Open thread 8/1/2012

The nature of the restrictions of the comments are relatively free-form on this post. You should maintain some decorum as usual. But you can post links, ask me or other readers questions, etc.

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Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal has died. As a younger man I found his heterodox views bracing, but I would commend to readers two books Vidal wrote which I feel often get forgotten in the shadow of his American historical novels, Creation and Julian. As a polemicist one must always view Vidal’s claims of fact with some suspicion (granted, I suspect I’m in more sympathy with some of his interpretations of history than most), but his historical fiction can rise above such a critique.

Obscure Indian actress in Playboy

Seems like Playboy is making a play for relevance. When was the last time it was in the news? Also, observe that the commentator below has to note the woman’s religious background. Is it because one of her breasts is Christian and the other Muslim?

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An ethnography: N = 1

This is an “inside baseball” post for regular readers, but looking through site referrals I’ve noticed that German Dziebel has started to blog regularly again. For those who don’t know Dziebel is the author of The Genius of Kinship: The Phenomenon of Kinship and the Global Diversity of Kinship Terminologies. Here is the summary from Amazon:

This highly acclaimed book brings the cumulative results of a century and a half of kinship studies in anthropology into the focus of current debates on the origin of modern humans in Africa and on an entangled bit of human evolutionary history commonly subsumed under the heading of the “peopling of the Americas.” This erudite study is based on a database of some 2,500 kinship vocabularies representing roughly 600 African languages, 140 Australian languages, 500 Austronesian languages, 200 Papuan languages, 350 languages of Eurasia (excluding Indo-Europeans), 440 North and Middle American Indian languages, and 200 South American languages. This valuable reference will take the reader to the dawn of kinship studies in the 19th century Western science in order to elicit the wider context of anthropological interest in kinship systems and the interdisciplinary salience of the phenomenon of kinship. The book also examines the founder …

Equilibration of attitudes toward divorce

One thing that people occasionally mention in the comments on this weblog is that it seems futile to be “conservative” because the arrow of history goes in one direction. Even many conservatives, including myself, have fallen into this assumption. But upon a closer inspection of history I think we need to be careful about this, as the truth can sometimes confound our coarse models. For example, I strongly suspect that when it comes to love and marriage the realized element of individual liberty has not had a monotonic trajectory over human history. More plainly, free choice declined over the past 10,000 years, and has reemerged in the past few centuries. Whether this is liberal or conservative is less relevant than that it shows that attitudes, beliefs, and practices, do not always change in magnitude in one direction, only at different rates. More recently, sexual mores in the West shifted to a more puritanical direction between 1750 and 1900, only to switch back to a more relaxed attitude over the 20th century (with a punctuated shift in the 1960s).

And these sorts of trends are evident even over a shorter time scale. So it may be with attitudes toward divorce. One …

23andMe and the FDA clearance

As they say, read all about it. I’m rather ambivalent. 23andMe has a business rationale to go in this direction, so I don’t begrudge them their decision. The problem, at least from a legal perspective, is that they’re providing medical advice at least implicitly. And I think this medical direction is really where the big money is in any case. There’s no angle standing on principle.

But, I still believe that on a deep level regulatory agencies don’t “get it.” Our own genotype and genome is going to be a cheap commodity in the next few years. Services like Promethease will proliferate to provide people open source information. Is openSNP going to the FDA anytime soon? The main reason that firms like 23andMe will go through regulatory hurdles is that they are, or aim to be, legitimate public entities. In other words this is an artifact of our institutions. Mind you, 23andMe et al. will probably always have slicker user interfaces, and there’s some value in that. But that doesn’t entail FDA oversight, does it?

The shift toward automation and computation are real ones, and I have a difficult time how seeing regulation developed in the 20th century …

Human version 2.001

Dienekes reflects on the seemingly simultaneous appearance of behavioral modernityin South Africa and Europe and Australia, pending the acceptance of the most recent finds. This part is very important in my opinion:

The San people still live in several countries of southern Africa, and until the latter part of the 20th century were still mainly hunter-gatherers. But Dr. Stringer cautioned not to think of them as “living fossils,” unchanged by time. “Their genes, cultures and behaviors have undoubtedly continued to evolve in the intervening millennia,” he said.

I see no reason to think that these were the ancestors of the San. Over 45,000 years I think the most likely option is that genetic and cultural continuity will not be maintained, and these are probably a sister group to the modern peoples of Southern Africa. In any case, to address Dienekes’ confusion, I think this is one case where his non-American background shows. We know exactly what happened so long ago to kick-start modern humanity. The answer has been with us for over 40 years.

College makes you believe in marriage!

There’s a cliche, which isn’t totally false, that more education tends to lead one toward heterodox viewpoints which challenge conventional norms. But one issue that has been coming to the fore over the last 10 years or so is that college educated Americans tend toward social liberalism, and yet often continue to live very bourgeois lives. In other words, the freedoms which they favor are those freedoms which are ever operative in their own lives. In contrast those Americans without college educations tend to have a less libertarian attitude toward personal mores, but have lives characterized by greater disturbance and disastrous choices.

And yet this does not hold in the case of what articles such as this report, How Divorce Lost Its Groove:

Though she wasn’t entirely surprised. Ever since her divorce three years ago, Ms. Thomas said, she has been antisocial, “nervous about what people would say.”

After all, she had gone from Park Slope matron, complete with involved husband (“We had cracked the code of Gen X peer parenthood”) and gut-renovated brownstone, to “a Red Hook divorcée,” she said, remarried with a new baby and two children-of-divorce barely out of preschool. “All of a sudden, this community I’d lived in …

Humanity 2.0

Dienekes points to a David Reich video where he shows his hand as to future possible results to come out of his lab. The short of it is that it seems likely that most agricultural populations exhibit the same dynamic outlined in Reconstructing Indian History. At the least you have an intrusive group admixing with indigenes. At the extreme you have total replacement. The pattern is confirmed for India, Ethiopia, and Southeast Asia. It seems highly likely in Europe. There are other rumored results in East Asia which might shake things up.

On a minor note, I do want to add that I think many archaeologists aren’t going to be totally surprised that modern Europeans don’t derive by and large from Aurignacians. But, the relatively recent nature of the map of genetic variation which we take for granted probably will shock, and result in a high degree of skepticism. Yet if I had to bet I would bet on the model being sketched out by David Reich. These admixtures and replacements are likely to resolve some confusions of our understanding of the settlement of the world using simple tree models with branching points tens of thousands of …

We are all Anglo-Saxons now

I’m kind of wary of getting into political debates at this point because it’s not my primary interest (additionally, people with stronger political views often end up willfully misrepresenting me because they think I’m taking specific sides, even if they actually guess my preferences incorrectly!). But the whole Mitt Romney-Anglo-Saxon heritage kerfuffle has now gotten under my skin. What prompted my agitation is a post over at The Atlantic by Max Fisher, Sorry, Romney: Neither America Nor the U.K. Are ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Countries. There are two dimensions to this, the positive and the normative.

Most of you are probably aware of David Barton, the conservative Christian scholar whose bread and butter is a revisionist history of the United States which rewrites the past into a fiction to serve his own political ends, in a manner which would make Michel Foucault proud. But believe it or not conservative Christians are not the only group wont to rewrite the past to serve  their own contemporary political preferences. In the case of Max Fisher what you have is a conclusion in search of support, and so our enterprising young man went out looking for it in classic hack style. Reading through …