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A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Gene Expression Blog

k9958 A new piece in Slate, Life Is Random: Biologists now realize that “nature vs. nurture” misses the importance of noise, makes a point which I’ve long been making: a lot of “environmental variation” is actually random, basically “noise”. I’d probably take issue with emphasis of the thesis, as I don’t quite think that the understanding of the role of noise in biology is quite so novel as the author makes it out to be. The headline does not help, though that probably can’t be attributed to the writer. Anyone who has worked in biology is well aware that many of the processes we attempt to understand are just really hard to tackle because of the overwhelming background noise against which we’re trying to pick up signal. Jim Manzi would term this “high causal density.” Social scientists have the same problem.

But it’s the last paragraph which really jumped out at me as notable:

Genetic determinism is the view that our genes make us who we are. Popular articles abound describing genes for daredevilishness, creativity, empathy, even being a Republican. Futurists and science-fiction authors predict that genetic engineering will someday allow designer children, built to order, with whatever smarts, looks, and personalities their parents prefer. But biology’s new recognition of the role of noise in development gives us one more reason to think that this simply isn’t going to happen. Gene mapping can’t tell you whether or not your kid will be a skydiver or a conservative, because gene expression is a far more complex phenomenon than biologists long imagined. Even if we can get the genes right, and somehow completely control environments, there will always be noise to make life richly unpredictable.

As I said above I’d take issue with the style of the exposition, as it makes the discovery of noise far more sensational and amazing to contemporary biologists than it is. But much of the substance, down to the illustration of randomness via elegans, I’m wholly on board with. But the author of the Slate piece leaves us with a very different moral than I usually do. She seems positively desirous of the rich creativity energy which noise injects into the developmental process. For me, on the contrary, the power of noise to mess with our expectations means that you have to emphasize even more those variables which have some understanding of. Genes.

• Category: Science • Tags: Genetics 
Citation: Nature 513, 409–413 (18 September 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13673

Citation: Nature 513, 409–413 (18 September 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13673

Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans has finally be published in journal, Nature. This is important as a validation and confirmation of the strange results which were reported therein. One simple finding which I haven’t commented on in too much detail is how clearly Europe as a biogeographic entity is distinct from the Near East genetically. Arguably, it’s more than a cultural construct. Europeans share descent in part from an ancient lineage which dates to the late Pleistocene, and is not shared with those outside Europe (haplogroup I-M70 in Y chromosomes). To an extent this isn’t totally surprising, as water barriers are often incredibly good at allow for populations to drift apart due to lack of reoccurring gene flow (even ones as narrow as the Straits of Gibraltar and the Bosporus). On the other hand there is arguably more continuum with populations in Northeast Asia, though much of that is relatively recent in vintage (e.g., many of the Central Asian Turkic groups occupy a position between west and east Eurasia, but they are relatively recent admixtures).

Finally, this paper leaves a lot of unanswered questions, which I suspect will be answered soon:

Several questions will be important to address in future ancient DNA work. One question concerns where and when the Near Eastern farmers mixed with European hunter-gatherers to produce the EEF. A second question concerns how the ancestors of present-day Europeans first acquired their ANE ancestry. Discontinuity in central Europe during the late Neolithic (~4,500 years ago) associated with the appearance of mtDNA types absent in earlier farmers and hunter-gatherers raises the possibility that ANE ancestry may have also appeared at this time. Finally, it will be important to study ancient genome sequences from the Near East to provide insights into the history of the basal Eurasians.

One thing to note about “basal Eurasians” is that they claim that it shares “drift” with all other non-Africans. This implies that they were not post-Out-of-Africa migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, but shared in a common Out-of-Africa history with the other populations of the world. I hope that deeper study of non-European populations might be able to get us a better sense of where basal Eurasians shake out.

• Category: Science • Tags: Europeans 

Darwins-Cathedral-cover Recently Sam Harris rebuked President Obama’s assertion that the Islamic State is “not Islamic.” And also that “No religion condones the killing of innocents.” To not put too fine a point on it, these statements are either false or meaningless. I applaud Harris as far as it goes, as he is willing to unashamedly rip the veil off the sophistry which dominates much of our public discourse. But in many ways Sam Harris is to atheists what Thomas Frank is to liberals. He is sincere, but his power is in rhetoric rather than analysis.

On the face of it the Islamic State is clearly about Islam. Islam is in its name, and they gesture toward many of the traditions and tropes of that religion. But to reduce the Islamic State to something as vague and expansive as being due to Islam is not particular informative or insightful. This sort of civilizational-culturalist explanation resembles the aether in its formless ability to reshape itself to any phenomena. A key fact which I think is essential in attempting to understand the nature of the Islamic State is that ex-Baathist officers and functionaries have been essential in the operation of the nascent state. This is interesting because Baathism was notionally a secular ideology, co-founded by an Arab of Christian background. But one thing I have read is that even non-Islamist Sunni insurgents in Iraq in the aughts became progressively more religious in their orientation. The eventual absorption of this element into the Islamic State is then an evolutionary process of slow co-option of a marginalized component.

If the function of the Islamic State as a state, as opposed to a diffuse terrorist network, is contingent upon the resurrection of the old Baathist power elite, then one can posit the hypothesis that its emergence was contingent upon the total dispossession of that elite after 2003. Clearly the Sunni Arab hegemony of the Baathist period was not sustainable, but the total dissolution of all the old institutions, and the marginalization of stakeholders, was not inevitable. A falling back to old, atavist, identities by these officers is not entirely surprising. Consider the ethnic nature of most prison gangs. These men on the run, stripped of all material comforts, naturally were drawn to a less concrete, more ‘aspirational,’ ideology.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Islamic State 
Credit: Razib Khan, taken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Credit: Razib Khan, taken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I took the above photo at the Met in New York. What did you think when you saw the image initially? You can read about the detailed meaning of the statue, but the short explanation is that it’s a Native American girl who stumbles upon a cross. Before 2010 the pose wouldn’t trigger any strong connotations associated with popular culture, but today it does.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Art 

Discuss anything.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Open Thread 

When I was watching Boyhood I assumed that some moron would point out that the protagonist’s social milieu was overwhelmingly white. And it’s out: Not Everyone’s Boyhood. Many of my friends have a hard time accepting I identify as conservative, but reading stuff like this makes it clear why I’m conservative, I feel like puking over this sort of critique because I think it’s totally dishonest. I feel confident that most of the white writers at The Atlantic, where the piece was published, had white childhoods, with white friends. If you look at the General Social Survey, and I have, around 50 percent of white liberals haven’t had a black person over for dinner in the last few years. And there was the media buzz recently about the fact that white people have white social networks. A clear case of “no shit” social science.

That is all fine. The writer of the piece on Boyhood is someone named Imran Siddequee, who is I’m sure working hard to make a career as a race hustler. And that’s good as far as it goes. If you majored in the humanities you have to make a living somehow. Not to be racist, but what really bothers me is the amen chorus of white liberals who deconstruct and denounce all manner of cultural production for its lack of “diversity”, but who live lives as populated by white people as the protagonist of Boyhood. As it happens I have a lot of white friends, and sometimes on Facebook you see wedding photos. Most of my friends are liberal, though not all, and one thing that is salient is that these wedding parties and attendees are mighty white. Even in California, where half the population is non-Hispanic white, good white liberals seem to be inviting only white people to their seminal life events.

So I’m proposing the “wedding test” to see if you really walk the walk on diversity and all that. You don’t have to marry someone of another race, I know that’s going too far for most people (recalling the Reihan Salam column in Slate where comments analogized same race preference to sexual orientation). But if diversity is really something you value, presumably that will be reflected in the few hundred people you invite to your wedding party. Change starts at home, if you can’t diversify your personal life, perhaps you should get off your high horse about how we need “more diversity in field X.”

• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Race 

birth_cover_500 Gary Marcus’ The Birth of the Mind keyed me in to the fact that claims of neural plasticity often also suggest that the brain can not completely compensate for alterations structure. This was relevant in his discussion of mental modularity, but it is something to keep in mind whenever you encounter “amazing” instances of people who survive damage to their brain. A case in point, Woman of 24 found to have no cerebellum in her brain:

… woman has reached the age of 24 without anyone realising she was missing a large part of her brain. The case highlights just how adaptable the organ is.

The discovery was made when the woman was admitted to the Chinese PLA General Hospital of Jinan Military Area Command in Shandong Province complaining of dizziness and nausea. She told doctors she’d had problems walking steadily for most of her life, and her mother reported that she hadn’t walked until she was 7 and that her speech only became intelligible at the age of 6.

Yes, a case of the adaptability of the brain. But she still has problems walking steadily, and that’s not a trivial matter for an “upright ape.” The structures of our brains are not coincidence, which can be discarded without consequence.

• Category: Science • Tags: Neuroscience 

If you’ve been reading this weblog this headline in Science won’t be surprising, Three-part ancestry for Europeans. The writer, Anne Gibbons, draws up stuff which has been out for a long time (e.g., Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans). But she also has taken the temperature of researchers in terms of where the results are going, as obviously there are hunches and inferences the scientists are making which are not publication worthy, yet. From the article:

How do you make a modern European? For years, the favored recipe was this: Start with DNA from a hunter-gatherer whose ancestors lived in Europe 45,000 years ago, then add genes from an early farmer who migrated to the continent about 9000 years ago. An extensive study of ancient DNA now points to a third ingredient for most Europeans: blood from an Asian nomad who blew into central Europe perhaps only about 4000 or 5000 years ago. This third major lineage originated somewhere in northwestern Asia, perhaps on the steppes of western Asia or in Eastern Europe.

Previous studies have also found some genetic ties between Europeans and Native Americans, notes population geneticist Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide in Australia, a co-author on the new study, a draft of which is available on a biology preprint server. Thanks to these ancient Eurasians, “someone with northern European ancestry is more closely related to Native Americans than southern Europeans are,” says Pontus Skoglund, a postdoc at Harvard who analyzed DNA from the Swedish skeletons but was not a co-author.

In their talks, Haak and Krause each proposed that the late influx of these “ghost” Eurasians might be related to what’s known archaeologically as the Corded Ware culture of nomadic herders, who imprinted twisted cord or rope onto their pottery. These nomadic pastoralists herded their cattle east from the steppes north of the Black Sea and occupied large areas of northeast and central Europe by 2500 B.C.E.

Frequency_of_R1a_in_EuropeSo now we have a name, the Corded Ware. This is not archaeologically entirely surprising, though what little I know has been gleaned from Wikipedia. Those more versed in this domain can now offer their own interpretations of the implications, but I’m rather sure that the geneticists are confident about their results if they’re floating it about, and have probably cross-checked with some archaeologists. I do think though that we know have a sense of why R1a is so frequent across much of Europe. It doesn’t show up in the ancient DNA, but probably came with Corded Ware.

• Category: History • Tags: Corded Ware 

twohigIQkidsThe new paper in PNAS, Common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance identified using the proxy-phenotype method, has resulted in a fair amount of reaction. One of the major things that people grasp onto is that the effects of the variants in question are extremely smaller (here’s an FAQ for the current paper). Each variant is associated with a 0.3 increment or decrement in IQ, where the average IQ is 100 and the standard deviation is ~15 points. These results are not surprising, as the problems with earlier attempts to fix upon a genetic region which explains a great deal of variation in intelligence in the normal range have not been successful (i.e., they fail replication, so probably just a false positive). Taking these results at face value many have wondered what the big deal is, as the associations here have such a small impact.

First, a small effect does not preclude important practical consequences. The locus HMGCR has been implicated in variation in cholesterol levels at 0.1 standard deviation, but that is the locus that statins target. Does this mean that we can make a “genius pill” in the future? I’m moderately skeptical, and obviously there are major ethical issues with this. But, this sort of research shows that it may be possible, and in this big wide world of ours knowledge is hard to keep under control. As a normative matter I’m in the always better to know category for almost everything. So big surprise I have no issues with this line of research.

There is a second issue of more practical relevance, and that is that many people wish to reject a heritable component for intelligence. To be clear it is robust science that intelligence is 0.3 to 0.7 heritable. That means that 30 to 70 percent of the variation in intelligence in the population is due to variation in genes. Because the trait is highly polygenic, on the order of thousands of loci controlling variation in intelligence, it is difficult to pick any particular signal. But very few scientists are under the illusion that intelligence is not at least moderately heritable. A good analogy here is height, which is highly heritable, and controlled by many genes of small effect (the genetic architecture here is moderately more tractable from what I can tell). But for many people, especially in the public, they “need a gene.” It makes the abstract, ratio of additive genetic variance over total phenotypic variance, concrete.

But I find it more interesting that some are spinning this as a support for the low heritability of IQ, and the importance of environment. Personally I wish for my children that environment was less important, not more. The reason is simple: in a behaviour genetic sense we really don’t know what we’re talking about when we say “environment.” The Invisible Gorilla has a lot of illustrations on how tools and techniques which make us “smarter” really don’t work (or, their efficacy has not been scientifically validated). The same for infants and children. Obviously malnutrition and abuse are going to cause problems in relation to development, but the sort of “enriching” activities and practices de rigueur among upper middle class parents probably are irrelevant to the final outcome of the trait in question (this is clear when you look at the high level of variation cross-culturally, with some “best practices” being contradictory, but the results are the same nonetheless).

The-Nurture-Assumption-Harris-Judith-Rich-9780684857077 The best way to think about it is that “environment” is just noise in your model. It is the genetic component you can control, or at least use to predict. Though heritability is a population wide statistic, it has some relevance for individuals. The mid-parent value of a trait for the parents can help you gauge your expectations for your offspring. When you standardize for sex the height of parents can tell you whether to expect tall or short offspring. This is not guaranteed, as there is a high standard deviation around the expected value, even for a highly heritable trait like height (the correlation between full-siblings for height is ~0.50). But, it does load the die. The correlation of IQ between full-siblings is also on the order of ~0.50. Remember here that environment, the noise parameter, changes your expected value. Since this isn’t heritable it drives the phenotype of the offspring back to the population mean. If IQ is less heritable, say 0.30, then if you and your spouse are deviated away from the mean, you can expect your children to regress back to the population mean, since they won’t inherit the magic mix of factors which resulted in high IQ. In contrast, if IQ is heritable on the order of 0.70, then you can update your expectations so that your children will be more likely to resemble you, assuming you are deviated from the norm.

Perhaps I’m a narcissist, but I want my children to be like me in cognitive profile. It makes it easier for me to understand where they are coming from. If I thought that I could as a parent control the environmental outcomes with a high degree of certainty I might be more sanguine about low heritability, but that’s not my hunch about this trait. Low heritability of intelligence to me connotes a flight back to mediocrity and a total lack of control. High heritability in contrast allows one to reclaim control, because you choose your spouse and you have a sense of their realized phenotype. Obviously this is conditional on where you stand on the distribution. So I emphasize the “I.” But many people at the higher end of the IQ distribution seem to want lower heritability, because they perceive that they can control outcomes through manipulation of environment. I’m not confident of this at all. Sometimes flighty academic abstractions can have real consequences in the choices we make in this world. This is one.

• Category: Science • Tags: IQ 

In the annals of “good GATTACA”, Rape suspect indicted with cutting-edge DNA testing:

A Dedham man freed earlier this year while awaiting trial on charges that he raped and robbed two women in Boston in 2004 has been re-indicted in the case, after cutting-edge DNA testing pointed to him as a suspect and ruled out his identical twin brother, according to authorities.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that any prosecutor’s office in America has attempted to use this [DNA testing] technique in court,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley on Wednesday.

The suspect has an identical twin. This naturally results in reasonable doubt if you use standard genomic technology, which lacks the precision to discern any differences to a high degree of confidence when the sequences are so similar. But a very small number of mutations are unique to a given twin. To pull these needles out of the haystack you need powerful genomic technology. The prosecutors paid $100,000 dollars and had to delay the trial. But it seems that it was worth it. This level of sequencing power will not be needed in most cases in the future, but, it does make it so that legal dramas which hinge around the identity of a perp where the suspect has an identical twin will be the cause of less tension.

• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Sequencing 

Dienekes has posted some abstracts. I’ll be there.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: ASHG 2014 

Vox has a piece on genetic testing and what it may unravel. One portion is cautionary:

That’s when she discovered Schwartzman. And her life changed. Afraid to ask her mother about him, she went instead to her mother’s best friend for answers. The friend confirmed that Schwartzman was probably the son Pearl’s mom had given up years ago.

“You can’t know what you’re going to find. It isn’t all good stuff. It’s not all happy stuff. And maybe some secrets are better left secrets.”

At first, it was “fantasy land,” Pearl said. “I found a brother. On his part, he found his biological family.” She was happy for Schwartzman, for his relief. “I felt an immediate kinship and connection with him,” she said. “We look similar. We have similar movements.”

Now, three years after the reunion, her opinion about the experience has changed.

“I suddenly had to rewrite my own family history, which is a shock,” Pearl said. “It did not make sense in terms of all the stories I had grown up with, in terms of what my life was. It did not include [my mother] getting pregnant, having a kid, giving it up for adoption.”

“This was my mother’s secret,” she said.

“My mother used to say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ [With 23andMe,] you can’t know what you’re going to find. It isn’t all good stuff. It’s not all happy stuff. And maybe some secrets are better left secrets.”

51dsZnatlbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ My attitude about these issues about parental privacy in relation to adopted children is that the children weren’t asked to be born, they didn’t give consent. You give up a lot of rights when you make some decisions as an adult. Sometimes those rights you give up are precious. Sometimes it isn’t fair (consider a situation where a person who opposes abortion is raped, and so carries the baby to term). I agree that these are complex issues, and they need to aired out. But my moral stance is to first and foremost to look at the world through the eyes of future generations, who didn’t ask to be born into this world, and ask what would they want? Think about the children! It’s cliche, but it has a lot of truth to it. Some adopted children don’t want to know about their past. From what I have seen most do want to know more than they do, at least to an extent. Being a kid is hard enough.

More broadly, light is good. I’m not a Whig about progress, but both the norms and arc of Western history so far have been toward greater openness and candor. David Brin is a great science fiction author, but 50 years from now I suspect he’ll be remembered for writing The Transparent Society. It was interesting when it came out. Today it is incredibly relevant.

• Category: Science • Tags: Ethics 

Common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance identified using the proxy-phenotype method:

We identify several common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance using a two-stage approach: we conduct a genome-wide association study of educational attainment to generate a set of candidates, and then we estimate the association of these variants with cognitive performance. In older Americans, we find that these variants are jointly associated with cognitive health. Bioinformatics analyses implicate a set of genes that is associated with a particular neurotransmitter pathway involved in synaptic plasticity, the main cellular mechanism for learning and memory. In addition to the substantive contribution, this work also serves to show a proxy-phenotype approach to discovering common genetic variants that is likely to be useful for many phenotypes of interest to social scientists (such as personality traits).

Ewen Callaway has a write up in Nature. The issue here is that it’s been evident for the past 10 years or so intelligence variation is not due to alleles segregating at high frequencies with at least modest effects, so they’re hard to pick up in association studies (contrast with pigmentation, which is mostly controlled by a number of loci on the order of 10). Some, such as Kevin Mitchell, don’t think that common variants are the way to go, period. Common as in variants which are found across the population, even if their effect on the trait is very small. This group disagrees. One of the authors, Peter Visscher, has written up his own view of this line of research, Intelligence inheritance – three genes that add to your IQ score:

This study of normal variation in cognitive performance confirms that there is no gene with a large effect on this trait. There is no “gene for intelligence” – instead, cognitive performance is likely to be influenced by thousands of genes, each having a small effect.

While the individual effect of the genetic variants are extremely small, their identification may lead to knowledge of the biological pathways involved in cognitive performance and cognitive ageing. This insight may eventually lead us into a better understanding of the mechanism involves in memory loss and dementia.

Finally, because individual gene effects are small, an implication of the study is that even larger studies, for example on millions of people, will lead to the discovery of many more gene variants.

In sum, because intelligence is at least moderately heritable, but the causal variants are so diffuse and numerous, the best bet for having a smart child is picking a spouse with a deviated phenotype. Look for smart people to marry….

• Category: Science • Tags: IQ 


• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Eyes 

Steven Pinker has an essay up at TNR, The Trouble With Harvard, which covers a lot of ground. “Read the whole thing.” But this section jumped out at me:

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomer”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

When I began interacting with people with undergraduate Ivy backgrounds, if they weren’t in the sciences, I was shocked to find them incredibly vapid and more interested in signalling erudition than actually knowing anything.* I haven’t thought much of this reality over the years, as most of the Ivy people I encounter now went for graduate school, and don’t exhibit those ticks. But this aspect of undergraduate selection in admissions makes it much clearer to me why I perceived this.

Of course the average Harvard undergraduate has excellent grades and standardized test scores coming in. But if it wanted to Harvard could stock up on many more individuals with perfect test scores than it does. Among the population with high IQs there is variation in intellectual curiosity.

I’m not going to make a judgment as to whether Harvard’s policy in selecting applicants with the 21st century version of “good moral character” is the right way to go or not. But obviously these policies explain the difference between those who arrive at Harvard for graduate work, and those who land there as undergraduates. Some of the most intellectually curious people I know went to Harvard as undergrads. But unfortunately they’re the exception, not the rule.

* Here’s a concrete example. I am interested in Roman history, and had a discussion with someone with a background in classics and history at one of the Ivies. They kept quoting garbled and watered down versions of Peter Brown, rather than expressing their own original thoughts and ideas, in relation to the concept of material decline (a la Bryan Ward-Perkins). My impression was that this individual was somewhat taken aback that someone with a science background from a state school wasn’t impressed by the bluffing, and actually knew some of the literature in this area. They didn’t seem to comprehend that my goal wasn’t to seem smart, but to mine them for more information and insight. I came back empty in that regard.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Harvard 

1024x624_12215_Head_2d_character_cyborg_cyberpunk_sci_fi_android_picture_image_digital_artOne of the most realistic aspects of Boyhood was the rise of ubiquitous mobile technology in the period that the narrative encompassed. It is common for many skeptics of technological innovation to suggest that the future just isn’t what it was chalked to be. We don’t live in glass encased arcologies connected by sky-bridges. Rather, the future has been more about the less visually striking spread of an invisible web of information which has infused all aspects of our lives. For example, recently I was running with a friend who wondered about the origins of a particular brewery. I had my phone on my person since it was tracking our running, so I pulled it out and asked the question verbally. The phone thought for a little while and spit back the appropriate answer (the brewery was located in Orange county, but the trail it was named after is in northern California). We take this for granted now, but even 10 years ago this would have seemed amazing. My friend Michael Vassar told me in 2008 that he agreed with Peter Thiel’s skepticism of the nature of modern technological innovation, pointing out that of late only the iPhone has been notable. But at that time I don’t think we grasped how transformative the iPhone was. Ultimately I suspect it will usher in the age of ubiquitous personal computing in all aspects of our lives, not just when we sit down at a desk and boot up a notebook or tower.

people-using-their-smartphonesAnd it’s not just smartphones. As I mentioned I’m going to visit New York City for the first time in ~4 years, and to prep I downloaded some helpful apps, and constructed a Google calendar with places and times nailed down precisely. I didn’t do this the previous instances. What changed? First, I’ve become habituated to putting everything into calendars, and squeezing as much ‘productivity’ out of every unit of time as possible. Second, an integrated ecosystem of applications now exists to enable this sort of planning without much hassle. I have access to my calendar on my phone and any computer I have access to. Instead of an analog world where one has a qualitative sense of progression through time, things are becoming digitized, discrete instances perfectly separated. “Just-in-time” gratification services such as Uber obviously are perfectly suited to the mentality of someone like me, for whom the phone has become an avenue by which I extend my influence to and operate upon the world. Whether you think this is good or bad, it is of great consequence. And though there is some commentary on the changes that are occurring, I don’t think it is commensurate to the silent social revolution.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Technology 

I have to say, I disagree with President Obama on a lot of things, especially domestic policy. But I’m really glad that he’s taking his time on figuring out how to respond to ISIS. In foreign policy I think his instincts are better for our nation, even if the Establishment is displeased with the timidity. They won’t be sending their sons over to fight, it’s all a game of Risk for them.

• Category: Miscellaneous 

Boyhood_film I went and watched Boyhood yesterday. As you know the “gimmick” is that Richard Linklater used the same actors over a 12 year period to portray the same characters. But actually this turned out to really heighten the verisimilitude. You are used to seeing different actors play the “young” or “old” version of the same character. Though they are roughly physically congruent, they are not the same person, and it shows in aspects of their affect and manner. Often it’s subtle, but in hindsight after watching Boyhood the contrast is real. Using the same actors did produce a continuity of character development which was fresh and new. In addition, specific writing of the script obviously occurred at different points, as there are tells to particular developments between 2002 and 2014. For example, you see the shift from portable land-line phones as the norm in 2002, to flip-phones in 2008, to smartphones in the early teens.

At nearly three hours the film is a bit long, and the later teen years of the main character’s life was less than compelling. Also, the older sister played by the director’s daughter was a bit of an odd fit because unlike her brother she seems so physically different from both of her notional parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. That somewhat undercuts the realism which was a structural part of the movie as the characters aged and changed.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Boyhood 

I haven’t done a reader “meet-up” in many years. But I know that I have many readers in New York City, and I’m going to visit for the first time in four years, so I thought I’d catch up with anyone who wanted to catch up. My itinerary is pretty full, as I’m touching base with people I haven’t seen in a long time. But Monday 9/15 2 to 4 PM is currently open, so I’m going to be open to meeting people at a location which I will disclose if you contact me.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: New York City 

One of my pet peeves is that it is ridiculous to compare nation-states when they are not comparable. For example, China and Switzerland are both nation-states. But China has a continent scale population, but, less ethnic diversity than Switzerland.* Similarly, you can’t compare some European nations to the United States. Rather, the better point of comparison is to some American states.

A similar problem crops up when you compare India to Pakistan. Though Pakistan has some within nation diversity, India is arguably much more diverse. And some of the “states” within India are enormous in size and population. The North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh actually has a larger population than Pakistan by 20 million! But there’s another aspect of the variation that I’ve always found of note: the social statistics of BIMARU, the core North Indian Hindi-speaking states, resemble Pakistan more than they resemble other Indian states.

Below I’ve plotted the total fertility rate at three time points for various states and nations. What is striking is that not only do Bihar and Uttar Pradesh resemble Pakistan in total fertility rate, but they follow the same trajectory. In contrast the state of Punjab, which is ethnically similar to Pakistan, and sits geographically between BIMARU and Pakistan, has sub-replacement fertility, like Tamil Nadu in the deep south of India.


* China has more minorities, but there is far less balance. It is 90-95 percent Han Chinese.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: BIMARU 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"