decline with age in women. Body height was found to account for 1-4% of the variation in cerebral volume within each sex, leaving the basis of the well-documented sex difference in cerebral volume unaccounted for.

Hat tip to Fly.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Ancient polymorphism   posted by Razib @ 12/21/2005 03:13:00 PM

Ancient balanced polymorphism preserved in Chinese ethnic minorities.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Moyzis paper   posted by gcochran @ 12/20/2005 08:22:00 PM

There's an interesting article (by Eric Wang, Bob Moyzis and company, using HapMap data) coming out in the next day or so in PNAS. It's covered by Science:

Seems that they've found some 1800 human genes currently undergoing selective sweeps: most are regional. The gene functions ae highly concentrated in host-pathogen interactions, reproduction, DNA metabolism/cell cycle, protein metabolism, and neuronal function.

Update from Razib: Here is the link to the abstract, it is "open access" so you can read the full PDF.

Update from Razib II: More from John Hawks & Steve. Also, check out Civilization has left its mark on genes.

Update from Razib III: Related item from Dienekes on a specific locus that suggests selection on early farmers....

Update from Razib IV: Agnostic has an interesting article.

The Anglican origins of neo-Darwinianism?   posted by Razib @ 12/20/2005 01:51:00 PM

In terms of the relationship between religion and "neo-Darwinianism," it is interesting to remember that R.A. Fisher, the mathematical geneticist who fused quantitative (biometrical) genetics with Mendelian theory and data, and served as the driving force and spark being the Modern Synthesis,1 was a conventional Anglican. The gradualist-selectionist orthodoxy elaborated by Richard Dawkins is a direct descendent of the ideas that Fisher elucidated in The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. In fact, in Why Men Don't Ask For Directions, Richard C. Francis argues that the entire adaptationist-selectionist school can be derived from the Argument for Design elaborated by the Anglican clergyman William Paley (recall that Darwin initially considered the Church as a career). Francis' thesis seems to be that modern biology should shift away from "why" (i.e., the ultimate) questions to the "how" (i.e., the proximate) questions. The various interrelationships between these schools of ideas can be more difficult to untangle than one might think. In The Ancestor's Tale Richard Dawkins praises the ideas of Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist who emphasizes the power of selection and its inevitabilities to a far greater extent than the late Stephen Jay Gould of contingency fame. One might be surprised that P.Z. Myers suggests that Morris' religious sensibilities have have influenced his science! You see, Morris, a theistic evolutionist, seems to favor some sort of teleology in his system (you hear none of this in Dawkins' praise).

I don't want to split hairs and parse the details, rather, I simply wanted to survey that complexities of the landscape above because of the perception that Dawkins' militant atheism has always been the public face of evolutionary theory, and that Creationism and Intelligent Design are in large part responses to evolutionary scientism. The reality though is that the polls do not show a great deal of change in terms of how many Americans accept evolutionary theory as a function of time. In cases where there has been a shift, i.e., the transition from a predominantly theistic student body at BYU to a predominantly Creationist one over the past 70 years, the causative factors are usually ascribed to sociological dynamics, not the rise of evolutionary scientism.2 Physical scientists, like Steven Weinberg and Peter Atkins have been just as candid about atheism being coupled with a deterministic scientific materialism as Dawkins, but concomitant public movements opposed to various physical scientific paradigms do not emerge.3 Atkins in fact tends to speak mostly about evolutionary theory, though he is by training a physical chemist, when he takes up the role of godless bulldog.

In my post below I point to species concepts and intuitions as barriers toward acceptance of evolutionary theory. I suggest that "under the cognitive hood" processes and architectures are in large part the necessary conditions which social and historical factors work upon to generate anti-scientific movements. Some of the comments I see about the web seem to imply that Dawkins' militant atheism is a major factor (though not sole) in why Creationism and Intelligent Design is so vibrant in the United States, in other words, it is a natural reaction by Christians to atheistic scientism. The implication is that if Dawkins would shut his mouth than the problem would be partly solved. I am skeptical of this because of the research which shows that children from non-Creationists backgrounds naturally think like Creationists. In other words, an innate neural substrate is being "triggered" by particular inputs, and I suspect that the inputs are far wider in range and number than atheist intellectuals few people read (Dawkins, Dennett, etc.). Creationist sentiment predates by decades the rise of Dawkins and company. An implication of what I am saying here is that the broad acceptance of Darwinian theory in places like England or China, as opposed to the United States, is on some level rather shallow. It is a tacit acceptance of elite speciality and the lack of social channels to express innate cognitive biases. In the United States, for whatever reason, a vigorous and proudly anti-modernist fundamentalist movement exists. Though its absolute numbers are small (most evangelicals are inerrantists, not fundamentalists), its influence is wide. Historian Ronald L. Numbers has documented how the theories of Seventh Day Adventists have gained wide currency in evangelical circles without those who accept these theories having any knowledge of their provenance. In sum, the anti-evolutionary opinions of the broad American public can not be solved by simply changing the way evolution is taught, or how public intellectuals behave themselves, or reasoning with clerical luminaries. The ruling in Dover is the latest in a long line of elite rebuttals of populist attempts to push forward anti-evolutionary theories. Though some on the Right flirt with Intelligent Design, even the conservative elites tend to reject the popular intuitions when it comes to biology. The lasting power of Creationism (and Intelligent Design) on the American scene might be a function mostly of the powerful channels for the expression of popular sentiment particular to our culture. In a decentralized nation of a thousand denominations and a rejection of elite specialist status one might find the perfect seedbed for the spread of cognitive representations which are easily slotted into intuitions.4

1 - In Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology William Provine argues that it was Wright, not Fisher, who was the most central personality within the great span of 20th century evolutionary biology. I think Provine makes a good case, and ultimately, comparing Fisher to Wright is an apples to oranges exercise. Rather, I think that both Fisher and Wright were fundamental to the resurrection of evolutionary theory driven by natural selection upon heritable variation. Wright was a trained biologist, so his natural and empirical intuitions were I think more solid, while Fisher's mathematical background spurred Wright to refine his models in a more precise and formalized fashion.

2 - See Ronald L. Numbers The Creationists. Over the past 3 generations Mormons have assimilated into the conservative Protestant subculture to some extent, without being Protestants. Numbers seems to argue that acceptance of Creationism, despite the lack of direction from the elites of the Church, is symptomatic of an identification on many cultural issues with the Christian Right.

3 - I am not proposing any overwhelming principle component to explain the emerge of anti-scientific theories driven by public support. There are obvious problems with imagining an anti-Grand Unified Theory movement which holds that the forces of nature are fundamentally divisible and distinct.

4 - There are certainly Creationists in other nations. Consider England, which does have a Creationist movement, though polls regularly suggest that ~80% of British accept evolutionary theory (vs. ~40-50% of Americans). When it comes to the spread of intuitionally appealing ideas I would argue that in America the fitness landscape for these ideas is far more congenial to their spread. While in England Seventh Day Adventists are a very marginal group with little social influence, in the United States there are a number of denominations which are to their "Left" which may serve as conduits for their ideas to the evangelical mainstream, which itself is relatively respectable. In other words, in England explicit systematic Creationist ideas do not spread in part because of a deep fitness valley around the locus of their genesis in fundamentalist subcultures. Additionally, the fitness of the ideas themselves might be instrinstically lower because of correlated negative selection (i.e., more shame attached to fundamentalist viewpoints in England than the USA).

Monday, December 19, 2005

The humanities & the university   posted by Razib @ 12/19/2005 01:18:00 PM

John Emerson has a long post up ruminating on the symbiosis between the humanities and the academy. John's post appeals to me obviously, I certainly will never pursue a doctorate in the humanities or social sciences, but I have interests in Roman & Chinese history (my lack of fluency in other languages serves as a block on any scholarly contribution because of my first order ignorance of the primary literature). Some of the points John brings up will be familiar to those in the natural sciences as well, i.e., the perpetual post-doc ~ the nomadic adjunct. Our own David Nierengarten (Ph.D. biochemistry, Berkeley) expressed opinions that were not so far different from John's in substance. I have a friend who is completing his doctorate in physical chemistry and now looking to go into the business management consulting world (merry X-mas B!).

Birth weight and IQ   posted by Theresa @ 12/19/2005 04:36:00 AM

Aftenposten, one of the leading newspapers in Norway, ran a story on Saturday about a study on birth weight and IQ conducted by Martha Gunn Eide, a researcher at the University of Bergen. (Eide is a medical doctor and this research represents her work toward a Doctorate of Medicine degree. Her thesis is entitled "Associations of Perinatal Conditions with Adult Body Size and Intelligence: A Register-based Cohort Study in Norway 1967-1999.")

Below the fold are some highlights from the article (apologies for the rough quality of my translation!) >>

"Store babyer faar hoeyest IQ" ["Big babies get highest IQ"]

The birth weight of a newborn baby boy has significance for intelligence, course [success] and income....

[Martha Gunn] Eide defends in a few days her Dr. Med. degree at the University of Bergen. She has completed a very comprehensive study based on the combined data of nearly 400,000 male children.

"Are there grounds to believe there is a correlation between birth weight and IQ also in girls?"

"There is no call to believe that this would be appreciably different for girls," says Eide, who is affiliated with The Department of Public Health and Primary Health Care, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Bergen.

Her study is based on information from the Medical Birth Register, Vernepliktsverket [compulsory military service department], the Statistics Central Bureau and the Rikstrygdeverket [Social Insurance department]. With this Eide has followed ca. 317,000 baby boys that were born in Norway between 1967-1979 through 18 years, as they met the [military] recruitment in period 1984-1999.

"The data are comprehensive facts analyzed for all boys in Norway over a 13 year period," says the Bergen researcher, who has worked four years on the project.

5200 gram

"What we find is that birth weight is important for IQ. Higher birth weight, higher IQ," says Kjell G. Salvanes [1], professor in Social Economics at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen....

Professor Salvanes has, together with two other international researchers, Sandra E. Black in Los Angeles and Paul J. Devereux in Dublin, investigated which factors are responsible for who takes higher degrees and get jobs with the highest pay....

godless discussed birth weight and IQ here while musing on C-sections as artificial selection.

[1] From the Cradle to the Labor Market? The Effect of Birth Weight on Adult Outcomes - Sandra E. Black, Paul J. Devereux, Kjell Salvanes


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Unhiding the embryo   posted by the @ 12/17/2005 09:26:00 PM

Reacting to this, I felt the need to point out that this is what a blastocyst looks like:

Those round things are individual cells. The zona pellucida is the human equivalent of an egg shell. The inner cell mass is the important part.

10 questions for Dan Sperber   posted by Razib @ 12/17/2005 11:57:00 AM

Dan Sperber (you can read many of his publications at his website) is an anthropologist based in France, whose work Explaining Culture, lays forth his ideas in regards to the "epidemiology of representations."

1) If I recall correctly, you stated on an interview for EDGE that you became an anthropologist because of your confusion as to how people could be religious. Is this particular motivation common amongst anthropologists? In which case, it seems that France would have far fewer anthropologists than the United States!

I was brought up as an atheist but with respect for my Rabbinic ancestors and for religious thinkers of any persuasion more generally. The tension between these two attitudes was one of the causes of my becoming an anthropologist. People become anthropologists for a variety of reasons. I like the old line (I don't know where I first heard it) that you have to be unhappy with yourself to become a (clinical) psychologist, unhappy with your society to become a sociologist, and unhappy with both to become an anthropologist. Be that as it may, I would be surprised if the number of anthropologists relative to the whole population were much different in France and in the US.

2) In EXPLAINING CULTURE you thanked John Tooby and Leda Cosmides for having inspired you somewhat in the direction you took. In ADAPTING MINDS by David Buller you are part of the prosecution against the Wason Selection Task as evidence for a 'cheating detection' innate facility. You have also defended 'massive modularity.' How would you characterize your own position in the alphabet soup of Evolutionary Psychologists, Behavorial Ecologists and assorted thinkers?

I always took for granted that an evolutionary perspective on mind and culture was correct, but it is Cosmides and Tooby who helped me realize that if was also potentially a very fruitful perspective. Even if I don't care much about labels, I consider myself an evolutionary psychologist (part time; my main interest is in the epidemiology of representations, which draws on evolutionary psychology and other approaches). I agree on many essential points with Tooby and Cosmides, in particular the general idea - not necessarily the details - of massive modularity (I believe, actually, I was the first to use "massive" to describe modularity), but there are points of diagreement too. Among them there is a serious but also very local disagreement regarding their use of the selection task to test their hypothesis regarding the existence of a "social contract Darwinian algorithm." It is an interesting and plausible hypothesis, but I believe that, in spite of all the work done by them and their collaborators, it has not been seriously tested so far because most of their evidence comes from the selection task, which, I have argued (in collaboration with Vittorio Girotto and others) is not a good test to study this or any form of human reasoning.

3) When I discuss with those with anthropological backgrounds the ideas I have encountered in your books (EXPLAINING CULTURE) and papers, or Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran's books and papers, they seem confused and have little understanding of what I speak. Is your naturalistic paradigm more common among anthropologists in Europe than in the United States?

No, our common perspective (well illustrated also in the work of a few others, in particular Lawrence Hirschfeld - the four of us used to meet and discuss at my home in Paris in the early eighties) is still very much a minority view among anthropologists everywhere, as are all Darwinian views. On the other hand, I believe that our approach addresses maybe better and cetainly in greater detail than most other Darwinian approaches many legitimate concerns of people with a serious anthropological and ethnographic background.

4) In NOT BY GENES ALONE Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd refer to your work, positively. How do you feel about their project? Are they complementary, or addressing wholly different aspects of culture?

I have come to appreciate more and more the work of Boyd, Richerson, and their collaborators (in particular Joe Henrich). I believe our approaches are generally compatible, and our partly different focuses complementary.

5) It is often said that English is the language of science. How true does this seem in France? I notice that most of your work is available in English (or at least the work I know of!).

English is indeed the language of science. I don't know whether native English speakers who don't have to learn another tongue the way we do should be envied or pitied for that. As for my own work, most of it is written in English, or, when first written in French, translated into English.

6) Tooby and Cosmides tend to focus on the "psychic unity of mankind." They argue that salient psychological characteristics must be monomorphic in our species because the tightly contingent nature of the organ would make polymorphism a suboptimal genetic architecture in relation to fitness, as recombination would destroy favorable genotypes. Other thinkers seem to lean toward an insertion of individual conditional (facultative) strategies as well as a mix of fixed evolutionarily stable strategies, taking a cue from the late J. M. Smith's "hawk vs. dove" models. Where do you stand on this topic?

I don't see these two approaches as incompatible. I do see insistance on the "psychic unity of humankind" and a focus on what humans have in common, including ranges of alternative strategies within populations, as essential both to the fruitful pursuit of an evolutionary approach to mind and culture, and to its acceptability in the broader scientific community. Would-be-scientific racism - which is still alive - has not contributed anything of genuine scientific value but has had the worse effect on the image of biological approaches to human affairs. So, I see it as both scientifically sound and responsible to starkly dissociate what we do from programmes that try to explain social and cultural differences among populations on the basis of biological differences.

7) Your work strikes me as rather pandisciplinary, and far more philosophical than much of what I am conditioned to expect from an anthropologist. Is this a function of your intellectual track, or a general cultural difference in how social scientists are trained in the Anglophone vs. Francophone worlds?

I was trained both in France and in Britain, and I have also learned a lot while being a visiting academic in the States. The specific mix of competencies and interests that you find in my work is an effect of my unquenchable curiosity and of the varied opportunities I have had to try and satisfy it.

8) EXPLAINING CULTURE was an anthology of your works, and I do not get the sense that it was directed toward a general audience. Can we expect a popular audience targeted book for the English speaking market (it seems that Richerson and Boyd's NOT BY GENES ALONE was just that)?

What I want to write is one or several books that will present the general picture I have in mind and of which I have so far aimed different fragments at different specialised audiences. The result should be more comprehensive, and I will try my best to make it easier than what I have written so far, but I am not sure my best will be good enough to appeal to a popular audience, however much I would like it to.

9) How do you view David Sloan Wilson's arguments in regards to group selection and its role in fostering the evolution of altruism?

His contribution is well worth discussing, but I am not at all convinced by it, in particular because I believe that human cultures are far too labile to give much scope to cultural group selection (a point where I differ also from Boyd and Richerson).

10) If your parents hand emigrated to England, how do you think you would differ besides the obvious linguistic and culinary preferences and biases?

Sounds like you needed ten questions, and had only nine good ones. Seriously, I have no idea, and there are so many other things I would rather puzzle about.


Friday, December 16, 2005

Endless forms most continuous   posted by Razib @ 12/16/2005 01:22:00 PM

What is evolution? I just had someone email me that people often ask him about his "belief" in evolution. This reiterates the point that people consider evolution a belief system, not a scientific paradigm. No matter how ridiculous it seems, how is it that we arrived at this juncture? There are multiple factors that have resulted in ~1/2 of Americans rejecting any form of evolution.

One important point is the reality that human beings as essentialists. That is, we imbue animals with essences. Elephants are elephants, even if you dress it up like a giant flamingo, there is something essential about elephants that is preserved. Paul Bloom would root this in our innate dualism. Others would elaborate in more detail aspects of innate derived folk biology. Children from Creationist and non-Creationist backgrounds tend to prefer narratives which imply immutable and essential natures to creatures all around them. As a point of plain fact that is what we see with our naked eyes. Whether or not evolution has shaped us toward a particular bias in regards to systemetizing about the natural world, the inputs we receive from the environment early on in development reinforce our conception of an ordered and discrete world where the essence of elephant is poured into the flesh of the proto-elephant.

This sort of thinking crops up in folk systematics (in mythologies about the beasts and birds and fish of the sea) as well as Creationist tracts which emphasize the importance of "kinds." Obviously Creationists have problems with hybrids like mules, and in particular, fertile hybrids like female tigons. But it is not only Creationists who have problems with female tigons, biologists who espouse the biological species concept (BSC) also have issues with the reality of fertile hybrides (this is why the peculiar, at least intuitionally, phylogenetic species concept emerged [PSC]).

The BSC was promoted by the famous evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. Mayr also was a thinker in an older school of evolutionary phylogenetics which relied on the intuition and knowledge of specialists in particular clusters of species. The problem is that the BSC, that a species is defined by the bounds of fertile matings across a population generating fertile offspring is not workable across vast swaths of the tree of life. Not only do asexual creatures fall outside of the testable criterion of viable crosses between two individuals (unless you count various forms of horizontal gene transfer), but many traditional species generate fertile hybrids, and amongst many plants hybrid viability is so omnipresent as to make a joke of the BSC. The problems with the BSC and evolutionary phylogenetics resulted in the rise of the cladists in the 1960s, who emphasize the use of synapomorphies in determining monophyletic clades. A mouthful, huh? Cladists and the simultaneous rise of phylogenetic trees were welcome revolutions in turning systematics toward a more deductive and falsifiable set of methods. But the problem is that the hypothetico-deducative methods that lay at the root of these new fields are not necessarily intuitive. That makes sense, as I have said multiple times, human operational thought is not deductive, but abductive, we work from a set of facts to a good working explanation, we do not work from a hypothesis to predictions which we rigorously test.

There are rough & ready concordances between the intuitive phylogenies that were produced by Mayr's school, and even Haeckel's Tree of Life. For that matter, conventional human creation stories generate decent evolutionary relationships as well, they are clearly not random fabulations, but derive from a solid grounding in the data on hand. The problem is that science is a precise and reproducible system, and gestalt knowledge can usually only be resolved by appeals to authority and loud shouts of "You're wrong, because I said so!" Despite the excessive fanaticism of cladists on shared derived characters, the rigor that they brought to systematics was certainly a good thing. And the challenge that they put forth to the BSC was also a good thing.

Because species are problems. Aside from species it is a traditional point of understanding that other taxonomical categories are arbitrary, i.e., genus (note that humans are not in the same genus as chimpanzees, though this does not make taxonomical sense). But even species can be problematic. This is an issue because the intuitions that we as humans have about species are, in my opinion, a major grounding for Creationist rejection of evolutionary theory. Once we dethrone species, intuition will no longer be the block it currently is. No longer will we have to appeal to the Talk Origins observed speciations page. No longer will we have to respond to the charge that there have been no observations of radical changes in body plan in one generation. No charges that "bacteria don't evolve." Ultimately these battles can be won, but the greater war is the sanctity of species, "kinds."

Plant geneticists like Loren Rieseberg of the University of Indiana have been studying the importance of hybridization amongst various "species" for many years. Not only does a retrofit of Biblical systematics stumble upon the ubiquity asexual microorganisms, it is a poor representation of evolutionary genetic dynamics amongst the primary producers of biogenic matter on this planet, the plants. Unlike animals various plant species hybridize promiscuously, and one could say that for some taxa the term species is simply shorthand for correlation structure across space and time, interlaced by a continuity of gene flow.

But how relevant is this for animals? Clearly animals do not hybridize as easily as oak trees or sunflowers. Nevertheless, essentialist truths collapse with the insertion of slim needles. Species concepts are build upon a house of cards which assumes that populations which are so demarcated are (magically) insulated from affinal populations by mating barriers, whether it be prezygotic (behavior, mating season, etc.) or postzygotic (lower fitness of hybrids, hybrid sterility, etc.). But the intuitional concepts are grounded (more or less) in an absolutist model, not a graduated one. Like fucks like.

In How species evolve collectively: implications of gene flow and selection for the spread of advantageous alleles Rieseberg and Moran explore the importance of interpopulational gene flow in maintaining a rough species cohesion. Their contention is that advantagenous alleles of large effect can spread through a worldwide population via selection even when migration is not sufficient to homogenize neutral alleles. In short, Reiseberg and Moran save the species concept by suborning the impression that a species' genetic architecture is a unitary and hypercontingent black-box which can not brook change or introgression. As I have noted before, the effect of gene flow on the distribution of frequencies across and within populations can be modeled with the equation 1/(4Nm + 1), where N is the population and m the proportion of migrants per generation. In short, Rieseberg and Moran argue that the rate of migration between populations within species is simply too low for genetic drift and local adaptation not to result in speciation. On the other hand, they argue that genes of large fitness effect may be able to spread even when the migration rates are not sufficient to equilibrate most of the genome. Recall that the probability of a mutation of fixation is 2s, and this can be translated into models which use migration in lieu of mutation to introduce genetic novelty. When s, the selection coefficient that defines the fitness of individuals with the allele vs. population mean fitness, is low, the probability of fixation is low, and random genetic drift is very powerful. But as s gets larger the probability of fixation increases and random genetic drift has a proportionately weaker role in the dynamics of frequency change. Rieseberg and Moran suggest that even on quantitative traits, where there are many loci, the locus of largest effect often explains a large fraction of variation, in which case the the alleles at these loci that confer great fitness will be able to sweep over worldwide populations and maintain species cohesion.

But the lessons to be learned from this paper extend beyond maintenance of putative species, they suggest the pluralism of microevolutionary mechanisms which are at work on the populational level. But we can take this further, in his paper The scale independence of evolution Armand Leroi expresses skepticism at the tendency for some to assert radically different dynamics on the macroevolutionary vs. microevolutionary level (i.e., clade level selection, etc.). He argues that there is a continuity between the two levels, microevolutionary forces of selection and drift are sufficient to explain taxonomical variety and novelty. This is an important point because it speaks to the idea that species and genus' are not privileged, and despite their operational intuitional appeal we may need to move beyond innate systematics to understand how evolution actually works as a process. Rieseberg above argued that spread of alleles of large positive selective effect tie together species, but other work by plant geneticists shows that such alleles can spread across "species." The essentialist concept of species is a fundamental block in the road to being open to this possibility. If species have peculiar essences sealed off from others it makes little sense that traits of one species would spread to another.

We privilege individuals and species as operational units because they are highly salient. Our minds are geared toward recognizing moving objects as individuals with agency. Faces are not simply smudges against the background, they stand out with particular detail. But in the broad scope of evolution individuals, and species, might not be as special as we believe. Certainly species are not intelligible in the context of asexual creatures beyond a gestalt level, and it is a highly problematic concept in plants as well. In concert with our tendency to think in terms of expanding non-reticulated genealogies, the species concept might be blocking our ability to understand the evolution of our own species. On the comment boards of this weblog someone expressed the idea that modern humans would simply not mate with neandertals because of physical differences. But the reality is that we know that humans have sex with ungulates. I believe what is happening is that we are abducing to the best possible explanation of the reality that we know we are special, and different. In their book Speciation H. Allen Orr and Jerry Coyne scoff at the possibility of human & non-human primate hybridization. This shows that even biologists are not immune from this bias when it comes to our own species. Orr's work in particular has shown that mutations which generate fitness benefits of large effect can spread rather fast, and operate outside the conventional infinte alleles models (which assume fitness differences of very small effect). Rieseberg uses Orr's work above as theoretical underpinnings for the paradigm that he is pushing forward.

In The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins promoted a "gene centered" worldview that deemphasized individuals as "vehicles." This was in the context of microevolutionary theories promoted by W.D. Hamilton which derived the evolution of altruism from the realities of kinship and gene identity. But just as genes brook no differences of individuals, that is, we are simply vehicles that they use to traverse space and perpetuate themselves through time, so species may also be simply more difficult valleys to cross. Though sexual reproduction in our species is banal, when viewed across the span of eons, one can not ignore the possibility that interspecies matings could also be a process which is highly relevant to the evolution as selectively favored alleles that introgress might spread like wildfire. Genes are discrete units of information on the nucleotide level, but from their vantage point the existence of creatures of flesh and cellulose might simply be continuous scaffolds which present non-trivial, but not insurmountable, barriers to traversion. So, in answer to questions relating to speciation, I'm not sure how ground shaking these points really are in the grand scope of evolutionary theory.

Race is skin deep   posted by Razib @ 12/16/2005 09:27:00 AM

A fascinating paper just came out in Science, SLC24A5, a Putative Cation Exchanger, Affects Pigmentation in Zebrafish and Humans. Heather L. Norton is one of the authors listed, so she knew very well what she was talking about when she suggested that there was far more to skin color variation than MC1R. Here is the eye popper from the text: "Based on the average pigmentation difference between European-Americans and African-Americans of about 30 melanin units (33), our results suggest that SLC24A5 explains between 25 and 38% of the European-African difference in skin melanin index." I have pointed to models before which suggest ~4-5 loci that control skin color, this work does nothing to falsify that, but, it does show that between populations the variation in coloration in humans might be due to alleles of large effect which are differentially fixed. Evaluated over the whole species it is also certainly true that various alleles account for a different percentages of the genotypic component of variation, with many small effect modifier alleles likely hovering in the background of populations which are fixed for alternative alleles of large effect. Another important point is that the authors point out that both Africans and East Asians exhibit the ancestral allelic state, while Europeans are derived (a mutant descendent form), so the implication is that light skin is generated in East Asians by alternative genetic conformations. I have already pointed out that East Asians seem to be under strong selection, and moving toward fixation for Arg163gln MC1R allele (in contrast, Europeans are highly polymorphic for this locus). This points to the reality that evolution, or precisely, selection, explores a large phenotype & genotype space with multiple fitness peaks, and the expected outcomes might be random in nature when the options are constrained to the various peaks. The title of the post comes from the author's observation that "This region [of the HapMap -R], which contains several additional SNPs with high-frequency differences between populations, was the largest contiguous autosomal region of low heterozygosity in the European (CEU) population sample...This pattern of variation is consistent with the occurrence of a selective sweep in this genomic region in a population ancestral to Europeans." The low heterozygosity seems to be due to powerful directional selection which dragged a large number of adjacent SNPs within that haplotype block to fixation.

Finally, I want to add that this is a cool paper partly because of its broad methodological scope. Instead of just scanning the HapMap the authors also confirmed the developmental genetic expression via an animal model, zebrafish, which seems to exhibit the same variation in coloration on this locus as our own species. As they say, nature works with what it's got, we've seen this with Foxp2, which shows up in derived form in humans, birds and whales (highly vocal species).

Anyway, the abstract:

Lighter variations of pigmentation in humans are associated with diminished number, size, and density of melanosomes, the pigmented organelles of melanocytes. Here we show that zebrafish golden mutants share these melanosomal changes and that golden encodes a putative cation exchanger slc24a5 (nckx5) that localizes to an intracellular membrane, likely the melanosome or its precursor. The human ortholog is highly similar in sequence and functional in zebrafish. The evolutionarily conserved ancestral allele of a human coding polymorphism predominates in African and East Asian populations. In contrast, the variant allele is nearly fixed in European populations, is associated with a substantial reduction in regional heterozygosity, and correlates with lighter skin pigmentation in admixed populations, suggesting a key role for the SLC24A5 gene in human pigmentation.

Here is an easier to digest piece in The Washington Post, Scientist s Find A DNA Change That Accounts For White Skin (the title isn't true of course, there are East Asians with white skin). And Nick Wade is on it of course. Thanks to Abhi & Theresa for the tip. You can find a PDF of the paper as "whiteskin" in the forums.

Update: NPR has a nice summary. People seem interested in this topic.

Addendum: Check out William Saletan's idiotic comment:

A single gene makes whites paler than blacks. Until 20,000 to 50,000 years ago, everyone was black; then a mutation in this gene created white people. Reactions: 1) Don't talk about racial genetics; it encourages racism. 2) If color comes down to one gene, doesn't that minimize its significance? 3) Did whiteness spread in Europe because it made people healthier, or because it made them more sexually attractive?

Saletan might have been tongue-in-cheek, but if he is he's only perpetuating public stupidity (something that doesn't need any reinforcement, thank you very much). First, less than half of the color variation even between Europeans and Africans is accounted for this gene, i.e., it is a necessary condition for "whiteness" (in the European sense), but it is not a sufficient condition. Living in an east coast metro area his model of a black-white dichotomy (i.e., the stories clearly suggest that East Asians lack the derived variant, but they aren't black to my knowledge) in any conception of race pops up (if ($race != white) { $race = black}). Second, it makes the standard conflation of skin color with populational identity. This map makes it clear that skin color tends to track latitude far more than the combination of latitude & longitude that would imply a tight correlation with geographical populations. If you step outside the black-white world skin color can not predict populational identity very well (except perhaps at the very fair end of the range where Northern Europeans are alone). And as for reaction #2, what idiots actually said anything like this? That is a contention so bizarre that it seems to have been produced by a 3rd grader (I'm expecting to falsified as to the expectation of chronological age). I wouldn't expect much from Saletan, but he writes the "human nature" column for Slate. How can I get a cushy gig like that???

Addendum II: Check out this post from a few years back on altitude adaptation to see what I mean about stumbling upon different fitness peaks via different strategies. Also, consider that many genes have pleiotropic effects, that is, they are implicated in a multitude of genetic pathways and influence many traits. There are many background assumptions operating when one says that locus x has fitness effect y on population z. Consider that perhaps light skin in the generality is a phenotype that is advantageous at higher latitudes, while dark skin is advantageous at lower latitudes. Since to the first approximation humans are creatures of Africa it makes sense that we would have fixed or constrained toward expression of genes that influence skin color toward a dark optimum. As non-Africans are a subset of Africans it seems plausible that the ancestral dark inducing forms of the genes will be shared. On the other hand, as the constraint for dark skin is released, because selection no longer favors it, the genes will start stumbling randomly in various directions via mutations. In the case of Europeans the MC1R locus seems to have walked in a random fashion and diversified greatly1 (30 alleles of greater than 1% frequency). On the hand, in East Asians the MC1R allele seems to have been selected toward one particular form that differs from the ancestral variant, in other words, constraint that limited the fitness toward those bearing the ancestral dark skin inducing allele(s) was released, but unlike Europeans selection now operated on a different allele and constrained diversification. This new finding makes that more intelligible: Europeans were given license to explore the range of MC1R variants because another locus was sufficient in hastening the induction of a light skin phenotype. Selection operates on genotype via phenotype, so the phenotype is sufficient to allow the individual to be fit and reproduce the genes, it is irrelevant what that particular conformation of genes that results in said phenotype is. An important point I am leaving out of this is that it is likely that MC1R has other fitness effects (recall the finding that redheads might be more sensitive to pain), and it is likely that this new locus is also implicated in other phenotypes, at least indirectly. In other words, loci don't explore the fitness landscape by their lonesome, but only in the context of changes and conditions on other loci.

1 - Negative frequency dependent sexual selection is another way to generate diversity. Hard to falsify though, and usually neutrality is assumed to be a legitimate null hypothesis.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Finite state systems   posted by Fly @ 12/15/2005 07:45:00 PM


"In a surprise about E. coli that may offer clues about how human cells operate, the PNAS paper reports that only a handful of dominant metabolic states are found in E. coli when it is "grown" in 15,580 different environments in computer simulations."

"When it comes to genomes, a great deal of complexity boils down to just a few simple themes," said Bernhard Palsson, a professor of bioengineering at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering and co-author of the study, which was made available online Dec. 15. "Researchers have confirmed the complexity of individual parts of biochemical networks in E. coli and other model organisms, but our large-scale reconstruction of regulatory and metabolic networks involving hundreds of these parts has shown that all this genetic complexity yields surprisingly few physiological functions. This is possibly a general principal in many, if not all, species."

Similar principals have broad application.

1) Thousands of elements interacting in nonlinear dynamic feedback systems.
2) Evolutionary competition with survival of the fittest.
3) Subsets of elements operating together to maintain a specific state. Optimized to support that state.
4) States associated with successful survival strategies.

Applications in low-level neural circuits, high-level thought patterns, knowledge domains, belief systems, and social organizations.

PLoS Roundup Dec 15   posted by the @ 12/15/2005 06:25:00 PM

Let's work on knocking McConaughey off the main page. Here's a quick summary of new stuff that just came out in PLoS journals. The full texts of each article are freely available.

1. Ablation of the Sam68 RNA Binding Protein Protects Mice from Age-Related Bone Loss.

Osteoporosis is a debilitating bone disease that is characterized by reduced bone mass and microarchitectural damage, which result in increased bone fragility and susceptibility to fracture. Peak bone mass, which is achieved by the age of 30 in humans, has been identified as a major determinant of resistance or susceptibility to osteoporosis. The authors generated mice deficient for the Sam68 RNA binding protein, a protein of unknown physiologic function. The mice develop normally and are protected against bone loss during aging. Age-related bone loss has long been associated with an increase in marrow adipocytes, which are derived from the same mesenchymal lineage as osteoblasts in bone marrow. The authors showed that Sam68 regulates the differentiation of this mesenchymal lineage, such that in its absence, osteoblasts continued to be generated in aging bone, leading to preservation of bone mass. This study identifies a physiologic role for Sam68 as a modulator of the bone marrow stem cell niche and hence of bone metabolism. The data identify Sam68 as a potential therapeutic target for the prevention and treatment of age-related bone loss.

Intersting bit in the disucssion about how heterozygous mothers kill 2/3 of their homozygous knock out pups.

2. The Flavoring Agent Dihydrocoumarin Reverses Epigenetic Silencing and Inhibits Sirtuin Deacetylases.

Sirtuins are a family of phylogenetically conserved nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide-dependent deacetylases that have a firmly established role in aging. Using a simple Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast heterochromatic derepression assay, we tested a number of environmental chemicals to address the possibility that humans are exposed to sirtuin inhibitors. Here we show that dihydrocoumarin (DHC), a compound found in Melilotus officinalis (sweet clover) that is commonly added to food and cosmetics, disrupted heterochromatic silencing and inhibited yeast Sir2p as well as human SIRT1 deacetylase activity. DHC exposure in the human TK6 lymphoblastoid cell line also caused concentration-dependent increases in p53 acetylation and cytotoxicity. Flow cytometric analysis to detect annexin V binding to phosphatidylserine demonstrated that DHC increased apoptosis more than 3-fold over controls. Thus, DHC inhibits both yeast Sir2p and human SIRT1 deacetylases and increases p53 acetylation and apoptosis, a phenotype associated with senescence and aging. These findings demonstrate that humans are potentially exposed to epigenetic toxicants that inhibit sirtuin deacetylases.

Yeah... so that sucks. We don't know and probably can't find out easily whether this stuff accelerates aging, but I would prefer not to eat it. My guess is that DHC will probably just be labeled "natural flavors" in most foods.

3. Genome-Wide Associations of Gene Expression Variation in Humans.

With the finished reference sequence of the human genome now available, focus has shifted towards trying to identify all of the functional elements within the sequence. Although quite a lot of progress has been made towards identifying some classes of genomic elements, in particular protein-coding sequences, the characterization of regulatory elements remains a challenge. The authors describe the genetic mapping of regions of the genome that have functional effects on quantitative levels of gene expression. Gene expression of 630 genes was measured in cell lines derived from 60 unrelated human individuals, the same Utah residents of Northern and Western European ancestry that have been genetically well-characterized by The International HapMap Project. This paper reports significant variation among individuals with respect to levels of gene expression, and demonstrates that this quantitative trait has a genetic basis. For some genes, the genetic signal was localized to specific locations in the human genome sequence; in most cases the genomic region associated with expression variation was physically close to the gene whose expression it regulated. The authors demonstrate the feasibility of performing whole-genome association scans to map quantitative traits, and highlight statistical issues that are increasingly important for whole-genome disease mapping studies.

mRNA levels are a rich phenotype for doing association mapping because of microarray technologies. One problem is the question of what tissue to use. Blood is the easiest to acquire from large numbers of people, but of course that misses a lot of details.

4. Selective Constraint on Noncoding Regions of Hominid Genomes.

A major goal of human evolutionary biology is to understand what genetic changes make humans unique. One influential idea is that changes in gene expression are most responsible for unique human characteristics. Regulatory elements in noncoding DNA play a key role in controlling gene expression, so one approach is to study human–chimpanzee differences in these elements. Here we use conservation in more distantly related mammals and amniotes as a way of identifying small sequence windows that are likely to be functional. We find that putatively functional noncoding elements defined in this manner are subject to significant selective constraint in hominids. Contrary to some previous reports, these results argue that hominid noncoding regions are not evolving free of constraint.

This is in reference to previous reports that were less carefully done that found less conservation in human and chimp promoters than other mammals. That paper looked at large blocks of DNA, which are probably not functionally relevant. This paper looks at smaller blocks.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

10 days to X-mas   posted by Razib @ 12/14/2005 12:06:00 AM

Just a reminder, with 10 days to x-mas/hanukkah, note that if you buy any books (to the right) via this website, or search for books via this site, we get a kick back. This also counts if you go into amazon via a session started through a click-through from this site.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Gotta luv those Irish genes...   posted by Theresa @ 12/11/2005 10:19:00 PM

I feel terribly remiss at not having posted on this earlier (!) -- but last month People magazine named Matthew McConaughey '2005's Sexiest Man Alive.' Can't say that I see it myself -- although the Southern charm is quite -- charming. (Of course, if you can pull Penelope Cruz, you probably got a lot more going for you than just charm.)

Maybe there is something about those Irish genes after all.... ;-)

Update from Razib: Via Sitemeter I find out we are #1 for the Matthew McConaughey query on technorati (his name is hard to spell!).

Nordic beauty wins again!   posted by Razib @ 12/11/2005 06:32:00 PM

Miss Iceland wins Miss World! Now, of course, the title is kind of a joke, because she looks a bit different than Miss Sweden or Miss Denmark, though not as exotic as Miss Norway. In fact, though it is surely seeing what you want to see, she seems to resemble Shannen Doherty or one of the Corrs sisters. This is post facto observation, as there is evidence of Irish admixture in this one Nordic nation.

Update: While doing a little research I found out that Miss Thailand, Sindee Jensen, has a Danish father! What's up with the Siam-Scandinavian combination?

Update II: Dienekes has a post on Norwegian Y chromosomes.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Boundaries   posted by Razib @ 12/10/2005 11:55:00 PM

Over Crooked Timber Chris Bertram posts something titled Religious groups as ethnic minorities where he suggests that 1) Muslims are an ethnic group 2) there are can be atheist Muslims and atheist Catholics. My first thought is a Ph.D. in philosophy don't mean you aren't an idiot (though it probably makes you more confident about spouting off on things you don't know about), but my second thought is that looking at the comments Bertram's operational definition that something is an ethnic group if that group understands itself and another group as different and the feelings are mutual is awful fuzzy. It seems Bertram is concerned that Muslims will be denied special protections, i.e., laws against "Islamophobia."

On the point about Muslims being an ethnic group, I think a problem is that in many European countries Muslims in a given nation are overwhelmingly from one particular ethnic group. So of course it is easy to think of them as an ethnic group. Bertram lives in England, where brown ("Asian") and Muslim intersect pretty well (though many Asians are not Muslim, almost all Muslims are Asian). In France, the preponderance of Muslims are North African. In Germany, it is Turks. And so on. The Muslim ~ ethnic group conflation is easy in nations where Islam and ethnicity have a strong correlational relationship. In contrast, this couldn't happen in the United States, where Muslims are multiethnic, ranging from black converts to immigrants from the Middle East and Asia.

As for whether there can be an atheist Muslim, I think you know my opinion on that. Nevertheless, I am close to a nominalist as to whether individual Y is a member of religion X, but if public policy is contingent upon my definition of a Muslim, i.e., one who professes the shahada, vs. someone who has a 'culturalist' idea of Islam, so that even if they reject God they don't reject his religion (?), well, I think I'd have to lean toward mine as being less nutso. As an irtidad I am not positively inclined toward the religion that the likes of Dr. Bertram would have governments classify us as part of because it is an 'ethnic group,' that what really matters is how others perceive us, not the decisions and choices we make in our own life. The Muslim attitude toward irtidads is well known, as is the problem with the way European Muslims treat their own. Certainly European racism is unacceptable, but on the facts it seems clear that much of the most extreme invective against Muslims is derived from ideological opposition (i.e., Oriana Fallaci), not ethnic hatred. Instead of focusing on Westernizing the Muslim community many of Bertram's ilk seem to want to focus purely on the faults of European civilization, which has birthed the most spectacular and creative culture on the history of his planet, all the while trivializing the quality of life issues arising from Muslim oppression upon each other (mostly male to female) as well as the Muslims' hostility toward the norms of liberal ("pig eating") society.

The gods of the cognitive scientists   posted by Razib @ 12/10/2005 06:01:00 PM

Imagine yourself walking in some woods and you see something out of the corner of your eye. What is your thought as you turn toward the object, a bear, or an old refrigerator? I don't know about you, but most "woods" in suburban and small town areas have a greater number of discarded junk, from sofas to fridges, than they do of wild animals (the main exception around here are deer, though to be honest I've seen many more deer ambling down main streets raiding gardens than in wooded areas where the pickings are slim). Even though banal physical objects or processes are more likely to catch your attention out of the corner of your eye or induce leaves to rustle, we still have a bias toward perceiving animate agents when we are unsure (or worry about them!). Now, imagine another scenario, you see someone who holds a strange object, vaguely metallic, and they throw the object to the ground. The object lands with a thud. OK, big deal. Now, how would you react if the object just slipped into the ground and disappeared. Or, what if you heard a scream eminate from it, and it "ran" away from the location where it landed? I think you'd be pretty weirded out. The point here is that humans have innate and reflexive biases in how the world around us is constructed. Metallic objects don't scream or run. The ground is solid. We don't process all the information anew each time we confront a situation. We have an idea that rocks aren't going to start screaming if we sit on them, we don't go into each situation consciously evaluating that possibility.

As regards the reflexive aspects of our mind, I don't mean to imply that a coupling of inputs and outputs are innate, hard-wired or perfect. Many reflexive tendencies do not resemble anything like a hammer-to-the-knee kick. For example, I go to the library a lot, and I have a routine about how I check the books out. Normally I'm thinking about other stuff. A few weeks ago there was a new librarian, and she was a bit slow and did things out of the normal order. She placed the books back where the librarians normally place them after the allotted period of time necessary to check them into the system, so I just picked them up and started walking off. She had to get my attention to stop me from leaving the building because I wasn't really thinking much about what I was doing. Obviously I don't have a hard-wired "library checkout" module in my brain, but the process is so set and pat for me that I'm quite close to being on autopilot. Now I've been on guard when this librarian is working, and she did it again a few days ago and I almost picked the books up and walked off again (I had to restrain myself).

In Why would anyone believe in God? Justin L. Barrett answers that exact question by utilizing banal cognitive truths. Though Barrett's treatment is more focused, the topics addressed and the hypotheses put forward draw deeply upon the research of cognitive anthropologists like Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained) and Scott Atran (In Gods we trust). Nevertheless, Barrett is more sympathetic to theism and less clinical than either of the two thinkers above, which makes sense, as Barrett himself is a theist who is currently employed with the Christian organization Young Life. This is relevant because it reiterates that Barrett is not decomposing a phenomenon which is to him alien and a curiosity, he is in effect explorating cognitive processes which are essential to the core of his own being.1

The two meta-concepts which undergird the ideas within the text (which is only a bit over 100 pages) are the human mental processes which result in hyperactive agency detection device (HADD) and theory of the mind (ToM). These cognitive traits are slotted under the umbrella of hard & fast response reflexive cognition. For example, when someone is gossiping with you you do not spend a great deal of time consciously threading all the personal interrelationships which might come into play as relevant to the various interactions being alluded to. Though there are reflective "Oh, yes!" rememberences (x is y's cousin), many of the cognitive operations are occurring under the hood and are encapsulated away from your reflective mind. This is why many extremely intelligent people are socially inept, they simply do not possess the requisite reflexive cognitive aptitude and so must rely on slow and klunky reflective cognition which simply can't keep up and is highly error prone. Unlike ToM, HADD is a little more obscure. In short, when people say they see design all around them, this is a reflective aspect of HADD at work. But why hyperactive? It is simply the classic false positve vs. true positive contrast. Going back to the example with the bear vs. the fridge, if it does turn out to be a bear you better be ready to run! If on the other hand it doesn't turn out to be a bear, you probably stressed yourself out more than is healthy, but you'll survive. Though there might not be an archetypical "environment of evolutionary adaptiveness" (EEA), I think it is safe to say that sophisticated mental models derived from assumptions about intraspecific and interspecific competition have always been extremely fitness relevant to homonids.2 If you think you saw a scout from an enemy tribe, or that your cousin is trying to screw you over by doing the nasty with your wife while you are out in the fields, it is often better to be safe than sorry. In other words, there might be strong adaptive value in seeing agency all over the place, even if that implies that there are lots of false hits ("only the paranoid survive"). Similarly, ToM is crucial in smoothing over cooperation and modeling the social networks which are relevant to your own fitness within the group, so going a little overboard might give you a reputation as a busy-body, but it might also save your ass if you know that an 'enemy' is trying to get you kicked out of your clique and turn you into a social pariah.3

So how does ToM and HADD intersect to help generate G-O-D? First, it is gods, not one God. "Higher" theism is a particular subset of the general tendency toward acceptance of supernatural agents which seems to be a human norm. I have a friend who works at a place which is dominated by non-Christian liberals, and yet they are convinced about the reality of astrology. When something good or bad happens they appeal to astrological explanations (i.e., the moon is full, Jupiter is ascendent, etc. etc.). They might not be Christian, but don't tell me they don't have religion. When things happen people have a bias toward attributing agency, someone was responsible, and better get credit or take the fall. Barrett gives the example of a friend who was stuck in an exploding grain silo. Somehow he was lifted 12 feet off the ground and went through a window and survived. He recalled that when he was stuck inside he muttered, "Take me home God," but he heard someone whisper "Not yet." His hypothesis was that angels had lifted him up and saved his life. What to think of this? I clearly am skeptical, nevertheless, it does sound like his survival was improbable. The first propane explosion should have killed him from asphyxiation according to the doctors who examined this individual. Additionally, it is not known that humans can leap 12 feet into the air. Flying through a window is also rather dangerous, but he didn't exhibit many scratches. What happened? The joint probability of the physical events that would have had to occur, i.e., the first explosion throwing him up and through the window, his physiology managing to tolerate proprane poisoning, etc., is low, but I conclude that that is what happened. Why? Well, I don't believe in angels, for a variety of reasons. The individual in question though did believe in angels, so it was entirely rational for him to think that angels might have saved his life (if you do believe in angels, what is more improbable, a succession of unlikely physical events or angels coming to your rescue?). Even if the individual had not believed in angels before the event, I am not convinced that he would not find angelic rescue a plausible hypothesis post facto. There is the common report that life-after-death experiences tend to strong biased toward the cultural background of the individual experiencing it. Americans see Jesus, Japanese see a Bhoddisattva, and so forth. No matter if they had strong beliefs a priori, their mind was probably interpreting the experience filtered through the ideas floating around in their culture. What is going on here is that the individual is engaging in abduction, reasoning to the best possible explanation that comes to mind for a given set of facts. The reflexive ToM and HADD all tell you that being lifted up and having your life saved is what agents do, not physical processes (rocks don't lift you up, people do, or super-people, supernatural agents). If you are not a believer in supernatural agents, you might consider that an extremely unlikely chain of physical events had occurred to save your life, but here you are weighing reflexive biases which tell you an agent helped you against reflective reasoning based on a conception of how the world works (i.e., angels don't come to save the day except in The Left Behind series). Consider something else, how many times do people attribute winning the lottery to their faith in God? We know pretty much how people win the lottery, it is a randomized process. Yes, your chance of winning is 1 in 100 million, but the chances are good that someone has the winning ticket, it isn't an unexplainable miracle. Or is it? The person who won must wonder "why me?" A naturalistic explanation doesn't offer much in terms of ontological "whys," reflectively you might wax on about the randomness of the quantum world as being the root of the non-deterministic nature of the universe, but that has little appeal for many with ToM and HADD is firing "something special happened! Someone cares! Someone intervened!" Shit doesn't just happen.

One could argue that the miracle of existence is amazing enough to start triggering ToM and HADD. But why supernatural agents? Because they have innate inferential richness, and you know people didn't make you, so by elmination it has be something supernatural. Saying that the universe emerged inexplicably and crossed the first Plank unit threshold doesn't tell you much, at least if you aren't a theoretical physicist. On the other hand, our ToM and HADD can automatically generate many inferences from the idea that a supernatural agent created the universe, that a supernatural agent cares about you. It is orders of magnitude more informative than "shit happens," and far less intellectual taxing and inscrutable than probability theory, and in the end, it offers the possibility of final ultimate answers which are intuitvely satisfying and generate a cogent and flexible model of the world.

Of course gods, even conventionally conceived, are mildly weird entities. That is, they often exhibit counterintuitive tendencies. Barrett labels them 'minimally counterintuitive,' to indicate that there are strange enough to remember, but normal enough to relate to. In short, they inhabit an optimum mental locus where their peculiarities induce awe, rememberence, and powers that make them relevant to our lives, but their conventionalities allow us to seemlessly generate inferences and 'explanations.' 'What would Jesus do?' is a much easier on-the-fly mental computation than 'What would Kantian ethics imply?' In the former case you simply mobilize ToM, put yourself in the position of Jesus (in a fashion) and slot in the general characteristics of that individual and his relation to the world around him, and you are good to go. In the latter case, it isn't so simple.

There is more to Barrett's work, but that is the broadest outline. He goes on to to explain why Abrahamic monotheism is appealing, the role of ritual and moral ethics in religion. These details are for another day. I will jump to the second to last chapter where Barrett addresses the question, why would anyone be an atheist? Seeing as how a majority of gnxp readers are unbelievers, I suspect this would interest us. One simple answer is that you have to go back to ToM and HADD. It might simply be that atheists usually have underdeveloped aptitudes in both traits. This has been suggested by others, and Simon Baron-Cohen has even hinted that autistics tend to be religiously unfocused and apathetic. In short, ToM is important in establishing a relation and relevance to supernatural agents, so if it is weak, there is a high chance that one can reject god hypotheses because they just aren't as intuitive as they should be, and they lack inferential power (i.e., just another irrelevant weird idea). Barrett points out that this can explain a curious cross-cultural fact: women are more religious than men on a host of metrics. Males might dominate the professional aspects of organized religion, but women are more reliable consumers. Barrett posits that this is a function of the fact that a greater proportion of males have underdeveloped ToM and HADD. That is, men are less concerned about the implications of agents and their relation to the networks of interaction that these agents engage in and in which they are embedded.

Barrett also lists off other factors which would bias someone toward atheism:

  1. Consider other explanatory candidates. In The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins famously declared that Darwin's theory of evolution allowed atheists to be intellectually satisfied. Whether you agree with this or not, the general idea is that more powerful hypotheses to explain a given phenomenon (in that case, adapted species) can supersede the reflexive constructs generated by ToM+HADD+culture. For example, many people now discount that shooting stars are messages from the gods, because the physical process by which they occur has been elucidated.
  2. Minimize the outputs from the reflexive mind. For example, if HADD tends to go into overdrive because of concerns about safety at the hands of other agents, avoid a life where you are at others peoples' mercy so that you become habituated toward not being on alert for them, or at least concerned about their actions. The modern Western life, where even government welfare is sufficient to induce obesity, is an example of this, as dangers from interpersonal relationships (vendettas, retribution against your clan, etc.) are minimal, and from wild animals are non-existent. Additionally, immersing ourselves in an artificial urban world filled with exotic but explicable phenomena might also dull the tendency for HADD to get triggered excessively. Not only is everything around us obviously human generated (so not supernatural), but many of the objects behave as if they did have agency (a car with dark tinted windshields so you couldn't have drivers), but you know they don't.
  3. Reduce reliance on secondhand accounts. Barrett points out that in homogenous societies where common idioms and experiences are shared people tend to trust each other's veracity more. In a modern world filled with occupational, social and regional diversity, as well as fluid mobility, we tend to give less credence to local superstitions. In a world filled with novel experiences it is easy to discount eye witness accounts (I had a friend once tell me he saw a UFO in the hills above Pendleton, but I asked another friend about this and he noted this was a common assumption, but the US army had some searchlights going there a lot, so that's probably what my other friend saw).
  4. Fixate on reflective thought so that you discount reflexes. This is pretty straight forward. If you have read Critique of Pure Reason a dozen times, 'What would Kantian ethics imply?' might be a much more relevant starting point. If you are embedded in a controlled world where everyone else privileges detached rationality and distrusts 'common sense' and 'instinct' than you have internalize a reflexive anti-reflexiveness.

I think it is clear that to be not religious is a phenotype that is probably the outcome of a host of factors which load the probability for or against. Consider American scientists. The most elite, members of the National Academy of Sciences, seem to exhibit only a 1 out of 10 chance of being theists. This is highly atypical. And yet if you look at the conditions above, scientists probably come close to meeting many of them. They tend to be prosperous, urban, live in artificial conditions and fixate to a far greater degree on counterintuitive reflective cognitive states than is the norm. To some extent many scientists wouldn't be scientists if they trusted 'common sense' to the first order, their models are often technical because they are intuitively opaque, and the instrumentation they use often yields up bizarre findings in regards to the fundamentals of the universe around us. The general Ph.D. population is far more religious than NAS members, but they are likely far less monomaniacal in their scientific career. Scientists themselves fuck up constantly and have problems thinking outside the common sense box, especially out of their field. That is why the social system of science is so important to dampen and restrain individual biases and confusions. But I think the most important reason that scientists are less religious is that they simply discount common sense assertions based on gestalt intuition in many areas where others do not because it would be professionally detrimental if they were the type of people who did not explore questions that seemed a priori open to introspective understanding.

Because the reflexive mind tends to be encapsulated and detached from the reflective conscious, the reasons that people give for opinions and decisions are often fabulations that derive from the first thing that pops into their head, or a socially agreed upon convention. I recall that when I was younger Creationist friends would point to a tree and assert, "Look at the Design, of course I believe!" Now, I doubt that the tree was really that important, but it was a token that had gained currency and could be offered as a reason for their inner computations. There is research that suggests that children from non-fundamentalist homes are just as prone to thinking in "kinds" and in a Creationist fashion as fundamentalist children. The reality is that as we grow many of us have to shed our intuitions, our reflexive minds, and put faith in reflective paradigms which we might not fully understand. Ultimately, my rejection of the angel hypothesis for any given scenario is not predicated on that specific scenario, and I am willing to remain an agnostic in how particular miraculous events occur without angels, because I attach great weight to a broader contingent system of how the universe works. That contingent system is only loosely, and not necessarily, tied to my intuitions.

One thing that Barrett's book does bring home though is that science fictional works which depict an atheist future might be just a little less unrealistic than I had thought, because if civilization continues, and our species remains as it is, it seems likely that our day to day world will be more human designed than natural. The reality of design by humans will obviate the need for supernatural agents, because abduction will have a clear best working culprit for agency, our own species. This does not imply that everyone will be an atheist, but it seems plausible that there will be a withdrawl of God from the world that is entirely man-made, as a time might come when someone within a space colony might point to a tree, and wonder at the beauty of genetic engineering which generated it de novo with tailor-made DNA sequences which preadapted it to low g environments....

Related: Inducing disgust, We are born Manichaeans, Reflections on the God Module, Theological incorrectness.

1 - Barrett's undergraduate degree is from Calvin College, the premier Reformed institution of higher education in the nation, which implies he is likely a philosophically serious Christian (Wheaton is more ecumenical and I think less focused on systematic theology). There are strong clues within the text that he is a theistic evolutionist who finds Dawkinsian atheism and its intolerance unacceptable.

2 - Some species, for example herbivores, tend to be constrained mostly by environmental and resource related factors, i.e., drought decreases feed. Cows are basically grass processing machines and they don't have to worry about 'competing' for grass when it is plentiful because it is abundant but low quality in character. The race isn't against other cows, but against the reality that the metabolic and microbial processes needed to extract nutritive value out of grasses is a close thing. In contrast carnivores and omnivores engage in a great deal of competition within and between species, for obvious reasons. Humans are more like the latter than the former, ergo, they better be aware of the agents all around them in a sophisticated fashion.

3 - Being a social pariah is a matter of self-esteem today, but in the past it might have been life or death in communities where variance in hunting and gathering within families was dampened by redistribution within the clan or village from those who were at surplus. In short, without a social network the next famine could kill you.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Good books on evolution   posted by Razib @ 12/09/2005 09:54:00 PM

With all the 'debate' about Intelligent Design out there I'm sure some of you are curious about evolution. I just heard from an acquaintance of mine that he purchased Mark Ridley's anthology Evolution (Oxford Readers). Good. Recently I happened to refamiliarize myself with some old articles in The Boston Review by H. Allen Orr, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Rochester. Here is an interesting snip:
To a historian or electrician, Behe certainly looks qualified. He is a biologist. But it's not that simple, as can be seen by turning the tables for a moment. If I, an evolutionary biologist, were to announce that biochemistry is deeply flawed-I've shown, for instance, that enzymes are not catalysts-I doubt I'd get a listen. I surely wouldn't get a publisher....
Now I don't pretend to know the details of Behe's education, but I do know this: he is not at home in the technical evolution literature. His book reveals that his grasp of evolution derives mostly from the pop literature (Gould, Dawkins-good stuff, but no stand-in for the real thing) and from computer searches of the scientific literature that he strangely makes a big deal of. While I have utter confidence in Behe's biochemistry, I am less confident that he can say what soft selection, or Muller's ratchet, or the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection is-all bread and butter of evolutionary biology....

What Orr referes to is a problem. In the fall of 1996, when I read this piece in The Boston Review, I was pursuing a degree program in biochemistry. I found Darwin's Black Box unconvincing, Michael Behe after all was simply reworking some old philosophical ideas in cytochemical clothing. But on a fundamental technical level I had missed most of Orr's points, I didn't know what the Fundamental Theorem was, nor Muller's ratchet. Going over Orr's work for The Boston Review I am struck by the density and layers of information that he nested within them, the subtle sneers, crystal clear insights and occasional dirty tricks.1 10 years after I first read Orr's articles I now have an "evolutionary education," I know the details of the processes of microevolutionary theory, the fundamentals of population genetics. I was missing that back in 1996.

Obviously the man on the street is never going to know much about evolutionary genetics, and acceptance of evolution will have to be via faith or a cursory examination of the literature. But you my dear reader are not the man on the street. The 'technical' aspects of the first minimal tier of evolutionary biology are trivial, basic algebra and difference equations. Introductory textbooks are pretty accessible to anyone with high school algebra, so here are texts that I think are useful if you don't plan to become an evolutionary biologist, but want to get a deeper grip on the topic:

(in order of mathematical technicality)

Evolution, Mark Ridley (the text, not the anthology)
Evolution, Doug Futuyma
Molecular Evolution, Wen-Hsiung Li
Evolutionary Genetics, JM Smith
Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics, D.A. Roff (this is the only one where the mathematics starts to swamp the biology)

For the more population genetically & quantitatively curious:

Principles of Population Genetics, Daniel Hartl, Andrew Clark
Introduction to Quantitative Genetics, D.S. Falconer
Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative Traits, Michael Lynch, Bruce Walsh

After getting through some of these The Selfish Gene or The Red Queen will read like breezy and relaxing novels. By laying down the foundational skeleton you can sit back and appreciate the unfolding architecture as wordsmiths like Dawkins apply gilded flesh to the bones.

I'm not saying read all of these books. For my money, I think Evolution by Ridley and Principles of Population Genetics would be the two to get if I was starting out all over again (Ridley has kind of a plodding writing style, but with the broad topic he is covering it is inevitable that the book would get tiresome at certain points). But, if you sample any of these books I would not be surprised if you had done more than Michael Behe did in preperation for this intellectual coming out! Of course, that probably screws you out of publishing a book where you hail yourself in the following manner:

The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the so unambiguous and so significant that is must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur, and Darwin....

Interestingly, when I've seen Behe taunted in debates on this point, he seems totally at ease.

1 - See Orr's exchange with Daniel Dennet. On the part about speed of change of gene frequencies when comparing selection and genetic drift, my take is that I think Dennet reveals a lack of familiarity with the lexicon of population genetics but is trying to get across the ubiquity of functional constraint. I think Orr knows this, but he's toying with him and pretending like he doesn't know it because Dennet is not fluent in the lingo. Whether this behavior is kosher or not, that's up to you to decide.

Nominations, what is "biological evolution"   posted by Razib @ 12/09/2005 04:12:00 PM

10 words or less, what is biological evolution? (I'm looking for layperson gestalt perceptions)

Jason on Seed on Pinker on Cochran on Jews   posted by Jason Malloy @ 12/09/2005 01:00:00 PM

Seed magazine has an article on Pinker's recent lecture at the Institute for Jewish Research, but the author recommends you listen to the podcast instead so you can hear her "authentic New York Jewish accent" which is vital to the piece, which doesn't discuss the theory so much as make fun of the audience (the article is sarcastically titled Jews on Jews: Jews are Great).

The author, (who is sympathetic enough to Pinker's presentation) is being light-hearted, but there is also a serious message:
And many [Jews] in attendance were there to hear that Jews are naturally smarter than everyone else.

So now they'll head out into the world, and spread the twisted word in their homes, at parties, in op-ed columns. And a paper that proposed an intriguing and plausible theory, and the man who eloquently analyzed it, will cause an impassioned backlash. Would that people were like genes and the deleterious ones weren't so darn dominant.

In reality though, a Jewish audience being open-minded for the "wrong" reasons and then heading to the media, is probably preferable (or at least more conducive to the scientific study of intelligence) than a Jewish audience being close-minded for the wrong reasons and heading to the media. Pinker and his audience are a welcome alternative to the vacuousness of much of Jennifer Senior's cover story for New York Metro a couple of months ago, where we were informed that, despite passing peer-review, Greg and Henry's paper is based on "exploit[ing] stereotypes" and does "not meet the standards of traditional scientific scholarship". The Metro article was chock full of helpful critiques such as "I'd actually call the study bullshit", along with de rigueur comparisons to cold fusion and Hitler (and Arthur Jensen's earlier attempts to "prove the racial inferiority" of blacks, etc.), and plenty of strategically cultivated misunderstandings (e.g. all Jews are smart).

Take as another example this op-ed last week in the Jerusalem Post. This author uses scare-quotes to describe the study as "scientific", and also suggests that most scientists think it's so much crankishness. Worse still the author goes on to tell us - "as an educator"; his professional opinion, of course - that we all have equal potential, and that "Psychologists maintain that the average person uses only 5-7% of that potential". It's doubtful from what I've read that any psychologists maintain this, and it sounds suspiciously like he's just parroting the sorry old wives' tale that "you only use 10% of your brain" (his number might come from pathological scientific fraud, Margaret Mead, who asserted we only use 6%).

In other words those who are being supportive, may or may not being doing so out of a self-serving feeling of "superiority", but at least they aren't slipping into absurd arguments or emotional bendings of the truth to do so, which is more than can be said for most people who have decided to take a "skeptical" [sic] stance.

Another problem for those that use bad arguments, is that they may not need to, and in fact may needlessly discredit their position with all of their tom-foolery. In fact a much bigger potential problem with the Ashkenazi theory isn't Jennifer Senior's "damning" condemnation of the paper's highly unscientific "lack of footnotes" [1], but may be with the psychometric data itself. As a new "In-Press" review of Richard Lynn's upcoming book Race Differences in Intelligence points out:
Another anomaly is that the IQ of Israel is only about 95, which although substantially higher than the median IQ of 85 found elsewhere in the region, is much lower than the IQ of Jews outside of Israel, estimated at between 108 and 115. Lynn breaks the Israeli IQ into three components: 40% Ashkenazim (European Jewish) with a mean IQ of 103; 40% Sephardim (Oriental Jewish) with a mean IQ of 91; and 20% Arab with a mean IQ of 86, which is virtually the same as that of Arabs elsewhere. Lynn suggests these differences could have arisen from selective migration (more intelligent Jews emigrated to Britain and the USA), intermarriage with different IQ populations (those in Europe versus those in North Africa), selective survival through persecution (European Jews were the most persecuted), and the inclusion of ethnic non Jews among the Ashkenazim in Israel as a result of the immigration of people from the former Soviet Bloc countries who posed as Jews.

103 is not appreciably different from the IQ of US whites (103 in the NLSY data, 102 in other datasets), and is noticeably lower than the area of Europe where Ashkenazi IQ was supposedly forged (e.g., the region of the Netherlands and Germany has IQs in the area of 106-107 [2]). Given that Lynn thinks this is an "anomaly" to be explained, he would seem to feel compelled by his data that Ashkenazi IQ in Israel is 103, rather than just manipulating a score he wants to see.

This would seem to pose a more significant problem for the Cochran-Harpending paper, than a lack of footnotes. I myself am skeptical of Lynn's numbers though, and await his book. Earlier reports of Ashkenazi IQ in Israel have been cited in Miles Storfer's Intelligence and Giftedness as 115 and higher, so it will be interesting to see Lynn's citations. And of course, there are other lines of evidence indicating a disproportionate amount of smart coming out of Israel.

Anyway, I'd rather skeptics exist but actually look skeptical in their criticisms, instead of, say, complaining about footnotes, misrepresenting the theory, or just using denial (e.g. asserting something was caused by genetic drift even after mathematical models point strongly against this).

[1] An ironic criticism, given that Charles Murray recently pointed out in How to Accuse the Other Guy of Lying with Statistics that many critics of The Bell Curve claimed that key bits of information were "buried" or "hidden" in footnotes - as if to deceive. Not sure how putting something in a footnote is "hiding" it, but just goes to show that you're damned if you do, damned if you don't with race and intelligence.

[2] According to Buj's European data at least. It is likely that these are biased upward with urban samples. Averaged across multiple studies and standardizations, these countries have IQs just like American whites - about 102-103.


Anina - WAP chick   posted by Razib @ 12/09/2005 03:10:00 AM

A model who for whom ksh/bash vs sh might mean something? Yeah, well, I figure I'd post something since Wired just did a story on Anina, who has her own weblog. I first saw her when Bob Cringely interviewed her for Nerd TV, and I'll admit I only listened to the first 15 minutes (Anina seemed nervous, though by the time I stopped listening she seemed to be taking charge and enthusing about wireless technology), though I'll also offer that the only interview that has hooked me so far was the one with Dave Winer. Anina is probably the only person who could marry Unix PowerTools and a Paris catwalk (she "wishes" she had invented Unix, it's the thought that counts!), so I'll give her props for that. And unlike "Libertarian girl," she's the real deal (and she claims to watch Nerd TV, and if she could listen to joyless Bill Joy droning on & on & on...more power to her).

Thursday, December 08, 2005

10 questions for Warren Treadgold   posted by Razib @ 12/08/2005 11:38:00 AM

Below are 10 questions for Warren Treadgold, author of A History of the Byzantine State and Society (and numerous other works).

1 - We hear quite a bit about the impact of Al-Andalus on the Western intellectual tradition, in particular the renaissance of Aristotelianism spurred on by new translations of Greek thinkers available from reconquista Spain. And yet far less is said about the impact of Greek scholars fleeing the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century to Italy. Is this lack of focus simply a quirk of biases in transmission of historical consensus to the public, or, is it a reflection of the fact that Byzantium really wasn't that important in the spurring the Italian Renaissance?

The influence of Byzantium on the Italian Renaissance was certainly profound, and better recognized at the time than it is today. We Byzantinists haven't done as good a job of publicizing (and studying) it as we should have, despite a few books like Nigel Wilson's "From Byzantium to Italy" and Deno Geanakoplos' "Byzantium and the Renaissance." Contemporary Renaissance specialists have also been reluctant to give Byzantium due credit. Much of the problem is the compartmentalization of modern scholarship; few scholars know both Byzantium and the Renaissance well.

2 - Recalling your work, "A History of the Byzantine State and Society," I was struck by two things, a) the overwhelming centrality of Greek culture after the 6th century, b) the simultaneous prominence of ethnic non-Greeks as emperors (i.e., Leo III the Isaurian, the presumed Armenian origin of the Macedonian dynasty, etc.). Is thereany way we can map modern terms like "ethnicity" or "multiculturalism" to the Byzantine Empire between 700-1100?

Most Byzantines seem not to have cared much about what we would call ethnicity. Byzantium was essentially a monocultural melting pot. New arrivals learned Greek, called themselves "Romans" (we'd call them "Byzantines"), married Byzantines, and practically forgot their origins in a generation or two.

3 - Why did you choose the field of Byzantine studies as your specialty?

Being drawn to a field is a little like falling in love: there's an irrational element. The best reason I can give for choosing Byzantine history is that so many important, pioneering things remain to be done in it. That's also the reason ambitious historians mostly shun it: they know that the best-known fields are the best-recognized, so that the thousandth biography of Lincoln will get more attention than the first biography of Basil I.

4 - Though Justinian closed the The Academy in Athens, I recall that the loose collection of Neoplatonic philosophers continued to teach and write, and the Alexandrian School existed up to the Muslim conquest. Who supported these pagan philosophers during this period when the commanding heights of the state and society were thoroughly Christian?

We don't know for sure, but most scholars in Byzantium were either independently wealthy or supported by their students' fees. It's not even certain that Justinian confiscated all of the Academy's endowment.

5 - I recently read "The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople" by Jonathan Phillips and was struck by references to statues of Athena and other mythological figures in Constantinople. Were cultural relicts of the "pagan" past quite common in the form of superstition and statuary in Byzantium? In other words, how genuinely "Christian" was the typical citizen of Constantinople during the period between 700-1000?

Constantine collected and set up all sorts of pagan statues at Constantinople, but as artworks, not cult objects. Some superstitious stories circulated about some of them, but that wasn't real paganism. Nobody had been worshipping the bronze statue of Athena that a mob tore down because it looked as if it was beckoning to the Crusaders.

6 - Do you have any opinions as to the endeavours of historians like William H. McNeill who attempt to construct grand historical narratives reduced to a few primary causative parameters? (e.g., his last book, "The Human Web," focused on tightening networks of information)

The trouble with most of these grand schemes is that they're oversold and overly elaborate. Yet most of them are partly right. Plagues, technology, information, irrigation, and so on were all important factors in history.

7 - Is history a social science or humanities?

It can be either; ideally it should be both; but nowadays it tends to be more a social science.

8 - The conquest of Egypt and Syria by the Muslim armies in the 7th century is one aspect of Byzantine history that is well known to the general public. Reasons given often hinge upon religious discord derived from the Monophysite nature of Egypt, exhaustion after the wars of the early 7th century between Byzantium and Persia and the decline of the border Arab polities. Is there any elegant and succinct model that can explain this event?

I don't think Monophysitism had anything to do with it; most Monophysites preferred Byzantine rule to Muslim rule, and they did nothing to help the conquests. The Arabs benefited enormously from the ruinous war in which the Byzantines and Persians had just worn each other out. The Byzantines wisely kept many of their troops in reserve (the Persians didn't), which allowed them to stop the Arabs at the first strong natural barrier--the Taurus Mountains in southeast Anatolia. Egypt, Syria, and North Africa were protected only by deserts, which weren't barriers for the Arabs.

9 - In regards the Christological controversies, do you have any opinions as to why they occurred? They seem to be a feature of the Eastern Christian tradition more than the Western one.

The Christological controversies dealt with a difficult problem--how Christ could be both God and man--and it's not surprising that Christians took some time to work out all the subtleties of the solution. The controversies were more Eastern than Western because the East had more sophisticated theologians, who saw difficulties that didn't trouble most Western theologians.

10 - If you could visit Constantinople for one day via a time machine between the battle of Yarmuk and Manzikert, what day would that be?

Probably the day (we don't know which) in spring 1019 when Basil II returned to celebrate a triumph after his conquest of Bulgaria. It was the high point of the middle Byzantine period, though I doubt that many Byzantines, including Basil, would have thought so at the time.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Out-of-Africa again & again...again   posted by Razib @ 12/07/2005 08:47:00 PM

Carl Zimmer has a post put, Tree or a Trellis, which summarizes Alan Templeton's Out-of-Africa Again & Hypothesis. No biggie, Templeton's point is that a one locus genealogy does not necessarily represent the whole of a species' evolutionary population history. Allan Wilson's work in the 1980s with mitochondrial Eve was a case in conflation of gene history with population history when the data was translated into the public domain. We still haven't gotten past this, Seven Daughters of Eve, Journey of Man and The Real Eve are three recent books that use this genes-as-prehistory methodology. The History and Geography of Human Genes by L. Cavalli-Sforza was an explicit attempt to do this, and a forerunner, but at least he focused on more than one locus. Recent work has tended to skew toward mtDNA and non-recombinant Y (NRY) lineages, which do not exhibit the nasty tendency toward recombination characteristic of autosomal loci over long periods of time (nasty because recombination destroys easy inference via derived character states, which can be used to create phylogenetic treees). As I have noted before, our own personal genealogies are certainly reticulated loops of spaghetti all knotted up. The utilization of mtDNA and NRY offer us clean and tidy narratives which result in a genius of storytelling, and Wilson's work in the 1980s certainly (right I think) highlighted the important role that Africa has played in our species' demographic expansion over the past few hundred thousand years. But the facts on the ground are rather messier, and John Hawks' post on selection and mtDNA are required reading if you want to scan through the depths a bit. This older post, which was a cut & paste of an email from Henry Harpending, highlights the possible importance of selection across various loci working in ways we might not anticipate. The social effect of biases in the transmission of the uniparental loci (mtDNA ~ female and NRY ~ male) can not be discounted. Consider the pre-modern practice of the Namboothiri Brahmins of Kerala of only allowing the first born male to marry a Brahmin woman. All other sons entered into consortships with women of the Nair caste. This resulted in two tendencies, a) most Namboothiri women did not marry and remained cloistered virigins b) many Nairs had Namboothiri fathers. Over the generations the mtDNA lineages diagnostic for Namboothiris (imagine that they were migrants to the area) would be greatly outnumbered by those for Namboothiri NRY. Cross-cultural anthropology tells us that in societies with stratification the reproductive potential of an elite son is far greater than an elite daughter (both because of the biology of constraints upon the number of female gestations vs. male inseminations, and because of the frequency of polygyny vs. polyandry). You don't need to be a deep thinker to consider that assaying the NRY gene genealogy might give you a different impression about population history than mtDNA would.

Henry's paper Genomics refutes an exclusively African origin for modern humans is a good introduction to the nuances of this area if you can't wait for Templeton's paper. The reality is that we need to move beyond seeing genes as simply phylogenetic tokens, genes that do things (functional loci) are a dynamic currency which floats in the world markets of selection. MHC alleles are not shared by chimpanzees and humans because the two species have only recently moved past a speciation event, or because introgression via hybridization is common (or at least we don't think it is), rather, long term selection (either overdominance or frequency dependent) is preserving ancient variants on the order of tens of millions of years.1 More recently, and perhaps more significantly for our purposes (I believe that genetic loci like MHC where diversity is positively selected for are rare), the allele which confers lactose tolerance has experienced widespread selection across the Western half of Eurasia over the past 10,000 years. It is likely that the allele in question first began to increase in frequency in northern Europe, and was transmitted via deme-to-deme genetic exchanges subsequently. Yet, just because the gene arose in northern Europeans and now has attained a relatively high frequency through western Eurasia, it does not follow that a relatively high frequency of the genes of populations outside of northern Europe are northern European. Independent assortment and recombination break genetic associations, so that over hundreds of generations the allele that confers lactose tolerance has become decoupled from its predominant northern European genetic background.2 The point in challenging the Out-of-Africa only hypothesis is not to revive classical anangenetic Multiregionalism, that story is just as simplistic as Out-of-Africa only.

To be honest, I am skeptical that this sort of detail is every going to make it into the popular press books, and I believe that humans have an bias to conflate their intuitions related to recent ancestral genealogy with that of the evolutionary genetic scale.3 Nevertheless, it can't hurt to correct the misimpressions of those who don't understand, and one can always fight the good fight against the likes of Bryan Sykes, who stand to profit from confusing the public as to the relevance of one genetic locus.4 As I noted before, Richard Dawkins has promoted Out-of-African Again & Again in his book The Ancestor's Tale, so I am mildly hopeful that the tide might be turning. And remember, this isn't all theoretical, we already have candidates for loci which have crossed over between archaic H. sapiens populations...and more are in the pipeline!

Addendum: For the visually oriented, make sure to check out Carl's copy of Templeton's diagram which illustrates his model.

1 - Obviously neutral alleles go extinct due to random walk processes. But even alleles with fitness impacts can eventually go extinct if a new mutant with the same fitness begins to increase in frequency, as relative to each other the two variants are neutral. The preservation of a lot of diversity on the MHC loci is strongly suggestive of selection for the specific alleles.

2 - As someone pointed out to me, just because that the gene increased began to rise in frequency first among northern Europeans, it does not imply that it did not exist within the standing genetic variation of populations across the world. One could hypothesize that the spread of dairy-culture throughout the world resulted in situ selection upon the allele within the local population, but my understanding is that the character of genetic diversity does imply that non-European variants are derived. Additionally, a priori it seems more plausible that migration could introduce far more genetic variation over the small period of time that cultural transitions often occur over. Consider that the probability of fixation of a positively selected allele as 2s, wife-trading between tribes seems likely to introduce many copies of 2s (that is [number of women carrying the gene] X 2s), in comparison to the number copies of the gene in question within the population.

3 - Recombination is not important over 2-3 generations, ergo, it isn't something we encounter much in our daily experience.

4 - Spencer Wells work with the Genographic Project seems a bit more innocuous, instead of being out to make a big buck, he seems more interested in pushing forward his Y chromosomal research and collecting data by overselling its implications and relevance. That's science.

Hobbits Down Under   posted by Jason Malloy @ 12/07/2005 10:42:00 AM

According to the Australian, Mike Morwood, leader of the Homo floresiensis discovery team, has now raised the idea that they originally lived in Australia and were pushed out by the colonizing human aborigines.

The article doesn't go into the details of Morwood's hunch, but we'll see if it goes further than the Hobbit-as-Monkey theory.

Fun with math   posted by the @ 12/07/2005 09:00:00 AM

My math is a little rusty, but I wanted to offer a little statistical observation relating to ID and being dumb.

ID = believe in ID
dumb = are dumb

Prior for being dumb: talented tenth (or if you have a certain someone in mind, fill in your own prior)
P(dumb) = 0.9
P(~dumb) = 0.1

Likelihood of believing in ID given you are dumb (or not dumb): I made these values up, but we could probably find survey data to refine those estimates. Try your own guess.
P(ID|dumb) = 0.8
P(ID|~dumb) = 0.4

Bayes rule...
P(dumb|ID) = 0.947
P(dumb|~ID) = 0.750 [correction]

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Amongst the savage scientists   posted by Razib @ 12/06/2005 12:59:00 AM

Sometimes when I'm bored I stumble over to the The Valve, where gnxp regular John Emerson also hangs out. Today I saw this post which addressed the testimony of a sociologist of science for the pro-Design side in the Dover case. Basically, the issue is that the sociologist in question isn't a standard issue Post-Modernist, so what's going on here? John lands a good immediate punch, and I should have let it rest. But I had to add something myself:

his cv doesn't indicate any natural science background. i think that someone who wants to engage in meta-scientific chatter should at least have some basis within science ahead of time so that one is familiar with the culture. kuhn had a background in physics.

The author of the post, Jon Goodwin, responded, and I then went at it again. But the denouement was this comment from Jon:

Razib, I disagree very strongly with Fuller's position about this--to the point of mystification--but it's parochial to suggest that more time taking multiple-choice tests and dissecting things would have affected his later thinking. It's just completely irrelevant to the argument he's making. [my emphasis -Razib]

On the part I emphasized. I suggested in the comments that it is important for a philosopher or sociologist of science to have some familiarity with science or the scientific method. And, just as patent attorneys often have undergraduate or graduate level training in a science (though this isn't a hard and fast rule), so it would benefit intellectuals whose terrain is science to have some up close and personal contact. Now, first off, for a bachelors, I am skeptical that the expectation is that one could complete coursework with a predominance of multiple-choice tests. This certainly isn't so in physics and chemistry, where problem solving is priority, and not even in much of biology. Second off, the dirty details of dissection, or prepping experiments, etc. are I think essential dimensions of the scientific experience. If you are a sociologist of science, that is part of experience of that society.

As for the "big picture" of Fuller's argument that scientists themselves are not always the best at making meta-judgements because of their technical specializations, well, that's true much of the time. But it doesn't follow that someone who has distance will be better able to see the grand scope if they have no special handle on any of the details. Rather, the best scholars, I would argue, are those who can bring both the insider and outsider perspective. Thomas Kuhn had a doctorate in physics. Many of the thinkers in the Vienna Circle came from mathematical and scientific backgrounds. I have argued here that science is operationally a social enterprise, so it follows that one would gain great insight if one had been an active participant in the collective of a lab meeting, or socialized over some beers after a long day. Good sociology and history, and yes, even philosophy, should have some anthropology at its base.

This does not mean that what I allude to above are necessary conditions, or even sufficient ones, for a great scholar of the broad expanse of scientific learning. I'm not one, after all, to say that you have to be a Christian to study Christianity, or an African to study Africans. On the other hand, completing a 4 year science degree is much easier than forcing yourself to convert to Christianity, and not impossible like becoming an African if you aren't.

Consider if you will that an alien anthropologist tells some Navajos that the Clatsops are also Navajos. When the Navajos reject that contention, the anthropologist responds, "Well, being Navajos, you can't see the grand scope of how Navajoism expresses itself. Trust me, the Clatsops are Navajos." Now, if I tell the alien anthropologist, "hey, how about you go live among the Navajos before you lecture them about what constitutes appropriate Navajoism," and another individual responds, "Oh please. Now, I disagree with the alien anthropologist, obviously Clatsops and Navajos are distinct tribes. But you don't need to go live in a dirty hut on some rez in the middle of Arizona to figure that out." To which I'd say, "Well, yeah, you'd think so, but obviously not."

Update: One thing, I don't want to leave the impression that I am opposed to meta-analysis of science, and wish to leave each discipline as sui generis endeavours. There are obviously broad trends and characteristics that unite the natural sciences which should be studied by scholars. Some of the anthroplogists I most admire take a broad naturalistic view of their subject matter (human culture), but they nevertheless have some done field work among a specific people. In their literature it is clear that they use their specific knowledge of ethnic group X to test their deductive models about how cultural units in general should function and behave.

I will admit that Jon's allusion to "multiple-choice" is what prompted this post, my experience with other people who have completed science degrees is that we envy the multiple choice tests that seem rife in other departments. As it is, quite a few courses demand on-the-fly problem solving skills where questions are specifically generated which have no familiar models in the homework sets.

Update II: I've been busy today, but it has come to my attention that something similar to what I allude to above has been occurring on the political Right over in The Corner. I haven't read it in detail, but Derb is joing the fray and mixing it up. Here are the links:

Science vs. scientism - John J. Miller
Science vs. scientism - Jonah, quoting a reader:

It is therefore not the task of science to recognize and define the boundaries of science. This is a job for metaphysics (the study of non-physical realities) and epistemology (the study of how we know what we know). Both of these are elements in the philosophy of science.

More from Jonah (Jonah has some good common sense in this comment, in my opinion).
On science vs. scientism - Derb
Re: on science vs. scientism - Jonah (defends humanists)
Himmelfarb - Ramesh (defending her piece in TNR, beyond subscription wall, but you aren't missing anything)
More science vs. scientism - Derb
What Derb owes - Jonah (annoyed with Derb)
Yet more science vs. scientism - Derb (taking a hard evolcon stand)
Himmelfarb, CTD - Ramesh
Does Himmelfarb deserve better - Derb disses Gertrude again!
Science and philosophy - Ian Murrray, English conservative, tacitly supports Derb (from what I can tell)
Re: does Himmelfarb deserve better - Charles Murray shits on Derb here. In Derb's defense, the piece in TNR was a whole lot of fluff. I'll read her other stuff later perhaps, so I can't say....
Uh-Oh - Derb trying to make peace
Kristol, Theocons & Power - Jonah talks about some political stuff
The one thing you can say about Irving Kristol - J-Pod types something
Neocons vs. Darwin - Derb throws a rock at J-Pod
Feedback - K-Lo defends pro-ID conservatives (most of 'em in America)

I'm sure I missed stuff, and I didn't read 'em all. But, kind of interesting, shows how some Tribes cross political boundaries. If I didn't know any better I would have guessed GC got a hold of John's account and started posting, some of the comments were so biophilic....

Update III: Steve Fuller, the historian-philosopher of science who triggered this post ultimately with his pro-ID testimony in Pennsylvania, has responded over at The Valve. You can go judge for yourself if his contentions are worth interposing himself into forces of great social and cultural magnitude on this side of the pond.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Looking for a Few Good Nerds   posted by David Boxenhorn @ 12/05/2005 10:32:00 PM

For the last few years I have been working on a new architecture for the Internet, which you can read about here:


How can we deliver applications as services, over the Internet, and get PC-like functionality, where each user can mix-and-match applications as if they are on a PC?

(Note: The question does not refer to pure user-interface issues that are addressed by AJAX!)


Domicel is a virtual personal Internet domain. It gives the end user the look-and-feel of working on a PC – without the PC! Applications are provided as on-line services, in an object-oriented paradigm. The aggregate of a user's objects (think: icons) from all applications, hosted anywhere in the world, is their Domicel – there is no one place in which a Domicel's objects reside, no bottlenecks, and no central point of failure.

Or, to put it another way, it does for applications what the World Wide Web does for documents.

It's still very primitive - I think of it as being the Internet version of the Altair, "the spark that led to the personal computer revolution". At this point, I would like to get a few good nerds interested. If I can get it going, I think it will be very big.

You can see the current state of the art here. Notice the links in the upper right-hand corner.

PS: There is the beginning of a discussion on Domicel here.

Women of Al Qaeda   posted by Razib @ 12/05/2005 01:06:00 AM

Newsweek has a piece up titled Women of Al Qaeda, coauthored by Lionel Tiger (The Decline of Males and Men in Groups). Just like the standard Left-Right spectrum compresses a considerable amount of the multi-dimensional character of genuine political opinion, so the liberal-moderate-fundamentalist spectrum in Islam masks the tensions and diversity within the various groups. I haven't explored it in detail yet, but, suffice it to say that there are differences and variations within the 'Salafist' umbrella. In 1993 the 'supreme religious leader' of Saudi Arabia declared that the Earth was flat. Or did he? A Muslim website published a translation of a letter from Shaikh 'Abdul-'Aziz ibn 'Abdullah ibn Baz. He affirm that the earth is a sphere, but, adds that he "...only declared kufr upon the one who says that the sun is stationary" (that is, all of you heliocentrists out there). Now, I bring this up to show that there are 'traditionalists,' and then there are traditionalists. The violent terrorist Salafists probably don't spend too much time waging jihad in the name of the geocentric hypothesis, especially since many have science and engineering backgrounds. In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam Tariq Ramadan goes into detail about the varieties of Salafists out there, and 'Salafi reformists' are not literalists. I don't know much more than that at this point (oh, but I will....). Even ignoring what I have written about theological incorrectness, we need not to be complacent about Salafi terrorists. Though they style themselves revivers of the old traditions, it seems clear that is all cant, they will shape their neo-7th century in their own images and according to their own wills.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

We are born Manichaeans   posted by Razib @ 12/04/2005 01:51:00 PM

Paul Bloom takes his hypothesis that humans are innately dualist and applies it to religion in the most recent issue of The Atlantic in Is God an Accident? Here is his conclusion:

Nobody is born with the idea that humanity started in the Garden of Eden, or that martyrs will be rewarded in heaven; these ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They are part of human nature.

The theory of natural selection is an empirically supported account of our existence. But almost nobody believes it. We may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer.

If you've read my previous posts on the cognitive science of religion you won't find anything surprising. The most important point about the new research that is emerging over the past 15 years is just how banal and conventional many of the cognitive processes are which result in normal theism. For example, consider the common motif of sacred relics, the Buddha's tooth or fragments of the cross upon which Christ was crucified, this is easily explained by the tendency of the human mind to imagine contagions all around us. In this case, the sacred contagion is one we actually wish to encounter. In terms of God being an "accident," it maybe that saying God is an accident is like saying that heat is a byproduct of work, if God-belief is the result of the interaction and overreaction of banal cognitive processes, then it could be inevitable in minds of sufficient complexity.

In regards to evolution, the basic thesis of macroevolution, that species X is the ancestor of species Y, is simple enough. But the tendency to imbue species with distrinct and disjoint essences is problematic in terms of making common descent believable. One reason I put so much emphasis on an internalization of the basics of microevolutionary population genetics is that the processes of and mutation, selection and drift, along with their interaction other factors such as migration or long term effective population size, are essential to enable one to have an intuition of why macroevolution is inevitable.

Now, it is true that some of the claims of the world religions are manifestly mysterious, uintuitive and intellectually taxing. But I've claimed elsewhere that theological constructs are simply notional badges which identify ingroup-outgroup boundaries, and their perpetuation is generally through mnemonics rather than internalization and comprehension. This phenemonon is not restricted to religion, how many Communists actually read Das Kapital?


Saturday, December 03, 2005

A Gene Against Intelligence   posted by Jemima @ 12/03/2005 09:15:00 PM

Researchers have associated a variant of the IGF2R gene with lower IQ in males--by an average of 20 IQ points. From the Dallas Morning News article [registration required]:

The researchers studied about 300 children with an average age of 10. The children, all Caucasian, came from six counties in the Cleveland area. As a group, males - but not females - who had the variant gene had IQ scores about 20 points lower than males who didn't. [...]

Dr. Jirtle said his assertion that the IGF2R gene affects IQ is bolstered by experiments in mice. When he and his colleagues disabled a copy of the gene in lab mice - an experiment intended to mimic humans who inherit the variant copy of the gene - they noticed that the male mice were slow learners on a maze test. Electrical recordings of the mice's brain tissue were also altered in a way that is consistent with slow learning.

Also, Dr. Jirtle said, what scientists already know about the protein produced from the IGF2R gene fits with a role in brain function. Research has suggested the protein regulates cell growth as well as the speed at which signals travel between nerve cells.

In 1998, scientists from England reported a connection between a portion of the IGF2R gene and IQ, but later retracted their work when they couldn't replicate the results. Dr. Jirtle's research concerns a different, but nearby, area of the same gene.

Can the subaltern kill?   posted by Razib @ 12/03/2005 06:28:00 PM

Yes. Though I've said it a million times, but I will say it again, over the past generation the tendency toward respecting cultural particularisms has come at the expense of expanding the rights of individuals. This is not an incoherent or particularly new position, the group as the operational unit of identity worked for the Ottomans and their millet system. I just wish people would be more honest about the reality that life is about choices.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Survivors   posted by Razib @ 12/02/2005 11:54:00 PM

This is cool. Southern Hemisphere Springtails: Could They Have Survived Glaciation of Antarctica?:

...In contrast, the deep divergences found for the four endemic Antarctic species indicate that they represent a continuous chain of descent dating from the break-up of Gondwana to the present. We suggest that the diversification of these springtail species (21-11 MYA) in ice-free glacial refugia throughout the Trans-Antarctic Mountains was caused by the glaciation of the Antarctic continent during the middle to late Miocene.

Skin color loci - older work   posted by Razib @ 12/02/2005 08:10:00 PM

About two months ago I posted an entry where I sketched out an extremely simple model for skin color assuming there were 6 loci and two alleles (on and off). There was a reference in the comments to "5 loci" for skin color as a quantitative trait. From what I can gather that assumption derives from a paper published in 1981 by Russ Lande, which is online. In reality that paper simply draws upon older work from 1964, and its primary focus is on estimating the number of loci in crosses between heterogenous populations (using inbred lines was the way pioneered by Sewall Wright). But, it turns out that Cavalli-Sforza and Bodmer discuss that older work in Genetics of Human Populations, which I have a copy of. Today genomics is exploring the details of the loci which control for skin color, but we have a long way to go, so I'm going to reproduce some of the data and conclusions from Bodmer & Cavalli-Sforza's work so that it will be online....

Table 9.6
Means and Variances of Skin Color Measurements
Antilog of (Reflectance at 685 mμ) for Various Matings

Population - No. of Observations, Mean, Variance (X 1000)

Caucasian - 105, 0.421, 1.09
Negro - 106, 0.225, 1.05
F1 - 94, 0.334, 1.59
Negro backcross - 26, 0.304, 1.71
Caucasian backcross - 30, 0.382, 2.00
F2 - 14, 0.346, 1.99

FYI, an F2 is simply F1 X F1, explaining the small sample size. By analyzing the means they concluded there was no "dominance effect." The hybrid individuals tended to have skin reflectance measurements about midway between their parental values. An analysis of the variance yielded the number of loci as 4, but, this was subject to a very high error. Nevertheless, 4 is probably the low bound, as these analyses usually underestimate the true number. But, they often capture the essential gist because for many traits a small number of genes determine most of the variation on a trait (the traditional assumption, reflected in Plomin's work, is that IQ is different in that there isn't much with more than 1% effect, though Greg and Henry's Askhenazi work are starting to puncture that preconception). The genetic data coming out right now suggests that contrary to the implication in the model above (stated explicitly in the text) Europeans are not fixed for a particular allele on many of genes (i.e., MC1R). But, the phenotypic outcome of "loss of function" mutations is basically the same, so in terms of quantitative traits I think you can ignore the lack of identity by state on the nucleotide level.

Notes: They took the antilog to adjust for scaling effects, didn't matter anyhow. Additionally, I left the text as is aside from reformatting some of it, so sorry about the use of words like "Negro" if you are offended, it was 1971.

Intercultural variance   posted by Razib @ 12/02/2005 05:44:00 PM

In my previous post where I elaborated on "theological incorrectness" and the deceptiveness of the tendency for humans to ascribe their behaviors and actions to beliefs which are shown to be irrelevant upon further scrutiny, I might have given the impression that the ideas themselves do not matter. I didn't explicitly say that, and I think it is important to distinguish between evoked and epidemiological aspects of culture. The former refers to aspects of culture which are generalized and universal reflections of the expression of behavorial phenotypes within a social matrix that are inevitable because of the architecture of our brains. For example, the universality of some sort of music, or symbolic artistry. Epidemiological culture refers to ideas which are replicated between minds and often exhibit intergroup variation, basically, memes. There are several major factors that will affect the fitness of memes, a) cognitive transmission biases, b) the replicative design of the meme (a meme that encourages universal skepticism might be too self-cannibalizing) and c) functional utility on the individual and cultural level (a meme which encourages suicide or celibacy will not spread).

It seems mean intercultural differences are significant, contra the standard narrative you get from evo psych types who seem to want to pretend that cultural differences are trivial epiphenomena. The reality is that of the major "high religions," it is the Abrahamic ones which have been characterized by strong tendencies toward exclusion, persecution and fanaticism. This is not to deny that Indian or Chinese cultural traditions have also been characterized by religious acrimony, but, it seems less frequent and central to the identity of the culture.1 The tensions that emerge out of Abrahamic religions can be seen across vast swaths of western Eurasia, and the conflict between paganism and Christianity in Europe was recapitulated in a rather set form repeatedly over 1,000 years as the former gave way to the latter in a step-wise fashion. There is also a systematic difference between the character of the spread of the Abrahamic memeplexes and the the expansion of Buddhism as a pancultural religion, or, the Hinduization of groups in South Asia over time. If one reads about the acceptance of Buddhism in Tibet, Korea or Japan by 'barbarian' kings who wish to attain for themselves the imprimatur of civilized monarchs, one is struck by the far milder tensions between the new religion and the indigenous belief systems (Bon, Korean shamanism and Shinto, respectively, are all vital traditions which complement the Buddhist worldviews which suffuse the culture).

Nevertheless, even though the expectation for the modal behavior of those who espouse Abrahamic religions is likely different from those who adhere to non-Abrahamic religions, it is important to not forget that there is considerable variation around such expectations. The rather tolerant modern Congregationalism has little in common with its direct Puritan forebears. If fact, it might not be the expectation that is truly important, but the tendency toward variance of expression of the Abrahamic religions which results in their tendency toward fanaticism and utopianism of various sorts. Additionally, both expectation and variance must be interpreted in the context of other factors which result in confounding of models based solely on ideas (i.e., psychology, historical stochasticity and contingency). If one looks at the historical evidence it seems strongly plausible that religious faction and conflict was generally driven from above by temporal and clerical elites. Even in the case where the masses enthusiastically took up religiously motivated causes, as amongst the "Jew burners" of the medieval Rhineland, historical scholarship can usually glean strongly material motives amongst the primary players (in fact, the Church's writ was relatively weak in the Rhineland and local notables who were in debt to prominent Jews seem to have mobilized the mobs, who might have been drawn in large part from their cronies). In other words, religious sanction was might have been a mask for more conventional violent conflicts between groups separated by outward markers. Finally, in recent years the rise of Hindutva, the history of State Shinto in Japan and the emergence of 'Buddhist fundamentalism' in Sri Lanka and Myanmar suggest that the modes that characterize Abrahamic religions can be exported to other religious systems.2

1 - Quite often in China religious conflict is closely coupled with social and political factors, and "persecution" is more easily understood as a byproduct political events. For example, the defrocking of tens of thousands of monks during the Tang dynasty and the repossession of monestaries was not because of doctrinal conflicts, rather, Buddhism had become an institutional rival to the monarchy, which in China always tended to result in an assertion of the monarchy at the expense of the alternative institution. In India, religious wars between Jain and Hindu kings in southern India was a somewhat exceptional and peculiar event in terms of its explicit religious aspect.

2 - It is important to note that Hindutva is like more plausibly modeled as a ethno-nationalist movement than a religious one. Also, I think it is illustrative that Sri Lankan Buddhist fundamentalists have sometimes been labelled 'Protestant Buddhists,' because of the influence of apologists who formed a neo-Buddhist movement and creed in explicit response to Protestant missionaries in the 19th century.

Yahyaism spreading to National Review?   posted by dobeln @ 12/02/2005 05:26:00 AM

I was a bit taken aback by seeing Yahayist Mustafa Akyol published at National Review Online. While NRO is frequently predictable and hackish, they are rarely outright nutty. Akyol even holds up the infamous "Wedge Document" as a great achievement of the Intelligent Design movement:

That's why something called the Wedge Document, although horrifying to America's secularist intelligentsia, offers a message of hope for Muslims. The Wedge Document is a 1999 memorandum of the Discovery Institute (DI), the Seattle-based think tank that acts as the main proponent of ID. In this document, the Institute explains that its long-term goal is "to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies."

Is this merely a case of throwing some red meat to the Evangelicals, lest they feel forgotten by the metrocons at NRO? If so, someone has decided that one batch of meat wasn't enough. Today, National Review serves up a real whooper by one Tom Bethell. Here is a sample:

We are expected to believe - and I do mean believe - that evolution answers the important question: How did life, in all its abundance, appear on Earth? By the slow, successive modification of pre-existing forms, Darwin said. Go back far enough, to one of those warm little ponds Darwinians assume must have existed, and we would find that life started of its own accord from nothing in particular.

This man has written a book - on science, no less. No, really.

Update: John Derbyshire responds.

Pinker on Jews, Genes and Intelligence - reports from the lecture   posted by dobeln @ 12/02/2005 12:15:00 AM

Steve Sailer has posted a reader summary of the Pinker lecture on the Cochran, Hardy and Harpending paper. You can find it here.

Your Lying Eyes has an even more extensive report on the lecture, which you can find here. Excerpt:

"Though the moderator thanked him for a very 'even-handed' presentation on a controversial topic, to my ear what Pinker presented was a spirited endorsement of the Cochran-Hardy-Harpending (CHH) paper. The presentation generally seemed to fill the need to present these controversial ideas to a very interested audience by a trusted authoritative source. It didn't seem to me that Pinker added anything that Cochran or Harpending could not have provided themselves except proximity to NYC and comfortably strong Ashkenazik credentials. Overall Pinker emphasized the reasonableness of the authors' hypotheses, the generally better quality of the genetic evidence over the environmental, the non-rational basis of much of the opposition, and the paper's strong foundation in the current state of knowledge."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Mixing Memory is back   posted by Razib @ 12/01/2005 10:17:00 PM

Chris of Mixing Memory is back. I am announcing this in a post by itself because Chris is the John Hawks of cognitive science, so if you are minimally interested in the topic, read him.

Theological incorrectness - when people behave how they shouldn't....sort of   posted by Razib @ 12/01/2005 08:09:00 PM

By now most of you have heard about the female Belgian convert to Islam who killed herself in a suicide bombing attempt. Some of you may wonder as to the validity of the imprimatur Islam gives such behavior. Some of you may also know that there is a question as the validity of suicide bombings within Islam. And I'm sure that most of you have become weary of the inane formula that "Islam is peace" in the context of a world where the "religion of peace" is one of the major loci of conflict. To understand these questions we need to get below surface reflections, folk psychology and sociology. One must move past facile quasi-Marxist narratives of economic deprivation, therapeutically modeled psychologies of envy, or tautologically derived assertions that only evil individuals could commit evil acts.

First, I think one must move past the idea of a religion as a set of agreed upon axioms from which the content of the faith is derived. In other words, there is no real Islam apart from how the religion is lived. Our perception of Islam, or any other religion, is simply based on prototypes shaped by induction. By "prototype," I mean more than the standard dictionary definition, I mean in a cognitive sense the idealized average of all exemplars that we insert into the subset of entities we label "Muslim," or "Islamic behavior." The implication is that the prototype is a moving average, likely as a function of time and space. To give an example of what I mean, in 1775 a European gentile intellectual might conceive of the Ashkenazi Jews as a naturally fecund folk, that was part of their prototypical definition. In 1975 no one would generalize that Jews are fecund, though a subset (the Haredi) still remain quite fertile. As a function of space, one might note that in South Africa the Gujarati Muslim community forms the entrenpenurial core and elite of the Indian community. So in this situation there is a perception that Muslims are more educated and well off than the basal Indian population. This prototype is clearly not universally applicable. In other words, the categories and demarcations in our minds are fungible. We may verbally assent to a host of explicit, precise and clean affirmations of axioms which serve as outward boundary markers between groups (i.e., Muslims say salam, Jews say shalom, etc.), but when we conceive of a particular group it is quite likely that we are actually accessing a prototype which serves as an average of our experiences rather than a set of premises or truths from which we derive the identification de novo each time.

The reality that we generate our conceptions of particular groups from prototypes means we need to face another issue, our models of how individuals behave often assume a Standard Social Science Model, where individuals are uniform generalized information processing machines in the soup of culture which dictates their behavioral patterns. A conventional narrative for Muslims, for example, would point to the violence directed toward unbelievers in the Koran, and connect that to the Muslim culture, and then infer that the culture biases believers toward a range of behaviors bounded by the coda encapsulated in the Koran. There are two interesting trends here: a) the individual generating the model is utilizing abductive reasoning, working back to a plausible premise from the set of facts before them, and b) there is an implicit assumption that the individuals (i.e., violent Muslims) utilize deductive reasoning, starting from a set of axioms and deriving actions or truths from those axioms. The same process can be seen when Muslims disavow that violent nihilistic terrorists can be Muslim, because the set of facts they see before them are not congruent with the hypotheses they have which presumably form their construct of what a Muslim is.

We need to get beyond the Standard Social Social Model where culture is a mysterious force of great potency which is determinative in behavior of populations, as well as the folk psychology that is often its partner. Now, I do not mean to imply here that there is no intercultural variation in norms and values which might shape the expected response of a given individual to particular inputs, I am simply asserting that our models might be off, and that we are not reasoning appropriately from the set of facts we have before us. One key problem, which was first elucidated by anthropologist Daniel Sperber in the 1970s, is that minds have particular features and biases which constraint and shape how culture evolves. In other words, imagine that evolutionary biologists simply ignored the reality that phenotypic variation was constrained by phylogenetic history, genetic architecture and morphological dependencies, and pretended as if all the diversity in form and function was simply the result of an exploration of the set of all possibilities. So the explanation for why humans don't have wings would be that wings were simply not favored by selection, or that it was a stochastic outcome. The reality is that we know that tetropod body plans are highly constrained, and evolutionarily novel features are atypical, and more often than not they result in 'monsters' as opposed to functionally improved specimens. In relation to culture, it implies that there are canals of expression that will be favored because of the architecture of the mind, which exhibits biases of comprehension and transmission. One reason that avant-garde fictional styles are often on the margins of the mainstream might be that the human mind is biased toward conventional and derivative plots that it can "relate" to, and styles that are congenial to the way we process information. Similarly, the commonalities that we see between human cultures may simply be an expression of the fact that some cultural styles were not selected for by the human mind's transmission biases. In Richard Dawkins' conception of memes the character of the meme itself was the only consideration in regards to its fitness, that is, a meme that included an instruction for its own propogation was fit. Sperber would add the caveat that ludicrous and unintuitive memes would hamper their own propogation no matter how many clever instructions they had for their own dissemination. Minds are not trivialities floating in a sea of culture, rather, it is culture which is the handmaid of the mind, it is in the mind that culture exists, and it is in the mind that culture modifies how we behave.

And because all this has to do with the mind, we run into confusions and misunderstandings, because we assume that we understand ourselves. Humans live with the conceit that we are conscious creatures with free will. To some extent we are, but there are also a myrid of subcomponents which are encapsulated and sealed off from the generalized cognitive capacities which have "hard-wired" and "reflexive" responses, and these are no less "us" than our reflective mind. The verbal creeds, affirmations and declarations map well between the outer world of our intercourse with other humans and our inner world of our conscious. But the reflexive subcomponents also have a strong effect on how we behave, how we think and how we interact with our fellow human beings, but this shadow-self often gets short shrift from the conscious mind. Far too often our conscious mind takes credit for our reflexive self, or, offers up specious reasoning to "explain" behavior whose root was not conscious or reflective in the least.

Folk psychology only addresses the conscious world of thought and deed, and so too often it misses the big picture. Because verbalized folk psychology derives from the conceits of the conscious mind it throws up a model which constructs towers of deductive rationality to justify all we do and profess. The complexity of the world around us, and its chaotic meanderings, obscure the reality that our models derived from folk psychology are really rather weak. The idea that terrorists are poor or underprivileged persists because of the strength it takes from our own conceit about being able to model the psychology of other human beings naturally (in other words, we have a cognitive bias to discount our own cognitive biases and accept our consciously generated narratives which slot into our ideologies). This idea is false. Contentless platitudes like "they hate us for our freedoms" appeal to our emotional needs, but really say little about the world that gives us a grasp of what is going on out there, as opposed to our own internal psychology. A model that assumes behavior deduced from axioms that itself derives from abduction fails because the latter form of reasoning is the true clue as to what is really going on in the mind of the Other.

Which brings me to the entity for which Islamic terrorist aver that they are dying for, God. A few weeks ago I read a slim text by D. Jason Slone titled Theological Incorrectness. The central organizing question in the book was this: why do you people profess belief in one idea of a God but behave as if God is a different entity altogether? A clear example is the fact that monotheists (aside from Mormons) express a belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity outside of time and space. These are the axioms, the truths, of the faith. The vast majority of believers quicky and articulately can express their belief in these truths. But, during canned experiments where they describe how this God would interact in the world on-the-fly their descriptions of "God" would imply an entity sharply at variance with the one deduced from the truths that they expressed fidelity toward. While the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob is an all powerful entity that knows all and can do all in an infinitesimal period of time, the divinity which is generated by unscripted elicitations of God acting in the world is a sharply delineated creature of supernatural power, but constrained within time and not omniscient in an absolute sense. On the other hand, Theravada Buddhism is often portrayed as a non-theistic religion without a Creator God. While Mahayana Buddhists explicitly accept the existence of divine beings, Boddhisattvas, Theravada Buddhists adhere to the older doctrines which emphasize human agency in the world bereft of supernatural aid. That is the theory, the reality is that Buddha the man for Theravada Buddhists of a non-elite bent is a supernatural being of divine essence, acting serially within time, not omniscient, but of great insight. Even though the Buddha, according to the canons, has left this universe through nirvana, Theravada Buddhists seem to speak as if he remains to watch over the faithful and aid them in their travails. When asked about their beliefs many Theravada Buddhists will deny that they believe in a god-entity, but only if they are familiar with Western thought and perceptions of Buddhism, or, if they are religious professionals. What you see here is a convergence onto a cognitive optimum. Whatever creed individuals profess, and truths they "adhere" to, there are constraints in what they can conceive of (i.e., the reason the Trinity is a "mystery" is that it is bloody difficult to really understand what it is in a concrete sense) and biases in the way they believe (even though Theravada Buddhism enjoins believers toward acceptance 8-fold path as monks to attain nirvana, in practice lay persons simply pray to gods to aid them in their day to day life).

A disjunction exists between the axiomatic models which assume deductive coherency promoted by religious professionals and world religions, and the conventional cognitive milieu of the online mind, which is predicated on reflexive abductive logic. Without time to reflect, or familiar verbal triggers, individuals who profess a belief in a divine being of transcendent nature, fall back on their online cognitive facilities and abduce from the set of facts on hand to the real, intuitive, conception of God that they can relate to. The persistent emergence of intermediary entities of spiritual import in Judaism, Islam and Christianity which religious professionals have often had to purge, to no lasting effect, speaks to the common cognitive template which all humans possess. To use a geometrical analogy, the monotheistic God can truly only be modeled in higher dimensional spaces beyond the 3 conventional ones, which is simply an impossible task for our minds in any intuitve sense, so humans tend to settle for analogs in 3 space. Conversely, Theravada Buddhists are enjoined to flee the full richness of a 3 dimensional theology for the precise but cognitively sterile philosophical Buddhism, and so they operationally refer to entities which inhabit the full 3 spaces of their mind.

Which brings me back Muriel Degauque. One model might posit that Degauque, for all of her faults, was poisoned by the ideology of Islam, which by its nature is violent and hostile to the Other. This is clearly deduced from innumerable axioms within the Koran and the Hadiths. Another model might posit that Degauque did not convert to Islam, that what she converted to was a cult, because Islam does not fit within the parameters which would be inferred from her behavior. As I noted above, since Islam is likely operationally a prototype, aside from the most general of axioms (i.e., Muslims accept the Koran and Muhammad as the Seal of Prophets), the question about whether Degauque is a Muslim seems irrelevant, she perceived herself as a Muslim, a large number of her markers suggested she was Muslim (dress, name change, etc.), and excluding her violent end and actions a great deal of her behavior and cultural affinities fit comfortably within the set of individuals who we would define as "Muslim." That is, as long as you don't have litmus tests related to violence, she was a Muslim. Now, was Degauque poisoned by Islam? Here is where the SSSM comes in, too often there is a tendency to simply assign Islam the blame (or at least a form of Islam), and implicitly the Koran, because the assumption seems to be that a set of axioms is what drives individuals to particular actions. That is, if you want to know why someone behaves the way they do, look at their "culture," because that dictates who they are and what they will be. The most obvious objection in the case of Degauque is that her own persona might have been atypical, and suited toward the subculture which is rife in fundamentalist Islam. Or the particular type of fundamentalist Islam where women become violent martyrs. Going back to the idea of the prototype as being the ideal around which one categorizes something, various exemplars are used to generate this prototype. The exemplars vary, a robin is not a penguin, but both are birds, with the robin being more birdy because it is closer to the average prototype. Within Islam there are a range of exemplars, a distribution of them. Assuming for argument's sake that the 9-11 terrorists were Muslim, clearly there is an exemplar of Islam which Degauque fit herself into. Who she was was likely shaped by her interaction with her milieu, and and perhaps the shift of the milieu itself. I don't know any better than you, that is clear.

But the nature of what "Islam" is, and the nature of how believers believe what they believe, and what they believe about what they believe, is crucial in understanding how Degauque arrived at her destination. As an unbeliever it is difficult sometimes to engage sincere believers in a religion because the beliefs they accept are imbued with transcendent ontological significance, they are so emotionally invested in them that a rational and calm dialogue is difficult. The inner intuition that existence itself is a miracle is mapped onto a particular set of verbal affirmations as to the nature and reason for that existence. But another layer to this is that the dichotomy between a deductive model ideal and abductive operational behavior causes problems. When I am in my more sophistic moments I take advantage of the fact that believers ardently profess a deductive model verbally to corner them in and ensnare them in various logical traps and contradictions. To give a precise example I once a caught a friend of mine in high school expressing the opinion that the Presbyterian Church he attended was so much better than the Methodist Church of his parents, that he agreed with them "100%" to his core (this was a mostly evangelical Presbyterian Church, not a liberal one). Now, I am a shady sort, so I couldn't resist the bate, and I asked, "so would say you are a Calvinist?" I asked. My friend nodded, though he wasn't up on the theological details, he knew that his church was Calvinist in theology (Reformed). Then I asked him how he justified a set of decisions he made if they were predestined? Calvinism of course accepts predestination, though in practice how this works out is rather Byzantine and mysterious to me (Muslims also accept predestination, which is used to explain their lack of individual initiative, in contrast to Calvinist Protestants, who were driven to toil and enterprise by their fatalistic beliefs!). My friend was tripped up, and he had a hard time responding with the typical verbal and cognitive gymnastics that are the norm in systematic theology. In a similar fashion, I recall talking to a two acquaintances of mine who were Chinese Christians who went on for several minutes about how superstitious Buddhists were, and how rational their Christianity was (and that was why one had converted). I then queried said individuals about their opinion as regard to the Athanasian creed, and subsequent clarifications at Chalcedon. Of course I got really confused answers which garbled the philosophical details. My point is that I don't think the philosophical details of Presbyterianism and Christianity were really that salient or significant toward the religious beliefs and practice of either my friend of my acquaintances. But, because of the ontological and world-shaking emotional significance that religion has for believers they would not admit this, perhaps even to themselves, and persisted in attempting to puzzle through my sneaky logic traps as if they were of great relevance. If they were theologians no doubt they could have easily "answered" my questions through artful dodges and semantic ploys, I've read enough Lutheran gibberish about free will to know that I would have given up under any assault of philosophical cognitive gymnastics. But they weren't theologians, rather, they were conventional believers who gave an official nod to axiomatic and somewhat abstract creeds and ideals, while living their day to day life in a religious community which fed their soul in ways far more substantive than through Calvinist systematic theology and Alexandrian formulae.

In our public discourse on the Islamic terrorist phenomenon many of us, Muslims, non-Muslims and terrorists, pretend either as if a) the terrorists live in a world of inverted values and principles from which they derive their anti-truths, or b) they are an unfathomable force of nature beyond comprehension. The sloppiness of operational abductive logic means that justification of a set of facts via any fungible premise or paradigm is not particularly difficult. In terms of practical reality I would be skeptical of the idea that religious professionals could convince terrorists via first principles from the Koran and Hadith that their actions were wrong, rather, I suspect that many who are "convinced" were not convinced terrorists in the first place, or, for whatever reason they left the terrorist life and found an appropriate reason for the set of new facts that defined their life. Verbal models of little substance, such as the contention that Islam is about peace (a priori), are still going to be omnipresent aspects of political life because of the fact that they are imbued with ontological and emotional significance, they are shibboleths that seal tribal boundaries. Nevertheless, God willing no one in a position of power or an analyst of influence will take these creedal affirmations as having great predictive power in terms of how people behave. It maybe important to give a nod to how people say they behave, what they believe, but it is important to know what it is really nested within the structure of their minds. If fealty to the Koran and Hadiths is the justification given verbally by terrorists, one should be cautious in taking their contention at face value, especially given their variation over time (i.e., progressive reshaping of their tactics and values). Rather, it maybe that cognitive and social parameters are the most effective in generating change in patterns of action and professed beliefs (killing crucial charismatic leaders within a network might be far more potent than appealing with Islamic clerics of erudition and renown to the contraventions of Koran and Hadith naked by the action of terrorists).

Unfortunately I have few real answers that extend beyond the typical banalities. But, the point of this post is to suggest that the best means of generating models of social and cultural dynamics relevant to public policy must integrate the insights of cognitive science and social psychology. There is a tendency to resist this because humans have an innate folk psychology which gives us basic social fluency among conspecifics which is not learned. But, this intuitive sense of "knowing" leads us astray in novel or higher order complexity systems. We all think we know how to think, and how we think, but the cognitive revolution really has discovered that the mind is a different beast that it perceives itself to be.

Theological Incorrectness
Mind and Religion
Religion Explained
In Gods We Trust
Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science
The Robot's Rebellion
Explaining Culture

10 questions for Armand M. Leroi   posted by Razib @ 12/01/2005 09:43:00 AM

Below are 10 questions I posed to Dr. Armand Leroi, the author of Mutants. My questions are in bold.

1) Your biography suggests that you are a "citizen of the world." Do you feel a special attachment to any of the nations that you have called home?

Like many people who have grown up in different countries, I have been left with a sort of restlessness, a desire to periodically sever ties and move. But I must admit that having now lived in England for nearly ten years, I have come to love this country and its people very much. In another ten I may even begin to understand them.

2) Your primary research focuses on the development of C. elegans. Seeing as how this is a selfing nematode, do you think that it is truly a very good organismal model for the "evolutionary" part of evo-devo in the general sense?

The beauty of C. elegans lies in its simplicity, regularity of structure and transparency. I do not mean "transparency" in any metaphorical sense, but in the literal one: you can see every cell in its tiny body. Importantly, the properties that make C. elegans so wonderful to work with are shared by many other species of nematode. So you can do comparative biology -- evo-devo -- on a cell-by-cell basis: something that is unique to worms and very powerful. For proof of this I recommend Ralf Sommer's work on the evolution of the vulva.

C. elegans' strange habit of selfing doesn't affect such comparative studies. It does, however, affect the population genetic structure of the species: it means that the species is largely composed of many clones. For this reason it's not terribly useful for microevolutionary studies. If you want to do a selection experiment, Drosophila remains a far better choice.

3) How did you come to John Brockman's attention? I assume you didn't send him a telegram with a letter of introduction from Richard Dawkins attached?

I knew that Brockman was the ultimate science-writer's agent. So I faxed him a five-page proposal cold. He, or rather Katinka Matson, his wife and President of Brockman Inc., picked it up off the floor; she has been my agent ever since. She tells me that it was the title that caught her eye: "Mutants". There's a lesson there for the aspirant writer.

4) You've shot to public intellectual status in large part based on your recent op-eds in relation to race. Have you read the rebuttal site to your essay A Family Tree in Every Gene, If so, how would you respond in a pithy fashion to their criticisms?

I have read the essays, and have considered responding to them. But where to start? When last I looked, the SSRC website contained a dozen papers written by some 20 academics united by little more than a collective, if heartfelt, sense of outrage.

But were I to respond I would ask my critics to do two things. First, when considering scientific results to set questions of history, ideology and social justice aside. And, second, to learn some genetics. Of course, given that my critics are overwhelmingly social scientists and historians, I hold no hope that these modest requests will be fulfilled.

5) You've offered that hybrid individuals with the parents being of relatively distinct racial origin might be more beautiful than unadmixed individuals on expectation. This appeals to an intuitive notion that I often encounter in my day to day life, though people seem to imply that the 'hybrid vigor' derives from heterosis or overdominance, while you suggest that it is due to the masking of deleterious recessive alleles (i.e., dampening of inbreeding effects). Do you believe that it is as simple as all that in that there is a relatively inverse linear relation between inbreeding coefficient and fitness? (at least across the genetic distances you are implying) What about the possibility of countervailing genetic incompatibilities acting as a break on the beneficial effects of the masking of negative recessives?

[this response is temporally out of synch with the others because there were some emails exchanged about it]

The idea that human beauty might depend on mutational load was a speculative one, and presented as such. But it is consistent with a great deal of theory and experiment in animals where it comes under the general rubric of the "good genes" hypothesis for sexual selection. Can concealment of deleterious recessives account for the common notion that mixed-race individuals are beautiful? Perhaps. But there are other explanations. One might be that mixed race individuals present us with novel, unexpected, combinations of features -- novelty itself is beautiful. In the future we should be able to test whether beauty does indeed depend on mutational load by estimating the latter directly from genome sequences.

Might racial mixing ever be deleterious? The conventional answer is "no"; it is certainly the one that I thought to give. Razib, however -- ever alert -- directs my attention to recent report in Nature Genetics that suggests a possible case of hybrid breakdown in humans.

Helgadottir et al. (2005) identify a haplotype that confers high risk for myocardial infarction in African- but not European-Americans. The haplotype is rare in Africa and so African-Americans who have it probably get it from European ancestors. But what accounts for its evil effects in African Americans? One explanation is that Europeans are protected by some other genetic variant that Africans also lack -- as do most African Americans.

Of course hybrid breakdown is not the only possible explanation for this result. It could be that African Americans are exposed to some environmental factor that European Americans aren't, and it is this that interacts with the haplotype to cause myocardial infarctions. Without knowing more about these other factors -- genetic or enviromental -- we are left with no more than a provocative observation. Nevertheless this study highlights how little we know about the consequences of genetic structure in human populations.

6) Who selected the photos for MUTANTS? Some of the pictures attracted quite a bit of attention in public places when I was reading your book.

I did. When searching for illustrations, I invariably sought old platinum prints or even older lithographs. I did so because such images are beautiful things in themselves. True, they are macabre. But they are less dehumanizing, and no less accurate, than the harshly coloured photographs that can be found in any modern clinical genetics textbook.

7) You've done research in the United States and England, what are the differences in the scientific cultures and variations in terms of how one has to get funding?

Funding is easier to get here, and there's less bureaucracy than in the US - but you get less money too. But then, we Brits (if you will permit me the identity) take pride in doing more with less: on being nimbler, smarter, than our American colleagues with their vast resources. There's some truth to that, but probably less than we like to think. And when we visit US labs we return awed. The single greatest impediment to British science is its unfriendliness to non-EU graduate students. US labs are filled with brilliant students from all over the world, notably China. We're lucky if we can get a single Belgian.

8) If you had to do it over again would you modify your educational track? If so, how?

I would listen to my father when he said I should learn German. But I was 14...

9) In evolutionary genetics the infinite allele Wright-Fisher models have been ascendent since the Modern Neo-Darwinian Synthesis (along with modifications introduced by Kimura, Crow, Ohta, etc.), but Evo-Devo is bringing a new macroevolutionary perspective to the debate. At the end of MUTANTS you acknowledge that you focused on genetic mutations of large effect rather than continuous traits due to additive polygenic variance, and that the latter is a very fascinating topic in and of itself. How would you express succinctly the relative importance of these processes across the taxa of the tree of life? For example, would you accept a dichotomy between intraspecies relevance of microevolutionary models based on the Wright-Fisher framework, while macroevolutionary events like speciation are sequestered under the umbrella of Evo-Devo?

There are good reasons - the reasons that Fisher gave - that evolution proceeds, in general, by the substitution of mutations with rather weak effects. That is, mutations of large effect will tend to be deleterious. (If you don't think so, then opening "Mutants" at almost any page should convince you otherwise!) Given that, I tend to be conservative on this question: the onus is clearly on the macromutationists to make their case by directly demonstrating the role of major mutations in evolution. It's not enough to simply demonstrate that you can make a four-winged fly in the lab or show that Hox genes are important to the development of lots of animals.

Of course, it's very hard to identify the number and kinds of genes involved in adaptation and speciation. But there are an increasing number of studies that bear on the question. Such studies are based on those rare cases where we can cross two closely related species in the lab and get viable, if not fertile, offspring. They tend to show that adaptations are formed by the fixation of alleles with a range of sizes: a few biggish ones, and then a lot of smaller ones. For a deeper discussion of these questions interested readers might read Leroi, A.M. 2000. "The scale independence of evolution." Evolution and Development 2: 67-77. It's not very technical and still fairly current.

10) If in 10 years you could purchase your own full genome sequence for a month of your salary, would you do it? (assume privacy concerns are obviated)