Rewriting Islam

Lots of articles on the radical reinterpretation of the Hadith in Turkey. The Hadith serve as the basis for Islamic law, and orthopraxy more generally. I am on the record as saying that texts don’t in the end determine anything, so obviously I’m skeptical. But, I will simply point to a historical analogy; in the 19th century Egypt and Japan attempted to modernize and catch-up with Western nations. Egypt did not truly succeed, Japan did. Where there’s a will there always isn’t a way; Japan had the necessary preconditions in terms of human capital for the task at hand (e.g., high literacy, a preexistent samizdat of “Dutch” learning, etc.), Egypt did not. A revision of the Hadith is a positive sign, and it is a necessary precondition toward modernity in a Western manner (for example, in regards to sexual equality in family law, or a full-throated acceptance of the institutional instruments modern of capitalism1), but I doubt it is sufficient. A genuine reinterpretation of Islam will more likely happen in a place like the United States, where there are endogenous social forces at work at the grassroots. Textual reintrepretation of sacred literature or law is more often concomitant with, or the effect of, change, not the agent of it. Feminist or socialist interpretations of the Bible post-date the emergence of these movements, they did not inspire them.
1 – “Islamic banking” actually goes a long way toward this already by making up excuses and “work-arounds” which violate the spirit but follow the letter of the law. Rather, I think it is in family law where a top-down imposition might be more necessary.

Snorg Tees Girl

A story about Alice Fraasa the Snorg Tees girl. I’ve been bombarded on The New York Times website with the ads all week and I clicked. I assume that it has ads all the time, but hell if I could tell you what they were about, I don’t notice them. Until this week. Other people must have clicked too, the Snorg Tees link was down. Assume this is a new ad buy and their network engineers weren’t ready for the increase in traffic….

Selection, but for what???

In my post below about a possible locus to look at to explain the normal variation in hair form we see around us a reader asked:

I was once suckered into giving a course on animal ecophysiology (I was told it was basic ecology until after it was too late to back out) which was a traumatic experience as I’ve only taken one university-level animal physiology course in my life. One of the students asked what the advantage is of kinky hair. I wondered if it might be a better insulator against the heat of the sun but that’s just guessing. I also said that perhaps the question should be the other way round – why do people have straight hair. Perhaps to shed rain more readily? I was hoping this post would answer the question. Are there any suggestions?

Well, I didn’t have one. I’ve read the insulation-from-climate thesis before, and I’m skeptical. I think that these are pretty much the sorts of adaptationist tales which stimulated the counter-reaction in the 1970s. There are many ways to detect natural selection in the genome, or at least identify regions which are possible candidates. There are also more classic techniques derived from ecological genetics. But that doesn’t mean we know exactly why a region of the genome was subject to natural selection, or the exact ultimate cause of an observed fitness differential with a natural population. The lactase persistance story is probably one of the best ones we have. LCT is the region of the genome you want to look at if you want to make sure your test for selection actually works in humans (well, at least if you have sample of European humans). Not only that, we have a good idea about the phenotypic consequences of the genetic variation, we can also relate that phenotype to adaptive value, and hook up the function to cultural and historical correlates. Everything is just lined up there for you, it’s too easy.

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A Spanish coincidence?

is an excellent narrative history which focuses on the period of time when Spanish history was a substantial subset of world history. The author, Henry Kamen, is a British historian who happens to be a resident of Barcelona, and he’s gotten into trouble with Spanish nationalists for not framing the facts in a manner befitting Castilian triumphalism. All for the good I would think. In any case, Kamen does a good job balancing the standard kings & battles narration with thick social history. I checked out the book for two reasons. First, I was interested in the treatment given to the impact of disease in its relation to the New World, and secondarily, a better understanding of the role of the Hapsburg dynasty in early modern European history (I’m working through another book focusing on the Austrian Hapsburgs). Though the author was more interested in the social and economic parameters which drove the Spanish conquest of the New World, he really couldn’t dodge the critical necessary precondition of disease, so I found out what I needed to know. Imagine that the sepoys who fought for the East India Company and the maharajas who aligned with the British were extinct a generation or two after the aid that they rendered the new sahibs. That’s a pretty good analogy. On the second issue, there was a lot of detail which was illuminating; who knew that Phillip the II was a connoisseur of Dutch culture? I didn’t (though I did know that Charles V was a Netherlander, I suspect that my Anglo-Saxon cultural background has inculcated me thoroughly with the Black Legend). But there some other more surprising points which I hadn’t thought of.

First, I did know of one dynamic which plays a large role in explaining various events in Spanish history: during this whole period the Spanish Empire, and even the core kingdom of Spain, was actually a dynastic union which was relatively unintegrated politically. In fact, the Carlist Wars of the 19th centuries were fought over in part by the regions to preserve their customary laws and traditions against the centralizing tendency of the crown (or one lineage of it), which was attempting to create a modern nation-state. In an ironic but unsurprising twist, the same regions, such as the Basque provinces and Catalonia, which had served as centers of traditionalist-reactionary factions switched to supporting Leftish movements when those political configurations supported their autonomy from the centralizing pressures of Madrid. So in the 19th century the regions of Spain supported reaction and tradition because that reaction and tradition overlapped with their independence. In the 20th century conservatives had become reconciled with the nation-state and so it was to the Left that these regions looked to to support their aspirations for freedom from Castilian imperialism. But I had not been aware of the extent to which regions such as Aragon, which was a separate kingdom from Castile under the same monarchy, were definitively independent. Not only would the assemblies of Aragon refuse to be taxed to support wars on behalf of the Spanish Empire (e.g., the attempt to suppress rebellion in the Netherlands), but they also might refuse to send troops! This was not an isolated incident, it seems that the New World was Castile’s responsibility, while Aragon looked towards its own possessions in Italy. Speaking of which, Kamen points to the fact that these Italian possessions, in particular Genoa, provided much of the capital and financial talent which kept the Empire afloat. Christopher Columbus was not the only Genoese in the service of the Spanish crown, the trade with the New World based out of Seville was backed in large part by non-Castilian capital, whether it be Italian, Portuguese or German.

I only emphasize the international aspect to the Spanish Empire (which was Kamen’s sin in the eyes of Spanish historians who wanted to highlight Castile’s overwhelming agency in all events) because the text is also littered with references to a particular parochialism of Castilian culture and society which is all too familiar. Kamen notes that, for example, in the 16th century Castilian literature was relatively popular in translation in other parts of Europe. But the Castilians rarely translated works in other languages into the their own! Additionally, even Castilian works were usually printed abroad because of the relative shoddiness of local artisans and technology; often in the possessions which later became Belgium or in Italy. Finally, Kamen observes that the Spanish foreign service had difficulties because of the lack of polyglots in Castile; generally diplomats would make recourse to translators, or, they would recruit from Italy, Flanders or Wallonia, because many in those regions would know Castilian as well as their own native tongue and possibly other languages. There are numerous other examples given the text. Assuming this is correct, it reminds me a great deal of aspects of the Ottoman or Chinese interaction with the West when these societies were in relative decline, down to the lack of interest in foreign arts & literature as well as the need for middlemen to translate because of linguistic ignorance. Of course, a one-dimensional picture of these societies is going to be incorrect, there were attempts to modernize from within and influences from without. But a strong overall sense pervades that these cultures were inwards looking by conscious preference and their elites were very satisfied with their station in the world and saw no need to measure themselves against outsiders.

One could chalk this up to Muslim influence in Spain. But resemblances to the last century of the Chinese Empire suggest to me that this is a repeated pattern in many societies which have reached an equilibrium which can be broken only by powerful exogenous shocks. One could imagine for example something very similar to what happened to the Ottomans and Ching (Manchus) if a Slavophile faction had succeeded in keeping the Russian aristocracy insulated from Western European influences (as one was, one could make the case that something like this did happen because of the inability to shift from the outmoded absolutism which the Tsars perpetuated). I don’t have a real answer to what was going on in Spain, but I had to comment on the correspondences with the trajectory of the Ottoman Empire at the other end of the Mediterranean. After a vigorous expansion under a warrior caste both these polities seemed to have just decided to take a few centuries long nap, spelled by occasional attempts to modernize and catch-up, but only in terms of specific ends as opposed to general techniques.

Gene expression differences between populations

Evaluation of Genetic Variation Contributing to Differences in Gene Expression between Populations (Open Access):

Gene expression is a complex quantitative trait partially regulated by genetic variation in DNA sequence. Population differences in gene expression could contribute to some of the observed differences in susceptibility to common diseases and response to drug treatments. We characterized gene expression in the full set of HapMap lymphoblastoid cell lines derived from individuals of European and African ancestry for 9156 transcript clusters…Gene expression was found to differ significantly between these samples for 383 transcript clusters. Biological processes including ribosome biogenesis and antimicrobial humoral response were found to be enriched in these differential genes, suggesting their possible roles in contributing to the population differences at a higher level than that of mRNA expression and in response to environmental information. Genome-wide association studies for local or distant genetic variants that correlate with the differentially expressed genes enabled identification of significant associations with one or more single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), consistent with the hypothesis that genetic factors and not simply population identity or other characteristics (age of cell lines, length of culture, etc.) contribute to differences in gene expression in these samples. Our results provide a comprehensive view of the genes differentially expressed between populations and the enriched biological processes involved in these genes. We also provide an evaluation of the contributions of genetic variation and nongenetic factors to the population differences in gene expression.

ScienceDaily has the digest.

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William F. Buckely was a racist

Many are quoting this from an editorial by William F. Buckley Jr.:

“The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes–the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
–William F. Buckley, National Review, August 24, 1957

I do want to put on the record that he recanted:

Buckley said he had a few regrets, most notably his magazine’s opposition to civil rights legislation in the 1960s. “I think that the impact of that bill should have been welcomed by us,” he said.

That doesn’t excuse or negate the past. National Review was a journal of some impact then, and Buckley was a public figure. But I’m a temporal moral relativist, you can’t judge the people of the past by the same standards you judge those of the present. A substantial number of Americans alive today were alive during the 1950s and 1960s; and a substantial number of those Americans were opponents of the civil rights movement. One assumes that the majority of these have changed their minds as well. There is even a former Ku Klux Klan member, Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, serving in the Senate. Byrd also filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he now regrets. The follies of youth are often the follies of one’s age in the more general sense. Perhaps we who are a bit younger will also have cause to feel some shame in our old age when we reflect back, and realize that we too were simply fellow travelers in the spirit of the times.
Note: Speaking of things that might surprise you, Charlton Heston was a civil rights activist. Heston is proud of this obviously because it looks good now; but there was a time when this would have been controversial for a public figure who wanted to maximize his market appeal. To paraphrase Michael Jordan, segregationists bought movie tickets too!
Update: Go here for a more detailed explanation of William F. Buckley Jr’s stances on civil rights, then and relatively recently. As I noted in the comments apologia for segregation was not that abnormal in the 1960s. I pointed out below that J. William Fulbright was also part of the filibuster in 1964 against the Civil Rights Act. But later due to his opposition to Vietnam he became something of an icon, and in the 1970s Fulbright changed his mind (or blacks were enfranchised and so he changed his politics) on the race issues.