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My old cyber-friend, “Georg Kantor”, has a new English-language blog (his native language is Spanish): Social Equilibrium, which might be of interest to GNXP readers. In particular, check out his demographics tool, introduced on this post, “designed to produce transparent and easy population projections for non-professional users”.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Demographics 
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I had what I seemed to me like an interesting thought when I read this, and I wanted to explore it further. But I have been very busy these days, and I just don’t have the spare cycles, so I’m just going to throw it out there. My biggest question is: “What am I missing?” R. A. Fisher didn’t think that epistasis was an important evolutionary force. I can’t believe he would miss this, so the only alternative is that he considered it…

From the link:

Finally, that we failed to find a significant grandfather effect in our monogamous society in which we restricted our data to those men who married only once in their lifetimes (and hence could only gain fitness by grandfathering after the menopause of their wife) strongly suggests that the evolution of prolonged life in men cannot be explained by the selective benefits of grandfathering.

My thought, as I expressed in the comments of that post, was that average fitness is not particularly meaningful, since a relatively small number of males at the top of the social pyramid probably had a disproportionate evolutionary impact – what really counts is the grandfather effect among them. I can easily imagine a scenario where grandfathers decrease fertility of ordinary families (another mouth to feed…), but increase it among the rich. The long-term fitness impact of grandfathers could well be positive, even though the average impact is negative, since the rich have the biggest long-term evolutionary impact.

I can tell this same story on the gene level. Imagine a population which is 99% “aabb” and 1% “aabB”, each of which have equal fitness. Now, imagine that there’s a mutation “A” that reduces fitness by 10% in “bb” individuals, but raises fitness by 10% in “bB” individuals. Let’s say by chance we get a “aAbB” individual before the “A” allele dies out. That “aAbB” individual will have the same fitness as a normal “aabb” individual, since its offspring will be 25% “aabb” (average fitness), 25% “aAbb” (10% lowered fitness), 25% “aAbB” (10% higher fitness), and 25% “aabB” (average fitness). Nevertheless, over time, the “A” allele will increase and eventually fix (together with the “B” allele). (Those of you who want to quibble about the percentages can adjust them accordingly.)

Now that seems like an interesting result to me! We talk a lot about average fitness here, but if I am not mistaken, average fitness can tell a story that’s very different from what’s really going on. Increasing the fitness of winners seems to count a lot more than decreasing the fitness of losers – and in evolution it’s the winner’s story that will eventually be told.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science • Tags: Epistasis, Evolution 
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A few days ago, I came across a very interesting article on lexical-gustatory synaesthesia (via Language Hat):

Lexical-gustatories involuntarily “taste” words when they hear them, or even try to recall them, she wrote in a study, “Words on the Tip of the Tongue,” published in the issue of Nature dated Thursday. She has found only 10 such people in Europe and the United States.

Magnetic-resonance imaging indicates that they are not faking, she said. The correct words light up the taste regions of their brains. Also, when given a surprise test a year later, they taste the same foods on hearing the words again.

(Synaesthetes are hardly ever described as “suffering from” the syndrome, because their doubled perceptions excite envy in many of us mere sensual Muggles.)

It can be unpleasant, however. One subject, Dr. Simner said, hates driving, because the road signs flood his mouth with everything from pistachio ice cream to ear wax.

Now Amnestic points me to a fascinating video of V.S. Ramachandran talking about the subject. Some reactions to the video:

1. So synaesthesia is was LSD users report!
2. Synaesthesia can be good for something – e.g. patterns jump out at you
3. Einstein might have had some type of synaesthesia
4. I can easily see how some kind of synaesthesia could give rise to new “modules” – e.g. a prime number identifier

One of the most interesting things about the Language Hat link was that quite a few synaesthetes, of various kinds, showed up to share their perceptions. I was wondering if any GNXP readers had something to share? In particular, I am interested in ways synaesthesia is good (or bad) for you.

UPDATE: This sounds like some kind of synaesthesia:

“Squaring numbers is a symmetrical process that I like very much,” he says. “And when I divide one number by another, say, 13 divided by 97, I see a spiral rotating downwards in larger and larger loops that seem to warp and curve. The shapes coalesce into the right number. I never write anything down.”
 
His mathematical abilities are so extraordinary that it took a long time for them to be recognised. Daniel struggled at school (why, he wondered, were the numbers in the textbook not printed in their true colours, nine in blue, and so on?). He got a B at Maths GCSE. He wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome until three years ago, at 25. Sooner would have been better “both for me and my parents”; consciousness-raising is part of his motivation for writing his book. “My condition is invisible otherwise.”

Scientists at California’s Center for Brain Studies were astounded when, two years ago, they discovered his facility for discerning prime numbers. They had assumed he must have been trained to do it. But to him, it is more like an instinctive process: “Prime numbers feel smooth, like pebbles”.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science 
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Israel is the only country I know of where fertility increases as income goes up, among “normally” wealthy. (The super-rich might be another story, but they don’t have much of a statistical presence). From here:

In virtually the entire modern world, increased wealth and education are linked with plummeting birthrates. The New York Times reported this week that Europe is “wrestling” with birthrates which have “reached a historic and prolonged low… straining pension plans and depleting the work force across the continent.” The EU projects a shortfall of 20 million workers by 2030. In 1990, no European country had a fertility rate of less than 1.3 children per woman; by 2002, 15 countries did. The “birth dearth” has become a political issue in Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic. “Almost all countries are increasing baby bonuses,” the article reports. While the US fertility rate currently hovers around the replacement level of 2.1, the rate among American Jews is considerably lower: 1.86.

Israel is almost another world. The average fertility rate is 2.7 children per woman – by far the highest of any modern democracy in the world. Moreover, the average size of families with a high monthly income – above NIS 50,000 – is 4.3 people, compared to 3.7 for families with more modest salaries.

What’s going on here?

ACCORDING TO demographer Sergio DellaPergola, we are different than Europe and America in our attitudes toward family size. “Here, people would like to have three children at least.” If they don’t, it is generally because of economic restraints, as demonstrated by the fact that, in Israel, the upper-middle class is associated with more children, not fewer.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science 
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Every once in a while I realize something with my conscious mind that I’ve understood implicitly for a long time. Such a thing happened to me yesterday, while reading a post on Stalin, by Amritas. It is this:

S = P + E

Social Status equals Political Capital plus Economic Capital

Now, if someone were to have just shown me that equation, I would probably have been unimpressed. It seems like a definition, a tautology, a pseudo-mathematical formulation of the expression “socioeconomic status”. What I suddenly realized, though, is that this formula has tremendous explanatory power. So much so, that I want to call it the “Universal Law of Interpersonal Dynamics”. Now, I am not a psychologist, sociologist, or anthropologist, and I am not familiar with the literature, so I don’t claim that it’s an original idea. I’m sure that such a thing must have be expounded upon by someone before me. But I’m a fairly well-educated person, and I’ve never encountered such a thing in any popular forum. Assuming that it more-or-less stands after it is posted, it deserves to be popularized.

Here’s an example of its explanatory power: If we assume that a major human drive is to maximize S, we can predict that people with high P will attempt to minimize the value of E (since S-maximization is a zero-sum game). And so we see. Throughout history there has been an attempt to ennoble P while stigmatizing E. Conversely, throughout history, people with high E use it to acquire P. Thus, in today’s society we see that socially adept people, who have inborn P skills, tend to favor socialism or big government – where their skills are most valuable, while economically productive people are often frustrated by the fact that their concrete contribution to society is deplored.

Now, you might ask yourself why the reverse isn’t true, why people with high P don’t use it to acquire E, while people with high E don’t attempt to stigmatize P? Well, I think that is true. But, while the equation is mathematically symmetrical, the nature of P-talent and E-talent is not. P-talent can be used to acquire E from the E-adept, but the E-adept are no match for the P-adept in the attempt to stigmatize P. Furthermore, P is endogenous to the system, while E is exogenous. In other words, the P-adept have the ability to manipulate the system itself to make P-talent more valuable in acquiring E, while the E-adept have no ability to manipulate the external environment to make E-talent more valuable in acquiring P.

Of course not all people fall neatly into one of these two categories. Some people are naturally both P-adept and E-adept, while others, unfortunately, are neither. This, too, is asymmetrical in its implications, since the both-adept have a choice of pursuing either P-strategies or E-strategies (indeed, there are many real-world applications which leverage both), but the neither-adept have no choice but to support a P-strategy, since cooperation of this kind is itself a P-strategy (libertarianism, by contrast, would get them neither P nor E).

Put another way: Socialism is all about taking the “economic” out of “socioeconomic status”, meaning that gaining social status becomes a purely political game. Which is why it appeals to both the socially adept and the economically inadept. They both hate status that is based on dirty economics. Those boors don’t deserve it.

Now, I don’t think that this is a new phenomenon at all. Back in hunter-gatherer times, I have no doubt that there were already people who gained social status through P-strategies. But the social systems were so small, and the harsh economic realities to obvious, that it probably took a lot of political-talent units to equal one economic-talent unit. Now, however, societies are very large and complex, and the sources of economic productivity are not well-understood. The playing-field has tipped dramatically toward the socially adept, the merely economically adept now often, endearingly, termed “losers”.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to show how the Universal Law of Interpersonal Dynamics predicts the following:

  1. All institutions will tend to be dominated by the P-adept
  2. All institutions that have no in-built exogenous criteria for measuring its members’ status will inevitably be dominated by the P-adept
  3. Universities will inevitably be dominated by the P-adept
  4. Within a university, humanities and social sciences will be more dominated by the P-adept than natural sciences
  5. Within a university, humanities and social sciences will politically dominate the natural sciences
  6. People who work in universities and the government will tend toward socialism
  7. Libertarians will tend to be found among the socially inadept
  8. Unmarried women will tend toward socialism
  9. Hard-working, upwardly mobile people will tend away from socialism (even when their absolute status is low)

(Cross-posted on Rishon Rishon.)

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science 
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For the last few years I have been working on a new architecture for the Internet, which you can read about here:

Problem:

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

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

Solution:

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

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

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

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

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

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science 
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I have just learned something new. Or, rather, become newly aware of the implications of some things that have been rattling around in my mind for a while. Greg Cochran linked (indirectly) to this quote:

The loci in question are so tightly linked that rare recombinants practically never arise – this explains why the different multi-locus genotypes appear, when crossed, to segregate like single locus genotypes. A set of genes so tightly linked that they behave like a single locus has been termed a supergene.

This was a eureka moment for me. I have sometimes wondered about the evolutionary implications of chromosomes. I’m sure that there’s a molecular reason for them – certainly, it would be hard to imagine a diploid genetic architecture, necessary for sexual reproduction, without them! But having said that, it would seem that chromosomes only get in the way of sexual reproduction: If sexual reproduction is about facilitating genetic recombination, then more would certainly be better than less, and we know that many other species have many more than our 23 pairs: horses have 32, dogs have 49, ferns have 630! So why haven’t we evolved the maximum possible number of chromosomes? It’s certainly possible to have a lot more chromosomes than we have.

Clearly, it seems to me, the answer is that sexual reproduction is not always a good thing. Rescrambling our genes every generation has the effect of breaking up favorable combinations of genes, so it must be that a small number of chromosomes is an adaptive response to this. Genes on the same chromosome get rescrambled not every generation, but once out of many generations, with genes closer together getting rescrambled less often than genes farther apart. The infrequency of the rescrambling makes time for selection to weed out unfavorable linkages as they arise.

Some predictions:

1. Linkage disequilibrium is not necessarily a sign of recent positive selection – it could also be a sign of coadapted gene complexes.

2. Coadapted gene complexes that involve genes on different chromosomes would have to be much more advantageous than those involving genes on the same chromosome, in order to be maintained.

3. The advantage necessary to maintain coadapted gene complexes varies according to the physical distance on the chromosome of the genes involved. (I know it’s a bit more complicated than that, but roughly.)

4. A reduction in the number of chromosomes could be adaptive if it locks-in a favorable gene complex.

5. A coadapted gene complex could also explain this, as these genes don’t recombine.

6. This could be part of the answer why we have sex so often (i.e. more often than models would predict)!

PS: This is another example of the importance of tradition.

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon.)

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science 
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I have read a quite a few commentaries around the web, and in the MSM, comparing Katrina to 9/11. One thing I haven’t seen commented on: On 9/11, the enemy was them, with Katrina, it is us. There is a world of difference between the two, even when the objective danger is comparable.

Living in Israel, I often have non-Israelis wondering that I live in such a “dangerous place”. I usually reply that the chance of violent death in Israel is not higher than in the US, and is in fact much lower than, say, West Philadelphia, where I lived for four years without anyone wondering about the illogic of it. (West Philadelphia is not the most dangerous part of the city, by the way. That honor goes to North Philadelphia.) In fact, the experiential reality of living in Israel is that it’s much safer than the US. The reason: In Israel, the danger comes from them, in the US it is from us. Violent crime in Israel is almost unknown, and when it does happen it’s almost always a crime of passion. Israelis may think they are anxious about personal security, but few of them are in a position to personally compare their anxiety to that of Americans. I have lived significant amounts of time in both places, and I think I can say with confidence that in comparison to the US, Israelis feel safe.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly rational: Israel’s personal security problem is much easier to live with than the US’s. I don’t worry about my kids being kidnapped. Women don’t worry about walking around at night. When someone yells at you from a car, you don’t fear for your safety. All this adds a significant intangible to the quality of life. But I also think that a big part of the difference is purely psychological. We humans are simply better equipped to deal with external threats than internal ones: a threat from one of us provokes far more anxiety than a threat from one of them. In fact, an external threat can have the paradoxical result of reducing rates of anxiety. I have lived through a few crises (examples: here, here) and can attest that the resulting cohesiveness of society can almost make it worth it (especially in the second case, when there really wasn’t any significant danger).

New York on 9/11 was a clean fight against them. It is the kind of tale that makes heroes. Anyone doing their best and fighting hard will come off looking good. In contrast, New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina is a dirty fight against us. The ambiguousness of the fight makes no-one look good. Compare firemen and policemen: Firemen are heroes. Policemen… well it depends who you ask.

Addendum: I think that much of the attraction of groups like al-Qaa`idah (القاعدة) is the strong cohesiveness generated by making everyone else into them, the enemy.

(Crossed-posted on Rishon Rishon.)

Update from Razib: I deleted all the comments. We can start afresh, I didn’t have the inclination to sift through all that stuff.

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science 
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I have at times been critical of the usual story of the rebirth ofHebrew as a spoken language (last time here). Usually they focus on thefactthat the ancient Hebrew language lacked vocabulary for many aspects ofmodern life, and onthe heroic story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who discovered and inventedmany of the missing terms, and raised the firstHebrew-speaking child in 2000 years. My instinctive criticism has beenbased on asingle observation: it is extremely difficult for an adult to learn aforeign language, and it almost never happens that a person will feelcompletely comfortable speaking a language acquired in adulthood. Andyet, millions of Jews did exactly that. For no practical reason, theyabandoned their mother tongues for Hebrew – a language, at the time, spoken bynobody. 

This is the real story of the rebirth of Hebrew: that millions ofpeople were persuaded to do this highly unnatural act. It is indeed amiracle (at least, if you will, in thesense of a seemingly highly unlikely event) that millions of Jewssuddenly began speaking a “dead” language. It is an event unique inhuman history, and it is very surprising to me that it has been solittle studied with any seriousness.

Before I get into what I contend is the real story, let me review the usual one (all ofwhich is true, by the way, just not as interesting). It goes likethis: Hebrew was kept alive for thousands of years after it ceased tobe spoken, as a language of scholarship and ritual, through the loveof the Jewish people. Toward the end of the 19th century, Jews began toleave their ghettos and participate in modern life. This wasaccompanied by a flourishing of the Hebrew language, such as hadn’tbeen seen since the Golden Era of Spain, in which Jews wrote in Hebrewabout all aspects of life. Eliezer Ben Yehuda moved to the Land ofIsrael, then ruled by the Turks (the region was not yet calledPalestine – that name would be be applied by the British only afterWorld War I) and endeavored to bring about the rebirth of Hebrew as aspokenlanguage. To this end, he compiled a dictionary of 500,000 items,rediscovering Hebrew’s lost vocabulary, and inventing hundreds of newterms. He also raised the first Hebrew-speaking family. Othersfollowed his lead, and spoken Hebrew was reborn.

While very nice, no part of this story is unique, except the part thatis left unexplained. There are many, many unspoken languages that have been kept alive over long periods of timeas literary or ritual languages, among them: Latin, Ancient Greek, Coptic, Ge’ez, Sanskrit, Avestan,Classical Arabic (as different from modern dialects as Latin is toItalian), and Classical Chinese- none of them have been revived as a spoken language. On the otherhand, many unwritten dialects have been elevated to written languages:At the time of the rebirth ofHebrew, ethnic minorities around the world were rediscovering theiridentities, and many spoke languages that lacked vocabulary for modernlife. Ben Yehuda’s work was certainly important for the revival ofHebrew, and he is justifiably celebrated, but similar thingshappened in Czech, Modern Greek, Finnish, and many other languages.Unexplained: How were millionsof ordinary Jews convinced to abandon their mother tongues?

I have finally discovered the answer, the missing link to the story. On the recommendation of Amritas, I ordered a copy of Language In Time of Revolution by Benjamin Harshav.It is not an easy read. It’s written in a dry and academic style, so for lack of time and energy I readonly the second of its three parts, which deals directly with the rebirth of Hebrew. (The first part deals with thehistorical background, and thethird with Harshav’s translations of primary sources.)

In the last decades of Turkish rule of what would become Israel (atthe time there was no one name that referred to the whole area), thelanguage of government wasTurkish, the peasants spoke the local dialect of Arabic (which even tothis day is not written), the Jews spoke various languages, especiallyArabic and Yiddish, and education, such as it was, was mostly conductedin French and German. It was in this milieu that small groups of highlymotivated Jews founded new communitiesof like-minded peoplewith the specific purpose of creating a Jewish community that wouldembody their ideals, one of which was to speak Hebrew. The newcommunities included thecity of Tel Aviv, numerous small kibbutzim, and other agriculturalcommunities. It isimportant to understand that these were small self-selected groups: they did something that the vast majority are unwilling, or unable, to do.

It was within this small, self-selected population that Hebrew wasreborn as a spoken language. 

But it is not the end of the story: So asmall group of isolated, highly motivated, energetic people managed torevitalize Hebrew. How, then, did their numbers grow to the millionsthat they are today? 

After World War I, Turkey was defeated, and its empire divided between France and Britain. The League of Nations crafted the British Mandate to, among other things, “secure the establishment of the Jewish nationalhome” in Palestine, and Jews began to organize themselves into the politywhich was to become Israel. (Actually, even in Turkish times thevarious religious groups had a certain degree of autonomy, in what wascalled the millet system,which was preserved under the British Mandate, and persists in Israelto this day.) The Palestinian Jews were heterogeneous – religiously,politically, and linguistically. The dominant languages among themwere Arabic and Yiddish, neither of which were used for intellectualpurposes.Indeed, the intellectual languages had been French and German, but wereabout to be superseded by English. This state of diversity and flux wasprobably a contributing factor to the success of Hebrew, but was not,in my opinion, the main one, especially considering the fact thatalmost all Hebrew speakers at the time were native speakers of Yiddish,which could easily have followed the path of development of languagessuch as Czech. The reason Hebrew succeeded: The same,self-selected, group that pioneered the revitalization of Hebrew alsobecame the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine.

And from then on, we are backto ordinary sociolinguistic processes. It has happened many, many timesthat a language spoken by a small but important group of peoplehas supplanted a much more widely-spoken language. To name just a fewinstances from historical times (many more can be reconstructed fromlinguistic evidence): Latin in the western Mediterranean, Greek in theeastern Mediterranean, Arabic in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and NorthAfrica, Hungarian in Hungary, English in Ireland. In Palestine, at thebeginning of the 20th century, that language was Hebrew.

-

ADDENDUM: At the end of book 2, Harshav examines the question ofwhether modern He
brew is really a “European” language. While he doesn’tgo quite so far as to say that it is, he seems to think that it hasbeen heavily Europeanized. I take issue with this claim. First of all,a speaker of modern Hebrew can understand the language of the Bibleabout as easily as a speaker of modern English can understand its KingJames translation, and Mishnaic (Talmudic) Hebrew is about as close to modern Hebrew as 17th or 18th-century English is to the modernlanguage. That’s pretty close, I would say. Harshav quotes a typicalparagraph from a newspaper, and has this to say about it:

1. International words: kilometer, television, Antarctica, July, cabinet, Africa, NBC.

2. New Hebrew words for international terms: race, [television]networks, missile, launched, report, nuclear weapons, Minister of Tradeand Industry, area (in the sense of geographical area), the UnitedStates.

3. Phrases that represent Euro-American concepts: “hasbroadcast information stating that,” “a certain place,” “standardversion,” “denied reports,” “nuclear weapons,” “fifth of July,” “Israelwill not be the first,” “confined himself to stating the standardversion”

4. The microsyntax, concerning contiguous words, or immediateconstituents, is essentially Hebrew: the coordination of verb and noun;the use of the definite article, prepositions, and connectives; thegenitive phrases. Yet, the macrosyntax is European: the sentence in thefirst paragraph accumulates five stages of states of affairs, whichcould not be done in the syntax of traditional texts.

I find points 1-3 very odd. How can you talk about thingsthat go on in the modern world without having words for them? Are thosewords intrinsically Euro-American because the objects and concepts theyrefer to were mostly invented by Euro-Americans? He even admits inthe next paragraph that: “the roots of most of the words are Hebrew or quasi-Hebrew”!Point 4 is more interesting, it is the point I was addressing in the link above. Itseems to me that the major transformation in the (written) language wasnot from Semitic toEuropean, but from a language meant to be spoken to a language meant tobe read. The Mishnaictexts were transmitted orally before they were written down, and their”macrosyntax”reflects that. A similar observation can be made in English whencomparing the works of Chaucer (which were meant to be read aloud) tomodern texts. For that matter, even today a well-written speech willhavesimplified sentence structure. Would you say that the language ofChaucer and Reagan is really Semitic? It should be pointed out that allthis Europeanmacrosyntax is achieved in Hebrew with the ancient set of particles, inotherwords the difference is one of degree not kind: no new kind of sentencestructurehas been invented. Indeed, the Hebrew of Maimonides(1135-1204), who was a native Arabic (Semitic language)speaker,has a macrosyntax not far from the modern idiom. Is complex sentencestructure a European characteristic or simply a modern one? Put anotherway, does a reading (as opposed to listening) audience inevitably leadto more complex sentence structure? I would be interested in data fromother languages.

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon.)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:08 AM

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Science 
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I grew up a 10-15 minute walk from the Hoar Bird Sanctuary, where I spent many a happy childhood hour wandering. In that sanctuary, grew a stunted, blighted American Chestnut tree:

American chestnut was once the most important tree of the Eastern North American hardwood forest. One fourth of this forest was composed of native chestnut. According to a historical publication "many of the dry ridge tops of the central Appalachians were so thoroughly crowded with chestnut that, in early summer, when their canopies were filled with creamy-white flowers, the mountains appeared snow-capped."

The nut was a central part of eastern rural economies. Communities enjoyed eating chestnuts and their livestock was fattened by the nut. And what wasn’t consumed was sold. Chestnut was an important cash crop for many Appalachian families. Holiday nuts were railed to New York and Philadelphia and other big cities where street vendors sold them fresh-roasted.

What happened?

A chestnut disease was first introduced to North America through New York City in 1904. This chestnut blight, caused by a fungus and presumably brought in from eastern Asia, was first found in only a few trees in the New York Zoological Garden. The blight spread with a vengeance and in its wake left only dead and dying stems.

By 1950, Castanea dentata had disappeared except for shrubby root sprouts the species continually produces (and which also quickly become infected). Like many other pest introductions, blight had quickly spread into its new – and defenseless – host causing wholesale destruction throughout the entire range of the chestnut.

Believe it or not, as a child I dreamed of breeding a blight-resistant American Chestnut. Though I didn’t pursue it, others did. Now, it seems, their efforts have paid off (via Instapundit):

The tree planted Friday came from a research farm in Virginia, where blight resistance was bred into the native chestnut with the help of the Chinese chestnut.

The American chestnut, prized for its timber and its crop of glossy dark nuts, once dominated Eastern forests from Maine to Georgia. The graceful trees were virtually wiped out by blight starting at the turn of the 20th century.

That loss, Case said, "was the greatest environmental disaster in the Western Hemisphere since the Ice Age."

Now, after years of breeding, cloning and crossbreeding, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is ready to reintroduce disease-resistant chestnuts to Eastern forests next year.

How did they do it?

For decades, plant pathologists and breeders tried to create a blight-resistant tree by crossing our own species with the resistant Chinese chestnut and other chestnut species from Asia, but always with unsatisfactory results. Now, advances in our understanding of genetics have shown us where those early researchers went wrong.

Old science told us that resistance is controlled by numerous genes running a very complex system. Scientists simply flooded chestnut progeny with Chinese chestnut genes by crossing their Chinese-American hybrids with other promising Chinese-American hybrids. The result was consistently a blight-resistant but very Chinese chestnut-like chestnut tree.

New techniques are now being used. By an elaborate and time consuming system of backcrossing and intercrossing, TACF’s breeding program is attempting to develop a chestnut that will exhibit virtually every American characteristic. The desired tree is one that is fully resistant and when crossed, the resistant parents will breed true for resistance.

The method of breeding entails crossing the Chinese and American trees to obtain a hybrid which is one-half American and one-half Chinese. The hybrid is backcrossed to another American chestnut to obtain a tree which is three-fourths American and one-fourth Chinese, on average. Each further cycle of backcrossing reduces the Chinese fraction by a factor of one-half.

The idea is to dilute out all of the Chinese characteristics except for blight resistance down to where trees are fifteen-sixteenths American, one-sixteenth Chinese. At that point of dilution, most trees will be indistinguishable by experts from pure American chestnut trees.

Once a significant number of blight-free trees are produced, new crosses could potentially restore the full genetic diversity of the American Chestnut tree, with blight-resistance. Maybe we’ll get our American Chestnut forests back. I can’t wait!

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon.)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 07:24 AM

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Quite a lot of discussion on Gene Expression has revolved around the modular nature of the human brain. Now, I know very little about neurology, but I do have extensive experience with at least one data point, and I do know something about modules: they feature prominently in my profession. So I would like to attempt to put my knowledge of the subject on line and see if anything more general can be learned from it.

I earn my living designing software systems, and I work with the concept of a module every day. In fact, I think of systems as being composed of only two things: modules and architecture. The perfect module is what we in the industry call a "black box" – one which is so completely defined by its interfaces that its inner workings need not be known. This is not as clean a definition as it may, at first, appear: interfaces can be very complex. At the extreme, a module’s behavior can be so complex that nothing less than publishing its source code will describe its behavior. On the other hand, a well designed system will have modules as close as possible to black boxes, meaning that all interdependencies between modules will occur at the interface level. (When modules influence each other not at the level of interface, this is called a "side effect".)

Architecture, on the other hand, is the environment in which these modules "live" and interact with each other. For example, the steering wheel of a car is a module: it can be replaced with, say, levers without changing any other parts. Gasoline, on the other hand, is an architectural feature: replace it with diesel or, even worse, electricity, and the car will have to be completely redesigned. Sometimes an architectural feature can be expressed as a module:IANA and DNS, for example, can be easily described by interfaces, like modules, but without them the Internet would cease to function. These kind of modules are often called low-level modules or resources – i.e. modules that are primarily (or solely) used by other modules.

Okay, that was a pretty boring introduction, but I am a great believer in the maxim: “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms” – so I felt I had to get it out of the way. Now (…since I no nothing about neurology), I would like to define my mental modules on a purely functional basis: a module is something I do (correctly) without "thinking" i.e. without being conscious of thought. Language, of course, is the most obvious mental module: I produce grammatical sentences in my native language without thinking (of the grammar), and I can tell when a sentence is ungrammatical instantaneously, without necessarily being able to say why – i.e. I first know that the sentence is ungrammatical, I then have to go back figure out why. In fact, I first started thinking about modules of my mind because of a dramatic event in my life: I suddenly, after years of trying, found myself able to speak a foreign language.

What happened? One day I was painfully parsing sentences and figuring out what they meant. The next day I was just listening and understanding. I had the same amount of knowledge of grammar and vocabulary – obviously that didn’t change overnight. On thinking about it, I realized that though this experience was particularly dramatic, it was by no means unique. I have a vivid memory from about the age of 5 or 6 of suddenly being able to ride a bicycle. Again, one moment I couldn’t do it, the next moment I could, and I’ve been riding ever since. Later on something similar happened with symbolic logic: I spent most of a semester looking at proofs, understanding every step, yet having no idea how they got from here to there, i.e. how they chose which steps to take. Then one day, I knew instinctively what to do.

On further reflection, I realized that what I experience as "thought" is really only a tiny proportion of what I do that might, in some other person/organism/world be called thinking. Balancing, seeing, hearing – anyone who has tried to program a computer to do these things knows how difficult it is (in fact, it’s impossible at the current state of the art) to even come close to what humans do automatically, without "thinking". It reminds me of a story from the early days of personal computing. At the height of the "database wars" between Dbase and FoxBase, Dbase claimed to be faster because it was written in assembly language, while FoxBase was written in a high-level language (C). It turned out, upon testing, that FoxBase was, in fact, faster. One commentator (I forget which) wrote something like: "The Dbase people should learn something about the importance of algorithms". In other words, although something written in assembly language is theoretically faster, since compiled code is visibly full of inefficiencies (especially considering the compliers of the day) the performance hit of high-level languages is more than made up for by their contribution to the efficiency of the human mind, and its consequent enhanced ability to create efficient algorithms. The moral of the story: For most tasks, it’s most important to enhance the efficiency of the human mind.

Now, let’s look at some consequences of my particular definition of modularity as it relates to the human mind.

1. I don’t see any difference between the language module, the sight module, and the bicycle-riding module – i.e. new modules can be added ad hoc. (This does not rule out the possibility that some modules are supported by "hardware", only that there are clearly "software" modules as well.)

2. General Intelligence is either a characteristic of one or more low-level modules or an architectural feature (such as dendrite growth).

3. The ability to perform a task well is often critically dependent on the development of relevant modules.

I particularly want to relate to points (1) and (3) with respect to education. Not long ago, a GNXP post asked: "What kinds of activities can be done to enhance cognition and memory beyond nutritional interventions?" I would like to answer a similar question: I think that more education should be devoted specifically toward equipping people with mental modules that are useful in our society. Some of these modules can be called, "skills" – and there is a recognition of the importance of teaching skills. (Though I can think of at least one skill that every elementary-school graduate would benefit from in this day and age: typing.) But I’m sure there are other modules, not usually recognized as skills, that would help with many cognitive tasks, which we could seek to develop explicitly. Here’s one: Math. I remember kids in school people complaining of "math block" – at the time I thought they were just making up excuses, but now, after my experience with learning a foreign language, I believe them. I am fairly good at math, and when I see an equation, I don’t just see it as a collection of symbols – it "speaks" to me. One glance and I say, for example, "that’s a parabola" and in my mind’s eye I see a picture of a parabola. I bet that most people can’t do this, but perhaps with a little directed training, they could.

(Cross posted at Rishon Rishon.)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:53 AM

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I’ve always loved this story:

In the year 1886 the Grand Trunk Railway wanted to build the Victoria Bridge and it would span the mighty St. Lawrence River and connect Montreal to the Kahnawake Reserve.

They contracted out the job to the Dominion Bridge Company. In exchange for being allowed to run the railroad through Mohawk Territory, Grand Trunk arranged for Dominion to hire some of the Mohawks as laborers to work on the bridge site. This decision would have a huge impact upon the lifestyle of many Mohawks, an effect that remains to this very day.

Their first job was to supply the stone for the large piers that would support the bridge.

When their shifts ended, they would hang out on the bridge watching the other workers to see what they were doing.

Even young Native children became curious and soon they were climbing all over the span, right alongside the men. The workers noticed that the Mohawk’s agility, grace and sense of balance made it seem as though they had a natural disposition for heights.

When management became aware of this, they hired and trained a dozen tribal members as ironworkers. The original twelve, all teenagers, were so adept at working at high altitudes, they were known as the ‘Fearless Wonders’.

They would walk on narrow beams several hundred feet above the raging river and yet it appeared as though they were just on a casual walk along a forest path.

From another source:

As one company official later wrote, "It was quite impossible to keep them out." Indeed, "As the work progressed, it became apparent to all concerned thatthese Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights."

What made the Mohawks such superb high steel workers remains something of a mystery. The legends assumed some kind of genetic advantage, but there is little evidence of this. Joseph Mitchell, in his scrupulous New Yorker article, "The Mohawks in High Steel," thought Kahnawake children in Brooklyn "have unusual manual dexterity; by the age of three, most of them are able to tie their shoelaces"—but Kanatakta, Executive Director of the Kahnawake Community Cultural Centre, suggests that it’s more "a question of dealing with the fear."

What do you think accounts for this? Is it genetic? Cultural? Either way, it is pretty unusual.

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:08 AM

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There’s been some talk lately on Gene Expression about Empathizing-Systematizing. I haven’t read the sources, but I must say it seems like just a rehash of a piece of a much more well-developed theory of personality that has been around for quite some time, and successfully employed in business and government: the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). (Interesting aside: Myers and Briggs were a mother-daughter team.) Since I don’t think anyone can claim to intelligently discuss personality without relating to it, if for no other reason than to contest it, I will endeavor to introduce it now. Warning: this is my own slightly idiosyncratic view of the subject.

I, personally have used Myers Briggs productively in both my personal life, and on the job. I was first introduced to Myers Briggs about ten years ago, and it was a transformative experience. (Actually, I knew about it for many years without paying much attention, until one day I saw a book on someone’s shelf and began to read…) I can’t think of anything else, that can be learned in a couple of hours from a book, that can so utterly change the way a well-educated person sees the world. It was like suddenly being able to see a new color, and with a little reflection and experience it has thoroughly informed the way I understand people and interpersonal relations.

Myers Briggs describes personality types according to four pairs of traits. While often these are treated as binary choices: you are either on thing or the other; I think of them as endpoints of axes: you are somewhere on the continuum between them. An added complication is that personality types describe preferred modes of behavior, while well-rounded people are often quite skilled in behaving in their non-preferred mode, as this site says:

This is analagous to handedness, where you sometimes use your preferred hand (eg: when using a pen to write) and sometimes use your non-preferred hand (eg: the hand you use to change gear whilst driving a car is determined by the design of the car, not your preferences). [It's a British site. In the UK you shift with your left hand - DB]

OK, the first thing people always want to know is, "what’s my type". Here are a couple of tests. I didn’t take either one of them, so I can’t vouch for them. But here’s my test:

Extrovert/Introvert (E/I) – If you like to have lots of social relationships, if you enjoy meeting new people, if you often talk to strangers when you encounter them, you are probably an extrovert. If you prefer to concentrate on a few special relationships, if you don’t like meeting new people, if you rarely talk to strangers when you encounter them, you are probably an introvert.

Sensing/Intuitive (S/N) – If you like to learn examples first, theory second, if you think in words, if you like details, you are probably sensing. If you like to learn theory first, examples second, if you think visually, if you are impatient with "irrelevant" details (though they may be essential to getting the job done), you are probably intuitive.

Thinking/Feeling (T/F) – If you like thinking about things or ideas, if you enjoy sparring (physical or verbal), if you prefer truth to peace, you are probably thinking. If you like thinking about people, if you especially enjoy making people feel good (or bad, in pathological cases), if you prefer peace (or war, in pathological cases) to truth, you are probably feeling.

Judging/Perceiving (J/P) – If you prefer to make a decision now rather than wait for more data, if you think that there’s usually a right way to do things, if you like achieving goals whether or not the goal has any objective value, you are probably judging. If you prefer to wait for more data rather than make a decision, if you think there are usually many right ways to do things, or it usually doesn’t matter too much how you do things, if you are comfortable with vaguely defined objectives, you are probably perceiving.

Follow the links above for a description of each of the axes. I think the hardest one to explain, and the most interesting is the S/N axis. (At least to me, for it characterizes my personality more than any of the others – I am an extreme N.) Sensing people tend to relate directly to inputs from their environment, while intuitive people tend to use these inputs to construct complex inner models, and relate to them. A lot of people have trouble differentiating between thinking and judging. If you’re having trouble, look at their opposites, for some reason they’re easier to distinguish.

So which type are you? (I’m an INTP.) Here are links to descriptions of each type.

ESTJ ESFJ ENFJ ENTJ
ESTP ESFP ENFP ENTP
ISTJ ISFJ INFJ INTJ
ISTP ISFP INFP INTP

Read the description of your type. Does it sound like you? Try varying one letter at a time, especially if you are not sure about one of the answers. Do these types seem somewhat like you? Now switch ALL the letters, how much does this seem like you? (These descriptions are short, and so much less impressive than the descriptions that appear in the book. The first version of this book was my introduction to Myers Briggs. There was another book that I liked better, at the time, but I can’t seem to locate it.)

Now comes the fun part. Myers Briggs doesn’t just give you a way to describe yourself, it gives you a way to think and talk about personality. For example, the 16 types can be grouped in various ways in order to make more general statements, the most common is: SP, SJ,NT,NF. I often use this particular breakdown when interviewing candidates for a job. Usually I can figure out pretty quickly what a person’s personality type is (and when I can’t it says something too, that they’re probably near the middle of the spectrum, or they’re good at using their non-preference). It’s my experience that the best predictor of success in a job is not ability but enthusiasm – so I want to know what motivates a person:

SP – Action: These people like activity. All the best athletes are SPs. Soldiers are usually SPs (but officers are usually SJs). The best salesmen are SPs. Lots of really good programmers are SPs – they’re they guys that just love programming, I call them computer jocks. To be really good at something, you have to love to do it over and over again, only SPs are capable of this.

SJ – Order: These people love to make order out of chaos. They love directing things, planning things, organizing things. A lot of bosses are SJs. Good secretaries are SJs. Most schoolteachers are SJs. Lots of good programmers are SJs – they’re the ones that will research and plan before methodically carrying out the task.

NT – Ideas: These people like thinking about ideas. They like solving problems (not the administrative kind), inventing algorithms, and architecting solutions. Most scientists and engineers are NTs (though a lot of engineers are SJs). Lots of good programmers are NTs (I’m one of those), but they’re likely to view programming as a means to an end rather than an end in itself (in contrast to SPs).

NF – Empathy: These people like to help people and express themselves (to people). Naturally, they gravitate to the helping professions: teaching, medicine, social work, social advocacy. They also fill the ranks of artists, writers, journalists. I once saw a claim that they make the best salespeople, and I believe it, but few NFs are interested in sales. NFs are not likely to be interested in programming, but when they are they’re motivated by the notion of helping people by what they write, or pleasing the boss.

The 16 types are not distributed equally in the population, by any means.Keirsey claims the following figures (I couldn’t find figures for individual types):

SJ: 40% – 45% SP: 35% – 40% NF: 8% -10% NT: 5% – 7%

Assuming that personality types are inherited (and I think they are – my mother is an INFP, my father is an INTJ, and my sister is an INFP), I think this is clearly a case of frequency dependent selection. My skills, for example, as an INTP, are in demand because they are extremely rare. But I don’t think I would want to live in a world in which my type were common. I have trouble with a lot of everyday tasks that most people would consider extremely simple, and I’m glad that there are a lot of people around to help me out with them. A typical programming task (for example) can always use another good SP or SJ, but how many NTs does it need? Especially INTPs (NTJs can fake being SJs – their J side enables them to do what is called for at the moment). Ten thousand years ago, I’m not sure what we would do.

The other interesting skew in the percentages is on the T/F axis (and this brings us back to the origin of this post). The T/F axis is the only one which exhibits sexual dimorphism. About 75% of men are Ts, while about 75% of women are Fs. I am quite sure that this explains most of the differences in career choice that we see between men and women, plus a lot of other differences. Anyone ever notice that men and women tend to have different personalities? Does it come as a surprise that most women are feeling, while most men are thinking?

Okay, lets have some more fun. I claimed to be able to tell a person’s personality type without much trouble. So let’s pick one: Razib. (My estimate of his personality type tells me he won’t mind.) First: E or I? Well, that’s easy, he’s one of the most extroverted people I know (and I don’t even know him – I’m judging by the stories he tells, and the fact that he tells them at all), E. Second: S or N? That’s a hard one. I would guess S because he writes so fast, and works through so much material. I don’t think an N personality is capable of it. Also, his writing style can be very sensual, but that could be an F influence (we’ll get to that). However, and this is why I said it was hard, he’s clearly very good at building internal models. But I’ll go with the preponderance of evidence: S. Third: T or F? Another easy one, he’s clearly a thinker. However, I note that he’s quite good at using his feeling side when he wants to, T. Fourth: J or P? I think it’s a P, I just don’t get a goal-directed feeling about him, nor do I see him express strong opinions about a lot of things, usually he keeps his options open: P. So there’s my guess:ESTP. Is it right?

(Cross posted at Rishon Rishon.)

Update from Razib: My score:

Your Type is ENTJ

Extroverted/Intuitive/Thinking/Judging

Strength of the preferences % 89/78/67/44

You are: very expressed extrovert very expressed intuitive personality distinctively expressed thinking personality moderately expressed judging personality

I haven’t taken the tests many times, but I think I’ve scored ENTP before.

Another update from Razib: Took the other test, said I’m a “Guardian,” which come as, Supervisors (ESTJ) | Protectors (ISFJ) | Inspectors (ISTJ) | Providers (ESFJ). Frankly, perhaps I’m just too special to be easily characterized!

Update from David: I think the results are interesting. The strength of your preferences shows a low preference for J/P, which corresponds to my feeling – I didn’t get a strong signal one way or another. The puzzling thing to me was the S/N preference, where I got a strong signal in both directions, and the two tests confirmed this (after a fashion) by giving contradictory results, even though the first test showed a very strong preference. By way of explanation, I have noticed that people often display different preferences over different domains. To extend the handedness analogy, it’s like preferring your right hand for some tasks and your left hand for others – which is not uncommon.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:49 PM

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It is often said that the ancient Greeks were the first Europeans. Indeed, their culture feels remarkably modern. Usually this is put down to the Greek spirit of inquiry, its dedication to reason, or perhaps cosmopolitanism. But there is another characteristic of ancient Greece which unites it with the present, and distinguishes it from the past. It is a characteristic that is almost universally overlooked, despite its importance, because its presence is so much a part of contemporary consciousness that its nature is exceedingly hard to convey: ancient Greece, like modern times, was a non-traditional culture.

Though I, myself, am often haphazard in my use of the word ‘traditional’ (for example, I often use the terms: ‘traditional values’ or ‘traditional religion’), at least for the purpose of this post I will endeavor to use the word more precisely: A traditional culture is one that has explicit cultural institutions for transmitting tradition. The emphasis is on the word explicit – clearly, people in all cultures learn from their elders, and thus tend to propagate traditions. But in tribal cultures there is strong, if not universal, tendency to maintain cultural institutions whose purpose is to preserve and transmit the wisdom of the tribe. In other words: maintaining tradition is an explicit value – not just as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The identity of the tribe is symbiotically bound to its memetic wisdom, and each strives to preserve the other.

Traditional culture is often thought of as a kind of super-stodginess: elders frowning and saying, "this is the way it’s always been done". However, I have found (and I don’t know how generally applicable this is) that in a certain way quite the opposite occurs. The maintenance of explicit institutions for transmitting tradition provides a forum, and a language, for examining it. We see it operate in the one area of life that, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries, still operates on traditional principles: Law. The legal profession, in common-law countries, maintains institutions for transmitting not just the law itself, but also how the law is understood. And when the law is applied, it is necessary to consider not just the law itself, but the whole weight of legal tradition – this tradition being considered, in fact, inseparable from it.

It is perhaps inevitable that tribal cultures would tend to be traditional. Clearly, those tribes which best succeed in transmitting their accumulated wisdom to the next generation are most likely to succeed, so maintaining explicit institutions for this purpose would tend to further this goal. But there is a better reason: traditional cultures create the infrastructure for memetic evolution.

Many systems, not just genetic systems, are evolutionary. To be evolutionary, a system need only:

1. Consist of units which propagate traits over time

2. Propagate units with advantageous traits better than units with disadvantageous traits

3. Have some kind of mechanism for mutation of traits

Thus, many systems, for example economic systems, can be thought of as evolutionary. But notice that (1) and (3) are contradictory: it is essential that the tendency to mutate be extremely low in comparison to the tendency to conserve and propagate traits. If the mutation rate is too high, it will overwhelm the ability to propagate advantageous traits, and the system will be defined not by evolution, but by the quirks of the mutation mechanism.

The ancient Greeks, in adopting reason as the standard for judging truth, implicitly rejected tradition. It is this, to my mind, that is most responsible for the modern feel of Greek culture. But in doing so, they rejected an evolutionary system in favor of a viral one. Reason is a mechanism for the rapid mutation of memes: Come up with a good reason, and you will change your mind, and others’. The fitness of a meme is determined not so much by the constraints of the environment, as by its attractiveness to the fallible mind.

Clearly, reason has brought us far. But with populations on the precipice of decline in every modern society, it might be relevant to ask: Will it win out in the end? Perhaps tradition will make a comeback? Or perhaps there is some synthesis of reason and tradition that is better than either of the two?

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon)

PS: I think this whole issue should be thought of as meta-memetic evolution: Memes which determine the evolutionary environment of memes. It is parallel to genes which determine the mechanism of reproduction.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:27 AM

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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It is often said that the ancient Greeks were the first Europeans. Indeed, their culture feels remarkably modern. Usually this is put down to the Greek spirit of inquiry, its dedication to reason, or perhaps cosmopolitanism. But there is another characteristic of ancient Greece which unites it with the present, and distinguishes it from the past. It is a characteristic that is almost universally overlooked, despite its importance, because its presence is so much a part of contemporary consciousness that its nature is exceedingly hard to convey: ancient Greece, like modern times, was a non-traditional culture.

Though I, myself, am often haphazard in my use of the word ‘traditional’ (for example, I often use the terms: ‘traditional values’ or ‘traditional religion’), at least for the purpose of this post I will endeavor to use the word more precisely: A traditional culture is one that has explicit cultural institutions for transmitting tradition. The emphasis is on the word explicit – clearly, people in all cultures learn from their elders, and thus tend to propagate traditions. But in tribal cultures there is strong, if not universal, tendency to maintain cultural institutions whose purpose is to preserve and transmit the wisdom of the tribe. In other words: maintaining tradition is an explicit value – not just as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The identity of the tribe is symbiotically bound to its memetic wisdom, and each strives to preserve the other.

Traditional culture is often thought of as a kind of super-stodginess: elders frowning and saying, "this is the way it’s always been done". However, I have found (and I don’t know how generally applicable this is) that in a certain way quite the opposite occurs. The maintenance of explicit institutions for transmitting tradition provides a forum, and a language, for examining it. We see it operate in the one area of life that, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries, still operates on traditional principles: Law. The legal profession, in common-law countries, maintains institutions for transmitting not just the law itself, but also how the law is understood. And when the law is applied, it is necessary to consider not just the law itself, but the whole weight of legal tradition – this tradition being considered, in fact, inseparable from it.

It is perhaps inevitable that tribal cultures would tend to be traditional. Clearly, those tribes which best succeed in transmitting their accumulated wisdom to the next generation are most likely to succeed, so maintaining explicit institutions for this purpose would tend to further this goal. But there is a better reason: traditional cultures create the infrastructure for memetic evolution.

Many systems, not just genetic systems, are evolutionary. To be evolutionary, a system need only:

1. Consist of units which propagate traits over time

2. Propagate units with advantageous traits better than units with disadvantageous traits

3. Have some kind of mechanism for mutation of traits

Thus, many systems, for example economic systems, can be thought of as evolutionary. But notice that (1) and (3) are contradictory: it is essential that the tendency to mutate be extremely low in comparison to the tendency to conserve and propagate traits. If the mutation rate is too high, it will overwhelm the ability to propagate advantageous traits, and the system will be defined not by evolution, but by the quirks of the mutation mechanism.

The ancient Greeks, in adopting reason as the standard for judging truth, implicitly rejected tradition. It is this, to my mind, that is most responsible for the modern feel of Greek culture. But in doing so, they rejected an evolutionary system in favor of a viral one. Reason is a mechanism for the rapid mutation of memes: Come up with a good reason, and you will change your mind, and others’. The fitness of a meme is determined not so much by the constraints of the environment, as by its attractiveness to the fallible mind.

Clearly, reason has brought us far. But with populations on the precipice of decline in every modern society, it might be relevant to ask: Will it win out in the end? Perhaps tradition will make a comeback? Or perhaps there is some synthesis of reason and tradition that is better than either of the two?

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon)

PS: I think this whole issue should be thought of as meta-memetic evolution: Memes which determine the evolutionary environment of memes. It is parallel to genes which determine the mechanism of reproduction.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:26 PM

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For millions of years we lived in tribal units, stretching back in time far beyond the origins of our species, and continuing almost up to the present. A mere 10,000 years ago, all our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Probably, most of our ancestors were still hunter-gatherers only 5,000 years ago. But even after that date, we lived in small villages – from a social point of view not too different from a hunter-gathering tribe. Modern life, intimately bound to the social milieu of the city, became the native habitat of the majority only about a hundred years ago, and then only in the most technologically advanced countries of the world. It is a profound change for mankind that after millions of years of evolution for tribal life, we find ourselves in an habitat that doesn’t support it.

It is my opinion that many of the psychopathologies of the modern world result from the breakdown of the tribal unit. We are highly adapted to tribal life, and only by understanding this fact, and what it implies, can we understand human nature. The bottom line is this: we are profoundly maladapted to our habitat. Symptoms of our maladaption include feelings of ennui, isolation and depression, so common in our society. From an evolutionary perspective, these are clearly disadvantageous. Who is more likely to survive and reproduce – a depressed, listless individual, or a happy, energetic individual? Clearly, these problems are severely selected against, and indeed in tribal societies living close to our original habitat these problems are rare. It could be argued that these feelings are adaptive responses to negative environmental factors, like pain, which would cause us to avoid them. But my observation is that people who suffer from these problems usually have no idea as to their cause, or what to do to overcome them. In my opinion it’s more properly seen as a spurious emotional response to unexpected circumstances, much like a computer program given unexpected input – the output is spurious because the inputs haven’t been accounted for.

It is well known that our taste for sweets and fats, an advantage in a world poor in these nutrients, has lead, in lands of plenty, to the current epidemic of obesity. We have no natural restraint (or not enough) to keep us from overeating simply because this circumstance was too rare to make developing such restraint evolutionarily advantageous. Something similar has happened to the social nutrient of the tribe. It used to be geography that circumscribed the tribe, and economics which bound it together. Tribal units were physically isolated from one another, villages were distant, and cooperation essential to survival. (The distances need not be great, I think a half-hour walk is enough.) Now the speed of our cars, the density of our cities, and the complexity of our economy have erased these boundaries.

From my vantage point, these things seem obvious (though not necessarily true!), probably because my vantage point is unusual in the modern world: it is distinctly tribal. My ancestors have been urban for thousands of years, and it is perhaps because of this that they developed cultural defenses to high-density living, creating a tribal life through cultural institutions. (Or perhaps not, in any case, the institutions exist.) But let us examine more closely the psychological notion of a tribe. A tribe is a group of people who act, to some degree, altruistically. Barring unusual circumstances, any group of people whose members interact with each other, will become a tribe. The commenters of this blog are a tribe: I am quite sure that they are more likely to be altruistic toward each other than toward people chosen at random. But from a psychological point of view, that is not the defining characteristic. Rather, the most important characteristic of the tribe is that it gives the individual an identity. People who have a weak identity are likely to do crazy things to get one, like become a Nazi, or just become depressed. On the other hand, one who is immersed in his tribe lives with a certain kind of tranquility, a life without the modern plagues of ennui, isolation and depression, though it may be full of ordinary boredom, loneliness, and unhappiness. (The difference between the two: one is chronic, the other causal hence adaptive.) When I look out at modern life, the closest thing to a tribe that I see is the workplace – and this is a poor substitute for the real thing, like eating cake instead of food: filling but not nutritious.

Given enough time, I suppose that humankind could evolve from dogdom to cathood, become a solitary creature that meets only to work and mate. I don’t think this is likely. Another, easier, strategy is available: to augment our genes with memes, and create tribes strong enough to withstand the hardships of our habitat. I think the change will become clear in the next few generations. We are already seeing it now.

Some candidates for the tribes of the future: Observant Jews, Evangelical Christians, Mormons, Parsis (though I hear that they’re having a problem with fertility, an essential feature for survival), Sikhs, Jains, Marwaris (certainly other Hindu castes as well, that I don’t know about), Japanese (I have heard that the true religion of Japan is Japanism), Falun Gong (other Chinese sects?), Druse, Ismailis (I would include Islamists, but my impression is that they’re not demographically well-defined – maybe Islam as a whole should be on the list?)… Others?

Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 02:51 AM

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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