Rough cut

Check out the debate on circumcision over at Abiola’s blog. A few comments….

Update: Here are two articles from The New York Times archive that might interest readers (you have to pay to get the full article): Study Is Adding to Doubts About Circumcision, Low Rate Of AIDS Virus In Philippines Is a Puzzle.

1) The new studies that show correlations between circumcision in Third World nations & lower HIV incidence seem to make a probable conection (ie; comparisons across many regions tend to show this trend, eg; Luo in Kenya & Zulus in South Africa are uncircumcised and have higher rates of HIV vs. their circumcised neighbors, the same comparison works in Southeast with Filipinos vs. Thais or South Asia with Hindus vs. Muslims).

2) This does not map well to the context of the First World. The United States does not have the lowest rates of HIV infection in the First World, rather, it seems to have the highest, despite Continental Europeans being uncircumcised. Canadians seem somewhere in the middle, as are their circumcision rates (see here). An important point is that you need to do studies that look at differences between circumcised and uncircumcised within a nation, though in places like Sweden, it seems probable that all the individuals who are circumcised would be Muslim, adding an important selection bias to the “circumcised” sample. In any case, the HIV infection rate among native Swedes is so low as to make it a moot point (also, you can look at Asia, where Japan & South Korea have the same HIV rates though Japanese are not usually circumcised and South Koreans are).

3) Re: Sweden, this nations has been used as an exemplar in refuting the contention that uncircumcised males cause greater rates of cervical cancer in their partners. This conclusion was based on comparisons between Jewish males and “host” populations and Muslims & Hindus in India. Sweden though does not have higher rates of cervical cancer than the United States-again, showing the importance of context, to these statistics. In a First World nation educational campaigns would probably be as successful as something like circumcision.

4) Having reviewed the literature before, it seems plausible, though not proven, to me, that some pleasure might be lost when the foreskin is lost. There are some a priori considerations, after all, if you remove nerve-dense tissue, what are the most obvious implications? That being said, the human mind is flexible, and it might be able to take into account the difference in nerve endings. This is a place where anecdotal evidence is really profuse-and people can take assertions personally. Let’s see some studies (controlling for variables) on orgasm rates for circumcised & uncircumcised men and their partners.

5) There is also the ethical consideration on circumcision being almost irreversible, and involuntarily imposed on an infant. Unfortunately for our species, ethics is always a heated & subjective area to tread….

6) Cultural biases are important hear. As I’ve noted on Abiola’s blog, in South Asia circumcision & Islam are very close connected. Filipinos & South Koreans have become a generally circucmised population in connection with their recent Americanization because of their lack of cultural bias in either direction, but Hindu populations might be more averse given the historic assocation of circumcision with Islam. To be circumcised might be taken to be by some more naive individuals as becoming a Muslim. The same considerations crop up in Africa where uncircumcised groups like the Zulus in South Africa take the lack of the practice as a distinction between them and the Xhosas (Shaka Zulu had the proto-Zulu Nguni peoples under his control abandon the practice). Cultural bias can also come in the form of Jewish-gentile relations, as some Jewish groups worry about anti-Semitism in anti-circumcision movements, and I have even read an article arguing that the decline of the practice (slow but steady) in American males might lead to an upsurge in anti-Semitism as gentiles & Jews become physically distinct once more. Personally, I don’t find mitigating anti-Semitism a valid reason for continuation of circumcision, but then, I’m not Jewish (one could assert that Jews could abandon the practice if minimizing physical differences is the concern, similarly with Muslim minorities in Europe-and with Islam, the practice is culturally, not religiously (Koranic), sanctioned).

P.S. any rabi pro or anti cutting posts will be deleted, this is a heated topic and gets out of control quickly.

Posted by razib at 04:54 AM

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Kebabs in Denmark

Just got an email from a friend who is doing lab work in Denmark, thought this was kind of funny (or ominous):

I am in an interesting neighborhood which is mainly students and middle eastern immigrants I have never seen so many head scarves in one place. The kabab stands are very good I have tried about five within two blocks of my place and there are about 15 I haven’t tried yet.

Head scarves galore in the first country to legalize hard-core pornography.

Posted by razib at 04:23 AM

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IDE or buggy Office package?

I’m on a road trip, so that explains less blogging than the norm. Anyway, reading a little cog. sci., I thought of a funny little analogy to do with software since they use terms like the “computational mind” and “mental modules” all the time. Back in the day, the head-scientists used to think that our brain was like an Integrated Dev. Environment in a multi-purpose language (think C++). You boot up the OS and when you need to do word processing, you hack yourself a “lite” word processing program. When you need something to do graphic design, you hack yourself a design program, etc. Need a language? Get the development team of your society to give you some inputs so you can write up some code that’ll allow you to communicate.

Today, the majority seems to believe that the mind is made of separate modules that are “content-rich.” To move with the software analogy, you boot up, and you have a whole “Office” system set up. You just point & click with a tried & tested vanilla user interface. Of course, that imposes some limitations, and the configuration files aren’t very flexible. But for your grandmother, it gets the job done….

Posted by razib at 07:36 PM

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Two is Enough

Dalton Conley in Slate: Two is Enough:”The U.S. government encourages families to have children, as many of them as possible. The pro-child policies are based partly on romantic notions about mom, family, and apple pie, but they also have a rational goal: We subsidize kids so that our next generation of workers is ready to win in the global economy. Problem is, these two goals – more kids and better-prepared kids – are at odds. If we really care about kids’ welfare and accomplishment, the United States should scrap policies that encourage parents to have lots of children.”Amen. Posted by ole at 01:32 AM

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Tall Tale

This New Yorker article {Via Diana} about the study of past and present national height differences is an enjoyable read, and has a lot of great little factoids. Among them:

“. . . in Northern Europe over the past twelve hundred years human stature has followed a U-shaped curve: from a high around 800 A.D., to a low sometime in the seventeenth century, and back up again. Charlemagne was well over six feet; the soldiers who stormed the Bastille a millennium later averaged five feet and weighed a hundred pounds. “They didn’t look like Errol Flynn and Alan Hale,” the economist Robert Fogel told me. “They looked like thirteen-year-old girls.””

“The men of the northern Cheyenne, he found, were the tallest people in the world in the late nineteenth century . . . they averaged nearly five feet ten.”

“In both Europe and the Americas, he discovered, humans grew shorter as their cities grew larger . . . Heights also fell in synch with global temperatures, which reached a nadir during the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century”

Ok, but the article’s main issue is this: The Dutch are the tallest people in the world {average 6 foot 1}, while Americans are mysteriously short {average 5 foot 9.5; white Americans apparently being among the shortest European peoples in the world}. This was not always the case, in fact it seems to have gone 180 degrees in about a century: Americans were about the tallest in the world for two centuries while the Dutch were the shortest people in Europe. American colonists at 5 foot 9 were basically the same height as modern Americans, and three inches taller than Europeans at the time, and four inches taller than the Dutch through most of the nineteenth century. Somewhere around the mid 1950s though, Europe started rapidly growing and America stopped. Now Americans are the ones who are about three inches shorter than the {Northern} European average . . . almost the same as Japan even {5 foot 8 1/4}, which has had some rapid growth spurts of its own.

Four inches taller to four inches smaller in about a century. Why is this? Well the article describes a couple of theories which don’t appear to be right, such as racial admixture and a host of demographic/economic variables and yet:

“[the height historian] has subdivided the country’s heights by race, sex, income, and education. He has looked at whites alone, at blacks alone, at people with advanced degrees and those in the highest income bracket. Somewhere in the United States, he thinks, there must be a group that’s both so privileged and so socially insulated that it’s growing taller. He has yet to find one.”

So a cultural nutrition pattern is considered as a provisional explanation, though it doesn’t go too deeply into how much empirical support there is for the Fast Food Hypothesis {FFH}. I would think this would be a fairly easy thing to investigate; it seems strange to me that nothing was said about ‘subdividing the country’ by diet. Are the Burger King kids in the ‘burbs really three inches shorter than the farm kids in the stix that get the hearty country breakfast and garden-grown veggies at dinner? Do urban Brits, with all the same working moms and cheap n’ easy hamburger chains, really eat that much healthier than urban Americans?

Posted by Jason Malloy at 10:05 PM

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Welfare reform is working

Hey, guess what?  Welfare reform is working.  Check out this article by the Brookings Institution, regarding the behavioral changes in never-married mothers during the past recession.  [ via Micky Kaus, who summarizes: “The [welfare] rolls didn’t rise in the recession because single mothers kept on working.” ]  There is hope yet; you can influence people’s behaviour with economic incentives.

Posted by ole at 11:36 PM

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Effective population

Here is a informative site that discusses the various aspects of “Effective Population” (Ne) as opposed to census population. Since we talk about Y (non-recombinant) & mtDNA studies all the time, it is good to remember how small the average Ne really is (ergo, implications for genetic drift, etc.) for a fluctuating population (control-f “harmonic mean” in the linked page). From a sociological perspective, the implications of hyper-polygamous populations are also very interesting, as a skewed sex ratio drives the Ne down in comparison to the head count more than one might intuitively guess (eg; from the page linked, 96 cows + 4 bulls ~ 15 for effective size!).

Posted by razib at 08:02 AM

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The "Brain Drain"

ParaPundit has an excellent post up on the international fears of a “Brain Drain.” One interesting point: he notes that there is little news coming out of Mexico of fear of a “Brain Drain.” I find this interesting-because to my knowledge, “Brain Drain” does occur in most Third World nations. The bizarre selection biasing of immigrants from South Asia and Africa in the United States is one clear example (bizarre in that while many Americans of South Asian and African [recent immigrants] origin posses graduate degrees, their homelands are among the most retrograde and deprived regions of the earth). ParaPundit’s blog entry makes clear that Middle Eastern nations like Iran also suffer from “Brain Drain,” and TangoMan below has a post about migration of European talent to the United States.

Two comments: does the “Brain Drain” occur in Japan? This nation obviously has talented professionals, but do they choose to remain in their homeland? If so, what does that say about the “Quality of Life” in Japan? Also, do Latin American nations not suffer from “Brain Drain,” or is their migration more towards Spain, so that we are not aware of it? If the former is the case, perhaps Latin America is foreshadowing of the “end state” of many Third World countries as they advance in their “social development,” prosperous elites flourishing in society characterized by high levels of structural inequality. Contrast this with Africa or much of Asia, where social & political (Israel for example) instability compels their elites to move overseas when they can.

Brazil or Japan. Two very different countries, but are they models for the future? I’m throwing out a grossly over-simplified dichotomy, but I’d be interested in more facts to chew on in this area….

Posted by razib at 12:53 AM

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It will be as you say….

I’ve complained about the conflation of race & religion before (or ethnicity and religion). Perhaps I should just give up? It seems the intersection between non-whites & Muslims in Europe is just a given, how else to explain this article in The Economist with the hyperlink Race and immigration in Europe-when the article is mostly about Muslims, not non-whites per se! It’s an interesting article, as these quotes can illustrate:

The number of such recruits is tiny; however, a poll this month in the Guardian suggested that 13% of British Muslims would regard “further attacks on the US by al-Qaeda” as justified.

The majority of children under 14 in the four biggest Dutch cities—Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht—are now children of non-western immigrants, most of them Muslim.

But the author(s) treating race relations and religious relations interchangeably seems kind of weird to me when two large white European Muslim groups, Albanians and Bosnians, have made their presence felt in many countries over the past decade as illegal immigrants and refugees. As a practical matter it is obvious why it is so easy to conflate these two points of identification, but there is a reason that I object,genetic definition is permanent (for now), religious self-definition is voluntary. I accept that before the age of cheap & widespread individual genomic sequencing race might be used as a proxy in narrowing the scope of organ donation searches in light of scarce resources-there is no changing this reality before technology catches up to our hopes & dreams. But, the “angry Muslims” of today need not be the “angry Muslims” of the future as some essential aspects of their nature. He or she might be the Christian, liberal Muslim, secular Muslim, secular post-Christian, etc.

There is a joke I have heard among Muslims that “Islam is a one-way street,” once you make the profession of belief, you can never go back. If Europeans keep mixing definitions, they will further validiate this unpleasant aspect of Muslim culture.

I guess my recent schtick has been to justify my tendency to give the finger to the prophet & co. without being socially ostracized because I have violated “Social Natural Law.”

P.S. I’ve cut & pasted the full article below, you can only get it if you are a subscriber….

Multicultural troubles
Mar 25th 2004
From The Economist print edition

Terrorism’s insidious effect on race relations in Europe

WHEN Muslims opened a mosque in Granada last summer—the first built in the city for over 500 years—it was hailed as a hopeful sign of reconciliation between Islam and Christianity. The Moors had, after all, ruled the southern Spanish province of Andalusia for 800 years, until they were expelled in 1492. Over the past generation a new wave of 500,000 Muslim immigrants have made Spain their home. The Granada mosque seemed to show that modern Spain had made its peace with Islam.

But the terrorist bombs in Madrid, apparently inspired by Islamist radicals whose rantings suggest that they seek revenge not just for the dispatch of Spanish troops to Iraq but also for the loss of al-Andalus half a millennium ago, have created fears for the future. Spain, previously notable for its relatively relaxed attitude, is now likely to join those European countries that are increasingly nervous about Muslims and immigration.

Signs of such anxiety have proliferated since September 11th 2001, even in countries that once prided themselves on their openness and tolerance. Pim Fortuyn, leader of a populist, anti-immigration party in the Netherlands, was assassinated in 2002 and his political party has since fallen into disarray, but many of his ideas have gone mainstream. In his base of Rotterdam, the local government is now explicitly trying to change the racial profile of the city, whose population is projected to be 57% of foreign origin by 2017. An all-party report to the Dutch parliament recently concluded that 30 years of multicultural policy had failed in the Netherlands, and that more energetic efforts should be made to oblige immigrants to learn Dutch and embrace local values. Even the Dutch Green leader has called for it to be made illegal for Muslims to import spouses for arranged marriages.

Efforts to force Muslims to assimilate are also under way in other European countries. The Danes have introduced restrictions on arranged marriages. The French are imposing a ban on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in state-run schools—a measure that has enjoyed broad cross-party support. Even Britain, which until recently was congratulating itself on its successful assimilation of minorities, has become less complacent. The Blair government has just brought in civics lessons and an oath of allegiance for all would-be citizens.

Much of this new mood is undoubtedly linked to fears of terrorism. It took September 11th to make it legitimate for Fortuyn to attack fundamentalist Islam as “backward” and illiberal. Similarly in Britain, the revelation that suicide bombers and Taliban fighters had been recruited from among British Muslims caused alarm. The number of such recruits is tiny; however, a poll this month in the Guardian suggested that 13% of British Muslims would regard “further attacks on the US by al-Qaeda” as justified. France is on heightened alert for signs of al-Qaeda penetration among its Muslims, estimated at somewhere around 4.5m (7.5% of the total population).

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that tensions over the growing number of Muslims in Europe are simply a by-product of the “war on terror”. Anti-immigration parties such as France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party were well-established long before the aircraft crashed into the twin towers. Europe is a rich, stable continent with an ageing population, surrounded by poor, unstable countries with lots of young people. Inevitably, many have made their way from north Africa or the Middle East to look for opportunities in Europe, whether as legal migrants, illegal workers or asylum-seekers.

The overall number of Muslims in the European Union is still pretty small in relation to the population as a whole: they make up perhaps 12m, out of a total EU population of 375m. Their concentration in particular cities, however, means that their impact can be more dramatic at the local level. The majority of children under 14 in the four biggest Dutch cities—Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht—are now children of non-western immigrants, most of them Muslim. Despite the anti-immigration policies of Rotterdam’s council, Europe’s largest mosque is now under construction in the city. Local politicians grumble that its minarets will rise higher than the floodlights of the neighbouring football stadium, a secular city’s equivalent of the local cathedral. In Brussels, the capital of the European Union, Muhammad has been the most popular name for new-born boys for the past four years.

Assimilate, assimilate

Yet such facts are sinister or disturbing only if people choose to make them so. Walk around the Muslim quarters of Rotterdam or Brussels and there are plenty of signs of both assimilation and entrepreneurship. The hall of the local mosque for the Turkish community in Rotterdam is decked out with Dutch flags. The Madou district of Brussels may be run-down, but it is also full of small businesses—late-night groceries, cafés, second-hand clothes stores—that are run by people of north African origin. Belgians, Congolese and Moroccans mingle easily on the streets. The Lavapies district in Madrid, where the Spanish police have arrested most of the suspects in the March 11th bombings, is a similar sort of place, in which immigrants can make a start, find a job and
join a community.

Such districts are the lifeblood of big cities across the world. But in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings, they are also now under scrutiny across Europe. The veiled woman or the bearded cleric, who might not have received a second glance in the street in happier times, may now attract suspicious looks, however unfairly. Newspapers and politicians have redoubled calls for greater surveillance of mosques and radical preachers. Prominent Muslims, in turn, worry about mounting “Islamophobia”. The havoc and misery wrought by the Madrid bombs have been followed by a secondary sad effect: rising mistrust between the Muslims of Europe and their neighbours.

Posted by razib at 09:03 AM

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Genetic priorities

In an earlier post one commenter suggested that focusing on simple genetic diseases is more fruitful than exploring complex polygenic traits & diseases.

1) The causative factor beneath a disease like cystic fibrosis is pretty easy to communicate to the uninterested lay person.
2) Knocking one bird down can basically ameliorate the problem.

But…consider that only 1 in 1500 people of European descent are impacted by cystic fibrosis (1 in 20 are carriers-ie; heterozygous, with one normally functional gene). Compare this to schizophrenia, a disease that affects about ~1% of the human population. The genetic component of schizophrenia is divided between as many as 100 genes.

Unlike CF, there will never be one “smoking gun” that shows the path to defeating schizophrenia, advances will be incremental because genetic causative factors are so numerous. On the other hand, seeing as how as many as 60 million people world-wide might be afflicted, from a utilitarian perspective, one could very well justify advances in relation to large monetary outlays.

Simple dominant-recessive traits are easy to understand for the public theoretically, and practical concerns like greviously debilitating diseases put a human face to the theory. On the other hand, polygenic traits are more difficult to characterize since they are partitioned into many genetic, environmental & gene-environment interaction components. But, the normal distribution of these traits have great social relevance, and increments are worth being pursued. (schizophrenia is a multifactorial “threshold” trait, those who exhibit the disease are at the extreme tail of the distribution)

Aphoristic update: A small good for the many is equivalent to a great good for the few.

Posted by razib at 03:18 PM

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