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A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Gene Expression Blog
Citation: Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13595

Citation: Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13595

Biological insights from 108 schizophrenia-associated genetic loci:

Schizophrenia is a highly heritable disorder. Genetic risk is conferred by a large number of alleles, including common alleles of small effect that might be detected by genome-wide association studies. Here we report a multi-stage schizophrenia genome-wide association study of up to 36,989 cases and 113,075 controls. We identify 128 independent associations spanning 108 conservatively defined loci that meet genome-wide significance, 83 of which have not been previously reported. Associations were enriched among genes expressed in brain, providing biological plausibility for the findings. Many findings have the potential to provide entirely new insights into aetiology, but associations at DRD2 and several genes involved in glutamatergic neurotransmission highlight molecules of known and potential therapeutic relevance to schizophrenia, and are consistent with leading pathophysiological hypotheses. Independent of genes expressed in brain, associations were enriched among genes expressed in tissues that have important roles in immunity, providing support for the speculated link between the immune system and schizophrenia.

This publication is accompanied by a massive grant to the Broad Institute for the purposes of making discoveries in the field of psychiatric genomics. Eric Lander is a brilliant scientist, but boy can he bring in the dollars. Psychiatric genetics has been around for a while, from the days of linkage studies to association analysis. But it’s been plagued by inability to replicate positive findings, strongly suggestive of issues of sample sizes too small to have the power to answer the questions being posed robustly. The people associated with the Broad Institute are smart. Hopefully they don’t have to worry about adding a line to their CVs with studies they’re not totally sure of. With these sorts of sample sizes there is a chance that they can brute force their way past some of the expected problems of finding genuine novel genetic associations when a trait his highly polygenic.

Finally, perhaps with some of the $650 million allocated to this research they could publish in journals that are open access or pay Nature/Science/Cell to have them open access? If you look at the author list it’s enormous. These projects in the future are going to involve many different research groups, and a substantial portion of peoples’ careers. It is probably optimal that this research is widely distributed partly to stimulate interest from those who are thinking about a career in science.

Addendum: I can see why they don’t call it ‘psycho-genomics.’ But it would be fun.

• Category: Science • Tags: Psychiatric Genomics

SnackWells

SnackWells

I am a child of the 1980s and early 1990s. Therefore I remember many things which I would perhaps like to forget. One of those things is the monomaniacal fixation on “low fat” which permeated our culture during the decade before the internet became mainstream. My mother used to buy us boxes and boxes of SnackWells fat-free cookies, which it turns out are almost a pure concoction of white flour and sugar. In The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet Nina Teicholz recounts that this brand of cookie was so popular that the manufacturer had to ration it across the distribution chain, they just couldn’t keep up with demand. Teicholz’s book basically seems an update of Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. Many of my friends live and die by Taubes’ body of work, mostly because it produces results which are sustainable for them. The revolution in our perceptions of nutrition over the past generation can be summarized by the fact that The New York Times is willing to publish an article with this title: Study Questions Fat and Heart Disease Link.

What to think if you are a “well informed” person when the information changes so often and quickly? Melinda Wenner Moyer’s article in Aeon, Against Grain, is a good place to start. She observes:

In the midst of all the claims and counterclaims, there is a single clear piece of common ground. Experts of every stripe ask dieters to avoid refined sugars and grains. ‘Losing body weight on a plant-based diet is much less likely to occur if the diet includes too many refined carbohydrates,’ writes Cornell’s T. Colin Campbell in his book, The China Study, based in part on his Cornell-Oxford-China study research. Esselstyn instructs his dieters to consume only whole-grain products and avoid fruit juice. And McDougall urges his readers to eat complex carbohydrates instead of refined sugars and flours.

So where does all this leave us, other than confused and wondering if we should stop eating cupcakes? On the health side, the science does collectively suggest, but not prove, that a calorie is not always just a calorie, and that carbohydrates – particularly refined ones – might have unique metabolic effects that increase risk for chronic disease. Indeed, the notion that sugar and refined carbs are dangerous seems to be the one point on which nutrition scientists at either end of the carb-fat spectrum agree. I suspect that my weight-loss success a decade ago had something to do with the fact that, by cutting out wheat, I was replacing some refined carbohydrates with other macronutrients.

The problem here is what Jim Manzi in Uncontrolled terms “high causal density.” The most famous researchers, such as Dean Ornish and Robert Atkins, tend to present you with one-size-fits-all strident solutions. But the fact is that there are people who remain thin, who do not exercise, and consume processed carb and sugar.* I know them, and you probably know them. There are many factors which go into the end product of a person’s physical appearance and overall morbidity risk. On an aggregate scale of societies a few significant variables changing can result in enormous differences in outcomes, but people need to see efficacy on the individual level, and the causal signals can be confusing (in particular if efficacy varies from person to person for the same regime!).

A bigger issue has been institutional health’s monomaniacal focus on fat and a few biomarkers has left many not trusting scientific recommendations. That focus is shifting, as science does update. Unfortunately the generation of new robust inferences is noisy and prone to dead ends in domains of high causal density. This is not always the case in public health. It turns out that the model of germ theory is not too subtle; it describes the world in pretty uncomplicated terms. Similarly, why and how vaccines work is tractable because the etiology of how you get polio is much easier to tackle than how you get type 2 diabetes. In all likelihood there are many ways to get type 2 diabetes, and multiple factors impact different people at different weights (e.g., there are people with a greater genetic disposition to type 2 diabetes given the same exercise and nutritional regimes, though one might be able to explain this with something like the nature of fat deposition).

This reality of science as a messy and iterative process is obvious to anyone who practices science. A year ago I had a conversation with a friend who happens to be a professor of biology at a university, and we were talking about the problems with convincing the public about the efficacy of vaccination. He admitted that he had a bit of guilt in this area because when it came to his own health he took a very critically-rational perspective as to what his physicians told him. As someone who was aware of the protean nature of scientific literature he had no great confidence that the recommendations from on high were definitive or the “final answer.” Another friend who is a medical doctor did admit to me that for him patients who had a good science background were a pleasure to work with because for them healthcare was a collaborative process in which they were active participants, instead of being recipients of his commands ex cathedra. This reality is why I am somewhat uncomfortable with the “Because Science” meme. It attributes to science almost Solomonic powers of judgment, and in actuality is wielded to reinforce the prior conceptions of interlocutors.

Where does that leave us? Describing a problem is not a solution, and due to the nature of the reality here there isn’t an easy answer. But it does imply to me that we should be cautious about engineering aspects of human life when the scientific basis for that engineering is less than certain. The war on fat and salt over the past few generations have been due to putting science forward as the basis of policy which turned out to not be robust. In the case of salt the establishment has even done an about face, “the government says there is no good reason based on health outcomes for many Americans to drive their sodium consumption down to the very low levels recommended in national dietary guidelines.” Salt tastes good, so one can imagine just how much utility was left on the table because people changed their diet to become more insipid. Policies have consequences.

cupcake-red-velvet Increasingly new way of thinking about diet has been to focus less on the latest science, and fall back on cultural culinary history. “Eat like your grandmother cooked” is trendy advice proffered by influential writers such as Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan. But by removing heavily processed foods it might be a major upgrade from modern diets, which are designed to sustain the profits of the food industry, not our own health (that’s a negative externality, the cost of which they don’t have to eat). Whether you go mostly plant-based or carnivorous, you’re probably going to be fitter in either direction, even if one is superior to the other at the end of the day.** Instead of deduction from what we know, anengineering an appropriate nutritional outcome, in the best course of action in the near future is probably “hipster nutrition.” Artisan hand-crafted diets which look back to the past, though in a non-ironic fashion, might be the best way to go because they’re the outcome of hundreds of years of innovation and experimentation. If you don’t have randomized control trials, go with the next best thing. History.

* Whether they are healthy is a different question obviously.

** One issue is that the different options might be superior for different people.

• Category: Science • Tags: Nutrition

Natures-God-The-Heretical-Origins-of-the-AMERICAN-REPUBLIC-book-cover Almost done with Azar Gat’s Nations. But I’m violating my preference for reading books serially by simultaneously going through Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. It’s actually a hardcover book, as Stewart sent me a review copy. That makes it feel a little different when it comes to switching between Nations and Nature’s God. I’ve been a fan of Stewart’s books for a while, and did a 10 questions with him in 2006. There’s a lot in this book that I knew from more conventional history about the founding (see Jay Winik’s Great Upheaval), but I’m enjoying the interleaving of ancient philosophy. Stewart does a great of intellectual detective work from what I can tell. If you don’t know much about philosophy, but are curious to peruse a non-academic survey, the author’s previous work The Truth About Everything: An Irreverent History of Philosophy will be worth it.

Also, I’ve been a little disappointed by Nations. It’s good, but not nearly at the same level as War and Human Civilization. In that book the author had greater command of the material and clarity of presentation, so he didn’t try to keep hitting you over with the same point over and over. I’d still recommend the book, but readers should focus on the factual yield rather than the coherent thesis, since the basics of the latter are obvious early on.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Open Thread

"Domestic fox"

“Domestic fox”

The latest issue of Genetics has an interesting hypothesis paper, The “Domestication Syndrome” in Mammals: A Unified Explanation Based on Neural Crest Cell Behavior and Genetics. It sounds grand, but if you read the details it makes a lot of sense that changing the developmental pathway of neural crest cells has perturbed a great many traits. The target of selection in this case is “tameness,” the exact parameters of which they elucidate in the text. But there are numerous other phenotypic side effects which are hallmarks of domestication. Basically these are likely the outcome of the genetic correlation, as a given genetic alteration can have multiple downstream consequences. The paper is open access, so I invite you to read it yourself and make up your own mind.

For me the most interesting point is the argument that across mammals (and perhaps other vertebrates!) the disruption of development is due singularly to changes in neural crest cells, but on the genetic level the evolutionary process is polygenic and diverse. In other words the developmental pathway will exhibit similarities, ergo, similar correlated side effect traits. But the genetic architecture of the change across species may vary, because there are many genes which are effected by the phenotypic target of selection. Another way to state this is that there is no gene for domestication in the lineages under consideration, but rather many genes which have significant, but not overwhelming, effect. Of course there’s polygenic, and then there’s polygenic. One of the common side effects of domestication is depigmentation of the pelage of mammals, but this is one case where the number of genes effecting the trait is relatively low, on the order of ten genes account for more than half the variation. In contrast you have polygenic traits like height where you’re lucky to find one locus which can explain one percent of the variation. If domestication is like the latter then the role of standing variation in the evolutionary story is going to be large, nearly total. In contrast if pigmentation is representative than classical selection on new mutations of large effect unique to particular lineages may still be important. Not to be lame, but the answer is probably going to be in the middle, on average.

Second, there are broader questions about contingency, the genetic architecture of salient traits, and selection as a driver for adaptation, which come to mind after reading this paper. It seems hard to deny that if you constrain the phylogenetic space enough then there are many instances where evolutionary forces will basically result in broadly similar phenotypic and genetic outcomes. Though there are some differences in traits and genetic variations, there is a great deal of overlap across mammalian taxa which have been targeted by artificial selection. Though the authors don’t address this directly it, seems clear that many of the phenomena which revolve around domestication also apply to humans. If they do, and if “domestication” occurs through gradual selection upon standing variation, then the search for the gene which makes us uniquely human (e.g., “the language gene”) may be futile. Rather than a gene, our humanity may have emerged out of gradual change as the underlying frequency of alleles is shifted. This is not a sexy answer which will result in genomic fame for a researcher who discovers the gene-which-makes-us-human. Finally, there is the issue where we bracket artificial selection and domestication as if they are unique processes which derive from human agency. My own position is that though for semantic purposes we may speak of ‘artificial selection’,’ sexual selection’, and ‘natural selection,’ there’s really no fundamental difference at the root for these phenomena. Selection is selection, and the rest is commentary. To me that implies that attempting to understanding domestication may actually allow us to understand evolution more broadly (and Charles Darwin would agree with that point I suspect).

• Category: Science • Tags: Evolution

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida

Jargon is important. But it must be used judiciously. The term “allopatric speciation” may seem daunting, but it’s basically a pointer to a clear, distinct, and coherent idea. Too often scientists, and scholars more generally, get lazy in using jargon when they needn’t. But the original intent and roots of jargon and technical terminology is to condense complex and subtle ideas into one term which can serve as shorthand for specialists.

But there is another use of jargon, and that is to impress, intimidate, and signal that you are one of the initiates. Ideally jargon should facilitate faster and more transparent communication among specialists in a given topic. But in some cases jargon becomes a tool for intra-group argument, posturing, and maneuvering. It’s a stylistic flourish which connotes, rather than a substantive pointer which denotes. For example, I’ve been a bystander to arguments among conservative Christians who debate whether a particular political position is “glorifying Christ.” I have no clear idea what “glorifying Christ” means, but all the principals to the argument agree that it is a good thing, so it seems to me that this sort of utilization of the term in is mostly tactical and stylistic.

Recently I’ve been noticing a similar phenomenon in online discussions to which I’m am observer. Many on the cultural Left have started to engage in a seepage of jargon from critical theory into political arguments. The problem here is that politics is a public discussion, not discourse among specialists, so falling back on jargon narrows the horizons of engagement. To me the proliferation of terms such as ‘cultural appropriation’, as if everyone knows what that means (and if you don’t, your opinion is irrelevant), signals that the discussants are attempting to score points in their own social and political circles. Similarly, when Neoreactionaries using terms like the Cathedral they’re closing off the conversation to outsiders, and creating a group with initiate-like dynamics. Often American conservatives will talk about “liberty” and “freedom” in a manner which is more symbolic than literal (most people who are not conservatives also think liberty and freedom are good things). And libertarians have their own internal group language which points to divisions which are perceived to be significant within their own circles, but are totally opaque to outsiders.

The proliferation of this tendency across the political spectrum argues that our society is fracturing in a deep manner, as shared public lexicon is less important than winning internal battles within each faction. To some extent I think it also correlates with the decline in arguments over material-economic concerns, and the rise of cultural politics. Yes, there are populist noises across the political spectrum, but the status quo is rarely altered when it comes our economic politics today. For the social elites the cultural battles is what concerns them.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Politics

O2-slate-04-lg-apps My household has three Kindle Fire tablets (two of them HD). Obviously they are used for things besides reading books, but the main reason for their purchase was as text delivery devices. If I an extra house to store physical books and a manservant of some sort to manage the collection, I would be very happy with “dead tree.” I had a professor years ago who admitted he had an extra house which he ended up filling with his enormous book collection, to the annoyance of his wife. I can’t imagine being in that situation, but my “book habit” was getting out of control by the middle years of the 2000s. Moving was starting to become a major chore which I dreaded because of the boxes of books. And I don’t miss lugging around large numbers of books when I’m going on a road trip. I am well aware that there are unintended downsides to signing on to the e-book revolution, and Amazon in particular. But the convenience factor is just too high. And yes, I’m a pretty big user of Amazon Prime; I never liked physical shopping.

So I was curious when Amazon launched a subscription book service. The New York Times reviews the pro’s and con’s, Amazon Unveils E-Book Subscription Service, With Some Notable Absences. Some people are calling it a glorified library card. If that was the case I would probably sign up. But looking at the collection of books I don’t see many recent academic press publications, which is the largest proportion of my reading. So as it it happens it isn’t a glorified library card. So I’m not signing up, even though the price point isn’t high at all.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Technology
Runs of homozygosity in North Indian Punjabi Brahmins, non-Brahmin Tamils, and Northwest Europeans (left to right)

Runs of homozygosity in North Indian Punjabi Brahmins, non-Brahmin Tamils, and Northwest Europeans (left to right)

The above figure is from Population and genomic lessons from genetic analysis of two Indian populations. What you see here is that two Indian Hindu populations from the north and south of the subcontinent have clearly elevated stretches of genomic homozygosity in comparison to the classic Northwest European population of whites from Utah. This is interesting because the social practices of the two groups here are quite different. Some South Indian Hindus practice consanguineous marriage; e.g., first cousins or uncle-niece. This is evident in some individuals in the data set. But North Indian Hindus traditionally enforce significant exogamy among relations via the gotra system and seeking partners outside natal villages. And yet the genomic evidence indicates a relatively small effective population. That’s because though North Indian Hindus practice exogamy on the scale of families, they nevertheless usually marry within a local caste. The effect of this genomically was one of the less trumpeted findings of the 2009 paper Reconstructing Indian Population History. India may have a very large population, but the genealogical history of many of its people is sharply delimited. This recent paper uses exomes, and I think clinches the finding.

Second, two data sets that I stumbled upon in case you don’t know which are in VCF and phased Beagle format (though the newest release of Beagle uses VCF anyhow):

Singapore Sequencing Malay, 100 Malays.

Singapore Sequencing Indian. 36 individuals. Mostly South Indian Tamil.

• Category: Science • Tags: Inbreeding

220px-Honeybee_landing_on_milkthistle02 Two quick links that I think readers might find useful. First, a fascinating interview on NPR with a bee biologist. There’s a lot of interesting colorful detail (e.g., bees feeding on mammal tears), but the big thing which I appreciate is the balance between being sanguine and being overly alarmed by the phenomenon of “colony collapse.” Second, a Planet Money podcast, the case against patents. The point isn’t that one has to agree with the case against patents, but that patents are not part of our inalienable natural rights. It behooves us to examine now and then the utility in our world of the granting of patents, as well as the concept of intellectual property more broadly. Yes, it strikes many people as a crazy idea, but it’s surprisingly a common idea floated by economists.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Links

soccer-ball The New York Times has a very long story about the nation of Qatar’s quest for soccer excellent. Reading the story was depressing. Is this what humanity has come to? There’s a lot of bellyaching about science in the Muslim world, but look no further than the priorities of the oil rich Gulf states. Qatar is going to spend $200 billion over a 10 year period on amenities for soccer because it is hosting the World Cup in 2022. Yes, the World Cup is a very big deal. But did you know that NASA’s budget for 2012 was less than 20 billion dollars. In other words Qatar could create its own rival to NASA if it wanted. But why would they?

This isn’t a plea for space science. But, it is an argument that human outcomes are contingent on human values. In the 19th century men of leisure such as Charles Darwin were scientists, because they could be. Today we have some men of wealth, such as Elon Musk, attempting to do great things (and likely failing, because bold ventures generally do fail). But by and large the priorities of plutocrats are more pedestrian. Posterity shall be the judge.

• Category: Science • Tags: Qatar, Soccer
Reality-based social science. Sells less than Gladwell though....

Reality-based social science. Sells less than Gladwell though….

By now you may have read The New York Times story, How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent. It’s based on a meta-analysis, Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions. Obviously this finding is a rebuke to the vulgarization of the “10,000 hour rule” which was popularized after Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers: The Story of Success. There has been a veritable industry attacking and tearing down Gladwell. It’s just too easy. But nevertheless Gladwell is laughing all the way to the bank. He sells orders of magnitude more than his critics.

Why? As Steve Sailer notes people want “hard and fast” rules for human accomplishment. There’s two problems here. First, if a rule was hard & fast, and therefore could be implemented on a wide basis, then there wouldn’t be any advantage to any particular person. For example, if you could become a chess master by investing 10,000 hours of training, then you’d have many, many “chess masters.” All of a sudden being a chess master, by definition superior to other players, would not be predicted by the 10,000 hour investment.

Second, rather than getting into the details of what proportion of the variation in outcomes is responsible to genes vs. environment, the reality is that in many traits of interest for humans at the extreme excellent end of the spectrum there are many factors at work. And, much of basis for success is not reproducible, and can be chalked up to randomness (at least from our perspective). When people talking about the “environmental component” of variation one often presumes that this is the malleable/controllable aspect, but often a lot of random variation is collapsed into this fraction. Just because it’s genetic doesn’t mean we know the basis or the sequence of causal events which lead to an outcome.

Consider professional sports. This a field where the individuals are many standard deviations from the norm, and usually success is a combination of many factors, size, strength, speed, work ethic, etc. Even though having a parent who is a professional athlete increases your chance greatly of becoming a professional athlete (by orders of magnitude), most children of professional athletes do not have the talent to become professional athletes themselves. Michael Jordan’s sons were no better than college players of no particular distinction. And this is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time (or one of the greatest along with Wilt Chamberlain). It shows the limitations of prediction on an individual level when you are pushing the threshold of virtuosity to a very high setting.* Of course, that does not mean that grit and hard work can’t make someone a varsity basketball player. All things seem more reasonable when kept in perspective, but that doesn’t sell books or get you a gig at The New Yorker.

* Of course one might argue that Jordan should have selected a suitably athletic spouse. Interestingly Kobe Bryant has professional basketball players on both sides of the family.

• Category: Science • Tags: Work Ethic

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Sad news, Cricket, who starred in so many posts on this blog, is no longer with us. She wandered in off the street in September of 2004. She was fixed and did not look like a long-time stray at all, so we suspect she was either lost or abandoned. In any case, she had a great nearly 10 year run with our family. The end came very quickly and was a shock to all of us.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Open Thread

download In response to one of my posts someone characterizes a historian as having stated that “the Christianization of Europe as a culturally created event that needn’t have occurred.” The “standard model” in history (which has detractors*) is that in the 390s the Western Roman Empire underwent a traditionalist pagan religious-cultural revival, snuffed out by Theodosius the Great victory at Frigidus. But what if Arbogast had won? This might present us with an alternative history where paganism revives, and Christianity is reduced to a sect among sects. Some have made the case that this is in fact what occurred in China in the 9th century to Buddhism. Though Buddhism persisted as a religion in China, it no longer threatened to absorb the Chinese elite as partners a project of cultural hegemony. The fall of Buddhism as the religion of the elite in the 9th century led to the rise of Neo-Confucianism, which in various forms dominated Chinese high culture up to the fall of the Manchu dynasty (in their capacity as non-Chinese potentates the Manchus did patronize Tibetan Buddhism).

And this fact gives us insight I think into the nature and fundamental basis of Christianization in Europe, and elsewhere. The book The Barbarian Conversion tells the story of the Christianization of the polities of northern Europe after the fall of Rome, the transformation of pagan tribal domains into Christian proto-nation-states. But one need not specify anything particular to Christianity, because many of the same dynamics which transformed the pagan tribal federations of northern Europe could also apply to Asia in relation to Buddhism. The conversion to Christianity in northern Europe was often halting, with traditionalist reactions sometimes turning violent. The same phenomenon also accompanied Buddhism’s arrival in Tibet and Japan.

In China and India Buddhism ultimately did not capture the culture in a way that occurred in Burma or Tibet. But the indigenous response illustrates that the clock could never be rolled back in a cultural sense. Neo-Confucianism and Puranic Hinduism were fundamentally different from the variants of Confucianism and Hinduism which Buddhism had confronted and often marginalized. The native, older, traditions were transmuted into something different by the confrontation with Buddhism. If Christianity had been dethroned from its role at the center of the state in the late 4th century, then almost certain Roman traditionalism would have absorbed many of the ideological and ritual innovations of Christianity in relation to the older forms of religious worship. To some extent one can argue that the religious ferment in 6th century Iran, as Zoroastrianism was buffeted by reformist and revolutionary movements, illustrates exactly this impact of Christianity in late antiquity. The Persians at various times flirted with Christianity in various forms (Mesopotamia under Persian rule had very few Zoroastrians, and was likely majority Christianity), but settled on their primal religion. If the Arabs an Islam had not halted the process I suspect that Christian competition and cultural influence would have modulated Zoroastrianism, just as Buddhism reshaped Confucianism and Hinduism.

The broader point is that human cultural evolution is not totally contingent, but seems to fall into broad convergent patterns. All of the world’s “higher religions” exhibit broad similarities (e.g., synthesizing ritual, ethics, and metaphysics). Beginning with the Axial Age, the process of religious innovation seems to have ended a little over one thousand years later with the rise of Islam. One can think of this process as cultural ‘selective sweeps’ across a terrain rich with expansionary opportunities. But once the space was filled by higher religions one saw a sort of cultural equilibrium attained.

* Revisionist scholars who believe that the ‘pagan revival’ has been overblown or exaggerated.

• Category: History • Tags: Religion
Credit: Schimpanse Zoo Leipzig, Thomas Lersch

Credit: Schimpanse Zoo Leipzig, Thomas Lersch

Some recent research has just been published with the title Chimpanzee Intelligence Is Heritable. My first thought honestly was “No shit? Of course.” My friend Jason Goldman has already done a very good write up at io9 if you want read about it and don’t have access to the paper. In commenting on the results Jason notes (and I agree with the general thrust here):

That isn’t a particularly surprising or novel statement on its own [that chimpanzee intelligence is heritable -Razib]. We already knew that genes have an important job when it comes to intelligence and cognition. But what’s useful is that we can assume chimpanzee intelligence isn’t influenced by factors like socioeconomic status, the quality of their school districts, or any of the dozens of other variables, both obvious and subtle, that influence human development. That means we can examine the “genetic” side of their intelligence more easily.

Of course chimpanzees vary in intelligence, and, that variation has a genetic component. Part of the issue here is human essentialism. Chimpanzees are less intelligent than the average human, and so are classed into a general category of the second-most-intelligent-ape, as if their variation is totally irrelevant (and for practical day to day purposes it is). Pound for pound chimpanzees are also much stronger than we are. But would anyone be surprised if chimps varied in strength as a function of their genes (controlled for sex)? I doubt it. The issue, if there is one, is that intelligence is perceived as the sine qua non of humanity.

Horseshoe crabs, evolutionary success!

Horseshoe crabs, evolutionary success!

Jason suggests that chimpanzees could serve to explore issues in relation to the development of intelligence and its dependence upon genes and environment. Perhaps, though I think if that is what you want to explore in animal models birds or outbred rodent lineages would be more cost effective. I’m pretty sure they’d exhibit heritable variation in general intelligence as well.

Though obviously there seems to be selection for larger brains in the primate lineage, and perhaps in chordates in general, over hundreds of millions of years, I think it’s a huge step (which I would dispute) to suggest that intelligence itself is evolutionarily favored over shorter time scales (i.e., one can perhaps argue evolutionary success accrues to the brain in a macroevolutionary sense, but far less in a microevolutionary scale of operation). I bet a lot of the evolutionary action is in what cognitive psychologists would term “domain specific cognitive capacities.” E.g., our ability to learn and speak language with complex syntax, which is a human universal. In contrast there may not be that much selection in a directional sense for “domain general cognition.” From a population genetic perspective this would explain why there’s so much heritable variation in intelligence. Strong directional selection tends to purge that variation. The best evidence indicate that most of that variation is due to effects from many genes (on the order of thousands), and I doubt that chimpanzee-human comparative genomics will yield much fruit here.

• Category: Science • Tags: Intelligence

9780306817281_p0_v1_s260x420 The jihadi movement in northern Iraq and Syria which is now in the news is wont to put up a black flag. This is a common feature of jihadi movements since at least the year 2000. It’s a phenomenon which has me wondering, because the black flag was the banner of the Abbasids, the second dynasty of caliphs, while most of the jihadi movements take as their inspiration an earlier epoch of pre-dynastic rulers. On the surface this seems a curiosity, but if you read Hugh Kennedy’s When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World you also know that the rise of the Abbasids was driven in part by a deep rage against the earlier Ummayads by the Shia. Some of the Abbasid rulers were in fact relatively sympathetic to the Shia cause, though ultimately the Abbasid period was when what we now think of as Sunni Islam began to crystallize in a coherent positive fashion as something distinct from the sectarian minorities within Islam. All this matters because short term raison d’etre of the Islamic State, and what distinguishes it from Al Qaeda, is that it has put the Shia-Sunni conflict front and center, and the black flag has been associated with Shia movements for over a thousand years now.

To some extent this is trivial. But, it shows the sorts of patterns and connections you can draw upon if you have at your disposal a few seemingly disparate facts. Which brings me the point of this post, a friend asked me via email yesterday what books he should read to understand Islam, and Muslims, a bit more. After 9/11 many Americans went and read the Koran to understand Islam. It’s a relatively short book compared to the Bible, so that’s doable. But it also makes as much sense as reading the New Testament to understand Christianity. If that does make sense to you, and some evangelical Protestants would say that it does, then by all means. But many would argue that you don’t really understand how Christianity as a phenomena manifests itself in the world by just reading the New Testament. But a more appropriate analogy would be reading the Hebrew Bible to understand Judaism. That is because like Judaism, Islam is a religion where much of the intellectual work has gone into defining and extending the body of religious law which regulates life. Judaism as it exists today makes no sense without the Talmud,* which is a far greater body of work in volume than the Bible, and pertains much more precisely to behavior in a day to day sense. Similarly, Islam is much more defined by the Hadith than the Koran in relation to how Muslims live and practice.

Obviously I’m not going to recommend that every non-Muslim read the Hadiths. For practical introductions to Islam John L. Esposito’s oeuvre is probably at the top of the list. Anti-Islamic critics have charged Esposito with being too respectful of his subject of study, but I don’t think that’s a problem as long as you know that going in. After reading Esposito, I would suggest Hugh Kennedy’s two works which introduce Islam’s first two ruling houses, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Like Esposito, Kennedy tends to not directly challenge the standard Islamic narrative, despite not being a Muslim himself. But, one of the central planks of the narrative which has been percolating into the public discourse in the West, and which Kennedy’s works tend to undermine, is the conception that the Sunni-Shia conflict as we understand it today is primal and goes back to the days after the death of Muhammad in the 7th century. Though it may have roots in that period it is quite clear from what I have read that a more precise picture must integrate the centuries of dialogue, debate, and conflict, up until the 10th century, when the Sunni faction as we’d recognize it had emerged. To cap off a survey of traditionalist scholars with a counterpoint, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World,** is probably a must. Much of this work is likely wrong, but it is wrong in a very provocative way which makes you reconsider your assumptions. I do think one reality you can take away from this though is that the first century of Islam is an area where we have far less clarity than you might think before exploring the topic. I suspect much of this is due to the fact that our understanding of antiquity is tied to three particular instances of literary reproduction between 800 and 1000, one in the Abbasid House of Wisdom, another during the Carolingian Renaissance, and finally the efforts sponsored by the Byzantine ruler Constantine VII. These translation and copying efforts did have particular agendas, and just the Carolingian scholars would give you a biased picture of post-Roman barbarian states and rulers which preceded the Pippinids, so the Abbasids were not going to commission a view of Islamic history not to their liking.

what-i-believe Finally, to understand mainstream Islamic scholarship which nevertheless attempts to be relevant to Western non-Muslims, you probably need to read Tariq Ramadan. He has the virtues of being an orthodox Sunni who operates with the standard currency of Islam, but still exhibits fluency in the Western conceptual architecture which we take for granted. Additionally he will make up any deficit in metaphysics that one might perceive in the above list of works. Personally I don’t think that religious metaphysics really explain much of interest to those outside a given religious tradition (e.g., Muslims get nothing from understanding Trinitarian theology, and an atheist gains nothing from two hundred ways of defining tawhid), but others disagree.

* Jews who do not root their Judaism in the Talmud, such as Reform Jews, act in opposition and rejection of this tradition, not independent of it.

** If you don’t have access to a college library, there are other revisionist books which are affordable that you can find.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Islam

moms I fancy myself a relatively aware observer of the social scene, but I have to say that the graph to the left startled me somewhat. In less than my lifetime the modal young mother in the United States has gone from being married to unmarried. The effect is ameliorated by the rise in co-habitation, but we have to keep in mind that co-habitation tends to be a looser, and often more ephemeral relationship, than marriage.

But does this matter? I’ve asserted before that families don’t matter as much as you’d think, that marriage is not a panacea for long term social ills which play out in individual lives. Well first, there’s the short term experienced aspect. Even if children can bounce back from a less stable childhood better than you’d think, they still have to experience that instability during many years when they could have been in less stressed circumstances. We’re leaving utility on the table. But the bigger issue is that social statistics are often indicators of deeper underlying dynamics which we perceive but darkly.

Beware the moray in the reef!

Beware the moray in the reef!

Across the political spectrum there are particular and specific panics over a given set of phenomena. Generally conservatives worry about morality and social cohesion, and liberals fret over economic inequality. Though I have personal political views, and suspect that policy can affect change on the margins, I’d be willing to bet broader social dynamics are going to exhibit an internal inertia which all the political theater will not be able to change. The social cohesion which American conservatives yearn for is unlikely to come back due to basic demographics; only 50 percent of births today are to non-Hispanic whites, who themselves are divided by religion, class, and politics. Though some assimilation to a white identity will occur over the long term through intermarriage, in the medium term we’ll have greater multiculturalism. Liberals can change the economic inequality statistic through redistribution, but that doesn’t seem to build up long term human capital. Sweden has reduced poverty and improved the quality of life of immigrants through redistribution, but they remain situated in a social position predicted by their initial human capital (e.g., the children of well educated political refugees from Iran and Chile tend to flourish and assimilate, those of Somali nomads fleeing civil war, not so much).

Where does that leave us? If I had to make a prediction, the American future is going to be more like Brazil. If conservatives are ascendant then there will be attempt to create a myth of national unity to overcome the centrifugal pressures. If liberals are ascendant there will be economic policies to level differences. Likely these two visions will alternate periodically in a stable democracy. But neither will be able to change the reality of a diverse and segregated United States across a variety of metrics.* This isn’t entirely an exotic or novel development, recall the 19th century period of sectionalism.

These data illustrate that reality for me personally. I’m a married “young” father of two in my 30s. I don’t really know people who have children in their early 20s or teens. If you read the full Census report you see that only 1 percent of these women giving birth at a young age have a bachelor’s degree or higher, so that stands to reason. In earlier periods the dynamic above would be sharply racialized in the public imagination, but the data are more nuanced than you’d think. Only 1 percent of these mothers are of Asian background, which one expects. But 43 percent are non-Hispanic white women, not that much lower than the 50 percent of all births. As Charles Murray documents in Coming Apart white America is itself breaking down into its constituent elements, defined by region and class.

As for my children, whose parents are middle class and college educated, the future has bright possibilities. But all the choices I make are going to be geared toward making sure that they are not at the American median, because unlike in decades past that median is not going to be quite so congenial and prosperous. As long as they move in a college educated world where parents are married I’ll be happy, as they can select from an appropriate menu of outcomes which will result in personal flourishing. The key is not to move down in the social pecking order, as therein lies a diminishing of expectations. And this last fact I think explains the panic and frantic aspect of middle class parenting in America today. You always worry that the kids won’t be alright if they aren’t in the top 25%.

* Diversity and segregation not just racially, as we’re wont to think, but economically and socio-politically.

• Category: Economics, Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Coming Apart

6538540-M About five years ago when I read Charles Darwins’ The Origin of Species as an adult with some comprehension of biology on a deeper level I was struck by how original and fertile the text was. Years earlier Geoffrey Miller had said in The Mating Mind that it was very useful to read Darwin’s original works, because there is a great deal which doesn’t need to be reinvented. Often Darwin had anticipated many objections, or, his mind had gone down paths which are today very fertile areas of research. I hadn’t thought of that assertion until reading Darwin in the original, but it struck me as exactly right. A few weeks ago I wrote something about species concepts. Well, today I stumbled onto this quote from Origin:

Some few naturalists maintain that animals never present varieties; but then these same naturalists rank the slightest difference as of specific value; and when the same identical form is met with in two distant countries, or in two geological formations, they believe that two distinct species are hidden under the same dress. The term species thus comes to be a mere useless abstraction, implying and assuming a separate act of creation. It is certain that many forms, considered by highly competent judges to be varieties, resemble species so complete in character, that they have been thus ranked by other highly competent judges. But to discuss whether they ought to be called species or varieties, before any definition of these terms has been generally accepted, is vainly to beat the air.

Well played sir! Obviously the context is very different, but some of the arguments are quite general. Darwin was attempting to get to the heart of the matter, and that’s why we remember him and far less the myriad other thinkers of that era.

• Category: Science • Tags: Charles Darwin
Ethnolinguistic map of Burma

Ethnolinguistic map of Burma

It’s curious to me that the Coke and Pepsi of America’s print media, The New York Times and The Washington Post, seem to be giving voice to the reality that democracy is not a magic elixir whereby people no longer “suck.” Titled In Myanmar, the Euphoria of Reform Loses Its Glow and U.S. wanted Burma to model democratic change, but it’s not turning out that way, the two pieces highlight the ugly realities of democratic populism. Though these articles are usually bracketed as Muslim-Buddhist conflict, this is only the tip of the iceberg that is the palimpsest of modern Burma.

First, it is important to note that Muslim-Buddhist conflict has several layers. The ethnic cleansing which is occurring to the Rohingya people of Arakan is actually more properly modeled as a racial-ethnic dynamic than a religious one. Physically and linguistically these people are part of the continuum of Bengali populations of South Asia, not the Tibeto-Burman, Tai, and Mon-Khmer peoples of the rest of Burma. Buddhist chauvinists have claimed that this population is a product of the British colonial people, and therefore is not indigenous to Burma, and should be expelled. From what I have gleaned it does seem quite possible, perhaps even likely, that the vast majority of the Rohingya arrived only in the past century or so, from the southeast of Bengal. This does not justify the quasi-exterminationist stance of Buddhists, but it places in proper context the feeling of Buddhist Rakhines of Arakan that they are being dispossessed by aliens. Of course the Rohingya themselves dispute this assertion, attempting to tie themselves to older long settled Muslim populations in Burma. This is an important point, in that in Burma being Muslim does not mean that one is Rohingya. There is a large Muslim population which is ethnically and racially much less distinct from the broader Burmese population, and these are accepted as native to the country. This is why the recent violence in Mandalay can be termed specifically religious, rather than ethnic, because the Muslims of Mandaly differ from the Burmese majority in that city primarily based upon their religion.

The world’s media has noted that Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent or relatively muted on the ethnic and religious violence roiling her country. They have also alluded to the troubling possibility that democratic opening of the country has stoked nationalism and ethnic division. Troubling because the standard Western assumption is that democracy, giving power of the people, is all for the good. But what you see in Burma is that when you give people voice and allow them to organize, sometimes they have a mind of their own. Though the Burmese junta has not been reticent about using conflict in the past to reinforce its rule, it seems unlikely that the neo-liberalizing regime would think that populist chauvinism would be “good for business.” Rather, atavistic popular self-consciousness is being voiced sincerely by the people, the “people” in this case the dominant Theravada Buddhist Bamar majority of the nation. If one is aware of the history of nationalism, and of Burma’s particular history, this phenomenon should not be surprising at all. Mass democracy has been suspiciously correlated with the demand to ‘cleanse’ the nation time & again.

Addendum: Though Burma is relatively diverse, not all diversity is created the same. The Mon people have been the Greeks to the Bamar majority’s role as Romans. As Theravada Buddhists the Mon have been assimilating to Bamar identity over the past few centuries. The Shan of the eastern highlands are ethnic Tai who are relatively late arrivals. But, they converted from Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada. In contrast many Karen and almost all the Kachin are Christian, which alienates them from the Bamar. Finally, you have the case of the Rohingya, who are not only religiously distinct, but are racially very different from the other Burmese ethnic groups, explaining their role as the most extreme pariahs in modern Burma.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History, Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Democracy

restoration Peter Heather’s The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders is far inferior to his two earlier books, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. The substantive problem is that unlike the first two works this capstone of his scholarly trilogy lacks focus and coherency. There isn’t a very strong story threading together the disparate elements. The restoration of Rome that Heather alludes to in the title is the Papacy of the high medieval period, after 1200 or so. His story then has tie together Theodoric’s dominion in 6th century Italy, as well as Justinian’s Byzantium, and the long period between the rise of Islam and the Crusades. Because of considerations of space there are enormous lacunae in the book, as it is basically a history of aspects of late antiquity which bleeds over into the middle ages. A minor stylistic demerit The Restoration of Rome which I also found grating was the use of British English idiom in some passages. I have to go to online dictionaries to understand some allusions and references, and I wonder what I may have missed. Luckily I’ve already transitioned to reading Azar Gat’s Nations, which seems a more substantive and well thought out book.

Of course there are elements of Heather’s new book which are interesting or useful in attempting to understand general historical and cultural principles. For example, he presents a good deal of information which suggests that medieval forgeries such as the Donation of Constantine were written not in Rome for the Popes, but rather in northern Europe for local bishops. Eventually these documents were leveraged in the ideological program of the high medieval Papacy, but that was a downstream consequence of genuinely local exigencies which triggered these productions. No doubt this specific case illustrates general dynamic.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Open Thread

The finding which caused such a stir at SMBE 2014 has made it to publication, Altitude adaptation in Tibetans caused by introgression of Denisovan-like DNA. The main result is pretty clear from the figure I’ve placed at the top of this post: it seems that a gene which has been implicated in adaption to high altitudes in Tibetans, EPAS1, exhibits the hallmarks of being derived from the Denisovan lineage. You see that association pretty transparently in the haplotype network illustration. Ed Yong has covered the paper thoroughly at National Geographic. And, he’s done some original reporting, which leads me to putting up that provocative title. This research comes out of Rasmus Nielsen’s lab, and he’s quoted as saying in Ed’s post:

At the time, the world was already populated by other groups of humans, like Neanderthals and Denisovans. As the African immigrants met up with these groups, they had sex. And through these liaisons, their genomes became infused with DNA from people who had long adapted to these new continents. “It’s a new way of thinking of human evolution—a network of exchange of genes between many lineages,” says Nielsen [Nielsen quote in bold].

When I read the above I couldn’t help but think that a “a network of exchange of genes between many lineages” is the dynamic that was supposed to be at the heart of multi-regional hypothesis. Of course there’s some nuance here that needs fleshing out. Classic multi-regionalism implied geographic continuity in morphology, with the core elements of modern humanity emerging through phyletic gradualism across the whole species range. Chris Stringer, who has been a very public face for an “Out of Africa,” or as he’d say “Recent African Orgin” (RAO), model for the emergence of H. sapiens, wrote a review a few months back, Why we are not all multiregionalists now. Obviously by the title you can infer that Stringer is not a convert to multi-regionalism, but, his piece has a rather good survey of the history and nuances of the argument between himself and people such as Milford Wolpoff, and all positions in between. Stringer accepts all the major empirical findings of the genetics enabled first by genomics, and then ancient DNA analysis. To my knowledge so does Wolpoff. In fact Wolpoff feels that the recent findings vindicate his viewpoint, which was relatively marginalized within paleoanthropology of late. In the end to me it seems to boil down to an argument about names, sometimes literally (e.g., should it be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis?).

This is not an issue which I’m particularly invested in. For the purposes of understanding the precise details of human evolutionary origins over the past 200,000 years demarcating terminology can be quite useful,* but in terms of general evolutionary relevance, less so. Greg Cochran has put up a post where he notes that he argued on a priori grounds that it was likely that the Tibetan adaptation was introgression years ago. This is true. How did Greg arrive at this hunch? In his most recent post he also allows that Jim Crow had the same intuition. The basic paradigm of adaptive introgression is not particularly novel. Greg told me a long time ago that many results that surprise human evolutionary geneticists would be par for the course in plant genetics, where the idea of local regional adaptations persisting in the face of gene flow are not unknown.

So let’s take a step back here. We now know a few major results which seem robust and have wide support among most scholars focused on human evolutionary origins:

1) ~90 percent or more of human ancestry outside of Africa derives from a population that lived in Africa on the order of 100,000 years ago

2) Eurasian hominins did contribute ancestry to non-African populations, though it seems that genetic incompatibilities had already emerged by the time that Neandertals met the neo-Africans. This is clear in that representation of Neandertal ancestral segments is reduced in genic regions, as well on the X chromosome

3) But, in some regions of the genome the archaic Eurasian hominin representation in modern non-Africans is far greater than expectation, likely due to adaptation

For non-Africans then one might say that in terms of ancestry we are Africans. In terms of most of our functions we are even more African, because the genetic incompatibilities would tend to select against the minority ancestral component, as the background would be dominated by African ancestry. But, in a subset of functions we are far less African due to adaptive value of the archaic Eurasian alleles. Finally, some of these adaptive alleles are strongly regional in their distribution, because their adaptive value is geographically constrained. Current candidates for adaptive introgression such as altitude adaptation and pigmentation seem to clearly fall into the latter class.

Throughout much of this discussion I’ve attempted to put the focus on non-Africans. This was purposeful because it strikes me that we’re coming rather close to the end of the line in the most general sense on the evolutionary genetic origins of non-Africans. There are going to be details in term of ascertaining which genes adaptively introgressed, as well as how many admixture events occurred with how many archaic lineages. But the general shape of the model is in sight. A major neo-African expansion ~50,000 years ago, and a minority uptake of archaic ancestry.

The picture for Africans is somewhat more muddied. The Hammer lab at Arizona has already published on the likelihood of archaic admixture within Africa, and the abstracts from SMBE 2014 imply that they have more coming down the pipeline. But they are the first to admit that their sell is more difficult because of the low probability of recovering high quality ancient DNA from the African remains. In addition I suspect there is also the problem that the admixture scenario within Africa is likely to be far more complex and less clear and crisp than outside of Africa, because of the long history of H. sapiens sapiens and its antecedents within Africa. If I had to bet I’d assume that hominins were more speciose within Africa than outside of it. There may have been repeated gene flow events between “archaic” and “proto-modern” lineages within Africa, to the point where the genetic distance between the two groups was sharply reduced in the first place (methods to infer admixture between divergent lineages might not be able to pick up mixture between populations which had long been engaged in continuous gene flow). Additionally, attempts to reconstruct the demographic history of human lineages often implies that prehistoric Africans did not experience the same magnitude of rapid population growth that non-Africans did, so the stylized model of neo-Africans quickly absorbing a small amount of ancestry from archaic lineages in one go may not be appropriate for Africa. While we may be near the closing of the intellectual frontier in the broadest sense** outside of Africa in terms of recent human origins, within Africa there are still many big picture questions that need to be answered. For a long time African populations, such as the Yoruba, have been featured mostly as an “outgroup” place holder which serves as a baseline and sanity check on the relationships of non-Africans. I assume that in the near future a lot of whole genome analysis is going to come out of Africa, with decent population coverage (yes, Sarah Tishkoff is probably going to be on the author line, so you can get a sense of which populations). The assertion that there is more genetic diversity within Africa than outside is often used to glib effect in my opinion, but in this case I think that this fact may be indicative of future career possibilities for human population and phylo genomicists.

Addendum: Please see this paper as well, Admixture facilitates genetic adaptations to high altitude in Tibet, as it complements the results above. I don’t see it in the references to the more recent paper, and talking to the first author at ASHG 2012 I got the impression she was still skeptical of models of lots of admixture in Tibet between Han-like populations and local indigenes, so that might explain it.

* Also, obviously which side “won” has relevance for the historical assessment of careers.

** I want to reiterate there are many specific questions to be answered. I simply believe that the general framework is starting to come into focus, and we won’t experience many new evolutionary shifts in understanding.

• Category: Science • Tags: Altitude Adaptation, Introgression

k7690 Last week Shadi Hamid shared my post, Living in a World That Is, Not as It Ought to be, on his public Facebook (as well as Twitter). I appreciate the pointer. One of the comments though is of interest in terms of allowing me to highlight some issues by way of formulating a response:

Usaama al-Azami (in a Facebook comment): One of my undergraduate professors remarked several years ago that Iraq was probably going to go through the equivalent of the Thirty Years War at present. From one perspective, this may seem insightful. From another, it seems to overly universalize what was almost certainly the accidental historical progression of the European experience. We all read history in this way to some degree. It seems the inevitably human thing to do. But it seems unwise. Not only because it may be inaccurate, but because it makes us constantly look to the Western experience as somehow normative. That is an ideological imposition many of us are happy with–we want to promote Western conceptions of liberty and democracy. But, taken as a whole, it is distinctive, and can only be forced on many parts of the Middle East by force. Shadi, I think your book, which I very much enjoyed, seems aware of the pitfalls of this sort of thinking. For most people, however, it seems that they’re all too willing to impose their contingent agendas on others. And even those of us who like to think we’re less susceptible to this sort of historical teleology end up using such models unconsciously now and again.

As Pascal Boyer once stated: theory gives you information for free. Our theoretical outlooks inform our understanding of the world, and where we lack “thick” data elements we “fill in” (impute) with inferences from theory. For ancient peoples after the Axial Age one simple theory of the world dichotomized the human race into “us vs. them.” The “them” were assorted barbarians. The “us” was often defined by a cultural outlook imbued at the elite levels with a religio-philosophical system which served as the grounding for a metaphysics (e.g., the civilized man read and internalized particular textual classics so as to able to experience life through an edifying lens in keeping with the natural order of things).

More recently in the late 19th and early 20th century white Europeans developed a racial theory of the history of the world, synthesizing the historical fact of Western dominance with aspects of the nascent evolutionary sciences. This model of the world presumed that the “End of History” would be a white one, as all other races went extinct through Darwinian processes of inter-group competition. Additionally, many inferred that the rise of civilizations in regions that were not white European was likely due to ancient migrations which stimulated the torpid natives into bouts of creativity, which abated only because of the degradation which was entailed by racial admixture. This is the “information for free” part, as without evidence theoretical perspectives can generate inferences amongst those who share theoretical commitments.

I have argued elsewhere that modern “post-Colonial” frameworks, and Cultural Marxism more generally, share many of the premises of early 20th century white supremacy, but invert their valence. By this, I mean that there are many contemporary voices who might agree that the West is sui generis, a specific contingent instantiation of human cultural development without parallel. But whereas individuals such as Madison Grant would argue that this was a boon to the history of the world, as the special genius of whites illuminated the darkness, modern day cultural Leftists who espouse anti-racist views make the case that Western culture introduced the contagion of oppressive institutions to all non-Western cultures. The most extreme caricatures of this view would assert that sexism, racism, and homophobia in non-Western cultures are all products of colonial influence. Instead of the “White Man’s Burden,” imagine a “White Man’s Curse.” It is easy to see why some would accuse these thinkers of removing all agency from non-Western actors, and therefore being guilty of resurrecting myths of the “noble savage.”

Another tack that is common when speaking of human cultural history is to attempt to remove all acknowledgement of explicit theory at all, and fall back on “thick description,” as if there are no priors informing the discourse. To get a taste of what I’m talking about, see Poor Data, Rich Data, Big Data, Chief. Rather that focusing in a positive sense on a model which one believes describes reality, the goal is to deconstruct all attempts to ascertain truth and leave beyond this process of critique an opaque morass of confusion. Naturally this stance is common in American cultural anthropology, which substitutes concise distillation of the patterns we see around us with unintelligible personal narratives which are perhaps the most boring forms of bullshit you’ll ever encounter (this also produces a transition from statements that might be right or wrong, to those which are invariably unparseable outside of initiates). While rejecting any generalities or concrete and coherent abstractions, expositors of this “school” (quotations added for appropriate irony) are quite clear about the boundaries of the West, and how not to extend W.E.I.R.D. presuppositions.

Foundations Certainly over-generalization from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic samples is a problem. Joe Heinrich’s Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies is one of my favorite books, and it illustrates how varied behavior can be in different cultures. But this is a problem to be grappled with, not a “get out of jail” card to be thrown at any attempts to construct a formal system of interpretation. It is of note that anthropologists themselves have been skeptical to hostile in relation to the implications of Joe Heinrich’s scholarship. That’s because he’s influenced by the naturalistic paradigm in anthropology. If theory gives you information from free, then the proposition that culture is a natural phenomenon which can be understood in a reductionistic fashion has powerful implications.

Primarily in the context of this discussion we don’t need to throw our hands up in the air and assume that all of history is a contingent darkness from which we can’t infer general patterns. This is why I believe it is imperative that when thinking about historical processes we need to combine dense detail with a robust theoretical framework. Details can feed input to the theory to generate novel inferences. Peter Turchin’s cliodynamics has the promise to be just this, as Turchin observes cycles which can be quantitatively modeled in agricultural societies. Instead of making rough analogies to illustrative intuitions, one can attempt to discern repeated patterns cross-culturally, and deduce as to the likely trajectory of the outcomes in other circumstances. This does not mean that history is deterministic, but, it does suggest that there are robust patterns we should anticipate.

Some of these patterns are so general that they are uncontroversial. Societies seem to progressively scale up in territory, develop complex philosophical systems as ideological underpinnings of civilizational systems, and refine their institutions to be more robust to external shocks. You see all this across Eurasia, and the beginnings of such processes in other regions of the world (e.g., Meso-America and the Andes). But some occurrences are more specific. My appeal to the Thirty Years War was clumsy, but it got the point across that modern complex nation-states are unlikely to persist if religious-sectarian sentiments are in the driver’s seat. The United States was founded in fact as a nation without an explicit national religion, the first de-sacralized state in the world. But this pattern was pre-figured elsewhere. Though the Chinese nation-empire was underpinned by a metaphysical understanding of its place in the cosmos, in the 9th century it came close to being undermined by the rise of Buddhism. Religion threatened to swallow the nation-empire. The response was an attack on Buddhism as a temporal force, and its cutting back to size as a mass religious cult which did not have special access to, and separate power from, the nation-empire. I would argue that the same process was inevitable in Europe on the eve of the Reformation, because the temporal holdings of the church were such that monarchs consolidating power could not help but attempt to confiscate its lands (this had happened before, Charles Martel did so in the 8th century). More on point European nation-states began to find that diplomatic freedom and agency were constrained by excessive adherence to sectarian passions and alignments. It seems entirely likely that the process of national integration and the dawn of the Westphalian age was occurring inexorably because of underlying forces of economic growth and globalization; the sort of trans-national Christian Catholic commonwealth enabled by decentralized late medieval monarchies was never going to be resurrected.

And I suspect the same is true in the Middle East. There are those who continue to live in the 7th and 8th centuries in their dreams. They believe that religious messiahs such as a latter day Abu Muslim can revive a new caliphate. No. Those times are gone. A multi-religious state requires a certain level of reduction in the public role and exclusive attention that any particular sect can demand. It is not necessarily equality, but, it is an attenuation of the extreme inter-sect fissures. During the Franco-Prussian War the Catholic south Germans marched against the French forces under the leadership of Prussian Protestant generals. This vindicated the national idea, as opposed to the concept of religious solidarity which may have been more appealing in centuries past. We might wonder about the plausibility of the idea that every society will end at the stage of liberal democracy in a way that we might recognize in the West, but, it seems not unreasonable to suppose that many distinct elements of this system are necessary preconditions for the material modernity which most humans crave.

• Category: History
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 http://www.razib.com"