Human history is both contingent and inevitable

Last week Shadi Hamid shared my post, Living in a World That Is, Not as It Ought to be, on his public (as well as Twitter). I appreciate the pointer. One of the though is of interest in terms of allowing me to highlight some issues by way of formulating a response:

Usaama al-Azami (in a Facebook comment): One of my undergraduate professors remarked several years ago that Iraq was probably going to go through the equivalent of the Thirty Years War at present. From one perspective, this may seem insightful. From another, it seems to overly universalize what was almost certainly the accidental historical progression of the European experience. We all read history in this way to some degree. It seems the inevitably human thing to do. But it seems unwise. Not only because it may be inaccurate, but because it makes us constantly look to the Western experience as somehow normative. That is an ideological imposition many of us are happy with–we want to promote Western conceptions of liberty and democracy. But, taken as a whole, it is distinctive, and can only be forced on many parts of the Middle East by force. Shadi, I think your book, which I very much enjoyed, seems aware of the pitfalls of this sort of thinking. For most people, however, it seems that they’re all too willing to impose their contingent agendas on others. And even those of us who like to think we’re less susceptible to this sort of historical teleology end up using such models unconsciously now and again.

As once stated: theory gives you information for free. Our theoretical outlooks inform our understanding of the world, and where we lack “thick” data elements we “fill in” (impute) with inferences from theory. For ancient peoples after the Axial Age one simple theory of the world dichotomized the human race into “us vs. them.” The “them” were assorted barbarians. The “us” was often defined by a cultural outlook imbued at the elite levels with a religio-philosophical system which served as the grounding for a metaphysics (e.g., the civilized man read and internalized particular textual classics so as to able to experience life through an edifying lens in keeping with the natural order of things).

More recently in the late 19th and early 20th century white Europeans developed a racial theory of the history of the world, synthesizing the historical fact of Western dominance with aspects of the nascent evolutionary sciences. This model of the world presumed that the “End of History” would be a white one, as all other races went extinct through Darwinian processes of inter-group competition. Additionally, many inferred that the rise of civilizations in regions that were not white European was likely due to ancient migrations which stimulated the torpid natives into bouts of creativity, which abated only because of the degradation which was entailed by racial admixture. This is the “information for free” part, as without evidence theoretical perspectives can generate inferences amongst those who share theoretical commitments.

I have argued elsewhere that modern “post-Colonial” frameworks, and Cultural Marxism more generally, share many of the premises of early 20th century white supremacy, but invert their valence. By this, I mean that there are many contemporary voices who might agree that the West is sui generis, a specific contingent instantiation of human cultural development without parallel. But whereas individuals such as Madison Grant would argue that this was a boon to the history of the world, as the special genius of whites illuminated the darkness, modern day cultural Leftists who espouse anti-racist views make the case that Western culture introduced the contagion of oppressive institutions to all non-Western cultures. The most extreme caricatures of this view would assert that sexism, racism, and homophobia in non-Western cultures are all products of colonial influence. Instead of the “White Man’s Burden,” imagine a “White Man’s Curse.” It is easy to see why some would accuse these thinkers of removing all agency from non-Western actors, and therefore being guilty of resurrecting myths of the “noble savage.”

Another tack that is common when speaking of human cultural history is to attempt to remove all acknowledgement of explicit theory at all, and fall back on “thick description,” as if there are no priors informing the discourse. To get a taste of what I’m talking about, see Poor Data, Rich Data, Big Data, Chief. Rather that focusing in a positive sense on a model which one believes describes reality, the goal is to deconstruct all attempts to ascertain truth and leave beyond this process of critique an opaque morass of confusion. Naturally this stance is common in American cultural anthropology, which substitutes concise distillation of the patterns we see around us with unintelligible personal narratives which are perhaps the most boring forms of bullshit you’ll ever encounter (this also produces a transition from statements that might be right or wrong, to those which are invariably unparseable outside of initiates). While rejecting any generalities or concrete and coherent abstractions, expositors of this “school” (quotations added for appropriate irony) are quite clear about the boundaries of the West, and how not to extend W.E.I.R.D. presuppositions.

Certainly over-generalization from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic samples is a problem. Joe Heinrich’s is one of my favorite books, and it illustrates how varied behavior can be in different cultures. But this is a problem to be grappled with, not a “get out of jail” card to be thrown at any attempts to construct a formal system of interpretation. It is of note that anthropologists themselves have been skeptical to hostile in relation to the implications of Joe Heinrich’s scholarship. That’s because he’s influenced by the naturalistic paradigm in anthropology. If theory gives you information from free, then the proposition that culture is a natural phenomenon which can be understood in a reductionistic fashion has powerful implications.

Primarily in the context of this discussion we don’t need to throw our hands up in the air and assume that all of history is a contingent darkness from which we can’t infer general patterns. This is why I believe it is imperative that when thinking about historical processes we need to combine dense detail with a robust theoretical framework. Details can feed input to the theory to generate novel inferences. Peter Turchin’s cliodynamics has the promise to be just this, as Turchin observes cycles which can be quantitatively modeled in agricultural societies. Instead of making rough analogies to illustrative intuitions, one can attempt to discern repeated patterns cross-culturally, and deduce as to the likely trajectory of the outcomes in other circumstances. This does not mean that history is deterministic, but, it does suggest that there are robust patterns we should anticipate.

Some of these patterns are so general that they are uncontroversial. Societies seem to progressively scale up in territory, develop complex philosophical systems as ideological underpinnings of civilizational systems, and refine their institutions to be more robust to external shocks. You see all this across Eurasia, and the beginnings of such processes in other regions of the world (e.g., Meso-America and the Andes). But some occurrences are more specific. My appeal to the Thirty Years War was clumsy, but it got the point across that modern complex nation-states are unlikely to persist if religious-sectarian sentiments are in the driver’s seat. The United States was founded in fact as a nation without an explicit national religion, the first de-sacralized state in the world. But this pattern was pre-figured elsewhere. Though the Chinese nation-empire was underpinned by a metaphysical understanding of its place in the cosmos, in the 9th century it came close to being undermined by the rise of Buddhism. Religion threatened to swallow the nation-empire. The response was an attack on Buddhism as a temporal force, and its cutting back to size as a mass religious cult which did not have special access to, and separate power from, the nation-empire. I would argue that the same process was inevitable in Europe on the eve of the Reformation, because the temporal holdings of the church were such that monarchs consolidating power could not help but attempt to confiscate its lands (this had happened before, Charles Martel did so in the 8th century). More on point European nation-states began to find that diplomatic freedom and agency were constrained by excessive adherence to sectarian passions and alignments. It seems entirely likely that the process of national integration and the dawn of the Westphalian age was occurring inexorably because of underlying forces of economic growth and globalization; the sort of trans-national Christian Catholic commonwealth enabled by decentralized late medieval monarchies was never going to be resurrected.

And I suspect the same is true in the Middle East. There are those who continue to live in the 7th and 8th centuries in their dreams. They believe that religious messiahs such as a latter day Abu Muslim can revive a new caliphate. No. Those times are gone. A multi-religious state requires a certain level of reduction in the public role and exclusive attention that any particular sect can demand. It is not necessarily equality, but, it is an attenuation of the extreme inter-sect fissures. During the Franco-Prussian War the Catholic south Germans marched against the French forces under the leadership of Prussian Protestant generals. This vindicated the national idea, as opposed to the concept of religious solidarity which may have been more appealing in centuries past. We might wonder about the plausibility of the idea that every society will end at the stage of liberal democracy in a way that we might recognize in the West, but, it seems not unreasonable to suppose that many distinct elements of this system are necessary preconditions for the material modernity which most humans crave.

One gene to banish one concept

Carrion Crow
Carrion Crow
Haeckel's "tree of life"
Haeckel’s “tree of life”

Being the way we are we humans attempt to comprehend the world in a manner which is intuitively graspable. Obviously some ideas are derived from environmental inputs. If you learn a little math and start talking about a multi-dimensional universe beyond the three spatial ones which we can grasp, then obviously you’re seeing the power of higher order abstraction detached from lived experience. But science is usually not so rarefied in relation to our lived reality. Our intuitions about the world often interface with our broader theories, many of which clearly shape scientific models, even if in the end these models extend far beyond the limits of our Gestalt cognition. How we grasp the whole of the universe has an effect on how we break nature apart at its joints.

The evolutionary ideas which were ascendant in the Victorian age, crowned by Charles Darwin’s theory of the origin of species via natural selection, illustrate both of these realities. On the one hand evolutionary ideas are as old as the Greeks, and likely older in that the Ionians made formal and abstract many folk theories which were likely floating about in the world of antiquity. But there were those then, and now, who had difficulty comprehending the evolutionary nature of speciation, and the morphological change which results in phyletic gradualism (e.g., for Creationists “macroevolution” is always the problem). The likely psychological root of skepticism of speciation is that humans seem to have innate ideas as to the nature of kinds and categories. Plato’s speculations about eternal forms leverage deep intuitions that we have about the world around us which can be discerned even in infants that there are essences, an order and plan. What evolutionary biologists term “population thinking” is not natural, and continuity is often rendered in a discrete fashion when it comes to everyday terminology. A concept such as species has the dual benefit of both being intuitive and aligning with our natural prejudices about the world, and also being useful in the everyday practice of science. But the fact is species are not a real phenomenon, such as the acceleration of a ball in space, but a useful shorthand which brackets a range of concepts.

My attitude toward the term “species” is strongly informed by the instrumental views which are interleaved throughout H. Allen Orr and Jerry Coyne’s book from the mid-aughts, . That is not to say that the book is perfect, . But that’s why I emphasize an instrumental view of species, what might be a useful classification for a plant biologist may not be a useful one for a zoologist, let alone a bacterial geneticist. Species as a concept only exists to delineate and clarify our thinking unless you have a religious model which presupposes ideal kinds brought about by the hand of a designer. Scientific taxonomy is only a rough and approximate mapping of the reality of natural history and evolutionary genetics, which it purports to collapse informatively. And with all the problems with the species concept, recall that it is the “most real” of taxonomic categories which we use (e.g., the biological species concept is moderately coherent).

Naturally this does not mean that there are no differences between the populations we term species, simply that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the way we describe nature is often shorthand which obscures as well as illuminates. The debate about species concepts can be informative and interesting, but it has its limits. I do not hold to the position that there is “one definition to rule them all.” Which brings me to a new paper in Science on crows, The genomic landscape underlying phenotypic integrity in the face of gene flow in crows:

The importance, extent, and mode of interspecific gene flow for the evolution of species has long been debated. Characterization of genomic differentiation in a classic example of hybridization between all-black carrion crows and gray-coated hooded crows identified genome-wide introgression extending far beyond the morphological hybrid zone. Gene expression divergence was concentrated in pigmentation genes expressed in gray versus black feather follicles. Only a small number of narrow genomic islands exhibited resistance to gene flow. One prominent genomic region (<2 megabases) harbored 81 of all 82 fixed differences (of 8.4 million single-nucleotide polymorphisms in total) linking genes involved in pigmentation and in visual perception—a genomic signal reflecting color-mediated prezygotic isolation. Thus, localized genomic selection can cause marked heterogeneity in introgression landscapes while maintaining phenotypic divergence.

Citation: Poelstra, J. W., et al. "The genomic landscape underlying phenotypic integrity in the face of gene flow in crows." Science 344.6190 (2014): 1410-1414.
Citation: Poelstra, J. W., et al. “The genomic landscape underlying phenotypic integrity in the face of gene flow in crows.” Science 344.6190 (2014): 1410-1414.

You may wonder how a paper on the population genomics of crows relates to the broader philosophical issues I was alluding to earlier. Simple, as science advances it sheds light on the true and fine-grained shape of the world around us, rather than our coarse preconceptions. We look through the glass darkly to infer our innate ideas. Modern taxonomy has its origins in Carl Linnaeus’ system, and the status of carrion vs. hooded crow in terms of whether they are species or subspecies has a history which goes back at least to this period. This paper in Science seems to have “solved” the issue in substance, if not style. By substance I mean that the authors have extracted enough genetic information that all the blank spots in our discussion are filled in to my satisfaction. On the whole genome level one can’t differentiate the two crow species/subspecies as clear and distinct entities. German carrion crows are genetically closer to Polish hooded crows in terms of total genome content. But, when it comes to a few specific regions of the genome which affect diagnostic physical characteristics, the pigment of pelage, as well as variation in behaviour, the two groups in fact are quite distinct. To obtain these sorts of results the science had to be top notch. Or at least 2014, not 1814.  They sequenced a male hooded crow to greater that 100x coverage to generate a reference sequence, which is very high. Then they sequenced a 60 carrion and hooded crows to greater than 10x coverage, which is reasonable for population genomic work, especially if you can align it to the reference.

Citation: Poelstra, J. W., et al. "The genomic landscape underlying phenotypic integrity in the face of gene flow in crows." Science 344.6190 (2014): 1410-1414.
Citation: Poelstra, J. W., et al. “The genomic landscape underlying phenotypic integrity in the face of gene flow in crows.” Science 344.6190 (2014): 1410-1414.

The basic major result is illustrated in the figure to the right. What you see is that overall the genetic divergence between German carrion crows and Spanish carrion crows, the latter being the putative source population, is rather large comparatively (Spanish vs. Germany vs. Swedish vs. Polish). In contrast there is minimal genetic divergence between German carrion crows and Polish hooded crows, as one might predict by geographic. But, there are exceptional regions of the genome, as is clear when you look at the emphasized spikes in FST. In other words, continuous gene flow has homogenized between population differences, as you’d except from basic theory (across two demes N >= 1 sufficient to prevent divergence), but selection pressures along very salient traits have resulted in a shaper distinction along a few genomic regions. The interesting point here is though that this isn’t due to any ecological distinction. For example, when it comes to pigmentation some human populations (e.g., Africans and Melanesians) resemble each other despite huge whole genome differences (Melanesians are just another branch of “Out of Africa” humanity). But one can posit a clear ecological rational for why this might be. Not so for carrion and hooded crows. Intuitively it seems obvious that Germany shares more ecologically with Poland than it does with Spain. So what’s going on? The authors provide a likely answer: “A key feature that distinguishes the crow system is the apparent lack of ecological selection on the maintenance of separate phenotypes. Instead, the data presented here are consistent with the idea that assortative mating and sexual selection can exclusively cause phenotypic and genotypic differentiation.” Instead of a speciation gene, these may be “speciation genomic regions” (yes, it has less of a ring to it, I admit).

So where does this leave us in terms of species concept? Well, your mileage may vary. In the accompanying commentary by Peter de Knijff there is some bashing the bar code of life idea of systematically identifying species differences using DNA. I don’t think there’s a problem with the bar code of life as long as one understands that one shouldn’t confuse the measure with what one is measuring. The concept species is not like the speed of light, it is freighted with assumptions, and means different things to different people. If one understands that ahead of time then a consistent language or measuring stick can still be highly useful, if not ultimately informative in a deep ontological sense (i.e., atoms/quarks are fundamental to material objects in a way that species are not in regards to variation among living organisms).

This specific result is also not entirely surprising, though it is nice to see it worked out in a specific case. The connection between physical appearance and species distinctions is an old and intuitive one, despite the importance of genealogical concepts when it comes to our intuitive essentialism. And this applies to taxonomic levels which are lower, as far back as Charles Darwin sexual selection was posited as the reason for racial differences in appearance for humans (Jared Diamond promoted this view in ). Back in 2003 Henry Harpending brought to my mind the idea that human differences in phenotypes can persist across populations despite overall genomic similarities. To me this reinforces that genomics has come not to bring peace to old truths, but a sword of empirical reality to old preconceptions. Rather than dithering as to the “best” term to describe genetic variation and evolutionary process, we can actually go about describing it in close to its entirety, and let the chips fall where they may. Compute and quantify. The rest is commentary.

We are likely the only intelligent life form in this galaxy


Fantastic optimism!

In my younger days I had a soft spot for well crafted “space opera,” with David Brin’s being an excellent exemplar. And yet the reality is that part of me always felt that these were more akin to space fantasy than science fiction. The reason is that a world such as the one you see in Star Trek, where aliens often meet each other at technological parity, just did not seem intuitively plausible to me. Rather, much more likely was the dark universe Gregory Benford outlines in . In this imaginging intelligent life forms meet across a chasm of technological sophistication which makes the idea of a broad class of organisms with the term “intelligent life form” laughable; humans were to the “higher intelligences” in this universe as ants are to us. Benford’s novel was depressing from a human perspective, and its coldly Malthusian universe reflects the pessimism of many biologists. I first encountered this in Jared Diamond’s , where the author suggests that optimism in regards to “First Contact” promoted by astronomers such as Carl Sagan in his work was incredibly naive. Diamond’s basic contention was that if the universe was full of intelligent life forms, then we had better be glad that they weren’t here yet, because it probably wouldn’t end well for human beings, using our own planet’s encounters between different civilizations as models.

But I no longer even hold to the position that the cosmos is teeming with intelligences of varied levels of sophistication. Rather, I would guess that we humans are all there is in this galaxy.* I don’t speak of this often because I haven’t thought about this issue in great depth. And with these incredibly big picture inferences deduced from sparse data points one has to admit (at least I do!) that one’s confidence is just not high. What can a puny human truly grasp?

So why would I suggest that we are the only intelligence? Basically, the Fermi paradox. Rather that outlining my inchoate thoughts I’ll point you to Nathan Taylor’s posts at Praxtime, Life on Wet Planets, and Intelligent life is just getting started. With the appropriate caveat that we don’t really know much about this in any deep sense, it strikes me that major bottleneck for the emergence of intelligent life is the transition from simple unicellular life forms to multicellular organisms. Therefore the prediction from this model is that the universe is filled with life, but of the single celled kind. As Taylor lays out time almost ran out for the emergence of intelligent life on this planet (the sun is getting brighter, and it seems like that runaway greenhouse is inevitable ~1 billion years into the future).

Yet please note that we are likely just the first intelligent life form. If we go extinct soon before developing a form of automaton which can populate the galaxy there is plenty of time for other organisms similar to ourselves to emerge. The local universe is relatively young when measured in terms of the future existence of G (or K) class stars. That means the “responsibility” of being the first intelligent galactic species is somewhat attenuated on a cosmic scale.

Addendum: It is possible that the universe is teaming with intelligent non-technological life forms, and the upward ratchet of cultural complexity of Homo sapiens is a major bottleneck. I doubt that, therefore I have omitted a qualifier of technological intelligences, because I do think that if intelligences were numerous then many would have become technologically sophisticated.

* The whole space of possibilities is so much larger than our galaxy that I am somewhat wary of making broad assertions about the universe.

Is 50% “mostly” in journalism school?

Steve has a post up on a paint-by-the-numbers story, one of many coming out in the media about how white and male the workforce in Silicon Valley is. The latter is moderately true. The former seems pretty obviously false. The main issue is that the diversity isn’t the the right kind of diversity. OK, whatever. But when I click through to the original piece an infographic on Yahoo! pops up first. What really confuses me is how you can state a workforce is “mostly white” when only 50% of the workforce is white. Can mostly be the same as one out of two? To me the connotation of mostly is at least a substantial majority, but at minimum it seems you should crest 50 percent. Then again, I didn’t go to journalism school, so I could be wrong. English is the second language I learned.


Reading to newborns is probably useless

Like clockwork every few months I feel prompted to write about . In this case it is due to The New York Times reporting that the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending that parents start reading to their newborns. As noted in the piece in The New York Times a major reason for this recommendation is the research which shows that higher socioeconomic status families tend to talk a lot more to their offspring than lower socioeconomic status families, and provide them with a richer vocabulary. The assumption is that this head start allows higher socioeconomic status children to outpace their peers cognitively. Naturally they reference . This work surveying 42 families was published in 1995, and concluded that children raised in professional households will hear 8 million more words in a year than children raised in a household on welfare.

But that’s old news. There is also a reference to a 2013 study, SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. The study here looks at 48 individuals. You can see the major result at the top of this post. To me one thing that strikes me are the rather modest correlations. The children in higher socioeconomic circumstances have larger vocabularies, but it’s not an incredibly big difference. There is a huge amount of variation within socioeconomic brackets, just as there is within families. The standard deviation of IQ in groups of siblings is nearly the same as the standard deviation of IQ in the general population. There’s only so much control families and genes have (shared environment + heritable component).

Naturally the first thing that comes to mind is that socioeconomic status and intelligence are not totally uncorrelated, and intelligence is at least somewhat heritable. Smart parents might simply talk more to their children, and those children will tend to be smarter than you would expect by chance. The authors are aware of the behavior genetic literature, but they tend to argue that it can be interpreted in a way which leaves open the possibility for the large effect of shared environment. In general my prior is to be skeptical of this, because the overall body of research suggests that for many behavioral traits the variation within the population which isn’t genetic (on the order of half) is simply unaccounted for.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t environmental effects which might result in changes in outcome on the margin. But we just don’t know enough about non-genetic component to assume that a silver bullet policy prescription can be formulated out of a few studies. A few years ago Jim Manzi came out with the book , where he unveiled the term “high causal density.” In other words, there are lots of causes for some effects, and it is difficult to tease apart the variables so as to engineer appropriate responses. This is clear even in the case of the genetically heritable component, which is often polygenic and difficult to assign to any given gene of large effect. And it is also likely in many cases for numerous environmental variables, some of which may simply be stochastic  (which can explain differences between identical twins raised together).

Infant with a vocabulary of zero. Parents (one of them me) has never read to him
Infant with a vocabulary of zero. Parents (one of them me) have never read to him.

Unfortunately a major human cognitive bias seems to be the need to think that we can control things, and effect change. This results in the adherence to fads and fashions such as Freudianism and attachment parenting as the years come and go. The single biggest thing you as an expectant parent can do to have a child with a large vocabulary is to select a mate with a large vocabulary. This won’t guarantee anything, because there is going to be lots of variation on individual outcomes, but in a developed world context this is probably the lowest hanging fruit in terms of ‘return on investment.’ Think of it as ‘loading the die.’ That doesn’t address the issue of inequality, which is really what’s bothering people in this particular case, but I strongly suspect that reading to newborns is going to be a waste of everyone’s time here, though it may make people feel as if they are doing something. Young parents have a finite amount of time, and it seems pragmatic for them to starting reading to children when children can actually start understanding the structure of narratives!

Whole genomes as a window onto the past

Citation: Nature Genetics (2014) doi:10.1038/ng.3015
Citation: Nature Genetics (2014) doi:10.1038/ng.3015

A recent paper showed up in Nature Genetics, Inferring human population size and separation history from multiple genome sequences, which I had also seen on bioRxiv. I’ll gloss over the technical details, except to say this sort of method (of which there are now several) is an incredible extension over PSMC. Basically, rather than having lots of genetic data from many individuals you are looking at whole genomes from a few individuals. From the patterns of genetic variation within these individuals, at the finest grain possible, you can infer the demographic history of whole populations. A standard issue with this sort of thing is the ability for the method to be executed with contemporary computational resources, and it looks like their approximations can do it. The simulations are broadly persuasive to me, and the authors peg some population separations and bottlenecks perfectly. In particular the case of Native Americans seems spot on.

That being said, what about the reality that most modern populations are admixed? They had a sample from a Gujarati, an individual who derives from a population which is a compound of West and East Eurasian. The initial results make sense in light of this fact, but their explanation is not clear to me: “These results suggest that the GIH ancestors remained in close contact with the CEU ancestors until about 10,000 years ago but received some historic admixture component from East Asian populations, part of which is old enough to have occurred before the split with the MXL ancestors.” The non-West Eurasian ancestors of Indians probably diverged from East Asians on the order of 30 thousand years ago. Are the authors implying multiple admixture events in deep time (i.e., pre-Holocene?).

The most interesting, though not entirely surprising, result is the complexity of the “Out of Africa” event which resulted in the worldwide domination of modern humans. There are fewer independent checks on these inferences than the ones more recent, so all must be taken with a grain of salt. But using their method the authors find that the separation between non-Africans and Africans seems rather gradual up until ~50,000 years ago. This suggests that there was a lot of population structure and gene flow within Africa before the expansion of Eurasians. Not surprising, but it is another nail in the coffin of the idea that modern humans emerged in a punctuated fashion and exploded from a singular tribe in eastern or southern Africa. Additionally, it seems that the authors detect the likelihood that the dominant ancestral element of the Masai diverged later from non-Africans’ ancestors than that of the Yoruba. Totally expected, but clarifying because of the scarcity of archaeology in some regions. Finally, the authors report that “As expected, the oldest split among out-of-Africa populations was between European and East Asian (CHB and MXL) populations, most of which occurred between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago (Fig. 4b). Intriguingly, there might be a small component (10% or less) of this separation extending much further back toward 100,000 years ago, which is not compatible with a single out-of-Africa event around 50,000 years ago.” I have a hard time not wondering if this element is related to Basal Eurasian.

The Invisible Asian Student

as03Steve points me to another weird argument for diversity in elite schools in The New York Times, Elite, Separate, Unequal: New York City’s Top Public Schools Need Diversity, which sidesteps the fact that students of Asian background are overwhelming these institutions. The writer seems to put a particular focus on Stuyvesant High School, which is only 3 percent black and Latino. But if you see its US News profile you notice that Stuy is 76 percent minority! That’s because 72 percent of Stuy students are of Asian background. Only 24 percent are non-Hispanic white. In the New York City public schools Hispanics are 41 percent, blacks 28 percent, Asians and American Indians 17 percent, and whites 15 percent. Whites are over-represented at the elite schools, but not nearly as much as Asians.

It isn’t as if The New York Times hasn’t covered this particular angle, For Asians, School Tests Are Vital Steppingstones, or To Be Black at Stuyvesant High. An important point to observe here is that Stuyvestant students are not economically privileged, 45% receive free or reduced price lunches. The culture of test-prep which is helping produce these figures does need to be examined; see Up-and-Crammers, which highlights why there has been recent Bangladeshi success in getting into selective New York City public schools. But if “holistic” admissions are used everyone knows what the outcome will be. The proportion of Asians will drop, yes, and blacks and Hispanics will increase. But it is also plausible that the proportion of whites will increase, because white students come from backgrounds with the cultural fluency to understand the importance of broadening extracurricular activities, some of which might be costly in terms of time and money.

This all brings me to thinking about an issue which came up in Peter Heather’s . Heather points out that Procopius’ Secret History, much of which is crudely pornographic, can best be understood as a form of satire which would be transparently obvious in its intent for its intended literate audience. Intellectuals in antiquity assumed a particular background in literature which allowed for an allusive and multi-layered form of writing, where casual references might point to a deeper meaning or connection than a plain reading to the uninitiated might suggest. Op-eds which blatantly ignore the demographic elephant in the room when it comes to American elite education strike me as similar, as the omission is obvious to any “insiders.” I have friends who have gone to Stuyvestant, so I am casually familiar with its demographics. But to the typical national middlebrow reader of The New York Times such realities are not obvious, and the standard racial paradigm of the United States since the 1960s (where Latinos are added as auxiliaries to the story of blacks in relation to whites) can be marshaled as an interpretative framework. But the authors of such works, often the product of elite education themselves, have to know how outmoded and anachronistic such a discussion is. So why continue with this line of logic? I don’t have the patience to construct the games being played here, but obviously a plain reading makes no sense.

No man knows the cause

Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith
The theme of this month’s Nautilus is “Mutation.” Like Aeon Magazine, Nautilus consistently produces very high quality science inflected journalism. I highly recommend it. A piece in the current edition is titled How the Mormons Conquered America. It is a well written feature which plays with a common theme, the rise and mainstreaming of Mormons in America. One has to be cautious here of the hyperbole though which often underpins these articles. The American Religious Identification Survey reports no change in the proportion of Americans who were Mormon between 1990 and 2008. This isn’t that bad, as the United States became notably more secular in that period, with many groups suffering significant decline, but, it belies the idea that Mormonism is sweeping across America. Rather, these sorts of features in the press likely reflect further integration of Mormons into the American cultural scene, and to some extent prominence. Again, one has to be careful of not getting carried away, as Mormon demographics are not nearly as exceptional in terms of education and income in comparison to the American norm as is the case for Jews, or Episcopalians.

So why the focus on Mormons? Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the only distinctively American sect which emerged from the Second Great Awakening to be a possible claimant to the label “world religion.” This was a period of incredible religious and cultural innovation, but even among the broader class of American Restorationist sects Mormons stand out as exceptional in their numbers and public profile. Naturally people are prompted to ask why this is so. If you read the article in Nautilus it is rather clear no one knows why the history of the Mormon church is at such variance with the vast majority of radical sects which were founded in 19th century America.

One of the most prominent commentators on the issue of Mormon demographic growth is Rodney Stark, who has projected exponential international growth into the 21st century, and worldwide numbers on the order of hundreds of millions. Such sensational claims naturally draw notice, and he’s quoted in the article. But Stark’s academic work also gives us a glimpse into why he thinks Mormons are successful. As outlined in what he proposes is that religions are “firms,” which provide “goods & services” to “consumers.” Competition between these firms results in a winnowing process where those which provide a better product flourish. The aggregate choice of individual consumers is ultimately what is determinative as to which religion rises and which falls. This model focuses on individual action, and is supply side. Stark applies the same model to historical events such as the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire (and in his telling the enforcement of Christian monopoly in the 4th and 5th centuries actually hampered the development of a vigorous religious culture by forestalling the competition between Christian sects). Additionally his method is deductive, as he makes predictions which have the virtue of being falsified.

English American distribution
English American distribution

For many reasons which I have outlined elsewhere I find this model not particularly persuasive as a general explanation for religious change (though in particular epochs and places, such as much of 19th century America, it does explain much). Rather, I would like to focus on one aspect of the rise of Mormonism which is not highlighted much: Mormons are just one of the many religious movements which arose out of Joseph Smith’s community. They just happen to be the most successful by a very wide margin. Though the different religious groups which derive from Smith’s community have diverged greatly over the years, their differences in theology and practice were initially not so stark, and even today they often share commonalities such as prophetic revelation. I think the key fact which is a necessary precondition for why the Mormons have been so successful is that the group which became the Mormons separated themselves physically from the rest of American society, and had decades of institutional development in the American West as a de facto theocracy. In this fashion the Mormon church became a folkway, which seamlessly integrated into the life of an ethnic group, as settlers in Utah tended to be from New England Yankee stock (later European converts often came from regions of Europe, such as Scandinavia, which were extremely assimilable into Yankee society). Firms and corporations rise and fall, but entire peoples can persist over thousands of years. Other American radical sects did not develop in the same fashion as Mormons because they often remained more physically in contact with broader society. The economics inspired model of Stark and his fellow travelers does not explain religious change because consumer choice alone is too protean, fickle, and evanescent, to give rise to the cultural features which make for a robust religion.

Contingency in evolution as philosophy

Graph of hominin encephalization by Luke Jostins

After my post, Functions oh So Random, which comments on old arguments about contingency in evolutionary biology, a reader pointed me to an excellent feature in Nautilus, If the World Began Again, Would Life as We Know It Exist? It explores the question in greater depth, and reviews many of the contemporary players. The primary representative for the idea that evolutionary processes will tend to converge upon a finite set of specific adaptive peaks is still Simon Conway Morris, who seems to argue that experimental evolutionary results which indicate the likelihood of contingency just haven’t gone on long enough (I wonder, how many generations, Dr. Conway Morris?). It strikes me that Conway Morris is unlikely to ever be satisfied unless we discover life on another planet, which has the potential to falsify his model. But his comments probably did push me more toward the power of contingency, in particular:

Conway Morris believes that, over time, natural selection leads organisms to evolve a limited number of adaptations to the finite number of ecological niches on Earth. This causes unrelated organisms to gradually converge on similar body designs. “Organisms have to configure themselves to the realities of the physical, chemical, and also biological world,” he says. In Conway Morris’s view, these constraints make it all but inevitable that if the tape of life were replayed, evolution would eventually reproduce organisms similar to what we have today. If humans’ ape ancestors had not evolved big brains and the intelligence that goes with them, he believes that another branch of animals, such as dolphins or crows, might have, and filled the niche that we now occupy. Gould disagreed.

The idea that physics implies particular body plans strikes me as plausible. Here there seem to be limits to contingency. But the assertion that intelligence is in some way a niche is a jump too far for me, at least to an extent. More on that later. First, let’s note that it seems highly unlikely that organisms adapt to a niche which exists in a Platonic sense as a fixed idea in the firmament. Organisms evolve in the context of each other, adapting not only to the physical world, but inter and intra specific pressures. Ergo, the idea that sex persists among complex organisms despite its cost because of co-evolutionary pressures of infection by pathogens.* But when it comes to intelligent life forms we can extend the complexity further, because arguably one of the primary adaptive feedbacks of these organisms is going to be their own cultural production. In other words, one would have to also argue that cultural production itself exhibits some level of inevitable convergence upon a fitness peak.

But I don’t want to get carried away. Obviously there are some cultural forms which are not adaptive. Shaker obligate celibacy comes to mind. But the range of possibilities for cultural expression is still complex. And going back in time I think it is important to suggest that even if contingency rules over the macroscale, it may not be as powerful over a shorter timescale. A few years ago produced the above figure to show that distinct hominin lineages, which we believe were genetically isolated by and large, nevertheless were all increasing in cranial capacity over the Pleistocene. We do not know why, but the chart suggests that there are some powerful common forces which can overcome phylogenetic divergence.

Ultimately though the argument about contingency is fascinating, it strikes me that it is not entirely scientific in its deepest level. It reminds me of an argument I encountered in . Recounting the emergence of the neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s the author suggests that it took so long partly because geneticists and naturalists were focusing on different evolutionary scales (micro vs. macro) and utilizing unintelligible languages. Because of the discrete Mendelian nature of inheritance geneticists were skeptical of Darwinian gradualism in evolutionary process and phenotypic characteristics. While naturalists had difficulty conceiving of how isolated mutations could result in the panoply of diversity they saw around them. The conflict was resolved with the development of a formal language which could translate the two scales, population genetic theory. Population genetics illuminated quite elegantly how numerous genes of discrete effect could combine to produce quantitative traits and gradual evolutionary change, and, how low rates of mutation might nevertheless allow for rapid change on a geological scale through selection pressures. Without a formal language the two groups had to rely on intuition and kept talking past each other.

We’re at a similar juncture when it comes to nearly meta-scientific questions such as contingency. We can’t even know who is right until we know the right questions to ask. At that point the write up will be in Nature Reviews Genetics, rather that long popular science books or features.

* Obviously the physical world itself can be changed by biology. Oxygen producing bacteria totally reshaped the biosphere.