Stefansson's Luxury Organ

In yesterday’s New York Times article, David Goldstein makes sense: he says “We’ve looked for common variants in schizophrenia and get almost nothing. This means natural selection has done a really good job of purging them away, and we’re left with rare variants, a constant flow of them, as the principal driver of the disease.”

Which is what any reasonable person thought a long time ago: the common disease-common variant notion never made much sense for a syndrome with a large impact on fitness. That genetic heterogeneity does not make drug development easier: even if the mutations cluster in certain pathways, reactivating a broken pathway may still require mutation-specific methods, which would sure take the profit out of drug development.

But the most interesting point in the article is Stefansson’s statement – “I would have thought the brain was a luxury organ when it comes to reproductive success.” That’s a weird thing to say. For one thing we known damn well that schiz strongly impacts fitness, even in contemporary society: the affected families dwindle away, which interferes with genetic studies.

More than that, does he really believe that being insane had no effect on reproductive success back in the Malthusian past? It’s hard to find a place more Malthusian than Iceland: does he think that crazy hardscrabble farmers did just as well as sane ones? Does he think that lunatics were just as likely to become godir and hornswoggle the neighbors out of their land?

The brain burns out 20% of our calories: does he think that could continue long under natural selection if there wasn’t a big payoff?

The answer is that he _does_ think all those absurd things: he doesn’t believe in ongoing natural selection in humans, particularly above the neck. I wonder why – but once we sequence him, maybe we’ll know.

Copy number variation in schizophrenia

Nature has published a couple papers reporting (using partially overlapping samples) associations between rare recurrent microdeletions and schizophrenia. The paper from Deocde Genetics hits an evolutionary angle from the first sentences:

Reduced fecundity, associated with severe mental disorders, places negative selection pressure on risk alleles and may explain, in part, why common variants have not been found that confer risk of disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and mental retardation. Thus, rare variants may account for a larger fraction of the overall genetic risk than previously assumed.

Rare variants often have much larger phenotypic effects than more common ones; this case is no different:

All three deletions, at 1q21.1, 15q11.2 and 15q13.3, significantly associate with schizophrenia and psychosis in the combined sample with high odds ratio (OR) (p = 2.9x10e-5, OR = 14.83; p = 6.0x10e-4, OR = 2.73; and p = 5.3x10e-4, OR = 11.54, respectively)

Note that despite these massive odds ratios, these deletions explain a tiny fraction of all cases of schizophrenia due the their extremely low frequency. Still, these genomic regions seem like important areas for following up via functional studies or searching for more common polymorphisms.

Breeding the future

Some results from the GSS on what people perceive the ideal number of children is based on social variables. Additionally, the realized number of children the respondent has. I limited the sample to whites who were 40 or older (there are people who have children past 40, but I assume that most of the discrepancy, or not, between ideal and realized will be evident by that age).

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No one knows nothing about The Foundation

Chris Orr at The Plank reports that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is going to be given the film treatment. Orr is skeptical, and so am I. As far as space opera goes the Foundation universe was a cerebral and sedate treatment; they’ll have to rewrite a lot of it to get some action to spice up the story. David Brin’s Uplift based novels read much more like the outlines of scripts; but after The Postman they probably won’t want to risk that. Even if there’s a lot going on space opera doesn’t always translate well. Remember David Lynch’s take on Dune? Because of the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy I suppose the film industry will go on this turn-novel-series-into-film-series kick for a while. I think after the disappointment of The Golden Compass one has to admit that Jackson ended up making good films, and you can’t just assume that the “based on” formula is going to make an endeavor a success.

"Science and technology" – then & now

Tyler points to a new story in The New York Times highlighting discoveries about the Antikythera mechanism:

The new findings, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, also suggested that the mechanism’s concept originated in the colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, in Sicily. The scientists said this implied a likely connection with the great Archimedes.

“We believe that this mechanism cannot have been the first such device since it is so sophisticated and complex,” Dr. Freeth said. “And we don’t understand why this extraordinary technology apparently disappeared for several hundred years, later to emerge in the great astronomical clocks of the 14th century onwards.”

My explanation: the ancients had scientists and technologists, but they did not have Science and Technology. In other words, science and technology as we understand it today in the age of scientific industry is a cultural complex which has attained critical mass and is self-perpetuating. One does not need to manifest the brilliance of Isaac Newton to stand upon his shoulders, the sociocultural framework takes Newtonianism as a given. There were scientists in ancient Greece, in the Islamic world, China, India, etc., of various sorts. But these people lacked a cultural framework in terms of a critical mass of numbers which arose in the West sometime between 1600 and 1900 as a cumulative process.*

This is not to say that the “knowledge based” economy is a function of the modern West, it is not. The ancient Greeks had lawyers, doctors and philosophers. So did many other civilizations at various points in history. Legal frameworks, as an example, are essential for complex society, but it also seems to be that they arise necessarily from mass societies of a particular threshold of complexity. The mass societies of the post-Neolithic world straining against the bounds of the Malthusian trap were not barbaric; but they were not mass consumer societies. While I do not believe that science & technology as I am conceiving of them in this post were necessary or sufficient to drive the productivity gains which are required for existence outside of the Malthusian trap,** I suspect that they will be necessary to perpetuate said society into the indefinite future. Science & technology are not hallmarks of civilization, but they necessities of continued affluence.

* That cultural complex’s emergence might be contingent upon a host of parameters. For example, the printing press, the unity imposed by Latin as a common language for western European intellectuals, the lack of a unified ideology to suppress diversity of thought (remember that the Reformation broke the Church’s power to stifle new currents in Protestant Europe, while Protestant high priests likewise had no power in Catholic Europe), etc.

** This is not to say that I don’t think technology was not necessary or essential for the massive productivity gains, but the scientific-industrial-complex which we know and love (I hope!) today didn’t coalesce into its full form until the past century or so, though I do believe its origins can be traced back to the 17th century.

Killing the consensus with one thousand cuts

Yesterday I finally finished Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. This was no easy read, even at only ~300 pages. Will Ambrosini characterized Greg Clark’s Farewell to Alms as a book length response to The Great Divergence, and I can see where he is coming from. Contra Clark and the dominant consensus in economic history Pomeranz marshals the evidence which suggests that China & Japan were basically as wealthy as western Europe during the 18th century, and that many of the presumed necessary preconditions for the economic liftoff which we term the Industrial Revolution after the fact also held for eastern Eurasia. But Pomeranz has his own solution for why the West, and in particular England, rose to prominence when it did: the location of coal near the core economic regions combined with the massive input of land due to the opening up of the New World.

Those of us who are a bit younger no doubt encountered a fair amount of revisionist history. Instead of a “Whiggish” vision where civilization ascended in a linear fashion from Greece, to Rome, to the Middle Ages and onto the culmination of the Anglo-American culture, we were reminded that during the medieval period the West was much less than the rest, while even during the height of Imperial Rome Han China flourished with relative parity. Instead of these impressionistic generalizations the central figures in economic history, such as Angus Madison, emphasize that the revisionism might have been true in economic terms in 1000, but not by 1500. In the year 1000 western Europe was a rather poor region compared to the Islamic societies or China. By 1500 the conventional wisdom seems to be that much of western Europe was at least at parity, and likely one of the wealthier regions of the world on a per capita basis, if not the wealthiest. Because of the raw size of China and India Asia was still the economic center of the world, but by 1500 Europe, in particular its west, was no longer marginal. Between 1500 and 1800 western Europe might have been the wealthiest and most powerful region of the world on a per unit basis, but non-European powers could still operate on the same playing field, as evidenced by the need for European powers such as Britain and France to curry favor with Asian potentates to obtain trading rights. During the 19th century this changed; what was a difference in wealth on the margins transformed into one characterized by a qualitative chasm (symbolized by the maxim machine gun).

The Great Divergence tries to throw some cold water on the metrics used to make the case that Europe was already wealthier, and more well positioned institutionally, to achieve liftoff at the end of the 18th century. It is obvious that Pomeranz is correct when he seems to imply that there are apples to oranges comparisons; much of eastern Europe remained quite poor, so it was not Europe as a whole which was wealthy (there were even extremely large variations within nations, such as the Rhineland vs. eastern Prussia). Additionally, China was characterized by a great deal of the regionalism so that the most dynamic subunits of that civilization are more usefully compared to with France, Britain and the Low Countries, the most advanced subunits of the greater European economic region. All that being said, only someone who is rather well versed in the literature in economic history could appreciate much of the material that Pomeranz references throughout the narration; to a great extent The Great Divergence was argument by filibuster. Those who are familiar with the full body of the literature may be able to evaluate the power of the argument, but for those of us who are relatively uninformed we are simply confronted with an undifferentiated mass of data.

Some of the data and insight was very useful. For example, cultural historians often attempt to claim that one reason that the Chinese imported so little from European nations was because of their own superior attitude. In other words, the dynamics we observe were driven by variations in taste. This is an entirely plausible argument, and one which I accepted. Entire swaths of scholarship are based for example on the contempt which the Chinese government directed at European trade delegations and their wares. Pomeranz makes the argument that the imbalance in trade was a function of the fact that China was re-monetizing their economy with silver, and Europeans were there to provide silver through the opening of New World mines. The difference in value of silver in China and the rest of the world naturally resulted in an arbitrage opportunity so that the Middle Kingdom was a magnet for this metal; naturally the Chinese had to pay for silver with products, ergo, the export in finished goods such as porcelain. This economic argument does not negate the cultural explanation, one might admit that cultural and economic trends often dovetail or play off each other synergistically, but this sort of datum is gold in trying to understand how history plays out.

With that, I’ll open up the comments to those who know the literature and what their opinions might be.

Denomination is rather heritable; socioeconomic status less so….

I was curious about a few social variables which often associate across generations, and also within families. So I looked in the General Social Survey for denomination, highest degree and socioeconomic index, which I knew were surveyed for the individual (respondent), their parents and their spouse. Below the fold are the correlation matrices generated. Remember that if you assume a linear dependency you square the correlation (e.g., 0.50 → 0.25) to find out how much of the variation in X can be accounted for by variation in Y.

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No Polynesian origin for pre-Columbian chickens???

Indo-European and Asian origins for Chilean and Pacific chickens revealed by mtDNA:

European chickens were introduced into the American continents by the Spanish after their arrival in the 15th century. However, there is ongoing debate as to the presence of pre-Columbian chickens among Amerindians in South America, particularly in relation to Chilean breeds such as the Araucana and Passion Fowl…The modern Chilean sequences cluster closely with haplotypes predominantly distributed among European, Indian subcontinental, and Southeast Asian chickens, consistent with a European genetic origin. A published, apparently pre-Columbian, Chilean specimen and six pre-European Polynesian specimens also cluster with the same European/Indian subcontinental/Southeast Asian sequences, providing no support for a Polynesian introduction of chickens to South America….

David Brooks Misses the Pink Elephant in the Room

Brooks sets out to share his wisdom on the root causes of America’s past success and why we’re faltering of late. He writes:

As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz describe in their book, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” America’s educational progress was amazingly steady over those decades, and the U.S. opened up a gigantic global lead. Educational levels were rising across the industrialized world, but the U.S. had at least a 35-year advantage on most of Europe. In 1950, no European country enrolled 30 percent of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70 percent of older teens were in school.

America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and 1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.

What could have happened in the 1960s that could, by 1970, lead to the cessation of the educational gains we had made over the 50 – 75 years?

Has anyone looked at Senator Ted Kennedy’s handiwork? Well, Brooks certainly doesn’t even entertain the notion that the demographic nature of the US today is different from what it was during most the century preceding the 1965 Immigration Reform Act. Moreover, during the sustained periods of immigration restriction the cultural focus was squarely on assimilation and unlike today, educational resources were not squandered on celebrating diversity, rather they were targeted towards moving all children along a common cultural vector.

Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.

Having an immigration policy which pulls in tens of millions of 6th grade educated, Spanish-speaking immigrants is a policy that creates inequality. Goldin and Katz would do well to control for immigrant status, legal and illegal, in the ranks of the low skilled.

The meticulous research of Goldin and Katz is complemented by a report from James Heckman of the University of Chicago. Using his own research, Heckman also concludes that high school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late 1960s, at about 80 percent. Since then they have declined.

In “Schools, Skills and Synapses,” Heckman probes the sources of that decline. It’s not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years.

Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

Again, demography matters. When we celebrate diversity and when we hold all cultures to be equal then we discount the importance that cultural practices, traditions and views have on real world factors, like education and economic productivity. Heckman notes that “some children” benefit from family practices that promote human capital development, but that many don’t. I’m willing to wager that racial and cultural factors correlate to a good deal of this disparity.

It’s not globalization or immigration or computers per se that widen inequality. It’s the skills gap. Boosting educational attainment at the bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy.

It’s fantasy to posit that the skills gap is independent of group measures of human capital stock. ParaPundit shows the dismal embrace of higher education by Hispanics even after 4 generations in the US.

America rose because it got more out of its own people than other nations. That stopped in 1970.

There are two things wrong with this claim. First, measuring what a country gets from it’s people is simply another way of referencing the concept of productivity and US productivity increases didn’t stop in 1970. In fact, from 1995-2005 the US experienced a 2.35% annual rate of productivity growth, which was only exceeded by the rates experienced in Iceland, Finland and Sweden. We’re clearly able to “get more” out of our citizens. Brooks’ conflates educational attainment in a nation with productivity growth. Clearly, some segments of our population excel at educational attainment while others groups stumble.

Secondly, it would help to disaggregate the data on educational attainment and productivity growth by demographic group. If we look at Canada, with it’s massive surge of Asian immigrants, we see that these newcomers to Canada are not having the same dismal educational experience as America’s Hispanic immigrants and Canada is managing to “get more” (36%+ of Chinese immigrants have some university, only 12% show no educational attainment) out of its new citizens than the US is managing with our new Hispanic residents. Even when we look beyond the immigrant generation and focus on their children, we see that Canada’s policy of seeking to maximize human capital stocks when making immigration decisions results in these immigrants having children who exhibit better academic performance compared to our first generation Hispanic students despite the fact that Canada’s public schools aren’t financed as generously as ours (OECD Excel File) (Education Spending/Student 2000: Primary Level – Canada $6,120, US $7,980; Secondary Level – Canada = $5,947, US $8,855; Tertiary Level – Canada = $14,983, US = $20,358) and yet Canada isn’t getting as “much out of” their citizens in terms of economic productivity as the US.

So, whatever the US is doing right in terms of productivity growth it still manages to surpass most developed countries even when handicapped by unique demographic challenges. If Brooks would like to see educational attainment increase over time then he should really begin advocating that we stop importing poverty, stop fostering cultural diversity and begin trying to assess human capital stocks in our immigrants.

Here’s a hint for Brooks – you need to understand the parameters of a problem before you can hope to discuss it accurately – leaving out demographics when questioning national performance will forever lead you to misanalyze. Peoples and cultures matter. Don’t take my word for it – here’s what the official demographer of Texas has to say:

Texas is changing. It is growing older and browner, with the elderly and Hispanic populations growing at an unprecedented rate. And as the
populations increase, so will the challenges.

If current trends continue, Texas’ work force will be less educated and less skilled. State services, already burdened, may be strained to a point never experienced before. The numbers provided by Murdock support the dire warnings:

Hispanics may represent 53 percent of the population by 2030, compared to 30.3 percent for Anglos and 9.2 percent for blacks.

More than half of Hispanics 25 and older had failed to finish high school in 2000; fewer than 20 percent had completed some college, and only about 10 percent had a college degree.

Hispanics could occupy 38 percent to 52 percent of the Texas work force by 2030.

By 2030, 16 percent to 20 percent of the population will be 65 or older, an increase of about 10 percent over 2000. Most will be Anglos. Of Texans older than 65 in 2000, 72.6 percent were Anglo, 16.7 percent Hispanic.

The aging population – coupled with a segment that is less educated and, thus, earning less money – will strain social services, including those for the elderly.

“An educated work force raises income levels, which generates businesses activity and increases the market for goods and services,” Murdock said. “It also increases investments for new businesses, which in turn increases tax revenues. Higher education equals higher incomes.”

Sen. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said education is perhaps the most important issue facing the state.

“This is really a wake-up call,” he said. “The conclusion is that by the year 2025, if we keep doing what we’re doing now, Texas will have the economy of a Third Word country. I have a son who will be 21 in 2025, and that’s just not the kind of Texas I want to turn over to him.”

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The MSM on the new math/gender study.

Tabarrok nails it.

Agnostic adds: Here’s a graph using the new study’s finding of same mean for males and females, and taking male to female ratio in variances to be 1.16 (they estimate it between 1.11 and 1.21). This is the ratio of a normal with mean = 0 and s.d. = 1.077 (male) to a standard normal (female). It’s shown for above-average people, but it’s symmetric about 0: males have more geniuses and more idiots. The dashed green line is M:F = 1, or perfect gender parity. Males are underrepresented between -1 and +1 s.d., and overrepresented outside this interval. You may have to click on the image to see it full-size.