Gore Vidal has died. As a younger man I found his heterodox views bracing, but I would commend to readers two books Vidal wrote which I feel often get forgotten in the shadow of his American historical novels, and . As a polemicist one must always view Vidal’s claims of fact with some suspicion (granted, I suspect I’m in more sympathy with some of his interpretations of history than most), but his historical fiction can rise above such a critique.
Month: July 2012
An ethnography: N = 1
This is an “inside baseball” post for regular readers, but looking through site referrals I’ve noticed that German Dziebel has started to blog regularly again. For those who don’t know Dziebel is the author of . Here is the summary from Amazon:
This highly acclaimed book brings the cumulative results of a century and a half of kinship studies in anthropology into the focus of current debates on the origin of modern humans in Africa and on an entangled bit of human evolutionary history commonly subsumed under the heading of the “peopling of the Americas.” This erudite study is based on a database of some 2,500 kinship vocabularies representing roughly 600 African languages, 140 Australian languages, 500 Austronesian languages, 200 Papuan languages, 350 languages of Eurasia (excluding Indo-Europeans), 440 North and Middle American Indian languages, and 200 South American languages. This valuable reference will take the reader to the dawn of kinship studies in the 19th century Western science in order to elicit the wider context of anthropological interest in kinship systems and the interdisciplinary salience of the phenomenon of kinship. The book also examines the founder of kinship studies in anthropology, American lawyer and Iroquois ethnographer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and the circumstances of his life that generated his interest in human kinship. The study ventures into the intricacies of scientific and quasi-scientific debates in the 19th century, and treats 19th century science as embedded in a myth featuring divinity, humanity and animality as principal characters. This account is divided into four sections, each of which is structured as a triad (philosophy, psychology and physiology; logic, semiotics and reproduction; religion, hermeneutics and evolution; law, grammar and speech). This far-reaching historical journey aims at formulating an idea of what human kinship might be all about, especially in the light of the widespread uncertainties about this question caused by the constructivist turn in anthropology. Eventually our ideas regarding human origins, ancient population dispersals and the homeland of modern humans are inextricably linked to our ideas about kinship. As a book that brings together evolutionary and sociocultural anthropology, The Genius of Kinship will be a critical addition for all Anthropology collections.
Equilibration of attitudes toward divorce
One thing that people occasionally mention in the comments on this weblog is that it seems futile to be “conservative” because the arrow of history goes in one direction. Even many conservatives, including myself, have fallen into this assumption. But upon a closer inspection of history I think we need to be careful about this, as the truth can sometimes confound our coarse models. For example, I strongly suspect that when it comes to love and marriage the realized element of individual liberty has not had a monotonic trajectory over human history. More plainly, free choice declined over the past 10,000 years, and has reemerged in the past few centuries. Whether this is liberal or conservative is less relevant than that it shows that attitudes, beliefs, and practices, do not always change in magnitude in one direction, only at different rates. More recently, sexual mores in the West shifted to a more puritanical direction between 1750 and 1900, only to switch back to a more relaxed attitude over the 20th century (with a punctuated shift in the 1960s).
And these sorts of trends are evident even over a shorter time scale. So it may be with attitudes toward divorce. One could argue (I probably would) that “liberal” attitudes toward divorce in the 1970s was a correction from an unsustainable equilibrium leading up to the 1960s. But over the past few decades it does look as if college educated whites have had second thoughts about the “arrow of history.” At the very least they are now more likely to stand athwart history and yell “stop.”
Below are results limited to non-Hispanic whites with college educations. Note especially the change in those with “No religions.” They seem clearly to have had enough.
23andMe and the FDA clearance
As they say, read all about it. I’m rather ambivalent. 23andMe has a business rationale to go in this direction, so I don’t begrudge them their decision. The problem, at least from a legal perspective, is that they’re providing medical advice at least implicitly. And I think this medical direction is really where the big money is in any case. There’s no angle standing on principle.
Human version 2.001
Dienekes reflects on the seemingly simultaneous appearance of behavioral modernityin South Africa and Europe and Australia, pending the acceptance of the most recent finds. This part is very important in my opinion:
The San people still live in several countries of southern Africa, and until the latter part of the 20th century were still mainly hunter-gatherers. But Dr. Stringer cautioned not to think of them as “living fossils,” unchanged by time. “Their genes, cultures and behaviors have undoubtedly continued to evolve in the intervening millennia,” he said.
I see no reason to think that these were the ancestors of the San. Over 45,000 years I think the most likely option is that genetic and cultural continuity will not be maintained, and these are probably a sister group to the modern peoples of Southern Africa. In any case, to address Dienekes’ confusion, I think this is one case where his non-American background shows. We know exactly what happened so long ago to kick-start modern humanity. The answer has been with us for over 40 years.
College makes you believe in marriage!
There’s a cliche, which isn’t totally false, that more education tends to lead one toward heterodox viewpoints which challenge conventional norms. But one issue that has been coming to the fore over the last 10 years or so is that college educated Americans tend toward social liberalism, and yet often continue to live very bourgeois lives. In other words, the freedoms which they favor are those freedoms which are ever operative in their own lives. In contrast those Americans without college educations tend to have a less libertarian attitude toward personal mores, but have lives characterized by greater disturbance and disastrous choices.
And yet this does not hold in the case of what articles such as this report, How Divorce Lost Its Groove:
Though she wasn’t entirely surprised. Ever since her divorce three years ago, Ms. Thomas said, she has been antisocial, “nervous about what people would say.”
After all, she had gone from Park Slope matron, complete with involved husband (“We had cracked the code of Gen X peer parenthood”) and gut-renovated brownstone, to “a Red Hook divorcée,” she said, remarried with a new baby and two children-of-divorce barely out of preschool. “All of a sudden, this community I’d lived in for 13 years became this spare and mean savannah,” she said.
It was as if, she said, everyone she knew felt bad for her but no one wanted to be near her, either. Even though adultery was not part of the equation, Ms. Thomas said, “I feel like I have a giant letter A on my front and back.
Dienekes points to a David Reich video where he shows his hand as to future possible results to come out of his lab. The short of it is that it seems likely that most agricultural populations exhibit the same dynamic outlined in Reconstructing Indian History. At the least you have an intrusive group admixing with indigenes. At the extreme you have total replacement. The pattern is confirmed for India, Ethiopia, and Southeast Asia. It seems highly likely in Europe. There are other rumored results in East Asia which might shake things up.
On a minor note, I do want to add that I think many archaeologists aren’t going to be totally surprised that modern Europeans don’t derive by and large from Aurignacians. But, the relatively recent nature of the map of genetic variation which we take for granted probably will shock, and result in a high degree of skepticism. Yet if I had to bet I would bet on the model being sketched out by David Reich. These admixtures and replacements are likely to resolve some confusions of our understanding of the settlement of the world using simple tree models with branching points tens of thousands of years in the past (e.g., you already know that Oceanians will have a longer branch because of archaic admixture).
We are all Anglo-Saxons now
I’m kind of wary of getting into political debates at this point because it’s not my primary interest (additionally, people with stronger political views often end up willfully misrepresenting me because they think I’m taking specific sides, even if they actually guess my preferences incorrectly!). But the whole Mitt Romney-Anglo-Saxon heritage kerfuffle has now gotten under my skin. What prompted my agitation is a post over at The Atlantic by Max Fisher, Sorry, Romney: Neither America Nor the U.K. Are ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Countries. There are two dimensions to this, the positive and the normative.
Most of you are probably aware of David Barton, the conservative Christian scholar whose bread and butter is a revisionist history of the United States which rewrites the past into a fiction to serve his own political ends, in a manner which would make Michel Foucault proud. But believe it or not conservative Christians are not the only group wont to rewrite the past to serve their own contemporary political preferences. In the case of Max Fisher what you have is a conclusion in search of support, and so our enterprising young man went out looking for it in classic hack style. Reading through the comments very few spotted the errors and confusions, aside from a few British commenters.
Azores to Atlantis: Africa through the shadows
In many ways the image of Africa in the minds of Westerners has become a trope. The “Dark Continent,” eternal, and primal. Like many tropes the realized existence of this Africa is only within the imagination. The real Africa is far different. For there is no real Africa, there Africas. This truth is on my mind this week as two papers of great importance in understanding African genetic history finally saw the light of day. First, Dr. Joseph Pickrell et al. posted their preprint, The genetic prehistory of southern Africa, to arXiv. Second, out of the Tishkoff lab came Evolutionary History and Adaptation from High-Coverage Whole-Genome Sequences of Diverse African Hunter-Gatherers. Let me step aside here and observe a secondary, but non-trivial, detail. The former is an open access preprint. The second is a complete paper published in a relatively high impact journal, Cell, for which the paper itself does not seem typical or appropriate. This is fair enough, most people do not read journals front to back in this day. But unlike Dr. Joseph Pickrell’s paper the paper in Cell is paywalled, and from what I can tell you can not obtain the supporting information without getting beyond the gate! So if you need that paper, email me and I will send it onward (I would just post it on a server, but I’ve gotten nasty emails from the legal departments of publishers, so I am wary of doing that).
The New York Times is ginning up fake controversy
Update: That charlatan David Klinghoffer seems to be enjoying this. As a rule I don’t follow dishonest propagandists, but it’s interesting how appealing this sort of “two sides” story is to Creationists. End Update
Reading this article this morning, DNA and Fossils Tell Differing Tales of Human Origins, really aggravated me. I believe that it’s totally misrepresenting the tensions in the scientific process here, and misleading the public. The standard conflict/”two views” format is used, and to disastrous effect. Here are some of the sections which I found alarming:
The geneticists reached this conclusion, reported on Thursday in the journal Cell, after decoding the entire genome of three isolated hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa, hoping to cast light on the origins of modern human evolution. But the finding is regarded skeptically by some paleoanthropologists because of the absence in the fossil record of anything that would support the geneticists’ statistical calculation….
In a report still under review, a third group of geneticists says there are signs of Neanderthals having interbred with Asians and East Africans. But Neanderthals were a cold-adapted species that never reached East Africa.
Although all known African fossils are of modern humans, a 13,000-year-old skull from the Iwo Eleru site in Nigeria has certain primitive features. “This might have indicated interbreeding with archaics,” said Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “For half of Africa we really have no fossil record to speak of, so I think it’s quite likely there were surviving archaic forms living alongside modern humans.”
Paleoanthropologists like Dr. Klein consider it “irresponsible” of the geneticists to publish genetic findings about human origins without even trying to show how they may fit in with the existing fossil and archaeological evidence. Dr. Akey said he agreed that genetics can provide only part of the story. “But hopefully this is just a period when new discoveries are being made and there hasn’t been enough incubation time to synthesize all the disparities,” he said.