Daily Data Dump – Wednesday

Psychological Research Conducted in ‘WEIRD’ Nations May Not Apply to Global Populations. This is the standard objection to psychological studies in terms of the representativeness of their samples; middle class university students. But more broadly they’re Western middle class university students.

The grandmother factor: Why do only humans and whales live long past menopause? Interestingly the data and model here imply that the importance of disproportionate maternal grandmothers (this is empirically attested in even notionally patriarchal societies) may have something to do with patrilocality.

Ghana’s unique African-Hindu temple. In some ways this seems to replicate the non-congregational model found in India, whereby locals seem to be patronizing the temple for its “services” is a non-exclusive fashion.

The Myth of the Fat Burning Zone. This is in the “news your can use” category.

Why won’t those &$*%#@ bloggers go away? Scott Sumner’s response to a criticism of the “econosphere” from a professional economist. I doubt that engineers worry about engineering bloggers talking about stuff they don’t know about. Economics is hard, but many of us who are not averse to giving due respect to professionals who have a real understanding of how the world works have shifted our assessment on the empirics of late. The econosphere would disappear in its current critical form if economists either toned down their pretensions, or actually showed us the money.

Porn and moral panic

Social conservative blogger Rod Dreher points me to this interview of a Left-wing sociologist on the malevolent influence of pornography on modern relationships. She has a book out, Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality. Her conclusion:

To turn this around there needs to be a massive public health awareness campaign. Unless people begin to understand the role pornography is playing in our culture, I can’t see any reason that this won’t get worse, because all of these men who started watching pornography young are going to want more and more. Pornographers themselves say they’re having trouble keeping up with what fans want because they want it so hardcore.

Where is this going to end? I don’t know. What will an 11-year-old boy want 10, 20, or 30 years from now? Nobody knows. The truth is we’ve never brought up a generation of males with hardcore pornography. No one can really say what’s going to happen. What we do know, from how images and media affect people, is that it’s going to increasingly shape the way men think about sex, sexuality, and relationships.


A lot of the rest of the interview is going to, or not going to, make sense depending on your priors. Just as Christian evangelical psychotherapy, or a rabbi making a ruling based on the halakhah, uses terms and logics which may seem totally meaningless to outsiders, so people trained in sociology operate in their own lexical universe which operates in a parallel empirical world (when I actually spent some time around young evangelical Christians I recalled that they often interspersed their banal conversations with phrases such as “glorifying God,” or “glorifying my Lord and Savior,” which seemed to have a lot of meaning for them, even if it was about their workout regime*). As an intellectual exercise I often take an interest in what sociologists say, but it’s equivalent to theology as far as I’m concerned insofar as it makes any pretense to mapping onto reality. In contrast, I think economists are guilty of hubris and error, but they at least aim for some clarity so you know when they’re wrong. I am here thinking of Noam Chomsky’s attitude toward Post Modernism.

On a personal note I come from a generation which spanned the period when pornography was scarce, and when it was ubiquitous. It’s an empirically correct observation that it takes two seconds to find extremely disgusting fetish material, whereas before the internet you may not even have been aware of the existence of whole genres of pornography! A case in point, I did not know of the existence of bestiality until I was sixteen years old (a friend took me to a Christian youth group meeting, and the pastor started talking about all the disgusting perverted things you weren’t supposed to do, but he had to define a lot of it in the process). A few years after I happened to walk by a computer in a family room, and I saw that an eight year old boy was deleting disgusting fetish porn spam from his Hotmail account! What had been beyond the ken of my comprehension even into adolescence was a nuisance for this individual in their elementary school years.

Over the past 15 years we’ve run a massive sociological experiment in the United States of America. A whole generation has grown up with easy access to hardcore pornography. Many of the boys exposed in the 1990s are now 30 and older, and starting families. And yet violent crime is still declining in the United States, including rape. There is also no robust evidence that the youth of today are more sexual than those of the past.

That’s why I say that the sorts of sociologists profiled above live in a parallel world, where porn is a primary determinant of the decline in morals in manners. They wouldn’t say morals and manners, but I think that’s what really going on, and explains the attraction of social conservatives like Rod Dreher to the Left-wing critiques. The terminology may differ, but it isn’t too hard to do a search & replace across the arguments and see that they have a similar structure. There was in the past, in some idealized nation, a world of companionate partnership from which we’re declining. In the details the ideal partnership of a Left-wing feminist sociologist and a socially conservative Christian obviously differs a great deal, but both feel besieged by the destabilizing and amoral impact of technology and capitalism, which is saturating us with choice, information and plenitude of perversion.

The repulsiveness of modern pornography is not a trivial matter. I do believe that societies need values, that we’re not simple pure hedonic machines (this is a matter of aesthetics and taste, some may differ as to the necessity of this binding of values). But we need to keep some perspective. Foot binding, corsets and shotgun marriages were parts of the cultural landscape in the past, without the influence of porn. More fundamentally I think Left-wing and conservative critiques of the modern culture of pleasure are overly alarmed because they neglect the biologically rooted essentialist aspect of the experience. Porn arouses despite the fact they’re pixels on the screen. But it is no substitute for a real flesh & blood person, because the essence of the source of the pleasure matters. Some social conservatives worry that the youth will be “converted” to homosexuality. The mainstream generally rejects this perspective as ludicrous on the face of it. Graphically, consider the prospect of a straight male receiving oral sex from a male as opposed to a female. On low-level hedonic grounds one would assume that there is no distinction, but many would demur and say that it was “different.” Similarly, pornography can never replace a real relationship.

Technology and the market, the radical and rapid turnover over lifestyles and choices, make people rightly fearful. But as I suggest above despite our biologically rooted fear of change things are getting better. Of course not all change is always for the good, but to actually differentiate the good from the bad, we need to remain rooted in the real world.

Note: Most of the studies I’ve seen which show that perverts have viewed the grossest of porn don’t establish the arrow of causality. That is, if you’re a pervert obviously you are going to seek perversion by definition. Though arguably exposure to perversion can render you a pervert, I see no reason why this has to be the null.

* The sacralization of all aspects of life is not exceptional or atypical, I simply observe that a lot of the references to it operate in its own universe of meaning which is pretty opaque to outsiders.

Nazis in space

Really interesting trailer for a movie which is premised on a “secret history” where a group of Nazis flee to the far side of the moon at the end of World War II, and are returning imminently in the near future from their exile.

Wired has the back story of how this group of film makers generated broad-based funding for their project. Of course they’re Finnish….

Daily Data Dump – Tuesday

North America’s First Peoples More Genetically Diverse Than Thought, Mitochondrial Genome Analysis Reveals. The paper is free to all. Remember that this is just mtDNA, the maternal lineage. This area seems a bit confused now. The standard simple model, which is barely even a ’stylized fact’ at this point, is that a group of Siberians arrived ~12,000 years ago and this founder population to led to all that has come after. For about twenty years geneticists have been claiming to see more time depth, but that’s confused by the possibility that they have been looking at evolutionary dynamics in Berengia, not North America.

In Ireland, a Picture of the High Cost of Austerity. So was there an alternative to austerity for Ireland alone? Can such a small nation pump growth with deficit spending if its larger neighbors are all beating the drum for austerity? Seems like they’re soldiering on and making the best of a bad situation.

In Faulty-Computer Suit, Window to Dell Decline. Dude, do not buy a Dell!

The Triumphant Decline of the WASP. Noah Feldman basically concedes that WASPs are the world’s least primitive population. Of course that does not entail fitness of genes or memes.

Can linguistic features reveal time depths as deep as 50,000 years ago? Mostly likely not.

Your genes are just the odds

Morning Edition has a strange story today about the exploration of one neuroscientist of his own family’s history, specifically its psychological and neurological quirks. To not put too fine a point on it, the scientist in question finds out that he has a history of violence in his family, and, that he carries a genetic variant implicated in violent behavior under particular conditions, as well as telling neurological patterns found among psychopaths. Here’s the relevant section:

After learning his violent family history, he examined the images and compared them with the brains of psychopaths. His wife’s scan was normal. His mother: normal. His siblings: normal. His children: normal.

“And I took a look at my own PET scan and saw something disturbing that I did not talk about,” he says.

What he didn’t want to reveal was that his orbital cortex looks inactive.

“If you look at the PET scan, I look just like one of those killers.”

Fallon cautions that this is a young field. Scientists are just beginning to study this area of the brain — much less the brains of criminals. Still, he says the evidence is accumulating that some people’s brains predispose them toward violence and that psychopathic tendencies may be passed down from one generation to another.

The Three Ingredients

And that brings us to the next part of Jim Fallon’s family experiment. Along with brain scans, Fallon also tested each family member’s DNA for genes that are associated with violence. He looked at 12 genes related to aggression and violence and zeroed in on the MAO-A gene (monoamine oxidase A). This gene, which has been the target of considerable research, is also known as the “warrior gene” because it regulates serotonin in the brain. Serotonin affects your mood — think Prozac — and many scientists believe that if you have a certain version of the warrior gene, your brain won’t respond to the calming effects of serotonin.

Fallon calls up another slide on his computer. It has a list of family members’ names, and next to them, the results of the genotyping. Everyone in his family has the low-aggression variant of the MAO-A gene, except for one person.

“You see that? I’m 100 percent. I have the pattern, the risky pattern,” he says, then pauses. “In a sense, I’m a born killer.”

Fallon is being a bit dramatic for effect obviously, but as I said to Eric Michael Johnson this is like finding out you have a history of alcoholism in the family, as well as a genetic variant which results in the less efficient metabolization of alcohol. You know what you know, and you know what you have to do to not put yourself in a position where your predispositions could mix with a dangerous set of choices.

Going back to this example and being more practical, what if behavior genomics and neuroscience advance to the point where you can find out the odds of your child having issues with impulse control, heightened aggression, and reduced independent ethical judgement (e.g., guilt as opposed to shame) are all greater than than expectation. All things being equal the research is telling you that instead of having a 0.1% chance of landing in jail for violent crime, your offspring has a 5% chance. There are all sorts of things you might do, and choices you might make. If, for example, you yourself know that guilt is just something you aren’t heavily gifted with, and that gets you intro trouble in the long term (as you make a sequence of ‘rational’ unethical choices on a regular basis), you might choose a profession which is very transparent so that you don’t have to make ethical decisions on a regular basis where short term self-interest is in conflict with long term self-interest & socialized conceptions of right & wrong. Go into finance if you can do math. Become a lawyer if you can’t.

Daily Data Dump – Monday

High Rates of Sexually Transmitted Infections Among Older Swingers. This goes into the “they had to do research!?!?!” category. Older swingers are a “high risk” group, like gay men and prostitutes.

Golly, Beav, We’re Historic. I really loved Leave It To Beaver when I was a kid.

Religious Extremists Will Inherit the Earth. John Derbyshire reviews the new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. I’m looking forward to this book, though I’m generally skeptical of the error bars on any social prediction beyond the 20 year time horizon.

Born to be a slave in Niger. This a story from 2005, but from what I gather nothing has really changed in much of the Sahel since then. Slavery is particularly pernicious in Mauritania, where the racialized aspect is pretty straightforward.

New Clues Suggest Wet Era on Early Mars Was Global. This story caught my attention because I just found out that Edgar Rice Burrough’s first Barsoon novel is going to be turned into a film.

More children please: men or women?

In the post below on Bryan Caplan’s arguments for why one should have more children there was an “interesting” comment:

As if we’re harmless little creatures at one with our environment and put no toll on the balance of nature around us. Funny how we humans act like mindless rabbits and lemmings and put the sole unintelligent directive of our DNA as the mouth of god. Men most interestingly in power or self described intellectuals after sitting around picking belly lint and jerking off in praise of their penises find clever monkey justifications (patriarchal religions mostly) for more more more babies and women must be subservient to male sexual needs and demands of more babies. See a huge male god said so.

Funny how women mostly never jump on the soapbox bandwagon of wanting to pop out tons of kids, just male spermatozoa fed rants formed by the human male organism to insist his natural inclination is the word of gawd. If you can’t use holy massive penised Jehovah to instill this dreck then dream up socio-biological propaganda for the atheist hip guys needing a good shagging with their female cohorts.

Ignoring the weirdness of much the comment, is it true that men are more pro-natalist than women? I have shown that there seems to be a trend within the last 10 years of preference for larger families. What’s the sex breakdown for this?

The correlation between men and women is 0.65 year-to-year in their mean for ideal number of children. About 43% of the variance of the trend over the years can be predicted from one sex to the other. Is there is a systematic difference? Here’s a chart:

fertscreen

The period before 1998 is rather noisy overall. The correlation actually increases after ‘98 because of the concurrent upward trend. That being said, it looks like the pro-natalist bias is more accentuated among women than men. If I constrain the years to the 2000s, and age range to 18-30, the mean ideal number of children for men is 2.88 and for women it is 3.03.

These data indicate that in fact Bryan Caplan marches with the sisterhood on this issue.

The two cycles

I’m reading Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. The book basically outlines the international state system in the ancient Near East which fostered diplomatic relationships between the monarchies of the period. It is noted that this state system and diplomatic culture did not make it through the chaos which marks the transition between what we term the Bronze Age and Iron Age; the centuries between 1200 and 600 BC. I try and read about the ancient Near East when I can, it’s a hard area to find academic books accessible to lay people (I don’t know Sumerian or Akkadian for example, which means that a lot of the philological stuff goes over my head). But thanks the usage of cuneiform tablets which are often well preserved when palaces are burned down we have a substantial amount of records, albeit not of the personable narrative form excluding some exceptions (good for economic historians, not so much for cultural historians).


One thing that seems to jump out to me is that our history can be divided between what came before the transition above, and what came after. If you know about Julian Jaynes you know some argue for a really deep psychological chasm. Setting that aside, consider the cultural continuity of texts between the period after, and the period before. Much of what we know of antiquity in the West is due to translation efforts during the Carolingian period, encyclopediasts in 10th century Byzantium, and the Abbasids in 9th century. These are the major choke points. If it were not for these periods of elite sponsorship of transcription we would be much poorer in antique Greco-Roman works (the maligned Assyrian Empire played that role in the early Iron Age; I believe we have the Epic of Gilgamesh thanks to its libraries).

The cultural chasm between Mycenaean Greece and Classical Greece, a period of 500 years, is arguably greater than that between Classical Greece and 6th century Byzantium. After 1200 BC literate culture disappeared from the Aegean and Anatolia. The societies of the Near East and Egypt were under extreme stress, and their survival was a near thing. Literacy had long disappeared from India (assuming that the Indus Valley script is a full-fledged script, something I suspect it is simply because the society seems too complex and expansive for it not to have more than accounting notation). Western and Indian writing systems derive from the alphabets of the Levant. If the Near East and Egypt had descended into pure barbarism, with Assyria and Egypt being swallowed up in the sea of illiteracy, what would the present look like?

China is the arguable exception to this trend, even though there was a transition from the Shang to the Zhou, I do not know of a major cultural regress during this period in the Far East. Greece remained in a decentralized pre-literate state for centuries. If the West  persisted in such a state for far longer what would that mean for us? The Persian Empire, which had control of Central Asia, depended to a large extent on co-opting the political and cultural systems preexistent across its domains. If these regions had remained in a state of barbarism long enough it may be that Chinese culture hegemony in Central Asia would have been robust enough to withstand all the subsequent historical shocks, and world history would look far different.*

* In the period between 0 and 1000 AD Central Asia was contested between China and the Western Eurasian societies. After 1000 AD Central Asia became more fully integrated into Western Eurasian civilization as China withdrew back beyond its geographical perimeter.

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The two cycles

I’m reading Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. The book basically outlines the international state system in the ancient Near East which fostered diplomatic relationships between the monarchies of the period. It is noted that this state system and diplomatic culture did not make it through the chaos which marks the transition between what we term the Bronze Age and Iron Age; the centuries between 1200 and 600 BC. I try and read about the ancient Near East when I can, it’s a hard area to find academic books accessible to lay people (I don’t know Sumerian or Akkadian for example, which means that a lot of the philological stuff goes over my head). But thanks the usage of cuneiform tablets which are often well preserved when palaces are burned down we have a substantial amount of records, albeit not of the personable narrative form excluding some exceptions (good for economic historians, not so much for cultural historians).


One thing that seems to jump out to me is that our history can be divided between what came before the transition above, and what came after. If you know about Julian Jaynes you know some argue for a really deep psychological chasm. Setting that aside, consider the cultural continuity of texts between the period after, and the period before. Much of what we know of antiquity in the West is due to translation efforts during the Carolingian period, encyclopediasts in 10th century Byzantium, and the Abbasids in 9th century. These are the major choke points. If it were not for these periods of elite sponsorship of transcription we would be much poorer in antique Greco-Roman works (the maligned Assyrian Empire played that role in the early Iron Age; I believe we have the Epic of Gilgamesh thanks to its libraries).

The cultural chasm between Mycenaean Greece and Classical Greece, a period of 500 years, is arguably greater than that between Classical Greece and 6th century Byzantium. After 1200 BC literate culture disappeared from the Aegean and Anatolia. The societies of the Near East and Egypt were under extreme stress, and their survival was a near thing. Literacy had long disappeared from India (assuming that the Indus Valley script is a full-fledged script, something I suspect it is simply because the society seems too complex and expansive for it not to have more than accounting notation). Western and Indian writing systems derive from the alphabets of the Levant. If the Near East and Egypt had descended into pure barbarism, with Assyria and Egypt being swallowed up in the sea of illiteracy, what would the present look like?

China is the arguable exception to this trend, even though there was a transition from the Shang to the Zhou, I do not know of a major cultural regress during this period in the Far East. Greece remained in a decentralized pre-literate state for centuries. If the West  persisted in such a state for far longer what would that mean for us? The Persian Empire, which had control of Central Asia, depended to a large extent on co-opting the political and cultural systems preexistent across its domains. If these regions had remained in a state of barbarism long enough it may be that Chinese culture hegemony in Central Asia would have been robust enough to withstand all the subsequent historical shocks, and world history would look far different.*

* In the period between 0 and 1000 AD Central Asia was contested between China and the Western Eurasian societies. After 1000 AD Central Asia became more fully integrated into Western Eurasian civilization as China withdrew back beyond its geographical perimeter.

Psychometrics, epigenetics and economics

Two papers of interest. IQ in the Production Function: Evidence from Immigrant Earnings (ungated). And Human Intelligence and Polymorphisms in the DNA Methyltransferase Genes Involved in Epigenetic Marking. My impression is that the focus on epigenetics has a higher-order social motive; even the sort of humanists who are involved with N + 1 have asked me about the topic. But how many people know what methylation is?