Justifying their Existence – The Humanities

Remember those Glory Days when you were a young graduate student and thought that you were going to light the world of academia on fire? The days when you felt you were Living On The Edge Of The World. Now that you’re a professor, the reality of life in the Academy is far different from what you’d imagined it would be, in fact it’s Worlds Apart.

You often feel that My Best Was Never Good Enough and you feel that your career is a Wreck On The Highway. The groundbreaking research you thought was ahead of you is now behind you, and quite frankly it was never really groundbreaking at all. You have some of the trappings of success – you have some graduate students and you see in them the same dreams you had decades ago, yet everyday you feel like you’re wearing a Brilliant Disguise.

You’re tired and jaded, and every day feels like a Lonesome Day. You need meaning in your life, a Reason To Believe that the material you publish is actually read by someone rather than just wasting paper in some obscure journal that no one other than a librarian ever picks up.

You’re Countin On A Miracle that something will make your writing meaningful. You want someone to ask you to Raise Your Hand if you dream of taking a different path for you feel that you’re living in the Darkness On the Edge Of Town.

Oh, there’s your colleague now. Good, your speech is ready, and the audience certainly looks attentive. Your moment of glory has almost arrived. You await your cue to take to the stage. When The Lights Go Out you have to take a Leap Of Faith and hope that 500 of your colleagues will appreciate the remarkable insights presented in your paper “A Marxist Perspective on Darkness on the Edge of Town” at the Bruce Springsteen Glory Days Symposium:

On September 9, hundreds of scholars will gather at Monmouth University, in the 55-year-old singer’s native New Jersey, for a three-day conference on his place in history.

The first-of-its-kind symposium is expected to attract more than 150 papers exploring Springsteen’s influence on US literature, sociology, religious thought and politics. Academics will debate his impact on America’s memory of the Vietnam war, and its higher education curriculum.

Scholarly gatherings that focus on popular entertainers are not an entirely new phenomenon on American campuses. The flourishing of cultural studies, which began in the 1980s, has proved a boon for aspiring Leavisites in the rock’n’roll domain, who were last seen in such numbers when Stanford University hosted a symposium on Bob Dylan in 1998. . . .

Womack will “discuss the nostalgic imperatives in Springsteen’s songs that allow us to enjoy a perspective towards the past as an archetypal paradise – a seductive space in which we can fulfil our collective longing for the illusory wholeness that lives in our memories and our dreams”.

Karl Martin, chair of the department of literature, journalism and modern languages at California’s Point Loma Nazarene University, will weave together Springsteen’s fabled auto-imagery with that used by the southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor. . . .

For Springsteen, argues Martin, “the car represents a set of values, a certain way of looking at the world, and it’s something that ha changed as his music has matured, too. He’s no ordinary songwriter, that’s for sure.” . . .

According to Pardini, Springsteen “subverts a male-dominated, Italian-American Catholicism in order to subvert a national identity historically marked by the gender and racial conflicts of its class-divided society and to affirm the plural identity of an equal, and therefore free country”.

This is how your tax dollars are being put to good use. This is the way things work these days, so This Land is Your Land and that’s the state of our Humanities Departments. If you don’t like it then do something about it. Afterall, this is where you’re sending your kids – right Into The Fire. Your kids need the damn credential to get on in the Real World and this is the way the game is played, so this is The Price You Pay – you pray and send your kids into The Promised Land and hope, beyond hope, that they’re not Lost In The Flood of mediocrity.

Human evolution book and the chimp genome

Carl Zimmer has a new book coming out in November on human evolution. Carl also has a magisterial post up on the recent completion of a draft of the chimpanzee genome (a paper is due to go up on the Nature website at some point). You can connect the dots on why this important, but Carl goes through the play-by-play. Please note that the paper which analyzed gene expression differences in chimpanzee and human brains had to take into the account the fact that the sequence draft they had access to for chimps was filled with errors, not the greatest when you are probably looking for small differences that can lead to large effects.

Erratum: From the comments, “…major problem for studying gene expression changes is that it is done on arrays with probes based on human sequences. Now that we have the chimp genome, we can use this to igore array signals from probes that cover DNA where humans and chimps differ. Errors in the chimp sequence draft have little impact on this analysis.”

Update: John pointed me to the link in Nature. The articles and second to last letter are free!

What Copernican Revolution?

There is an article out that profiles a researcher who studies public knowledge of science and technology. I thought this quote was a typo or misrepresentation, “One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth.” But I found the original paper and here is what it says:

…only half of US adults know that the Earth rotates around the Sun once each year (NSB, 2000). One in five US adults say that the Sun rotates around the Earth, and 14 percent of US adults think that the Earth rotates around the Sun once each day (see Figure 2). A comparative study with Britain in 1988 found that only one-third of British adults understood that the Earth rotates around the Sun once each year…The level of adult understanding of the solar system shows little change over the last decade….

Well, I guess I was the one who said that people don’t systematically explore the inferences of their assumptions and beliefs….

Jason Malloy Adds: And what are the wages of this ignorance?

In a finding that is likely to intensify the debate over what to teach students about the origins of life, a poll released yesterday found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools . . . The poll found that 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” . . . In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism . . . John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said he was surprised to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians, but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats and those who accept the theory of natural selection. Mr. Green called it a reflection of “American pragmatism.”

It’s a reflection of American something all right . . .

More from Razib: The evolution vs. creation section of the Pew Survey is very informative. 50% of secular individuals support “equal time” for creationism/intelligent design vs. 30% who oppose it. With that figure in mind, I’m not sure that one can say this is a secular vs. religious divide….

By the way, here is a graph from another survey which tracks “favorable” opinions of various groups:

Don’t talk to me about Islamophobia….

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Derb on Darwin

John Derbyshire’s latest column rips into Intelligent Design. I’ve been pretty heartened by Derb’s uncompromising adherence to the scientific consensus. But honestly I’m a bit surprised. This is from Derb’s column Confessions of a Metrocon, written 2 years ago:

…it’ll be the legions of real, authentic conservatives out there in the provinces. God bless them all for keeping America strong, free, and true to her founding principles. If the price to be paid is a sodomy law here, a high-school Creationism class there, well, far as I am concerned, that’s a small price indeed. People who don’t like those things can always head for the metropolis, after all.

Muddy sources….

Trying not to be a hypocrite1 I am reading the Koran front to back in a couple of translations. I got my first mildly annotated one a few days ago, Majid Fakhry’s An Interpretation of the Qur’an. The cover states that it is “endorsed by Al-Azhar,” the quasi-Rome of Sunni Islam. But within the first 50 pages I started to get really frustrated, the text is just muddled, and the footnotes that clarify what’s going on really seemed stretched and arbitrary to me (basically, there are things like the use of the word “people” twice in a sentence, with the first “people” footnoted as “means Jews” and the second one “means polytheists”). So I picked up What the Koran Really Says, an anthology of scholarly articles edited by Ibn Warraq, and the first chapter dealt with some philological issues, and loe and behold, the footnotes aren’t muddled, that’s the best you can get out of some of the passages. Warraq notes that in one passage a given word can mean “hide” or “revealed,” and it depends on the context, but how you figure out the context is anyone’s guess because there isn’t much to go on (sometimes they get out of this by appealing to early Islamics scholars or hadiths that assert that X means X2 in passage Z, that is, authority of person and not the text). The first chapter of Warraq’s book is readable online, you should check it out.

Anyway, I’ll be reading the New Testament soon after I get done with the Koran (I have just reread the Pentateuch), but from where I stand right now my skepticism about the determinative power of texts is getting stronger, not weaker.

1 – That is, I have expressed skepticism about textual roots of particular religious or cultural traditions, but now I am going to attempt a deep and close full reading of the texts under question.

F'n Education

There have been many posting here on Colleges of Education, and the Education profession in general. I think this may take the cake as one of the most asinine and psychologically bankrupt1 educational policies I have ever come across.

A sneak preview

one school in the town of Wellingborough is allowing pupils to swear at teachers, providing they only do so no more than five times in a class. A tally of how many times the f-word is used will be kept and if the class exceeds the limit, they will be “spoken” to…

Eventus stultorum magister

1. I would think anyone with a class in rudimentary learning theory would give a thumbs down to this. Ironically, I don’t think that is a requirement in all COEs.

Echoes of distant Kaifeng

From Melvin Konner’s Unsettled – An Anthropology of the Jews:

…In 1489, carved in stone, we have, “Althought there are some minor discrepancies between Confucian doctrine and our own…both are exclusively concerned with honoring the Way of Heaven, venerating ancestors, valuing the relations of ruler and subject, obedience to parents, harmony with families, correct ordering of social hierarchies, and good fellowship among friends: Nothing more than the ‘five cardinal relations’ of manking. Although it differs from Confucian texts in its writing system, if one scrutinizes the basic principles he will find that it is the same, as it contains the Way of constant practice.” A 1663 inscreption adds that the Jewish sacred texts have the same basic meaning as the “Six Classics,” revered Confucian works. And a 1679 one states that Jewish Scriptures support the teachings of Confucius and Mencius….

The passages highlighted by Konner express the peculiarities of the Jew in Han China, and is remiscient of the way the Muslims of China attempted to reconcile their practice and beliefs with the norms of their nation. Legalistic Monotheism + Confucian China = predictable verbal gymnastics. Most of the works on Chinese Jews in English seem to have been authored by Westerners, but Jews in Old China is a work that is oriented toward primary sourced essays by Chinese scholars. It chronicles the foggy origins of the Chinese Jews (mostly, but not all, centered around Kaifeng) and their eventual decline and absorption, a fate in sharp constrast to the vibrant Hui minority.

So what happened? It seems clear that the Chinese Jewish community was always a few orders of magnitude less numerous than the Muslims. While Muslims were widely dispersed it seems that the Jews were concentrated in a few large cities, and so were subject to greater variation in fortunes as natural disasters and political turbulence on the local level tended to loom large for the fate of the whole community (ie; all eggs in one basket syndrome). But in addition to the periodic acts of God with destabilized the Jewish community the last few centuries of its existence there was the constant pressure of assimilation to the Han culture around them. Extracted out of any supportive milieu and unable to shield themselves as individuals by shear force of local numbers like Muslims the Jewish community persevered by holding true to their practices as referenced in their Torah and Talmud through individual fidelity to their traditions. There were no mass pogroms or any particular interest in converting the Jews to non-Jewish practice on the part of the Chinese government. Instead of push, pull was the issue, as many of the young men of the community aspired to the Mandarinate, which entailed rigorous and deep study of Chinese Classics. Because of the finite nature of time it became common for prominent Jewish men of the Kaifeng community to be far more conversant and comfortable in the literature of China than the law of the Talmud. These men were also often polygynous, and usually had Chinese wives. Assertions of Jewishness could sometimes seem almost comical, one learned scholar and official ate pork, but forbade the raising of pigs in the yard of his estate. Eventually he acceded to the wishes of his wives and the swine ran free.

After 1800 the intersection of natural disasters, the passing away of their last rabbi and the deterioration of their economic standing concomitant with the decline of the Chinese state into disorder resulted in the final dissolution of the Jewish community as a higher order entity. As the supportive bonds between fellow Jews were broken they scattered apart to make their way as individuals in Chinese society. Some converted to Christianity. But a more common option was to be absorbed into the Hui community, which was natural since the Han Chinese seemed to long have had difficulty distinguishing the two groups of pork-abstaining monotheists from the West (the Jews were often termed “Blue Hat Hui” because of their caps, while the conventional Hui wore white hats, though they were most often known as the “Sinew-plucking religion”). It is likely that the majority simply melted into the Han masses.

The Jews of China reacted to Chinese culture in a fashion very similar to the Muslims of China. They simply slotted their own parochial terms into the closest fits possible into the Chinese Way. Nevertheless, quantity mattered,1 without social critical mass possible through numbers and the diffusion of risk via demographic dispersal, the Jewish community was not able to maintain its coherency in the face of assimilative pressures. China, being a highly literate and historically minded culture though left us with ample evidence of a peculiar community that likely never numbered more than some tens of thousands.

Update: I feel as if I should add some context and flesh out this post a bit in response to some comments. First, please note that Jews and Muslims were not the only “Western barbarians” to bring their religions to China. In the 8th and later 12th century (two separate seedings) Christianity was brought to the Middle Kingdom. In the second half of the first millennium both Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism (the former the source of many Judeo-Christian-Islamic theological concepts, the latter to a large extent a hybridization of Zoroastrianism and Christianity) were introduced to Tang China.

One must remember that when compared on various characteristics all the Western religions were very similar when set against Chinese beliefs (I assume here that Buddhism is Chinese, though it too started out as a Western religion, that is, from India via Central Asia). If one constructed a cladistic character based tree the various Chinese beliefs would occupy one branch and the various Western religions would occupy another. In many ways each of the attempting plantings of Western religions in pre-modern China were replications of the introduction of affinal meme-complexes. Of these introductions only Islam managed to survive into the modern era in China (the modern revival of Christianity dates only to the 19th century, and more realistically to the past few decades in terms of growth). This is in sharp contrast to India, where four of the five Western religions took root. Christianity rooted itself in Southern India (the state of Kerala is 20% Syrian Christian). Ancient Jewish communities also existed side by side with the Christians in Kerala, while another group resided up the coast (around modern Bombay). The Zoroastrians established the powerful Parsi community in Gujarat. And of course Indian Muslims have a strong presence because of the legacy of Turkish rule and subsequent conversions, but even without this important historical fact, a separate community of Muslims arose in Kerala in a fashion cognate with the Syrian Christians and Jews via the Arabian Sea trade. In other words, even if Indians had repulsed the Turkic invasions it is plausible that a small non-trivial indigenous Muslim community would exist in India (Muslim Arabs also served in the armies of Indian potentates from an early date).

So what was the difference between India and China? I think Kerala is the key, because Muslims, Jews and Christians all took root there and persisted without the protection of states which promoted their religion (that is, they were ruled usually by Hindu maharajas, though sometime
s the Muslims also had their own rulers later on). All of these communities maintained links with the worldwide information networks of their religions. The Syrian Christians had long standing relationships with the Christian communities in Baghdad and Antioch. The Cochin Jews were in contact with West Asian Jewish communities, and were periodically energized by influxes of foreign groups (Jews fleeing persecution from as far away Portugal and the Rhineland!). The Muslims of Kerala had close relations with Arab ulema from Arabia proper, which is reflected in their adherence to the Shafi school of sharia (most Indian Sunnis are Hanafi, which is more closely associated with the Turkic world). Arab reformers even emigrated to Kerala periodically, and the Muslims of Kerala have a long history of Arabic scholarship. Further north in Gujarat it seems that the Parsi communities have been reinforced by emigration of Zoroastrians from Iran as late as the 19th century after their initial 8th century exodus.

I think my point is pretty clear: distance was a crucial factor in the absorption of the Western religionists in China and their persistence in India. Because of the open information networks via long distance trade as well as the possibility of pilgrimage to holy sites the connections were maintained with the international religious communities in India. In China because of the distance this was simply not as likely. The existence of the Silk Road and Muslim peoples adjacent to the Chinese state in the Tarim Basin served as a conduit to worldwide Islam for the Hui of China proper. In contrast, the Christians and Zoroastrians of Xian, the Manichaeans of South China and the Jews of Kaifeng were far more isolated, and it seems plausible that their religion started to become a distant mythology as no one in living memory had journeyed to Jerusalem or the ancient religious sites of Iran. While West Asian clerics could foreseeably settle in India, with which their homelands had a regular direct trade with, China was a distant land of myth.

In regards to Jews, the fact that the Lemba of Zimbabwe carry the Cohen Modal Haplotype as do the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico is to me evidence that Jews did venture quite far from the orbit of the civilized world. If it were not for genetics it seems almost certain that scholars would dismiss the Jewish ancestry of both the Lemba and the Crypto-Jews of the Amerian Southwest as nothing more than legends and myths. If the Jews of Kaifeng had disappeared as an organized community in 1600 instead of 1800 before the arrival of European priests interested in their culture it might be that they too would be a myth, and those Chinese who claimed Jewish ancestry would be dismissed as attempting to appropriate an exotic identity. I am willing to bet that many more surprising “Jewish” groups will be discovered in the next few years (that is, groups will exhibit the Cohen Modal Haplotype, which indicates ancestry derived from the Jewish priestly lineage). So in answer to Michael’s question about why more Jews did not flee persecution, I suspect many did. But cut off from the critical mass of practicing Jews shackled under dhimmitude and Christian domination these refugees were inevitably absorbed by their milieu. And why did Jews persist in the hostile lands of Islam and Christianity while they withered under the benign neglect of the Imperial Chinese? Part of it is I think distance from Jerusalem and the places where the events in the Bible occurred. Egypt, Babylonia, Israel, etc. all were conceivable and reachable, at least to the elite, even if one resides in Spain, Germany or Yemen. In contrast, to a Chinese Jew these were simply locations described in their religious texts with which they had no semblence of concrete relation or conception of. But the death by tolerance factor was at work also I suspect. The idea that persecution strengthens a community is often too glib an answer, but, I suspect that the Talmudic Judaism of the Pharisees is tenable (and flourishes) most when there is a tension between it and the surrounding society so that individuals must by necessity partake of the communal identity for their own well being. In both Christianity and Islam Jews had a special role as a reviled and respected precursor people and the savants of these faiths codified very specific ways to interact with and treat the Jewish people. If a Jew converted to either of the “daughter” religions he or she was implicitly cutting themself off from their own people and making a unidirectional transition (ie; reversion back to Judaism was proscribed by the dominant religions, at least in form if not always in practice). In contrast, it seems that if a young Jewish man in Kaifeng wanted to assimilate to the Han culture, but later took to Judaism more seriously and reverted back to halakhic practice, the Chinese would not view this with the same opprobrium. In short, in Kaifeng there was a whole spectrum of individual choices and and group dynamics could not robustly manipulate them. In the world of Islam and Christianity the choices, at least for a great period of time, available to Jews were constrained by the peculiar and historically contingent relationships of these religions to the Jewish people. In some ways I think one can make an analogy with American Judaism, where personal choice is dominant over communal loyalties, and like the Chinese case I think that that results in the erosion of the coherence of a Jewish “people.”2

1 – Unlike the Jews of India the Jews of Kaifeng did not seem to have received any infusions of later waves of Jewish immigration and lostregular contact with the rest of the Jewry (it seems almost certain that they were derived from the Persian and Bukharan Jewish communities).

2 – In the Classical world there were Hellenistic Jews, but they do not seem to have left any ideological descendents, and many scholars suppose that they were often the first converts to Christianity because it served to privilege and maintain some element of Jewishness but also offered the opportunity to assimilate into the gentile world.

Must ask about Alexa….

OK, first, check out the similar pages to GNXP over at Google. There are no great surprises, really popular blogs like Marginal Revolution show up, blogs we have a long-standing relationshp with, like Steve Sailer are also on the list, and topically related ones like Carl Zimmer make the cut. What I want to ask though is that for years our Alexa profile has shown that Dr. Weevil and the Greatest Jeneration as among the top 10 related links. Why??? I don’t think we’ve ever linked to those blogs (if it wasn’t for Alexa I would never have known about them), and I don’t think they link to us. I don’t even think that I have seen them linked to from the weblogs I do read (not many, but almost all of them are on the “similar links” page of Alexa and Google). I don’t really know what they’re about. So why is Alexa telling everyone that those blogs are similar to GNXP? This is been the case for the past 2 years (the time I’ve checked Alexa regularly). Are there very regular readers of those two blogs who have the Alexa toolbar and also read this blog?

Sorry, I had to get this out there, I’ve been wondering for a long time (some of the other “site info” for the blogs look really strange to me, look at what Instapundit readers are supposed to be checking out).

The Use of Racial, Ethnic, and Ancestral Categories in Human Genetics Research

The Use of Racial, Ethnic, and Ancestral Categories in Human Genetics Research. You can find the PDF in gnxp files in the forum (I’m not trying to make you register, but I am noticing that google is sending a lot of people to the few PDFs I’m saving on our servers and they obviously don’t see the rest of the weblog and just gobble up bandwidth). There is not much that will be new to GNXP readers, the first half of the paper ranges over the biological aspects of the topic, going from palaeoanthropology to population genetics. The literature review is pretty deep. A pretty thorough overview of the current “Out of Africa” orthodoxy is covered, but some space is given to dissenters who assert there might be archaic autosomal sequences in the genomes of some populations, which surprised me (John and Henry were both cited, but Lynn Jorde of the U of Utah was a part of the group that came up with the paper, so perhaps I shouldn’t be that surprised). Eventually they bring up the 85-15 within group-between group variance on a single locus that Richard Lewontin popularized, but they don’t touch upon the fallacious aspect of that statistic. Nevertheless, there are literature pointers to Neil Risch, so one can find the other viewpoints if inclined (the precision of identification as one increases the number of loci brought into the analysis, etc, etc.). The second half of the article on social and ethical aspects of the issue was less interesting, and seemed rather platitudinous, but then that might be my own bias in what aspects of a topic generally engage me.

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