Mongolia's reverse gender gap

I have appended an article below on Mongolia’s reverse gender gap in higher education…but, here is one thing to note:

Looking over the scores on a recent entrance exam in the Mongolia-language department, he notes that 8 of the top 10 students are women. In economics, women are 7 of the top 10 students; in science departments, women account for about half of the top 10.

This of course follows the trend that I have observed cross-culturally, though the ratio of males to females in any given discipline tends to shift from nation to nation, the rank order seems to hold as a constant, the modal male frequency is in the sciences, in particular, the engineering sciences.

Related: Much ado about women & Larry Summers.

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Dondog Natsag, a father of three daughters and three sons, is a
typical countryside parent. When each of his sons graduated from high
school, he put little pressure on them to continue their education.
But when it came to his daughters, he was adamant that they should go
on to college. “Of course it’s better for girls to go on to university,” he says.
“Boys can always find work to do. If girls do not study, the only
thing they can do is find a job in a sewing factory.”

Mr. Dondog expresses the sentiments of many Mongolian parents. The
preference to send daughters to college has led to what the United
Nations calls a “reverse gender gap” — women now make up 60 percent
of all students at Mongolian universities. The trend is particularly
distinctive because Asia is typically considered a place where women
are less valued than men.

“It’s just the opposite of much of Asia. Arab and Asian students in
other countries often don’t believe” that this could happen, says
Solongo Algaa, a demographer at the National University of Mongolia,
who studies the phenomenon.

Women also perform better than men at places like National University
of Mongolia, says Davaa Suren, the university’s vice president.
Looking over the scores on a recent entrance exam in the
Mongolia-language department, he notes that 8 of the top 10 students
are women. In economics, women are 7 of the top 10 students; in
science departments, women account for about half of the top 10.
He shrugs when asked why the gap exists: “Perhaps women are more

“Boys are lazy” seems to be the typical explanation among parents and
other observers. But Ms. Solongo says the problem starts before
students enter college. Young men now make up 70 percent of the
dropouts from compulsory education. In this predominantly agricultural
country, parents often pull their sons out of school so that they can
help with herding duty, long considered a male responsibility.
Boys also lack role models in schools, where 75 percent of the
teachers are women, Ms. Solongo says. She believes that the government
should create policies to encourage boys to stay in primary and
secondary school.

Reversal of Fortune

Until the early 1990s, under the Soviet-style economic system, 60
percent of the students in higher education were male. But with the
collapse of Communism, they could resume their traditional role as
herders of the family livestock. What’s more, changing times resulted
in the closure of the government’s vocational and technical training
schools. So rather than learn a trade in the capital or a smaller
town, young men remained in the countryside, raising horses, sheep,
and yak to feed their families and to sell the milk and meat.
The idea that parents should pass on material possessions like herds
and land to sons is strong in Mongolia, says the national university’s
Ms. Solongo. But parents also believe that daughters should have some
resources of their own, rather than be left to their own devices or
married off to another family, which happens in many other Asian

Education often serves as that resource, she says. In her own family,
for example, her sole brother inherited her parents’ apartment and now
works in a factory, while she and her three sisters were sent to
college and have become professionals.
In a culture long dependent on herding and manual labor, Mongolians
have the idea that “boys can do rougher things while girls should work
in the office,” Ms. Solongo says.
But advanced education for women has yet to translate into real
economic or political power. “At the top decision levels, there are
very few women,” says Sanjaasurengin Oyun, a leading feminist in
Mongolia and head of the Zorig Foundation, which mobilizes the rural
population to vote.

Of the 76 parliamentary seats in Mongolia, only 5 are occupied by
women. “Employers would rather hire males than females,” says
Altantsetseg Sodnomtseren, an expert on higher education at the
National University of Mongolia. Upon graduation from college, men
have a much easier time finding jobs than women, says Ms.

Nevertheless, many women entering Mongolia’s higher-education system
display confidence that it’s a woman’s world. Tsedendamba Amartavshin,
who lives in a felt tent called a ger in the countryside near Ulan
Bator, enrolled in the Agriculture University last fall.
Of her four siblings, all boys, only one has also chosen to go on to
higher education. “The girls are just dominating the university,” she
says. “And by having a good education, we’ll have a good living.”

Posted by razib at 04:27 PM

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Bare Branches

The Chicago Tribune reports on the surplus of males in China.

Anyone paying attention would notice something odd about the elementary schools here. What the government and parents are awakening to–belatedly–is the danger inherent in what they see.

There are too many boys.

On the morning that first-semester grades were posted at Haikou City Ying Cai school, students hustled down staircases into class formations.

Boy-boy-boy-girl they scampered.

Boy-boy-boy-girl they lined up.

In one 3rd-grade class, a parent noted, there are 50 students, but only 12 or 13 girls.

The same imbalance can be found at other schools on the island.

“There are 56 kids in my class but only 15 girls,” said 9-year-old Zhu De Zhao, a boy.

“There are 62 kids in my class but only 16 girls,” said 9-year-old boy Wei Gang Jun.

The New York Times reports on the bureacratic measures being undertaken to mitigate the crisis:

In response, the government has introduced a test program under which about 300,000 rural elderly people are receiving annual pensions of $180, a good amount in the countryside, if they had only one child or if they had daughters.

Mr. Li said these fiscal incentives were intended to give monetary value to girls, and by doing so, reduce the incentive to abort them. Even so, the limited scope of the program has reduced its impact. Ms. Hao, the Beijing official, said Anxi was one of only 24 cities where girls were getting financial aid, and the budget is not expected to increase greatly.

Related from Razib: My post on this topic from the summer.

Update: Here is a page which reviews sociobiological theories of sex ratio. This graph illustrates the ratio of males & females as a function of socioeconomic status. Note that in some cultures, like India, the spread of son preference seems to be facilitated by economic prosperity and the concomitant emulation of elite values.

Posted by TangoMan at 08:51 PM

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Pedantic note on Iraq

You can keep track of the blow-by-blow of the Iraq election on every other blog on the net it seems. The only thing I would like to add is this: the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds are Sunni, so instead of “low Sunni turnout” it should be “low Arab Sunni turnout.” No doubt most news junkies and bloggers simply assume that most readers are intelligent enough to do this “search & replace” implicitly. Don’t count on it! Iraq is complicated enough, no need to drop qualifiers.

Addendum: Let me first offer the caveat that I am a casual, at best, follower of foreign affairs, so I am sure that many (most?) readers of this weblog know more about the details of what is going on in Iraq than I. Nevertheless, a few observations….

I am worried that Americans are projecting their own conceptions of ethnicity, nationality and religious confession on to Iraq. I am not one who believes that ethnicity, nationality and religious confession do not have cross-cultural and cross-temporal universal meaning. But, I do believe that their explicit modern universality is a reflection of the fact that the outward institutions of the West have been extrapolated to the rest of humanity which does not share the historical and cultural background which makes them relevant in the same way.

Let me elaborate. Take the question of ethnicity. We know that ~75% of Iraqis are Arabs, ~20% of Iraqis are Kurds, with the balance made up of groups like the Turkomans, Assyrians and so on. The exact numbers are not really relevant, my point is that explicit circumscribing of ethnic identities in this fashion is most easily applicable to European nations circa 1900, after the period of nationalism and state-formation which resulted in a relative uniformity of, for example, “Italianness” and “Germanness,” which had not prior to that point existed.

Consider the “Arabs.” Up until the overthrow of the dictatorship Iraq had been under the sway of Baathism, Arab nationalism, for several decades. The backstory is that Baathism is very much an effort to unite Arab peoples under a 19th century European conception of nationality. The original Baathist intellectuals were often French educated, and, they were often members of religious minorities. The premier Baathist thinker, Michael Aflaq, was a Syrian Christian. Arab nationalism was obviously a way that Aflaq could emphasize his commonality with the majority of Arabs who were Muslim without discarding his Christian religious faith. It should perhaps be no surprise that Syrian Baathism is buttressed by the Alawite religious minority and has a reputation of religious tolerance toward Christians (Alawites celebrate some Christian festivals, like Christmas). Similarly, Iraqi Baathism was promulgated by the minority Sunni community. During the Iran-Iraq War Baathism was a way to rally Shia Arabs against their co-religionists in Iran (though there was a bizarre religious element in that the Baathist regime attempted to portray the Iranians as Zoroastrian fire worshippers).

My overarching point is that Arab nationalism is to a large extent an artificial construction of the 20th century, forwarded by European trained intellectuals who were often religiously heterodox and could not participate as full members of an Islamic civilization. The identity of Arabs with Islam is obviously very strong. I recall with interest that some Islamic historians term the Ummayyad Caliphal period the “Arab Kingdom.” This is because of its secular and ethnically chauvanistic tenor, in constrast with the more cosmopolitan and explicitly Muslim Abbassid dynasty. It is clear which identity won out among Arab Muslims for most of their history.

Add to this the fact that not only do Arabs have a transnational identity as the premier Muslim people that tends to absorb their ethnic identification, but they often identify more saliently at a more local level as members of a clan or tribe. With the decline of the idea of Christendom, as well as the American tendency toward mobility and alienness of the concept of extended families and clans, I think that Americans might be getting the wrong impression of what Iraqi Arabs conceive themselves of as (in other words, “Shia Arab” is a small fragment of their self-identification, in contrast with “American who goes to a Baptist church”).

Many of the same points can be made of Kurds. My understanding is that the “Kurdish language” is actually a loose coalition of barely intelligible Indo-Iranian dialects. It might be that “Kurdish” is an exclusionary identity, that is, when you subtract Arab speakers of the lowlands, Turkic speakers of Anatolia & Iran, Armenian speakers and finally Persian speakers who look toward standard Persian as typified by Ferdowsi, you are left with a hodge-podge of Indo-Iranian dialects in a mountainous area that no one wanted to really settle or administer. Add this to the fact that coterminous with the Iraqi region of Kurdistan there are groups like Assyrians, Chaldaeans and Yezidis, who might or might not speak a variety of languages but are defined by their religious heterodoxy, and you have a very confusing situation.

When Americans look to Iraq, I think we should think more of Germany in 1800 or Italy in 1850. Though there were rough rhymes and reasons to the makeup and self-identification of these geographic-cultural regions, the plethora of barely unintelligible dialects, confessional confusions in the case of Germany and the lack of historical statehood meant that nations had to be created from above (political consolidation) as well as from below (cultural hegemony of High German via Luther’s Bible as well as Florentine Italian from Dante). I am not sure that in this time and place that the exact dynamics are going to be recapitulated, and to some extent I think Arab nationalism several decades ago, or Kurdish nationalism today, is the outgrowth of a modern, nationalistic self-conscious elite grafted on to a pre-nationalistic population base.

So it’s confusing. Especially when you add to the fact that Americans are probably talking to the nationalist elites but have forged a democracy which gives voice to the pre-nationalistic masses.

Posted by razib at 01:38 AM

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There is an article about Islamophobia by Kenan Malik in today’s London Sunday Times (News Review section). Malik challenges the idea that there has been a great surge of attacks and discrimination against Muslims in the UK.

This reminds me of something I read about a recent TV film drama called Yasmin (UK, Channel 4 – it has also had a cinema release in some countries). This tells the sory of a young westernised Muslim woman in Yorkshire who becomes increasingly ‘Islamised’ in reaction to anti-Muslim prejudice, police raids, etc., in the wake of 9/11. In dramatic terms it’s rather good, and Archie Punjabi (a girl, despite the name) is excellent as Yasmin. It is written by the (white) English author of The Full Monty , and has predictable liberal sentiments.

But it’s dangerous to confuse drama with documentary. How can we know what incidents are ‘true’? At one point in the film Yasmin is walking in the street when she sees a woman in Muslim dress (a jiljab, I think, not a burka) attacked by a group of young white boys on bikes who shout obscenities and throw some white powder (probably flour) over her black dress. Then, rather surprisingly in the context of the film, an elderly white working class woman comes up to comfort her and says ‘I must apologise – that was disgraceful, dreadful’.

But here’s the thing: according to an article about the film, the boys’ ‘attack’ was part of the script – as one would expect – but the elderly woman’s response was not. She was just a passer-by who was unaware that a film was being made and thought the attack was genuine. Rather than reshoot the whole scene, the director got the woman’s permission to leave her in. So the most undeniably ‘genuine’ incident in the film was one showing ordinary human decency.

Posted by David B at 04:48 AM

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Balancing Selection?

I’ve always lovedthis 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 atRishon Rishon)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:08 AM

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Intrafamilial variance

Geoffrey Miller in the makes much of the fact that the offspring of any two given parents will display variance because they might possess different combinations of alleles on any given locus. Miller explains that this offers sexual selection an opportunity to weed out deleterious alleles from a population, helping to balance the inevitable generation of new mutations.1

With this in mind, I offer this week’s “You Sexy Thing” from TV Guide pitting Jessica Simpson against her sister Ashlee:
Currently Jessica is winning the vote 90% to Ashlee’s 10%. (Though I can’t help but think they picked out pictures to highlight the difference between the two sisters)

Related: Jessica Simpson and Ashlee Simpson websites….

1 – Reductio ad absurdum if you have two parents who have a lethal recessive on the same locus, the offspring have a 25% chance of expressing the recessive and so decreasing the frequency of the allele in the next generation. Miller imagines that sexual selection might work in a more modest fashion by weighing the die in favor of offspring who receive a greater fraction of “good” alleles.

TangoMan Adds: In comments, Laura adds that plastic surgery introduces a significant variable into the equation. Consider the children that would result from this pairing:

James and Kacie were two strangers brought together by their shared fortune of being selected for “Extreme Makeover.” They became the first two candidates on the show to meet and fall in love! Both shared a similar history of painful memories and disparagement for their appearances.

Here is how the world will see James and Kacie, the parents of their yet unborn children.


And here is the raw genetic material that will be used to conceive their children.


Posted by razib at 09:12 PM

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Group Selection can work…just

I’ve frequently been sceptical about the plausibility of group selection – for example here – so I am honour-bound to report a model which makes a form of group selection somewhat more credible.

The model, due to Henry Harpending and Alan Rogers, dates from 1987, but doesn’t seem to be as well known as it might be. For example, it is not cited in Sober and Wilson’s (1998), or in the recent symposium volume (ed. P. Hammerstein) (2003).

For more details….

The model is set out in the paper: Henry Harpending and Alan Rogers, ‘On Wright’s mechanism for intergroup selection’, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1987, vol. 127, pp.51-61. As the title suggests, it is a development of ideas originally sketched by Sewall Wright, though with important modifications.

A further analysis and critique of the model is in M. Gilpin and B. Taylor, ‘Comment on Harpending and Roger’s [sic] model of intergroup selection’, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1988, vol. 135, pp.131-135.

The key elements of the model are:

1. The population is divided into a large number of small groups.

2. All groups are of equal size n. (Values of n from around 5 to 50 are considered.)

3. The individuals in the groups are either ‘altruistic’ or ‘selfish’. This is determined by a haploid gene. (The haploid assumption is a convenient simplification.)

4. During any time interval, altruistic individuals have a higher probability of death than a selfish individual. The probabilities are in the ratio 1:1+c, which does not vary between groups. There is therefore a real cost to altruism.

5. The size of each group is fixed at n. Groups cannot grow larger or smaller.

6. All groups produce a surplus of births over deaths. Some or all of the surplus goes into a ‘migrant pool’.

7. Whenever an individual dies, it is immediately replaced, either from the migrant pool or from a birth within the group. The probability of replacement from the migrant pool is m, where m can range from 0 to 1. A value of 1 would mean that all deaths are replaced by migrants. Since there are more births than deaths within groups, and the total population within groups is fixed, not all migrants can enter groups. The leftovers die.

8. The size of each group’s surplus varies according to the proportion of altruists in the group. This is the beneficial effect of altruism – the ’group effect’. It is assumed that the size of the group effect is a linear function of the proportion of altruists in the group.

With these assumptions, H & R derive an equation to quantify the change in the proportion of altruists in the migrant pool compared with the population from which the migrants come. [Note 1.] The equation shows that provided there is some variance in the proportion of altruists in different groups, then the migrant pool will have a higher proportion of altruists than the preceding average for the groups. This is not surprising, as the ‘group effect’ means that groups with a higher than average proportion of altruists contribute disproportionately to the migrant pool.

H&R explore the effects of different values of the parameters by several methods of calculation and simulation. There are four key variables: the cost of altruism c; the group effect g; the size of the groups n; and the ’migration rate’ m. H&R find that the population is mixed (polymorphic) for altruism and selfishness when c is 0.03 (i.e. mortality of altruists 3 percent higher than selfish individuals); g is 1 (implying that pure altruist groups have a surplus twice as large as pure selfish groups); m is .2 (i.e. 20 percent of replacements are drawn from the migrant pool); and n is 25. They then illustrate the effects of doubling or halving each parameter, while the others are held constant. On this basis if n is halved, altruism is fixed; if it is doubled selfishness is fixed. If c is halved (to 0.015), altruism is fixed; if it is doubled (to 0.06) selfishness is fixed. If g is halved, selfishness is either fixed or in a large majority; if it is doubled, altruism is either fixed or in a large majority. If m is halved, altruism and selfishness are polymorphic; if it is doubled, altruism is either fixed or polymorphic.

Gilpin and Taylor confirm H&R’s results, and give an analysis of the effects of simultaneously varying group size and the cost of altruism. This shows that groups have to be very small – with only around 5 members – if altruism is to survive when the cost is above 10 percent.

The results of varying the parameters are not surprising except for the effect of raising the ’migration rate’. Migration tends to reduce the variance of the frequency of altruists in different groups, so it might be expected that raising m would make altruism less likely to succeed. However, H&R find that over the range of m from .2 to 1, changing the level of m makes little difference to the success of altruism. They attribute this to the presence of two counterbalancing effects: higher migration reduces between-group variance, but in this model the benefits of altruism are spread only through migration, so higher migration helps ensure its success. Gilpin and Taylor also point out that m is not strictly a migration rate, but only the probability that vacant places will be filled by migrants. Groups are therefore not swamped by migrants, however high the surplus going into the migrant pool.

Since the model only works if there is variance in the frequency of altruists, and migration tends to reduce this, it is of interest to consider how variance is maintained. It seems to be agreed (see Hamilton, Narrow Roads, vol.1, p.335) that purely random assortment of altruists afresh in each generation does not produce sufficient variance for group selection to work, at least without synergistic fitness benefits. In H&R’s model the group effect is simply proportional to the frequency of altruists, so the benefit is not synergistic. However, the groups are not completely ’reshuffled’ in each generation. I presume this gives some scope for higher levels of variance to be achieved by genetic drift. If there were no selection and no migration, all groups would eventually become fixed either for altruism or selfishness, in roughly equal numbers, at which point variance would reach a limit. But I confess I don’t fully understand what is going on in the model. Altruism seems to survive even when m = 1, in which case altruists dying within groups are only replaced by other altruists at the average frequency of altruists in the migrant pool. I don’t see how sufficient levels of variance are sustained in these circumstances. Gilpin and Taylor also seem to see a problem with this, but don’t discuss it in depth.

Opinions will differ on the importance of H&R’s model in biological reality. H&R themselves think their results ‘cast doubt on the primacy of genic selfishness as a tenet of Darwinian theory’, and suggest that group selection could be important in hominid evolution. Gilpin and Taylor on the other hand think the model has ‘a very limited range of applicability to the biological world’.

There are two aspects to this question: the range of parameters for which the model works, and the plausibility of the model itself. It seems clear that it works only in fairly special circumstances: small groups, low individual cost of altruism, and large group benefit of altruism. The groups cannot be much larger than 25 individuals (including offspring), the cost cannot be more than about 5% of normal fitness, and
the benefit must be at least a 50% increase in surplus offspring. It may be thought inherently unlikely that there are many altruistic traits that would simultaneously have such low costs and high benefits. This may however be an unfair way of putting it. In H&R’s model the ’group effect’ consists in a higher group surplus of births over deaths, and this does not necessarily require a large increase in average fitness. A surplus of, say, 10% instead of 5% would be sufficient to give g = 1.

On the plausibility of the model itself, it would be unreasonable merely to complain that it is oversimplified, because all models are. However, as Gilpin and Taylor point out, in several respects the simplifications work in favour of group selection, which would therefore be less plausible if the model were made more realistic. Notably, if some groups were much larger than others, selfishness would be favoured. It would also be favoured if groups were allowed some growth, rather than being constant in size. G&T also make an obscurely worded point about sex balance. I am not sure what they mean, but it does seem that any large imbalance in the sex ratio of migrants would produce difficulties for the model. In many species it is common for all young males (or occasionally females, as in chimpanzees) to disperse from their natal group (presumably as an evolved adaptation to prevent inbreeding). In these cases migration would probably be on a larger scale than allowed in the model. Migrants would not just be replacing the dead, but also replacing migrants of the same sex leaving their natal group. It is not clear if the model would still work in these circumstances.

So overall I’m inclined to say ‘close, but no cigar’. However, the model does have the merit that it represents genuine group selection. Unlike some models, there is no suggestion that altruists associate preferentially together, or that benefits go to relatives more than to non-relatives. In practice, of course, groups as small as 25 (including offspring) are likely to contain close relatives, so if altruism is found in such groups it would require very careful examination to distinguish between group and kin selection. The crucial test would be whether the behaviour violates Hamilton’s Rule; if it does, but nevertheless flourishes, an explanation by group selection may be called for, though one would also need to consider reciprocal altruism and other indirect benefits as possible explanations.

Note 1

If the frequency of altruists in the i’th group is Pi, the surplus of the i’th group is a+bPi, where a and b are constants. The group effect g is defined as the ratio b/a, so b = ag. S indicates summation over the i’s. With these definitions, it follows that the frequency of altruists in the migrant pool is S[Pi(a+bPi)]/S(a+bPi). (Note that in the denominator the constant a has to be added once for each group.) H&R then say that this is equal to P+ [ gV/(1+gP)], where P is the mean frequency of altruists in the population from which the migrants come, and V is the variance of the frequency in the different groups. H&R do not show how the equation is derived. To a mathematician it may be obvious, but for the benefit of plodders like myself I offer the following derivation:

First, note that if there are N groups, each with fixed size n, the total number of altruists in all groups is SPin = NPn, and therefore SPi = NP. The variance V of the Pi’s can be shown to be S(Pi^2)/N – P^2 (I omit proof of this – it is a standard result). It follows by simple rearrangement that SPi^2 = N(V+P^2).

Substituting equivalent expressions where appropriate in the formula S[Pi(a+bPi)]/S(a+bPi), it follows that the frequency of altruists in the migrant pool can be expressed as [NPa + S(PibPi)]/[Na + bSPi] = [NPa + bS(Pi^2)]/[Na + bSPi] = [NPa + Nb(V+P^2)]/N(a+bP). Cancelling the common factor N and substituting ag for b gives [Pa + ag(V+P^2)]/(a+agP) = [Pa+agV+agP^2]/(a+agP). Cancelling the common factor a and rearranging we get [P(1+gP) + gV]/(1+gP) = P + gV/(1+gP). QED.

Posted by David B at 07:51 AM

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Islam: essential and nominal

Lawrence Auster points to very long article he has written on Islam where he is criticizing Daniel Pipes’ attitude toward the religion: The Search for Moderate Islam. Auster also links to Pipes’ reply, which he characterizes as nominalist, and in turn Pipes’ terms Auster an essentialist. Pipes says:

…I prefer to call my approach historical and his essentialist. That is, I emphasize that things change over time and he sees them as static….

This is a common and in my opinion respectable position, but my turn from “essentialism” to “nominalism” on this issue has been less driven by historical than cognitive considerations. When I began to encounter research which suggested that reflective, rational and axiomatic thinking plays a far less central role in our day-to-day life than we think I reconsidered the importance of texts as causal factors as opposed to reinterpreted justifications. Additionally, research which suggests that inferences from what might seem clear axioms vary greatly between individuals who are not allowed to communicate suggests to me that social and cultural mediation is crucial to the illusion of “obvious” inferences from texts to practice & belief.

To some extent this is an academic argument, I tend to agree with Auster & Pipes that the norm of Islam as it is practiced in most nations by most individuals is not “moderate” in a Western context. Nevertheless, truth is truth, and a contention that any given belief system is essentialist in its character rather than contextually determined does have some policy implications (there is considerable flexibility of course in how fast you believe change is possible within a belief system to maintain continuity).

The only point that might be added is that believers within the faith might find this attitude fallacious and patronizing, and between point A and Z in time when practice & belief changes a great deal I have no doubt they will find a way to ameliorate cognitive dissonance and explain away contradictions. Minds are clever beasts, and religious minds no less.

Addendum: Let me be clear in that I am expressing skepticism of the interlocking contingency of specific “memes” with “memecomplexes” that we might term religions. Religionists from the inside might breezily assert the “obvious” connections between a, b, c, d and the inference that a excludes !a and so on. I simply don’t think that a, b, c, d and so forth which coalesce to form the mental conception of a given “religion” have such logical relationships with each other, additionally they are often not clear enough as concepts to really imply an obvious negation. This is one reason why my objection to religious “essentialism” is far upstream of historical considerations. I don’t think think that religious ideas, as they are normally conceived of by the layperson, intrinsically have any logical structure which one can deduce from outside of a socially mediated context with imposes the inferences by consensus (eg; it is “obvious” that the New Testament implies a Trinity as elucidated in the Athanasian Creed, or, it is “obvious” by analogy that bans on alcohol must be extended to tobacco).

Addendum II: I just realized something. Pipes’ ends his reply to Auster with obvious confusion and irritation as he does not discern any policy differences in terms of implementation between Auster & himself. In other words, what matters in the argument between essentialism and nominalism on the first order? I think one must consider the background of both individuals. Lawrence Auster is a devout Christian (conservative Episcopalian) who converted from a non-Christian Jewish background, ergo, he espouses the essential tenets of the Christian faith. To my knowledge Daniel Pipes is not an orthodox Jew, and so like many non-Orthodox Jews his attitude toward religion is possibly rather flexible, and oriented toward the manifestations of religion rather than introspective aspects of faith and belief.

Illustration below:

Imagine if you will. You give a sentient alien a King James Bible. You have this alien read this tome front to back.

Now, you explain to the alien that in the United States certain regions believe in the literal truth of this text more than other regions. You stipulate that the “New Testament” is generally considered more important to the majority of individuals in the United States. Additionally, you also explain that there is interregional variation in interpersonal displays of aggression as well as openness to international belligerance.

Would the alien predict that a literal belief in NT correlated with aggression and warlike propensities or not?

You can also stipulate that a minority of the population rejects the NT and hews to the “Old Testament” (the Hebrew Bible), at least nominally. Would the alien predict that these individuals would emphasize interpersonal aggression and warlike tendencies or not?

Posted by razib at 05:23 PM

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