What’s old is new in our genomes

Over at Nature Ewan Callaway has a piece up, Neanderthals had outsize effect on human biology. The upshot is that the few percent of archaic admixture in modern humans, who descend from a Neo-African group ~50,000 years ago, may have significance functionally, and been driven by adaptation. This is not surprising. Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending discussed this dynamic in their (speaking of Greg, he is having a fund raiser). Though not entirely analogous, the work of plant evolutionary geneticists also indicates that we might expect this sort of phenomenon, whereby adaptive variants are absorbed from substrate as populations expand (for a somewhat different angle, though related, see How species evolve collectively: implications of gene flow and selection for the spread of advantageous alleles; I doubt it’s a coincidence that a lot of the deep understanding of evolutionary genetics I have comes from people working on plants).

A few years back I groused to Nick Patterson that the initial Neandertal genome paper in 2010 was overly skeptical of the possibility of admixture resulting in adaptive variants entering the modern human genome pool from archaics. Nick’s argument was simply that they hadn’t detected any such variants at that time, so it was a straightforward thing to report. If you listen to what Ed Green and company stated in the media they were very careful how they parsed their statement in regards non-neutral variants. My rejoinder was that on prior grounds it is hard to imagine that out of a few percent of the genome there wasn’t at least a few significant adaptive alleles.

As Callaway reports above that turned out to be right. I think the original research was a bit too conservative by relying only on empirical results when the theory here seems quite strong. Additionally, I would actually take some issue with the title in the Nature piece. Some of the same researchers have found reduced Neanderthal admixture proportions on the X chromosome, suggesting selection against Neanderthal variants in the admixed genome (a phenomenon common during hybridization between diverged lineages), which is predominantly Neo-African. In other words, the few percent might actually be less than what one might have concluded based on a census count and the genealogy a few generations out of the initial admixture event. It doesn’t really make sense to say that Neanderthal’s had an outsized effect when it is likely that their distinctive variants were also purified somewhat from the genome initially. Perhaps one might say that they had an outsized effect after you control for the fact that deleterious variants from Neanderthals were removed from the equation early on. As it is, and I think as implied in the article, we don’t know enough about the number of functional archaic alleles to adduce whether they have more impact or not. Rather, Neanderthals gave us all things under the sun.

World history as a window on the human condition

The argument I made in my post below is pretty straightforward and transparent if you read even a little bit of world history. Most of the assertions of post-colonial theorists collapse under even the barest of inspection with an empirical mindset. The problem though is most people don’t have much comparative historical or anthropological data to sift through the theory. To give a concrete example, a good friend of mine is an academic from the Arab world. When discussing differences between American society, and his own, he often posits the construct of “Western culture.” My objection to this reflex is always to suggest that what he thinks of as distinctive about “Western culture” is actually a feature shared by many other societies…and Arab culture is distinctive in its own ways. There are ways that all cultures are peculiar, and ways in which it shares features with other cultures.

The bigger problem is that it is not uncommon to have knowledge of Western culture and history, at least to a cursory level, and also the knowledge of a non-Western culture and history. Therefore, there’s a reoccurring theme of dyadic juxtapositions between the “West and the Rest”, where the West is fixed constant, while the rest is a variable. It doesn’t take a genius to realize the problems with this. You can’t make comparisons between the ethnic cleansing practiced by the Manchus in Dzungaria in the 18th century with that on the nascent American frontier if you never examine the tension between Inner Asian civilization and that of China.*

So how would get an appropriate education on world history? Works such as J. M. Roberts’ are useful, but often they are stretched thin. A great deal of “Big History” is really just too top-level. Rondo Cameron’s is obviously too focused on one particular phenomenon. Rather, I’d suggest that and are appropriate balances between broad generality, and thick specificity. Interestingly both of them focus on the world at a 1,000 year scale or so. Long enough to see trends, but not so long as to make all assertions diffuse.

What do readers think? What has been useful to you?

* The Manchus could never have obliterated the Dzungarian Mongols were it not for their capture of the resources of the Chinese state-system, the rise of military technology which eliminated many of the strategic advantages of nomads, an collusion of the Russian Empire.

Indo-Europeans, red in tooth & claw

Lord Indra
Lord Indra

, by Asya Pereltsvaig and Martin Lewis is a pretty one-sided monograph. The reason, as admitted by the authors, is that they believe a certain sector of academia and the middle-brow reading public are not exhibiting enough skepticism about the application of Bayesian phylogenetics in linguistics. To a great extent is a book length rejoinder to a paper published in 2003 to great acclaim, Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. It’s basically a short letter to Nature. When this paper came out I did not have academic access to such things, and there weren’t online resources (like Twitter) to allow one to make an end-around to academic paywalls. So I remember actually going down to the local college library, and getting a paper copy of the edition of Nature, and reading it just like that. In fact that may very well be the last scientific paper I read on paper. And, I went in search of that paper because of an article I saw in The New York Times by Nick Wade, A Biological Dig for the Roots of Language. Pereltsvaig and Lewis correctly peg Nick Wade’s influence in my opinion. My own passing interest in the topic was triggered by coverage in the media. That’s probably true for many people. There are other papers of note which follow in the tradition of the 2003 letter to Nature. In particular, I recommend Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family, in Science. If you don’t know much about Bayesian phylogenetics, read the supplements.

The heart of the argument Pereltsvaig and Lewis present seems to be that some key assumptions in the model that Bayesian phylogeneticists are using to make inferences about the emergence and spread of Indo-European languages are wrong. And, those incorrect assumptions lead to empirical results which are also wrong. Though it was difficult for me to follow much of the deep dive into technical linguistics (thanks for that Asya!), some of the problems with inferences are pretty easy to see. They note that in the supplements of the 2012 paper (second one above) the Romani language is placed as an outgroup to the other members of the Indo-Aryan family. This seems wrong to Pereltsvaig and Lewis, and from what I know it is wrong. Linguistic consensus is that Romani dialects are related to those of Northwest India. It turns out that the genetics favors this, as their South Asian ancestry does seem to derive from Northwest Indian populations. We can go on with details in this vein, and the authors do, assembling a list of fallacious inferences, but what’s the root of the problem?

One of the major weaknesses brought up in is that these Bayesian phylogenetic models utilize lexical information as data inputs. In particular, a set of a few hundred cognates. There are two elements to the objection. First, the choice of cognates might be biased, or at least bias the output. Second, vocabulary may not be the best foundation on which to generate a phylogeny of language. Rather, something like grammar may be more phylogenetically informative. The authors of the above works under criticism actually state they’re trying to use grammar as an input too. But in any case, the tendency for vocabulary to be exchanged between nearby groups, irrespective of their phylogenetic origin, is presumably the reason that the Romani languages drifted far enough away from the other Indo-Aryan languages to seem like an outgroup. No matter how ingenious your method, if your input data is biased or not informative, your output is not likely to be useful. Pereltsvaig and Lewis allude to the fact that linguistics has not found their “atoms” yet. I’d state it differently: linguistics lacks its DNA sequence. Using a biological analogy, these linguistic applications of Bayesian phylogenetics are attempting to discern evolutionary history from phenotype.

The second major problem with the papers coming out of the Bayesian phylogenetic tradition in linguistic history is an incorrect model assumption: that populations expand purely through diffusion-like processes. If you read the detailed methods it’s pretty clear that they’re converging on the joint posterior probability of tree given the data as well as the geographic distribution assuming a demic diffusion framework. tackles extensively the historiography of migrations, or lack thereof. Before World War II archaeologists naively traced migrations through the change in cultural forms, while after World War II the backlash became so strong that the null was always that pots, rather than people, were on the move. And, when people were on the move in pre-state societies, it was envisaged in almost a mechanical fashion, as individuals on the farming frontier had higher fertility, and so endogenous growth simply swamped out other groups like European hunter-gatherers. Part of its appeal isn’t just ideological, it’s an elegant model. Historical detail and contingency isn’t relevant, and inter-group conflict can be sidestepped. It’s all about endogenous growth of a population assuming particular resources, until it hits a Malthusian limit in the locality.

Unfortunately this model is almost certainly wrong for human history. Ancient DNA has revolutionized everything, because it is shown just how punctuated demographic shifts can be. Ancient DNA reveals key stages in the formation of central European mitochondrial genetic diversity highlighted this dynamic a few years back. More recently, Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia and Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe indicate discontinuity. I want to emphasize the term discontinuity, as this is very different from gradual diffusion. Rather than a methodologically individualistic model, where higher fertility in farmsteads or at least villages gradually resulted in the transition from one group to another, a more likely in my opinion is inter-group tension, conflict, and amalgamation. In some cases, near total replacement. It may not have been always violent, rather, agriculturalists on the Malthusian margins may not have been able to withstand the shock of a new culture arriving and sequestering critical resources (an analogy I’m thinking is the massive collapse of Roman culture in the Balkans whenever the imperial limes withdrew toward the coasts; without state support and scaffold the way of like the Latin peasantry just wasn’t feasible, so they quickly migrated or died off).

For example, it looks as if the Uygurs are not descended in large part from the first Indo-Europeans on the fringes of western China. I took the data the Reich lab posted and ran TreeMix on it. After reducing the number of populations, I ran TreeMix on it. Below are 10 plots. The West Eurasian ancestry of the Uygurs is not overwhelmingly Northern European-like. Weirdly the graphs below suggest it is somewhat less Northern European than the West Eurasian ancestry contributing to the Hazara! Though that may be an artifact of some sort. The point is that as suggested by many scholars it seems highly likely that the Indo-European population of the Tarim basin was a composition, and that Tocharians and Indo-Iranians were both present. And,  probably did not appear at the same time.

IndianHazUyg.1 IndianHazUyg.2 IndianHazUyg.3 IndianHazUyg.4 IndianHazUyg.5 IndianHazUyg.6 IndianHazUyg.7 IndianHazUyg.8 IndianHazUyg.9 IndianHazUyg.10

So a second question that came to has to do with the origin of the Indo-Aryans, and the genetic history of the Indian subcontinent. About five years ago I told John Hawks that I was skeptical of too much European-like contribution to the Indian population because not enough European pigmentation alleles were segregating in the population. My inference was based on a wrong assumption. It turns out that the earliest steppe dwellers were not particularly pale of mien going by their genetic architecture on pigmentation loci. My objection has no basis, because the modern European phenotype is very new, and likely post-dates the arrival of Indo-Europeans to India. Additionally, there is suggestive evidence of a steppe connection, such as the widespread presence of the “European” allele for lactase persistence in Northwest India. This allele is new, and swept up in frequency very recently. Its presence in Northwest India almost certainly indicates non-trivial demographic connections.

The blogger at Eurogenes has illustrated the dynamic, but it’s pretty obvious that Northwest Indian populations have some affinity to the Yamnya population in particular. Below are the results from TreeMix using a narrower set of population than above. Notice how Pathan tends to move toward the Yamnaya…..











But why the affinity to the Pathan, and not the Iranian samples? Who knows. I’ll pull down the data set from the Willerslev lab soon, but I think ancient DNA from India is going to have to answer the question. But I’m curious how the “Out of India” people spin this, because they will have a ridiculous rationale….

Human Genomics “out of the box”

A friend of mine proudly told me recently that she’d purchased an unabridged edition of . Turns out that there are some affordable used copies floating around (under $50, like the Atari 2600!). Flipping through the old unabridged edition I had to admit: a lot of the assertions derived from classical autosomal markers hold true. It might be that all you really need to get “up to speed” is an annotated version. Also, I’d get rid of the synthetic maps, which no one uses anymore (there are some methodological reasons, as well as the fact that they just didn’t turn out to be a very intelligible visualization).

Of course things have changed between then and now. Thanks to open data you can do much more powerful analysis than you find in on your notebook computer in a few hours. So I had the idea for this post a few hours ago…and thought perhaps I’d accompany it with a few TreeMix plots. Below are the 1000 Genomes data, with 250,000 markers (I pruned by intersecting with HGDP markers as well as those with very low missingness):










Open Thread, July 26th, 2015

Been reading , by Asya Pereltsvaig and Martin Lewis. To a great extent it is a book length response to the research program which made such a big splash with the 2003 Nature paper, Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. I’m over half-way through. Some of it has been hard going, as I’m not very familiar with the details of linguistic science (I get very confused when linguists start using technical terminology for accent changes; anything beyond diphthong). On the other hand, I know a decent amount about the nuts and bolts of Bayesian phylogenetics, and their critiques are cogent so far.

To be fair I’m broadly sympathetic to Pereltsvaig and Lewis’ program. There are a decent number of references to genetics in the work, though it looks like they were in final revisions before Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. But even without the genetics, I think the case is pretty strong that a simple version of Colin Renfrew’s Anatolian demic diffusion doesn’t work. The contortions necessary to make it plausible in Anatolia during the Bronze Age are too implausible.

If is a bit too technical, I do recommend everyone check out . David Anthony’s work is probably a lot more relevant today because of the findings from genetics. Even if a Steppe-only model can’t explain everything, evidence of massive population replacement in Northern Europe really does overturn any naive idea that Germanic languages somehow derive from the LBK culture….

Do colored people exist if there are no white people to observe them?

TaylorSwiftApr09William Dalrymple in The New Yorker has a reflection up on the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, The Great Divide. It is fine so far as it goes. He reminds us of the scale of the tragedy, millions of deaths, as well as the depravity of the barbarity, as “infants were found literally roasted on spits.” Some day I will have to educate myself about this period, as I only have vague recollections of reading fragments of as a child. I recall stopping at the point where the authors reported how a group of men broke into an obstetrics unit at a hospital and took a newborn who had just breathed their first and smashed its brains out on the walls, while the mother and hospital staff watched in horror. That was enough to get a flavor of the “action.” Fortunately my family did not suffer during this period, Bengal was relatively quiet in comparison to the atrocities washing over Punjab (as many of you are aware, my family experienced more hardship in the 1971 war, though as they were relatively privileged Muslims who were also not very involved in the arts or politics they were not actively targeted).

But there is one section whose assumptions and implications rub me the wrong way. Let me quote:

In the nineteenth century, India was still a place where traditions, languages, and cultures cut across religious groupings, and where people did not define themselves primarily through their religious faith. A Sunni Muslim weaver from Bengal would have had far more in common in his language, his outlook, and his fondness for fish with one of his Hindu colleagues than he would with a Karachi Shia or a Pashtun Sufi from the North-West Frontier.

Many writers persuasively blame the British for the gradual erosion of these shared traditions. As Alex von Tunzelmann observes in her history “Indian Summer,” when “the British started to define ‘communities’ based on religious identity and attach political representation to them, many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.” Indeed, the British scholar Yasmin Khan, in her acclaimed history “The Great Partition,” judges that Partition “stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different—and unknowable—paths.”

Ten years ago I read Nicholas Dirks’ . It is a work of history which shows how many caste identities were fashioned de novo under the impetus of British bureaucratic taxonomic impulse (see Census of 1891). Though Dirks is too subtle to assert that the caste system was created by the British, the general thrust of the work is clearly one which emphasizes the role of recent historical contingency in establishing the social order of South Asia as we understand it. The subhead is after all: “Colonialism and the Making of Modern India.” The British are then the agents who operate upon the formless void of the Indian subcontinent’s amorphous peasant culture. They came, they saw, and they created.

Even when I read I was moderately skeptical of the narrative, as there had been enough genetics done to suggest that South Asian populations were stratified by caste. By this, I mean that caste status as much, or more, than geography predict the genetic structure of Indian society. It was already evident, for example, that South Indian Brahmins were closer to North Indian Brahmins than they were to South Indian Dalits when it came to genetic relatedness. Brahmins and Dalits are two caste groups which are clear and present throughout South Asia (the “middle castes” tend to vary from region to region, and the classical warrior and trader castes do not exist in South India, though there are notionally Sudra groups which occupy their roles). Even those who prioritize the role of the British would accept that the Brahmin and untouchable categories predate the reification of the colonial period. But what the latest genetics is telling us is that caste endogamy has been a feature of Indian life for at least 2,000 years, and perhaps longer. Not only are Brahmins distinct from Dalits, but castes with a less clear position in the classical varna typology, such as the Reddy community of South India, clearly have had long histories as a coherent groups. The British could not have been  the dominant causal force in shaping caste as a ubiquitous feature of Indian life if they were already genetically endogamous even before the Muslims arrived.

And so with religion. The contemporary revisionism, which now is approaching mainstream orthodoxy, is that South Asian religious life before the arrival of the British, and the Western outlook more generally, was characterized by a quietist syncretism where communal boundaries were fluid to the point of confessional identity being a flimsy veil which could be shed or shifted dependent upon context. An alternative history then might be proposed of a united subcontinent, where Hindus and Muslims were coexistent, or, perhaps where a Hindu and Muslim identity did not even exist. The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer likes to characterize a theory as giving you “information for free.” You don’t really have to know anything, you can simply deduce from your axioms. Though the model of South Asian ethno-religious history I allude to above obviously integrates ethnographic and historical realities, it constructs a post-colonial fantasy-land, where South Asian religiosity was without form or edge before the arrival of Europeans and their gaze collapsed the wave function. Before the instigation of Europeans people of color were tolerant of religious diversity, varied sexual orientations, and practiced gender egalitarianism. In other words, India was like the campus of Oberlin college, except without the microaggressions, and more authentic spirituality!

The first problem with this model is empirical and specific to South Asia. Before white Europeans arrived in the Indian subcontinent to roil and upend its social order, to transform its culture, there was already a ruling race of self-consciously white people doing just that. They were the Turks, Persians, and a lesser extent Arabs, who introduced Islam to the subcontinent. As alluded to in Dalyrmple’s piece in some ways Islam was conceived of as a sect of the foreigners by the natives, as well as the Muslims themselves. This is not an entirely strange state of affairs, in the first century or so of Islam the religion was the tribal cult of the Arab ruling caste of the Caliphate. Only with the rise of the Abassids and maturation of Islamic civilization as a pan-ethnic and post-ethnic dispensation did the “converted peoples,” in particular the Persians and Turks, become full members of the Ummah, and turn it into the universal religion that we understand it today (though even today there is an ethnic dimension in Islam, for example, the Islamic State accepts that the Caliph must be an Arab of the Quraysh tribe).

For many centuries Islam in South Asia recapitulated this pattern ancient pattern, whereby those who descended from converts were received as second class citizens (and still called “Hindus,” which simply meant a native of Hindustan). And to this reality must be added the dimension of race, for the Muslims from the west viewed the native peoples as black, and many elite families with origins in Persia and Central Asia maintained their endogamy for generations partly as a matter of racial hygiene. When Muslim elites did intermarry with the descendants of converts, it was invariably with those descended from high caste groups. The Mughal Emperors did wed women from Hindu backgrounds, but these were the daughters of powerful Rajputs, whose values and armies fused with the Muslim invaders to create what we understand as Islamicate civilization.

Yet there are many other stories besides the standard one of the rise and fall of Mughal India. In , the author shows how the arrival of Islam in the subcontinent often involved a complex process of cultural interaction mediated by esoteric strains of the Ismaili sect. It is not relevant for the purpose of this post to review the nature of Ismaili Islam, but it is important to note that Sunnis view this group as deviant and marginally Muslim. With the arrival of the Mughals there began a long period of persecution of Ismailis in the Indian subcontinent as the new arrivals attempted to enforce conformity on the Muslim population. Both and , an ethnography of a particular Ismaili sect in Gujarat, report that many of the Sunni Muslim communities of the subcontinent may be descended from people who entered Islam via Ismailism. Under the Mughals heterodox Muslim sects like the Ismailis were subject to more persecution than non-Muslims (this echos a similar dynamic in Late Antiquity, where more of the Christian animus was directed toward heretical sects than pagans). In Gujarat this resulted in mass conversions to Sunni Islam. In other regions it might have resulted in a “compromise” state of shifting to a Twelver Shia identity, which though not Sunni, was generally accorded more respectability than Ismailism. These people would be anticipating the life of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whose recent ancestors (most accounts state his grandfather) converted from Hinduism to Ismailism, but who himself was an entirely irreligious man who avowed a Twelver Shia faith for purposes of formality.

The author of suggests that for many centuries there existed in the subcontinent under the more tenuous and patchwork pre-Mughal Islamic rulers many liminal communities, which straddled the line between Muslim and Hindu. So long as the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent viewed themselves as strangers in a land which offered them opportunities for profit, there was a certain freedom in being viewed as an amorphous black-skinned mass of “Hindus” whose only importance was in the tax that they provided their overlords. The Mughals changed that. Though they were in origin Timurid princes from Central Asia, their long ascendancy in the subcontinent produced a genuine synthesis with the indigenous substrate. By the later years of the dynasty their symbolic and ceremonial roles as Emperors of India became so entrenched that even resurgent Hindu groups such as the Marathas retained the Mughals as figureheads, much as the Zhou dynasty persisted for centuries after its genuine preeminence had faded.

Over the 150 years that the Mughals dominated South Asia with their armies they also changed the nature of Islam in the subcontinent thanks to their broader connections. The Naqshbandi Sufi ordered was associated with the dynasty, and objected when rulers such as Akbar bent or rejected what they perceived to be Sunni Islamic orthodoxy. And the Naqshbandi were in a place to judge what was orthodox, as they were an international order with branches across Sunni the Muslim world. The historian S. A. M. Adshead discusses the role of what he calls the “Naqshbandi International” in binding the Islamic world back together after the shattering of the Mongol invasions in . It was no coincidence that attempted to root out deviancy and enforce what they saw to be uprightness.

China was another zone of Naqshbandi influence. Unlike India China proper had (and has) never been ruled by Muslims. After period of prominence under the Yuan (Mongols) the Muslim groups became another minority, tolerated by the Han Chinese, but viewed with curiosity and confusion. While the Muslims of what is today called Xinjiang were part of the Turkic world, and even when conquered by the Manchus administered as a separate domain from China, those resident in the east were relatively isolated from the Ummah, and swam in a Han sea. tells the story of the intellectuals among the Muslims of eastern China, who were confronted with accommodating the reality that they existed at the sufferance of non-Muslims, and could only advance to prominence and prosperity playing the game according to the rules of the Han majority. At the popular level in places like Ningxia there emerged Muslim apocalyptic movements which bore a striking resemblance to heterodox variants of Pure Land Buddhism, but among the intellectuals there arose the conundrum of how to render compatible orthodox Islam and Neo-Confucianism. So long as China was reasonably isolated from the rest of the world, this process dynamic proceeded without interference and followed its own logic. What emerged can reasonably be described as a synthesis between Islam and Neo-Confucianism, which resembles in its broad outlines the sort of fusion which occurred in early Christianity after the ruling elites took up the religion and imparted upon it their own philosophical presumptions. Just as some Christians perceived in their religion the completion of the project of the ancient Greek philosophers, so Hui Muslim intellectuals in the cities of eastern China in the 18th century saw in Islam not the overturning of Chinese culture, but its extension and perfection.

Suffice it say this movement among educated Chinese Muslims did not give fruit to a vital modern tradition. Several waves of Islamic reform have blasted into China from the outside world, first from Central Asia, and later from the Middle East proper in the age of modern transport and pilgrimage. The Islamic-Confucian synthesis in its full elaboration was a stillborn sect, pushed aside by the popularity of world normative Islam and the decline in prestige in the 19th and 20th century of Neo-Confucianism. Similarly, the Islamic-Hindu synthesis championed by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh and prefigured by his great-grandfather Akbar, was forestalled by the emergence of Aurangzeb. Remembered as pious and steadfast by many modern day Muslims, he is reviled by Hindus, and most Western historians, who perceive that the sun set on religious pluralism due to his actions, seem to take a dim view of him. But Aurangzeb was closely associated with the Naqshbandi over much of his life, and he may be less important to the broad social movement of South Asian Muslims being drawn into an international system, with a standard set of beliefs and practices, than we think. Rather, Aurangzeb’s life arc may be consonant with both the indigenization of Islam in the subcontinent, and its need to align itself with external norms.

Though I use the Indian subcontinent as my primary illustration, the dynamic is likely more general. In  Phillip Jenkins notes that though many claims are made for indigenous African churches, that is, those which have no connection to global denominations and movements and tend to more freely integrate African practices, as African societies become more Christianized they tend to become more mainstream and orthodox in their affiliation. What Jenkins is observing is that with development and modernity indigenous and local practices tend to fade into the background, as African Christians become influenced by the ideas and traditions of Christians from other regions of the world. Individuals who consider themselves part of a religious community start to adhere to the practices and norms of that community’s history.

Despite the homogenization and delineation of identity categories in India there are still liminal communities in the mode envisaged by . The Meo people of Northwest India are Muslims who maintain many Hindu traditions. But the trend among the Meo is to become progressively “more Muslim,” and those Meo who leave their homeland assimilate into the conventional Sunni Muslim milieu and lose their distinctiveness. The Ismaili Khoja community of India is another example of a Muslim group with many Hindu customs and beliefs which has become more “orthodox” within historical memory. In this case the arrival of their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, from Iran in the 19th century seems to have triggered an Islamic reformation of views and mores. And just as there may have been many groups which moved toward a more standard Muslim identity, there were likely those who became more self-conscious in their Hinduism, as that tradition coalesced as a negation of the exclusive confessionalism of Islam. The Hussaini Brahmins customarily participated in Shia Ashura, and have an origin story which places them at Karbala on the side of the sons of Ali. As noted above it was not unknown for high caste Hindus to enter Islam and intermarry with the Muslim nobility. Over time their Hindu origins may have been obscured, as they constructed wholly Muslim origin narratives. The Hussaini Brahmin community might illustrate a case where the process was halted, and reversed, albeit with a retention of some of their Islamic practices and beliefs. In the argument is made that it the critical aspect for the Sunni Muslim eminences enforcing the new orthodoxy was that Muslim and non-Muslim be clear and distinct categories. Therefore, better a Hindu than a heretic.

What have I left out of the story? Note that white Europeans are notably absent from the narrative. To some extent this is an artificiality. European “factories” were present on the margins of Mughal India. Jesuits supplanted Muslims as astronomers in the court of Ming China, and were disputants on religious topics in the court of Akbar the Great. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, were all closely associated with each other in Central Asia, to the point where it is difficult to tease apart the arrows of causality. In China it seems likely that some varieties of Christianity with ultimate roots in Persia and Central Asia were subsumed into strands of Pure Land Buddhism. But, the point is that history and peoples are subject to general patterns and dynamics, and European colonialism may be thought of as just one important contingent factor. A critical one, but one factor nonetheless.

It is hard to deny the influence of European culture and Christianity on Indian national and religious worldviews. Consider Hindutva. Conceived of as a form of Hindu racial nationalism by Vinayak Savarkar, himself an atheist who advocated the dismantling the caste system, it is difficult to understand it without considering the dominant winds of culture in the early 20th century. Those winds invariably blew out of Europe. The colonial imprint, the mirrored reflection of British racial nationalism, is real. Today the intellectual descendants of Savarkar promote bizarre beliefs like the idea that ancient Hindus had flying machines and nuclear weapons, and that astrology is a true science and Ayuvedic medicine is superior to that of the West. It is hard not to see in these beliefs a funhouse distortion of Western movements, such as Christian Science and Creationism. Similarly, the Islamic Creationism of Harun Yahya is explicitly indebted to American evangelical Protestants!

And yet within South Asia the broad trend of confessionalization predates the arrival and dominance of Europeans. It seems entirely likely that a division between Islam and what became Hinduism in the subcontinent was inevitable, as modernity and globalization seem to produce crisper identity groups, which are not diffuse, inchoate, and locally rooted. Yes, illiterate peasant naturally practice syncretistic traditions, but when the illiterate peasant becomes a town dweller a different sort of religious practice takes hold. There is a reason that the city-dwelling Christians of the Late Antique world were contemptuous of the marginally Christianized peasantry, the pagani. The last European people to convert to Christianity were the Lithuanians, in the late 14th century. But the peasantry retained enough of their customary religion that veneration and recollection of sacred groves seem to have persisted down to early modernity.

The Reformed Dutch scholar Atonie Wessels wrote a book titled His thesis is that from an orthodox Protestant perspective which privileges the beliefs and practices of the individual, it can be argued that much of the European peasantry was operationally pagan down to the Catholic and Protestant Reformations of the 16th and 17th century, followed by the secularization of the continent that began after the Peace of Westphalia. In short, during the period after the fall of Rome and Renaissance the elites were steadfastly Christian, but peasants were only nominally so, with their spiritual life dominated by superstitions rooted in local traditions. In contrast, the emergence of Protestant and Catholic identities during the Reformation resulted in a broad based Christian feeling and identity among the populace. So much so that when the Hohenzollerns converted to Calvinism in the early 17th century their subjects remained steadfast in their Lutheranism. But as the populace became more conventionally Christian, the elites began their long slide toward secularism, finally resulting the rise to power of Frederick the Great, who in matters of religion was apathetic at best.

The European example is important, because it shows that even without exogenous European colonialism confessionalism occurs as a society modernizes. The seeds of this confessionalization are clear in South Asia even before the rise to power of the British raj, as Hindu rulers such as Shivaji privileged their own native traditions as against that of the Muslims, while earlier the rulers of Vijayanagar had served as patrons of native religion while the north of the subcontinent was dominated by Muslim polities. It does seem fair to state that Sanatani is not comprehensible without it dialectic with Islam. But, it is important to remember that Buddhism as an organized religion with a missionary impulse predates Christianity by centuries. Obviously institutional religious identity in the subcontinent is not dependent upon the ideas of Europeans and Muslims. What differed with the arrival of Islam is that it was a Weltanschauung which was not digestible to the native cultural traditions.

Though the various Muslim ruling warrior castes held themselves aloof from the people of India, being within the subcontinent, but not of it, it seems inevitable they presumed that their domains were now a permanent part of the Dar-ul-Islam, just as Iran or Central Asia was. Certainly Ibn Battuta could travel in an entirely Muslim India, which operated in parallel with the practices of the vast majority. Over time no doubt the Muslims assumed that the subcontinent would be won over as Iran had. It is hard to remember now, but in the first few centuries of Islamic rule there were periodic anti-Muslim nativist religious eruptions which attempted to overthrow the Muslims, who were perceived as aliens. Prophets arose which told of a time when Islam would fall, and the old religion of the Iranians would come back to the pride of place that it had had. A detailed exploration of this lost world can be found in Patricia Crone’s , but these movements always make cameos in even traditional works of early Islamic history, such as Hugh Kennedy’s . But by 1000 A.D. the majority of Persian peasants were Muslim, and Zoroastrianism and its affiliated movements slowly went into their long decline (though still retaining influence through various heterodox Islamic and post-Islamic religious movements).

In India you have a world where the vision of the Iranian prophets came to be, where Islam which seemed eternal and ever waxing in numbers and influence, lost its hold on power and native dynasties which championed local religious traditions arose. There are many differences between the situation of Iran and India. In no particular order, India is far more populous than Iran, local non-Muslim rulers always managed to retain independence at the far corners even at the height of Islamic power and dominion, and the cultural distance between the Muslims and the natives of India was arguably greater than that between the Arabs and the Persians. Even though the Iranians and northern Indians share Aryan cultural roots and influence, reflected in language and religious ideas, those are distant affinities. In contrast, the Arabs had long been present on the margins of the western Iranian world, and the ecology of much of Iran and Mesopotamia was familiar to them.

One peculiarity of the historiography of India under the Muslims is that many scholars claim that local intellectuals, mostly Brahmins, behaved as if their conquerors did not even exist. This sort of involution though may be less strange than seems on first inspection. Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe are to a great extent a people without a history, as their intellectual class devoted its energies to Talmudic commentary, not recording the history of their people. India was massive, and transformations were pregnant within its cultural matrix in response to the Islamic challenge. The Sikh religion seems an obvious case of synthesis, which while that of Hindu reformist movements such as Arya Samaj seem to sublimate the external variables.

Though the British may have been a proximate cause for the communal conflicts that tore apart the subcontinent in 1947, they were not the deep cause. As Victor Lieberman observes in , after 1000 AD there arose several polities dominated by cultural aliens along the edge of Eurasia, such as that of the Muslims in India, the Tai in Southeast Asia and the Manchu in China. But unlike the latter two cases the Islamic elites never sufficiently rooted themselves in the local culture to establish a coherent and unified national identity. While the Manchu racial sense of distinctiveness persisted down to their overthrow, their cultural assimilation to most Han mores was so total that rulers such as Kangxi Emperor arguably became exemplars of Confucian rulers. Though the Tai imposed their language of the Mon and Khmer people whom they conquered, they fostered a genuine cultural synthesis by patronizing the Theravada Buddhism of their subjects and espousing it as their national religion. While the kings of Thailand patronized Brahmins to give their rule a tincture of Hindu legitimacy, the Mughals were styling themselves as Padishahs.

If Dara Shikoh had defeated Aurangzeb and the British had never brought India into their Empire, would history have been different? I would like to hope so, but I doubt so. Akbar had attempted to create a new religion, but it did not last beyond his life. By the 17th century what was becoming Hinduism, and Indian Islam, were already sufficiently developed that they were becoming cultural attractors. Not through cognitive bias, but the weight of inertia of their cultural history and precedent. The transition from Akbar, to Jahangir, to Shah Jahan, and finally Aurangzeb, is one from an individual who brooked the displeasure of Naqsbhandi shiekhs, to one who worked hand in hand with them. An alternative vision is one where the heirs of Akbar turn their back on their dreams of Fergana, and rely upon Rajputs to dominate their lands instead of a mix of Central Asians and native Indians, Hindu and Muslim. Perhaps the Mughals would have become indigenized enough that they would transform into that they would have become fully Indian in their religious identity. Ultimately the answers of history are more complex than can be dreamt of in your post-colonial philosophy, and the white man is neither angel nor the devil, but a subaltern of historical forces.


Recently had a discussion with a reporter at a major publication about genetic genealogy, and how genomics and ancient DNA has changed everything about what we know about the human. Though I did put in the caveat that it seems the New World has a mildly simpler history that aligns with what we’d somewhat expected or seen. I was wrong. It turns out that indigenous people of the Amazon have a few percent of ancestry derived from a population with the closest affinities to those of Australasia.

Screenshot from 2015-07-21 10:46:26The plot to the left roughly shows groups which share haplotypes when comparing the Mixe people of Mexico to other Amerindians. The stronger red shading shows an affinity between pairwise groups due to the putative admixture event. What you can see that various Australasian groups, as diverse as the Andaman Islanders and and Papuans show elevated signals of affinity with particular groups from the Amazon in comparison to the Mixe.

The model is outlined in the figure at the top. What you can see is that a there was admixture into one of the first groups which arrived in the Americas. This group already had ancient Siberian ancestry. It then seems to have absorbed some ancestry from another group with affinities to the peoples of Australia. Because the dominant ancestral component of the hybrid group was similar to the sister American lineage a wide range of ancestral fractions from this group into the peoples of the Amazon are compatible with the statistics yielded by the data. Up to 85 percent, or as low as 2%. The lower the fraction of admixed “First Americans” into the Amazonian groups in question, the higher the Australian element in that group, as that ancestral element only spans a 1-2% range. In other words, if the admixed First American group contributed only 2% to the modern Amazonians, it would be in large part descended from the Andaman-like group.

This detail matters because of what is brought up in the discussion of the paper, and has been mooted elsewhere: a lot of the older skeletons from this region of South America look different. One model, which the authors are skeptical of, is that admixture happened in the New World. That is, and outrider group of First Americans absorbed and older population which arrived earlier to the region. But Kennewick Man tells us that morphology is only a rough guide. The Anzik Clovis result did not yield any evidence of Andaman-like admixture. That means either there was structure coming into the New World. Or, the admixture happened here.

From the patterns in the genome the admixture is old. But the confidence interval is big. It is not detectable by those methods sensitive to recent admixtures. It is older than 4,000 years. But, it is clearly post-Neandertal admixture. So younger than 50,000 years. In fact, the admixture graph at the top of this post suggests that this admixture post-dates that with the ancient Siberians. That means it is highly likely it probably dates to no older than ~20,000 years, since you need some time for the various Eurasian groups to actually diverge from about 40,000 years ago onward.
dstatThe authors used a variety of methods to test this affinity that they detected. The ancestry fractions were low, so they wanted to see if the result was robust. It sees to be. I won’t get into the details, but I want to post the D-statistic table from the extended data. It uses a slightly different method the map above. Basically they’re testing explicit trees, and showing deviations from random drift along the independent paths which are compatible with gene flow across the tips of the tree. Admixture.

It strikes me that D-statistics show a lot more affinity with South Asians broadly. Why weren’t the signals as strong as in the Chromopainter analysis above? I have no idea, but perhaps it might have to do with the fact that South and Southeast Asians are themselves admixed between the Andaman-like group, and other populations (West and Northeast Eurasians respectively). This may have made higher to detect the haplotypes in question. Additionally, the Ami, an indigenous people of Taiwan also show up on this list. What this implies is that a broad constellation of eastern peoples who diverged from the ancestors of Northeast Eurasians were widely present in the past. In South and Southeast Asia descendants of these people were probably dominant down deep into the Holocene. The elevated signatures in groups like the Andaman Islanders and Papuans may be due to the fact that these groups are relatively pristine.

gr3In 2011 the Reich group published a paper which actually suggested that there were multiple waves of old Southeast Eurasians with the Andaman Islanders being remnants of a group which contributed a secondary signal of admixture into the peoples of Oceania. This was published at about the same time as a whole genome analysis which suggested that Oceanians were descended from an earlier migration out of Africa, and not admixed. There are other groups which are supporting multiple out of Africa events now. The plot is getting thick and complicated.

I only bring this up because much of the current work uses copious data to test explicit models. The authors are constraining the sample space of models, and if you select between ten models, it may still be that the best fit is not a really good fit to the “real” model of what actually happened. One reason ancient DNA has been revolutionary is that it has forced researchers to consider models that they would have otherwise thought ludicrous. There were long suggestions for example of common ancestry between Amerindians and Europeans…but these ideas were often discarded as implausible. There are all sorts of details in relation to modeling assumptions which give valid results which are nevertheless inaccurate.

It is turning out that reality is crazier than our imaginations. Hold tight.

CiteGenetic evidence for two founding populations of the Americas, Skoglund et. al., Nature (2015) doi:10.1038/nature14895

Posted in Uncategorized

Documentary about ISIS’ escaped slaves

The full documentary from which this clip is extracted is at the Frontline website. I wasn’t really excited about watching this, but I made myself do it. The topic is very disturbing. Most of the film is about the modern day “underground railroad” out of ISIS territory of Yezidi women and children escaping slavery. The scene above is of what looks like a three year old girl who was captured by ISIS along with her mother and one year old brother describing beheadings, which she obviously witnessed. Apparently in disputes with her brother she threatens to cut his head off. The mother of the children tells of her time in one of the slave houses filled with women, and attempting to intervene when one of their ISIS guards started raping a nine year old. Apparently the guard declared that “this was allowed” by his religion. The narrator did not elaborate that the dominant accepted Hadith tradition is that the Prophet Muhammed consumated the marriage to his favorite wife Aisha when she was nine years old.*

Later on in the documentary there is a scene with teenage foreign fighters kicking back and just shooting the shit. The general implication is that they were all raised in Europe. They’re basically horsing around and joking like young men are wont to do. First, they amusedly describe mass killings of Yezidi men. Then later they start making lurid humorous references to Yezidi slave girls.

The truly disturbing aspect is that the body language and the overall mien are so startlingly familiar, but the topics are depraved. I think this goes to the heart of the fact that though we like to dismiss ISIS fighters as sociopaths, they really aren’t. Rather they are motivated by existential and ideological factors. An analogy to Nazi-dominated Germany is probably warranted. Most Germans did not start out as Nazis, but during the early conquest years most seem to have conformed to the new dispensation. There are documented instances, for example, of nurses who were known to toss Jewish children out of the upper stories of hospitals as a way to kill them quickly and free bed up beds for non-Jews, who after World War II went right back to their old profession.

ISIS seems nihilistic because its aims and means are so alien to the norms of modern civilization, broadly construed. But the same could have been said of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, or the the Nazi dominion in World War II. And, unlike these two groups international Commmunism for decades managed to appeal to Western intellectuals who believed in its ultimate goals, even if they blanched at the methods of Lenin and then Stalin. They had a dream, and what’s a hundred million broken eggs to make that beautiful omelette?

* No matter if this is true or not, the problem for us in the year 2015 is that many ISIS fighters take this hadith at face value to justify the rape of nine-year-old girls.

A Population Geneticist’s Apology

Brian Charlesworth, co-author of the magisterial , won the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal from the Genetics Society of America this year. An open access copy of his speech, What Use Population Genetics?, is now online at Genetics. In the speech he makes the case toward a broader audience, which includes people working in molecular and developmental areas far removed from population genetics, as to why his field is important and critical to the broader scholarly enterprise.

First, he argues that without a good intuition for population genetic dynamics, one can not model evolutionary process very well. Of course that intuition only comes over time absorbing population genetics and gnawing on problem sets. But you have to put the work in to talk cogently about evolutionary biology in its broadest scope. Charlesworth suggests that those who don’t know population genetics “run the risk of making mistakes such as asserting that rapid evolutionary change is most likely to occur in small founder populations.” The issue here is that selection is powerful in very large populations. Not so much in smaller ones. I’ve personally encountered this confusion many times from biologists who are not population geneticists. But, I do want to also admit that genetic drift can cause rapid allele frequency changes, so even here I would say that some people might quibble a bit with Charlesworth on the specific details (I am not one to dispute this particular assertion, for the record; I know what he meant).

Second, he addresses the nature of transposable elements (TE) in the genomes of organisms, and why they are so common, and where they are so common, as well as the role of PRDM9 in recombination. Pervasive features of the genome may, or may not, have adaptive origins. That means evolutionary genetics has to step into the fray and address the long term dynamics. Intersecting the frameworks of evolutionary genetics, and the structural constraints of molecular genetics, Charlesworth illustrates how population genetics sheds light on the biophysical character of genomic features, as well as the distribution of those features. If evolutionary biology is the science of why. Population genetics is how. Molecular genetics may be thought of in this schema as the is.

Finally, though Charlesworth alludes to it in passing only at the end of his speech, I think it is critical to remember that the post-genomic era is upon us, and it is incumbent upon us to think in in population terms. The style of analysis which is common in population genetics lends itself easily to big data analyses. I recall a conversation with a young researcher last year at ASHG where he told he was moving from population, to medical, genetics. And yet when his most recent publication came out I had to observe that it was fundamentally a work of medical population genomics. You can take the geneticist out of the population, but you can’t take the population out of the geneticist.

Regulatory barriers to small-scale GMO production

FileStack_retouchedAfter my post on GMO and its enemies the usual suspects have been on the attack, accusing me of being a shill for Monsanto. The reality is that I’m a mammalian evolutionary genomicist. I don’t work in applied agricultural genetics, though I have no problem with that discipline. In fact, I’m a big fan. And, because of where I’m based out of I know people who work in and on GMO, and I know their motivations. I can tell you that they sincerely think their research is going to help people. In fact, feed people.

Nevertheless, a common refrain is that objections to GMO have to do with objections to capitalist mass agriculture. The issue isn’t the science of GMO, but big ag. As you know, I don’t buy this. But let’s set that aside. This spring one of the panels at the Biotechnology Literacy Project (BLP) Boot Camp had to do with government regulation of GMO. I was shocked by the greatly increased regulatory hurdles that GMO face in comparison to more traditional techniques (it’s analogous to what gene therapy studies have to go through).* This enormous overhead imposed by regulation means that small operations, in particular academic laboratories, can’t do viable research on GMO that can get funded. Though CRISPR technology opens up myriad possibilities of modification of food plants studied by a few labs here and there, no researcher can devote the resources necessary to jump through all the hoops placed in front of this work.

Which type of operations can handle this regulatory straight-jacket? You guessed it: Monsanto. That explains one reason so many mass production crops are GMO. That’s big ag’s bread & butter. So will anti-GMO activists, who are concerned with industrial agriculture, and not the genetic technology, argue for changing the regulations to make academic research more viable and accessible for small and medium sized labs? To my knowledge no one in that community is pushing for this.

* If you engage in some Google punditry you’ll encounter documents which suggest that GMO research approval is easier in the USA than elsewhere. This is true. But, from talking to those who work in the field it’s still a big haul for a normal sized laboratory.