Across the chasm of Incommensurability

The Washington Post has a piece typical of its genre, A Chinese student praised the ‘fresh air of free speech’ at a U.S. college. Then came the backlash. It’s the standard story; a student from China with somewhat heterodox thoughts and sympathies with some Western ideologies and mores expresses those views freely in the West, and social media backlash makes them walk it back. We all know that the walk back is insincere and coerced, but that’s the point: to maintain the norm of not criticizing the motherland abroad. The truth of the matter of how you really feel is secondary.

Tacit in these stories is that of course freedom of speech and democracy are good. And, there is a bit of confusion that even government manipulation aside, some of the backlash from mainland Chinese seems to be sincere. After all, how could “the people” not defend freedom of speech and democracy?

Reading this story now I remember what an academic and friend (well, ex-friend, we’re out of touch) explained years ago in relation to what you say and public speech: one can’t judge speech by what you intend and what you say in a descriptive sense, but you also have to consider how others take what you say and how it impacts them. In other words, intersubjectivity is paramount, and the object or phenomenon “out there” is often besides the point.

At the time I dismissed this viewpoint and moved on.

Though in general I do not talk to people from China about politics (let’s keep in real, it’s all about the food, and possible business opportunities), it was almost amusing to hear them offer their opinions about Tibet and democracy, because so often very educated and competent people would trot out obvious government talking points. In this domain there was little critical rationalism. One could have a legitimate debate about the value of economic liberalization vs. political liberalization. But it was ridiculous to engage with the thesis that China was always unitary between the Former Han and today. That is just a falsehood. Though the specific detail was often lacking in their arguments, it was clearly implied that they knew the final answer. I would laugh at this attitude, because I thought ultimately facts were the true weapon. The world as it is is where we start and where we end.

Or is it? From the article:

Another popular comment expressed disappointment in U.S. universities, suggesting without any apparent irony that Yang should not have been allowed to make the remarks.

“Are speeches made there not examined for evaluation of their potential impact before being given to the public?” the commentator wrote.

“Our motherland has done so much to make us stand up among Western countries, but what have you done? We have been working so hard to eliminate the stereotypes the West has put on us, but what are you doing? Don’t let me meet you in the United States; I am afraid I could not stop myself from going up and smacking you in the face.”

Others were critical not of Yang’s comments but of the venue in which she chose to make them.

“This kid is too naive. How can you forget the Chinese rule about how to talk once you get to the United States? Just lie or make empty talk instead of telling the truth. Only this will be beneficial for you in China. Now you cannot come back to China,” @Labixiaoxin said.

There is a lot of texture even within this passage. I do wonder if the writers and editors at The Washington Post knew the exegetical treasures they were offering up.

To me, there is irony in the irony. Among the vanguard of the intelligensia in these United States there is plenty of agreement with the thesis that some remarks should not be made, some remarks should not be thought. Especially in public. The issue is not on the principle, but specifically what remarks should not be made, and what remarks should not be public. That is, the important and substantive debates are not about a positive description of the world, but the values through which you view the world. The disagreements with the Chinese here are not about matters of fact, but matters of values. Facts are piddling things next to values.

So let’s take this at face value. Discussions about Tibetan autonomy and Chinese human rights violations cause emotional distress for many Chinese. I’ve seen this a little bit personally, when confronting Chinese graduate students with historical facts. It’s not that they were ignorant, but their views of history were massaged and framed in a particular manner, and it was shocking to be presented with alternative viewpoints when much of one’s national self-identity hinged on a particular narrative. Responses weren’t cogent and passionate, they were stuttering and reflexive.

Now imagine the psychic impact on hundreds of millions of educated Chinese. They’ve been sold a particular view of the world, and these students get exposed to new ideas and viewpoints and relay it back, and it causes emotional distress. Similarly, for hundreds of millions of Muslims expressing atheism is an ipso facto assault on their being, their self-identity. This is why I say that the existence of someone like me, an atheist from a Muslim background, is by definition an affront to many. My existence is blasphemy and hurtful.

And the Chinese view of themselves and their hurt at insults to their nationhood do not come purely from government fiction. There’s a factual reality that needs to be acknowledged. China was for thousands of years was one of the most significant political and cultural units in the world. But the period from 1850 to 1980 were dark decades. The long century of eclipse. China was humiliated, dismembered, and rendered prostrate before the world. It collapsed into factious civil war and warlordism. Tens of millions died in famines due to political instability.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s between 20 to 50 million citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China starved due to Mao’s crazy ambitions. This is out of a population of ~650 million or so. Clearly many Chinese remember this period, and have relatives who survived through this period. A nation brought low, unable to feed its own children, is not an abstraction for the Chinese.

On many aspects of fact there are details where I shrug and laugh at the average citizen of China’s inability to look beyond the propaganda being fed to it. And I am not sure that the future of the Chinese state and society is particularly as rosy as we might hope for, as its labor force already hit a peak a few years ago. But the achievement of the Chinese state and society over the past generation in lifting hundreds of millions out of grinding poverty have been a wonder to behold. A human achievement greater than the construction of the Great Wall, not just a Chinese achievement.

But it is descriptively just a fact that nations which have been on the margins and find themselves at center stage want their “time in the sun.” The outcomes of these instances in history are often not ones which redound to the glory of our species, but it is likely that group self-glorification and hubris come out of a specific evolutionary context.

There are on the order of ~300 million citizens of the United States. There are 1.3 billion Chinese. If offense and hurt are the ultimate measures of the acceptance of speech than an objective rendering might suggest that we lose and they win. There are more of them to get hurt than us.

But perhaps the point is that there is no objectivity. There is no standard “out there.” Once the measuring stick of reality falls always, and all arguments are reduced to rhetoric, it is sophistry against sophistry. Power against power. Your teams and views are picked for you, or, through self-interest, or, your preferences derived from some aesthetic bias. Sometimes the team with the small numbers wins, though usually not.

Discourse is like a season of baseball. At the end there is a winner. But there is no final season. Just another round of argument.

Ten years ago I read Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism. I literally laughed at the time when I closed that book, because the numbers did not seem to support him in his grand confidence about atheism’s decline. And since the publication of that book the proportion of people in the United States who are irreligious has increased. Contrary to perceptions there has been no great swell of religion across the world.

But on a deep level McGrath was correct about something. Much of the book was aimed at the “New Atheism” specifically. A bold and offensive movement which prioritized the idea of facts first (in the ideal if not always the achievement), McGrath argued that this was a last gasp of an old modernist and realist view of the world, which would be swallowed by the post-modern age. He, a traditional Christian, had a response to the death of reason and empiricism uber alleles, his God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Primordial identities of religion, race, and nationality would emerge from the chaos and dark as reason receded from the world.

With the rise of social constructionism McGrath saw that the New Atheists would lose the cultural commanding heights, their best and only weapons, the glittering steel of singular facts over social feelings. On the other hand, if facts derive from social cognition, than theistic views have much more purchase, because on the whole the numbers are with God, and not his detractors.

And going back to numbers. The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos. And China is a massive economic shadow over us all. Anyone who works in the private sector dreams of business in China. Currently Amazon is nothing in China. What if the Chinese oligarchs made an offer Bezos couldn’t refuse? Do you think The Washington Post wouldn’t change its tune?

When objectivity and being right is no defense, then all that remains is self-interest. Ironically, cold hard realism may foster more universal empathy by allowing us to be grounded in something beyond our social unit. In the near future if the size of social units determines who is, and isn’t, right, than those who built a great bonfire on top of positivism’s death may die first at the hands of the hungry cannibal hordes. Many of us will shed no tears. We were not the ones in need of empathy, because we were among the broad bourgeois masses.

In the end the truth only wins out despite our human natures, not because of it.

Aryan marauders from the steppe came to India, yes they did!

Its seems every post on Indian genetics elicits dissents from loquacious commenters who are woolly on the details of the science, but convinced in their opinions (yes, they operate through uncertainty and obfuscation in their rhetoric, but you know where the axe is lodged). This post is an attempt to answer some questions so I don’t have to address this in the near future, as ancient DNA papers will finally start to come out soon, I hope (at least earlier than Winds of Winter).

In 2001’s The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity Wells et al. wrote:

The current distribution of the M17 haplotype is likely to represent traces of an ancient population migration originating in southern Russia/Ukraine, where M17 is found at high frequency (>50%). It is possible that the domestication of the horse in this region around 3,000 B.C. may have driven the migration (27). The distribution and age of M17 in Europe (17) and Central/Southern Asia is consistent with the inferred movements of these people, who left a clear pattern of archaeological remains known as the Kurgan culture, and are thought to have spoken an early Indo-European language (27, 28, 29). The decrease in frequency eastward across Siberia to the Altai-Sayan mountains (represented by the Tuvinian population) and Mongolia, and southward into India, overlaps exactly with the inferred migrations of the Indo-Iranians during the period 3,000 to 1,000 B.C. (27). It is worth noting that the Indo-European-speaking Sourashtrans, a population from Tamil Nadu in southern India, have a much higher frequency of M17 than their Dravidian-speaking neighbors, the Yadhavas and Kallars (39% vs. 13% and 4%, respectively), adding to the evidence that M17 is a diagnostic Indo-Iranian marker. The exceptionally high frequencies of this marker in the Kyrgyz, Tajik/Khojant, and Ishkashim populations are likely to be due to drift, as these populations are less diverse, and are characterized by relatively small numbers of individuals living in isolated mountain valleys.

In a 2002 interview with the India site Rediff, the first author was more explicit:

Some people say Aryans are the original inhabitants of India. What is your view on this theory?

The Aryans came from outside India. We actually have genetic evidence for that. Very clear genetic evidence from a marker that arose on the southern steppes of Russia and the Ukraine around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. And it subsequently spread to the east and south through Central Asia reaching India. It is on the higher frequency in the Indo-European speakers, the people who claim they are descendants of the Aryans, the Hindi speakers, the Bengalis, the other groups. Then it is at a lower frequency in the Dravidians. But there is clear evidence that there was a heavy migration from the steppes down towards India.

But some people claim that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India. What do you have to say about this?

I don’t agree with them. The Aryans came later, after the Dravidians.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten to know the above first author Spencer Wells as a personal friend, and I think he would be OK with me relaying that to some extent he was under strong pressure to downplay these conclusions. Not only were, and are, these views not popular in India, but the idea of mass migration was in bad odor in much of the academy during this period. Additionally, there was later work which was less clear, and perhaps supported an Indian origin for R1a1a. Spencer himself told me that it was not impossible for R1a to have originated in India, but a branch eventually back-migrated to southern Asia.

But even researchers from the group at Stanford where he had done his postdoc did not support this model by the middle 2000s, Polarity and Temporality of High-Resolution Y-Chromosome Distributions in India Identify Both Indigenous and Exogenous Expansions and Reveal Minor Genetic Influence of Central Asian Pastoralists. In 2009 a paper out of an Indian group was even stronger in its conclusion for a South Asian origin of R1a1a, The Indian origin of paternal haplogroup R1a1* substantiates the autochthonous origin of Brahmins and the caste system.

By 2009 one might have admitted that perhaps Spencer was wrong. I was certainly open to that possibility. There was very persuasive evidence that the mtDNA lineages of South Asia had little to do with Europe or the Middle East.

Yet a closer look at the above papers reveals two major systematic problems.

First, ancient DNA has made it clear that there has been major population turnover during the Holocene, but this was not the null hypothesis in the 2000s. Looking at extant distributions of lineages can give one a distorted view of the past. Frankly, the 2009 Indian paper was egregious in this way because they included Turkic groups in their Central Asian data set. Even in 2009 there was a whole lot of evidence that Central Asian Turkic groups were likely very different from Indo-European Turanian populations which would have been the putative ancestors of Indo-Aryans. Honestly the authors either consciously loaded the die to reduce the evidence for gene flow from Central Asia, or they were ignorant (the nature of the samples is much clearer in the supplements than the  primary text for what it’s worth).

Second, Y chromosomal marker sets in the 2000s were constrained to fast mutating microsatellite regions or less than 100 variant SNPs on the Y. Because it is so repetitive the Y chromosome is hard to sequence, and it really took the technologies of the last ten years to get it done. Both the above papers estimate the coalescence of extant R1a1a lineages to be 10-15,000 years before the present. In particular, they suggest that European and South Asian lineages date back to this period, pushing back any possible connection between the groups, and making it possible that European R1a1a descended from a South Asian founder group which was expanding after the retreat of the ice sheets. The conclusions were not unreasonable based on the methods they had.  But now we have better methods.*

Whole genome sequencing of the Y, as well as ancient DNA, seems to falsify the above dates. Though microsatellites are good for very coarse grain phyolgenetic inferences, one has to be very careful about them when looking at more fine grain population relationships (they are still useful in forensics to cheaply differentiate between individuals, since they accumulate variation very quickly). They mutate fast, and their clock may be erratic.

Additionally, diversity estimates were based on a subset of SNP that were clearly not robust. R1a1a is not diverse anywhere, though basal lineages seem to be present in ancient DNA on the Pontic steppe in some cases.

To show how lacking in diversity R1a1a is, here are the results of a 2016 paper which performed whole genome sequencing on the Y. Instead of relying on the order of 10 to 100 SNPs, this paper discover over 65,000 Y variants worldwide. Notice how little difference there is between different South Asian groups below, indicative of a massive population expansion relatively recently in time which didn’t even have time to exhibit regional population variation. They note that “The most striking are expansions within R1a-Z93 [the South Asian clade], ~4.0–4.5 kya. This time predates by a few centuries the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization, associated by some with the historical migration of Indo-European speakers from the western steppes into the Indian sub-continent.

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Women hate going to India


For some reason women do not seem to migrate much into South Asia. In the late 2000s I, along with others, noticed a strange discrepancy in the Y and mtDNA lineages which trace one’s direct male and female lines: in South Asia the male lineages were likely to cluster with populations to the north an west, while the females lines did not. South Asia’s females lines in fact had a closer relationship to the mtDNA lineages of Southeast and East Asia, albeit distantly.

One solution which presented itself was to contend there was no paradox at all. That the Y chromosomal lineages found in South Asia were basal to those to the west and north. In particular, there were some papers suggesting that perhaps R1a1a originated in South Asia at the end of the last Pleistocene. Whole genome sequencing of Y chromosomes does not bear this out though. R1a1a went through rapid expansion recently, and ancient DNA has found it in Russia first. But in 2009 David Reich came out with Reconstructing Indian population history, which offered up somewhat of a possible solution.

What Reich and his coworkers found that South Asia seems to be characterized by the mixture of two very different types of populations. One set, ANI (Ancestral North Indian), are basically another western or northwestern Eurasian group. ASI (Ancestral South Indian), are indigenous, and exhibit distant affinities to the Andaman Islanders. The India-specific mtDNA then were from ASI, while the Y chromosomes with affinities to people to the north and west were from ANI. In other words, the ANI mixture into South Asia was probably through a mass migration of males.

But it’s not just Y and mtDNA in this case only. A minority of South Asians speak Austro-Asiatic languages. The most interesting of these populations are the Munda, who tend to occupy uplands in east-central India. Older books on India history often suggest that the Munda are the earliest aboriginals of the subcontinent, but that has to confront the fact that most Austro-Asiatic language are spoken in Southeast Asia. There was no true consensus where they were present first.

Genetics seems to have solved this question. The evidence is building up that Austro-Asiatic languages arrived with rice farmers from Southeast Asia. Though most of the ancestry of the Munda is of ANI-ASI mix, a small fraction is clearly East Asian. And interestingly, though they carry no East Asian mtDNA, they do carry East Asian Y. Again, gene flow mediated by males.

The same is true of India’s Bene Israel Jewish community.

A new preprint on biorxiv confirms that the Parsis are another instance of the same dynamic: The genetic legacy of Zoroastrianism in Iran and India: Insights into population structure, gene flow and selection:

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest extant religions in the world, originating in Persia (present-day Iran) during the second millennium BCE. Historical records indicate that migrants from Persia brought Zoroastrianism to India, but there is debate over the timing of these migrations. Here we present novel genome-wide autosomal, Y-chromosome and mitochondrial data from Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians and neighbouring modern-day Indian and Iranian populations to conduct the first genome-wide genetic analysis in these groups. Using powerful haplotype-based techniques, we show that Zoroastrians in Iran and India show increased genetic homogeneity relative to other sampled groups in their respective countries, consistent with their current practices of endogamy. Despite this, we show that Indian Zoroastrians (Parsis) intermixed with local groups sometime after their arrival in India, dating this mixture to 690-1390 CE and providing strong evidence that the migrating group was largely comprised of Zoroastrian males. By exploiting the rich information in DNA from ancient human remains, we also highlight admixture in the ancestors of Iranian Zoroastrians dated to 570 BCE-746 CE, older than admixture seen in any other sampled Iranian group, consistent with a long-standing isolation of Zoroastrians from outside groups. Finally, we report genomic regions showing signatures of positive selection in present-day Zoroastrians that might correlate to the prevalence of particular diseases amongst these communities.

The paper uses lots of fancy ChromoPainter methodologies which look at the distributions of haplotypes across populations. But some of the primary results are obvious using much simpler methods.

1) About 2/3 of the ancestry of Indian Parsis derives from an Iranian population
2) About 1/3 of the ancestry of Indian Parsis derives from an Indian popuation
3) Almost all the Y chromosomes of Indian Parsis can be accounted for by Iranian ancestry
4) Almost all the mtDNA haplogroups of Indian Parsis can be accounted for by Indian ancestry
5) Iranian Zoroastrians are mostly endogamous
6) Genetic isolation has resulted in drift and selection on Zoroastrians

The fact that the ancestry proportion is clearly more than 50% Iranian for Parsis indicates that there was more than one generation of males who migrated. They did not contribute mtDNA, but they did contribute genome-wide to Iranian ancestry. There are wide intervals on the dating of this admixture event, but they are consonant oral history that was later written down by the Parsis.

So there you have it. Another example of a population formed from admixture because women hate going to India.

Citation: The genetic legacy of Zoroastrianism in Iran and India: Insights into population structure, gene flow and selection.
Saioa Lopez, Mark G Thomas, Lucy van Dorp, Naser Ansari-Pour, Sarah Stewart, Abigail L Jones, Erik Jelinek, Lounes Chikhi, Tudor Parfitt, Neil Bradman, Michael E Weale, Garrett Hellenthal
bioRxiv 128272; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/128272

How Indians are a lot like Latin Americans


Pretty much any person of Indian subcontinental origin in the United States of a certain who isn’t very dark skinned has probably had the experience of being spoken to in Spanish at some point. When I was younger growing up in Oregon I had the experience multiple times of Spanish speakers, probably Mexican, pleading with me to interpret for them because there was no one else who seemed likely. It isn’t a genius insight to conclude I was most likely South Asian…but it wasn’t out of the question I was Mexican. This applies even more to lighter skinned South Asians. In the Central Valley of California, where there are many Sikhs from Punjabi and Mexicans, this confusion occurred a lot for some Indian kids.

Of course biogeographically there isn’t that much connection between South Asia and the New World. But it isn’t crazy that Christopher Columbus labelled the peoples of the New World “Indian.” After all, they were a brown-skinned people whose features were not African, East Asian, or West Eurasian. And, it turns out genetically there is a coincidence that connects the New World and South Asia: the mixed peoples of Latin America with Amerindian and European ancestry recapitulate an admixture which resembles what occurred in South Asia thousands of years ago. It looks as if about half the ancestry of South Asians is West Eurasian and half something more like eastern Eurasians.

On principles component analysis that means that South Asian and Mexican and Peruvian samples often overlap. This is somewhat curious because the non-West Eurasian ancestors of South Asians and Amerindians diverged in ancestry on the order of 25 to 45 thousand years before the present. And the Iberian ancestry of the mixed people of the New World is almost as far from the character of South Asian West Eurasian ancestry as you can get (in the parlance of this blog, lots of EEF, less CHG, not too much ANE).

A new paper, A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals, highlights another similarity: massive bias in biogeographic ancestry by sex. More precisely, the rank order of West Eurasian ancestry in South Asia is skewed like so: Y chromosome > whole-genome > mtDNA (as is evident in the above figure).

I actually began writing about this in the late 2000s, when the fact that South Asian mtDNA was very different from West Eurasian mtDNA, and South Asian Y chromosome was mostly West Eurasian, was obvious. Then work using genome-wide data sets began to point to massive intra-Eurasian admixture between very diverged lineages. The paper is not revolutionary, but worth reading for its thoroughness and how it brings together all the lines of evidence.

Finally, no ancient DNA. That’s probably for the future, but I don’t expect any surprises.

Citation: A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals.