ISIS will win many battles but lose the war

51OZQR9XHsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Aeon Magazine has published a 11,000 word essay by Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution. Atran is one of my favorite thinkers, and his book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, is one of the more influential in shaping my understanding of cultural phenomena (warning, the prose is dense, but worth it!). Over the last ten years Atran has focused on the phenomenon of radical Islamic terrorism, using his anthropological and evolutionary scholarly toolkits to decompose the problem. More recently he’s been doing “field work” on the front-lines of the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Literally the front lines!

The piece in Aeon is a necessary corrective to two vulgar and populist reactions to the rise of radical groups like ISIS. First, there is the materialist viewpoint, which holds that a lack of economic opportunities is the dominant causal factor driving the violence. The first order issue to address is the reality that many regions of the world (e.g., non-Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa) have larger portions of the population which are underemployed or unemployed than the Islamic world, and yet do they not serve as sources of violent politically or religiously motivated terrorism. In fact, the best ethnographic work indicates that a disproportionate number of the young men involved in violent religious and political terrorism are not from the bottom of society, but closer to the top. In particular those striving and moving up the socioeconomic ladder in cultures undergoing modernization. The rural peasantry and the established upper classes are relatively immune to radicalization, but those whose roots are in the country but attempting to situate themselves in the middle class or higher are subject to more social dislocation, despite lack of material want. Most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudi, a nation which has a cradle-to-grave system of benefits for citizens, and which has been shielded and enriched by an alliance with the United States. Certainly marginalization, social and economic, are necessary conditions for recruiting from the Islamic Diaspora in Europe, but even here they are not sufficient conditions. The Roma are more socially and economically deprived than Europe’s Muslims, but do not engage in organized terrorism of any sort.

A second extreme position is that Islamic terrorism is a natural necessary consequence of the character of the Koran. The problem with this viewpoint is that though most of those who participate in Islamic terrorism may identify as Muslims, on closer inspection they often lack even the patina of fluency in their own religion. This may be especially true of those who grew up in secular Diaspora environments, but the vast majority of the world’s Muslims have little to no familiarity with the details of the Koran or the Hadith (the latter of which is in any case more relevant for day to day practice). There’s a reason that they make recourse to the ulema as a de facto clerical caste. Additionally, Islamic terrorism in the Middle East is to a great extent the heir of radical nationalist terrorists of the 1970s, many of whom were Marxist, or were from Christian Arab backgrounds (in particular the PFLP). Even suicide bombing, a major calling card of Islamic terrorists today, was pioneered by the Left nationalist Tamil Tigers. But just as economic and social marginalization fuel disaffection among Europe’s Muslims, many elements of Islamic religious theory and practice are easily co-opted into justifying violent movements. Islam after all is a pacific religion historically only after it has dominion. Even if one rejects the proposition that Islam is the reason for violent terrorism by Muslims, one does not therefore accept that it is no part of the overall dynamic.

Finally, there is also the idea that Islamic terrorism is nihilistic. Certainly it can seem nihilistic…from our perspective. That is why it is essential to look at things from the perspective of others, and also periodically engage in Epoché and detach from individual subjectivity. Many conservative Muslims decry the Western lifestyle as without meaning, soulless and empty. Though there is some truth to this, most of us who live the Western lifestyle know that there is a fair amount of meaning, dignity, and value in our quotidian days. Some conservative Muslims who arrive in the West are surprised to observe that the sight of women walking about in shorts does not induce an orgy of mass rape. But that is because they simply do not consider any viewpoint not conditioned on their own prior assumptions. Similarly, we in the West need to consider the viewpoints of our antagonists, without it implying in any way that we accept the positions of our antagonists as necessarily meritorious.

51SrA4DFsELTwo works from the mid-2000s give us a window into Islamic terrorism as it was then, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Pape, and Understanding Terror Networks by Marc Sageman. Pape utilized standard social science methods (e.g., regression) to show there  was strong relationship between suicide bombing in the service of political ends in contexts where foreign powers with an asymmetrical advantage had historically intervened. In other words, Pape’s work suggests that rational choice frameworks are useful even for acts as individually irrational as suicide bombings. Second, Sagemen’s survey of the ethnography of the violent Salafi international punctures the perceptions of those who might suggest that global capitalism will ultimately abolish political violence in a bath of chemically flavored french fries. Many of the recruits in Salafi terror networks are from well off families like Osama bin Laden. 51QHx-ZmCHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Or, they are well educated like Ayman al-Zawahiri. There is the recurring thread of the over-representation of applied STEM backgrounds, in particular engineers. And, converts and those from relatively globalist/cosmopolitan backgrounds are  also over-represented in terms of orders of magnitude in comparison to the worldwide Islamic population. In other words, it is those most familiar with the fruits of global capitalism who have turned away from its allure.

Atran’s research, like Sageman’s, has focused on detailed statistical ethnographies of those who are recruited into Islamic terrorism. What it shows that peer networks are essential to explaining how become recruited in these activities, and in particular kinship ties, both fictive and real. Humans are social creatures, and much of our cognition operates through a social sieve. Our beliefs and preferences are strongly shaped by a tendency to conform to our “in-group.” This is so strong that even if it is clearly irrational humans may still engage in behaviors to maintain conformity to group norms. The Xhosa cattle killing is a clear example of this principle of adherence to majority norms despite grave consequences, but so was the continued adherence of most Germans to the Nazi regime after defeat became inevitable, or Chinese enactment of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which probably retarded the rise of that nation to prominence for a generation.

k10543Group solidarity around a compelling meta-narrative is the important “big picture” element of Islamic terrorism which is critical toward understanding its motivations, and which can be missed by descriptive ethnographies or econometric analyses. Palestinian nationalist terrorism of the 1970s, or Tamil Tiger suicide bombing of the 1980s, were fundamentally derivative or subordinate to a broader family of ideologies, post-colonial nationalism with a Leftist inflection (ETA and the IRA also fall into this category, even if situated in the West). In contrast, Islamic terrorism has the potential to become superordinate, and swallow up individual movements and grievances into a meta-narrative. E.g., the core actors in ISIS to this day seem to be a shadow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist officers. It is neat to presume these individuals are using Islamic ideology in an instrumental sense, as Saddam himself clearly did. But the Islamic meta-narrative is powerful, and has historical precedent. It is plausible that though the trigger for the precipitation of an Islamic movement in Iraq was the defenestration of the officer core of a notionally secular national regime, the ultimate crystallization and end state of the movement may be toward a sincere and genuine Islamic nationalism. One might make the analogy here to what has occurred in Pakistan. The founder of the state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a religiously non-observant Shia Muslim (who had Hindus in his recent ancestry, and whose family was of the marginal Ismaili sect) who seems to have envisaged a secular state, albeit demographically dominated by Muslims. Today Pakistan is riven by Shia-Sunni sectarian conflicts, and adheres to a strong Islamic self-identification. Jinnah’s proximate motives in creating Pakistan could be understood in light of the nationalist sentiments of India’s Muslim ruling class, and their dispossession in the 19th century, and impending marginalization in a united India. But ultimately he set in motion a series of events which would hinge Pakistan to a de facto Sunni Islamic international, and allow it to be an incubator for violent religious radicalism which it can barely control. Pakistan was swallowed by a broader evolving meta-narrative.

518rHTN9d-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_What Atran highlights in his piece is that young men across the Islamic world are being inspired by a powerful ideal which transcends the material. That is, they are not being driven by dreams of material wealth and affluence. Nor are they driven by simple hatred of the West, or unthinking nihilism. As Shadi Hamid has noted it is an act of political cant to assert that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. For the broad masses this sort of assertion will suffice. I recall, for example, a conversation with a friend of mine in 2002 who was a gay man who repeated to me the standard narrative that Islam is actually a religion of peace. As a straight male with a “Muslim name” I could probably get some peace out of Islam, but as it is constructed today in majority terms it is rather strange for a gay man to assert this, as there is little tolerance for gay orientation in the Muslim world (though that is changing). But this is human social conformity and social cognition kicking in again. For people interested in reality one has to move beyond the artifice of social cognition, and dig deeper. Islam is a meta-narrative which arose as a cultural adaptation 1,500 years ago. First it bound factious Arab tribes together. Second, it bound Arabs and non-Arabs together in a common meta-ethnic identity, and allowed for a period of Islamic cultural hegemony at the center of Eurasia.

communismstory1_1413028fThe reality is that we’ve seen this before, and relatively recently. Atran, and others, have made the analogy between anarchism around 1900 and Islamic terrorism today. To outsiders both movements were frightening and nihilistic, but in hindsight anarchist violence arose as a side effect of the transition toward a liberal democratic order. Atran critically observes that the wave of anarchist violence abated when Marxist-Leninism emerged to capture a nation-empire, that of Russia. International communism in its Soviet dominated period proactively smothered anarchism (e.g., during the Spanish Civil War), and perhaps more importantly deprived it of oxygen, as idealistic youths who would have been attracted to anarchist terrorism as outlets for their rebellious energies were co-opted by the dream of a universal Communist commonwealth of states. And so with the transition from the age of al Qaeda to the age of ISIS.

At this point then we may have to stop talking about “Islamic terrorism,” and refer to the Islamic international, if the analogy with anarchism and communism hold. Atran also points to the example of the French Revolution, which began the process of organized political terror in the name of an ideal, and ultimately gave rise in a genealogical sense to most modern political movements which persisted into the 20th century (fascism being the arguable exception, though it was in many ways a reaction to the ideologies spawned by Revolution).


On the individual level what is appealing about the Islamic state is that it has a heroic narrative ready for those who wish to embrace it. From the perspective of most of the world, including the Muslim world, this is perverse, considering the barbarities committed by the Islamic State. But again, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that our enemies lack humanity; rather their assumptions are inverted and different. There are millions of Germans whose grandfathers were proud members of the SS, despite the fact that some of  its killing units engaged in wholesale genocide, and specifically acts of murder against women and children. They thought they were heroes for their fatherland, doing dark deeds to forge a better world. Or as one SS commander stated boldly as he lifted up a child he was about to murder, “You must die so we may live.”

The liberal democratic “end of history” is not heroic or anti-heroic. It is banal, and heroism plays out only in the context of a job well done in the banality of existence and persistence. Being a good parent, friend, and a consummate professional. But not everyone is a parent, and not everyone has a rich network of friends, or a fulfilling profession. Ideologies like communism, and religious-political movements like Islamism, are egalitarian in offering up the possibilities of heroism for everyone by becoming part of a grand revolutionary story. Though John F. Kennedy’s administration has a glow and sheen today which would have been unfathomable to those who lived through it, his words about why America sought to go to the moon are remembered because they capture the essence of a heroic spirit. The reality of course is that we sought to go to the moon because America wanted to defeat the Soviet Union in the space race. But he asserted that the American nation sought to go to the moon because it was hard. And ultimately getting to the moon first brought America glory and renown. And that is what many young men crave, but few can attain in a stable liberal democratic consumer society.

51SKjCKQBrL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Islamic State has co-opted a meta-narrative which exists within Islamic history, and offers up a heroic vision to individuals who identify as Muslim across the world. Prior to its meteoric rise many people dismissed the Islamic State, or what was then simply al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, including president Barack Obama (and myself). After its conquest of Mosul there were many who asserted that the material structural parameters of the domains which the Islamic State ruled would make its period of rule ephemeral by necessity. In short, the Islamic State was poor and under-resourced. There was no way it could sustain itself more than six months.

Obviously those prognostications were wrong, and they were wrong because of an excessive fixation on material parameters of success or failure. In the generality Atran points out that there’s a fair amount of social science and historical scholarship which suggests that motivated minorities can capture and transform whole societies. The world religions are key examples. Most humans are conformist, so when faced with a powerful bloc which operates as a unit they often simply fall into line. This arguably occurred in Germany in the 1930s, in Russia in the 1920s, and in France in the 1790s. The transition to Protestantism in the Netherlands and England occurred despite initial apathy or resistance from the peasant majority (yet sometimes majorities remain steadfast; the Hohenzollerns did not transform their Lutheran domains to the Reformed faith, while later Saxon rulers who were Catholic were a minority in their own kingdom).

But, I am somewhat more sanguine than Atran about the impact of the Islamic State on the world in comparison to revolutionary France or Soviet Russia. He makes much of the fact that the French nation repelled massive invasions in the 1790s, and ultimately transformed the whole continent. But as documented in Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization the French victories probably had less to do with élan imparted to the armies of the Revolution than the reality that the new political arrangement in France allowed for total mobilization of the society. In short, the armies of the French were larger, though Napoleon’s genius did seem to allow for a initial strategic bonus. The final loss of Napoleon’s empire was due to the fact that other European powers began to follow France’s lead and mobilize their whole society toward war. Similarly, the Bolsheviks in 1917 captured a very powerful state, as did the Nazis in the 1930s. Modern conflict is by necessity an economic battle, and the weight of matériel will usually adjudicate as to who the ultimate victor will be. Atran notes that during World War II German soldiers were on a per individual basis more effective than the troops of the Soviets or the Western allies, but ultimately the military-industrial might of the United States and the sheer numbers of the Soviet forces overwhelmed the Nazi regime.

OIC_mapThe gross domestic product of the nations which constitute the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is about 7 trillion American dollars. The aggregate GDP of the European Union is 19 trillion dollars. The United States of America is 16 trillion dollars. China is 9 trillion dollars. In 1790 France was in the running for the number #1 economic power in Europe. In 1913 the Russian Empire was in the running for being the #1 economic power in Europe. Though France in 1790 was far more heterogeneous than it is today, and the Soviet Union was very heterogeneous, arguably they were far more cohesive polities than anything that one might congeal out of the OIC.

41murHaheEL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In the Aeon essay Scott Atran argues that the millenarian forces which ISIS is harnessing are here to stay. I agree with him. There are structural demographic and sociological forces which make Islamic movements, of which ISIS is the most extreme manifestation, nearly inevitable for the next generation or so. But, there are also structural demographic and economic forces which suggest that it will not be as nearly an existential threat to the liberal democratic political order as the movements of the 20th century. The West, Russia, China, and India, are all not particularly congenial to a long term alliance with Islamic powers. Electric cars and the shale oil revolution both threaten a major point of leverage that the Islamic international in the form of Saudi Arabia have over the rest of the world. Of course some might wonder at the Islamic demographic bomb. If current trends hold by 2050 30% of the world’s population will be Muslim. And as I noted above motivated minorities can capture whole cultures. But 30% of the world’s population at that time will also be Christian, with a larger proportion in areas where religious zeal remains strong. And, the orientation of Chinese culture is such that conversion to Islam is often seen as tantamount to leaving one’s Han identity in totality (one particular issue is that pork is central to Chinese cuisine, but it is taboo for Muslims). As documented by Philip Jenkins in God’s Continent and Eric Kaufmann in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Europe’s Christian identified population should be far larger than its Muslim identified population as far as 2100, even in pessimistic analyses (Pew suggests that 10% of the European Union’s population will be Muslim in 2050).

That is the optimistic angle on what awaits us. It’s not going to be as bad as Soviet communism or German fascism. I lived through the specter of the former, and many people alive still remember the latter. But the likelihood is that the core Islamic world, from Morocco to Pakistan, will be riven with conflict and tumult, and that will draw in Diaspora populations, and those from the demographically important margins (e.g., Indonesia). This conflict will spread back out to non-Muslim nations with Muslim minorities. As Atran notes all one needs are a small motivated number of young men to allow for their to be critical mass for violence. Some level of violence directed toward majority non-Muslim populations in nations with large Muslim minorities may be inevitable. For non-Muslims the fact that the vast majority of Muslims decry violence, both due to sincerity and self-interest, will be somewhat besides the point, as the violent minority are going to take center stage in national concerns. In the Muslim world the violence will be orders of magnitude worse, just as the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century inflicted most of their terror upon the populations whom they ruled. In an almost Newtonian fashion I expect that non-Muslim societies under attack from Islamic international will exhibit a more self-conscious cultural identity than before in reaction.

Over the long run the flames will die down as a cycle of inter-cultural conflict abates. The future beyond 2050 is difficult to predict. Technology will have changed a great deal, and technology effects change on culture. What it means to be human will shift. Perhaps humanity will again focus on space travel, channeling some of its heroic energies outward, though this will always be a small demographic slice due to the constraints of physics. The vast majority might turn inward, and disappear in a vacuous virtual reality realm. Far better than projecting violence outward. But, I do think it points us to the reality that Islamic violence is a horrible answer to a real question. What should we do? And why should we do it?

Happy New Year!

Screenshot from 2015-12-31 13:56:34One of the major takeaways from earlier fitness related threads was how useful body weight exercises are. In fact, at this point I’d put a rank order as so: body weight > free weight > machines. So I ordered myself a tower that I could do pull ups and chin ups on at home in case I don’t make to the gym. Yes, yes, I know I could just do push ups, but I really like the rapid strain of pull ups, and putting the equipment somewhere salient will probably motivate me more in the morning. And honestly one thing that I worry about in winter is how sick so many of the people in a university gym seem to be, so working out at home seems more advised.

The above video also illustrates one reason I’m wary of the gym: early January is always packed. Not looking forward to that.

The Gaels were from Scythia

ireland9780688069469Several years ago I read a book, The Origins of the Irish, by the famed archaeologist J. P. Mallory. Unfortunately, I remember very little of this work, and recall thinking that it was published just a bit too early, as archaeogenetics was clearly going to revolutionize our understanding of the prehistory of Northern Europe, though no clear results were on hand at that moment. In contrast, I recall much more clearly the novels of Irish historical fiction author Morgan Llwelyn, which I read over twenty years ago, Red Branch, a retelling of the legend of Cú Chulainn, and Finn Mac Cool, tales of a semi-legendary hero. Cú Chulainn is a mythical character, resembling Indo-European archetypes of awesome warriors who were inevitably arcing toward a tragic end. I term Fionn mac Cumhaill semi-legendary because his notional descendants intersect with the life of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who most presume to have been a real figure, though cloaked in legend.

531042The lives of Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill exhibit many dissimilarities despite the fact that both suffer tragic fates, Cú Chulainn in a violent death, and Fionn mac Cumhaill in some infamy. Cú Chulainn is a much more fantastic figure, who seems to have been born of a god and a daughter of the Gael aristocracy. Llwelyn, in keeping with the majority, but not exclusive, tradition, depicts him as physically atypical for a Bronze Age Gael warrior, small, beardless, and very dark haired. In battle though he transforms into a monster. He is a Superman for his age. In contrast Fionn mac Cumhaill is fair haired, and scion of a people conquered by the Gaels, the Fir Bolg. His rise to power occurred as much through his wiles in ascending the ranks of the fianna militia, as much as his martial skills, and despite his pedigree rather than because of it. Fionn mac Cumhaill is perhaps the Batman of ancient Ireland, a dark hero despite exterior appearance.

This rich corpus of myths makes the Irish distinct from the English, as observed by Norman Davies in The Isles. Ireland did not need a J. R. R. Tolkien to create its own epic cycle, it always had one. Not because of the foresight of one man, such as Snorri Sturluson, but the peculiar organic and gradual transformation of Ireland into a Christian nation, where local elites and sub-elites were organically co-opted into the new religion, which lacked the clear patina of Romanitas it took on elsewhere. The later cycles in which the lives of Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cú Chulainn were situated draw upon the world formed by the events of the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Invasions. Assembled during the medieval period, like Beowulf the Book of Invasions interlaces a world before Christianity and Roman history with a clear understanding of its place within a Christian and Classical historiography. As suggested in Wikipedia one motivation for compiling and creating the Book of Invasions was almost certainly to give the Irish the venerable history which peoples such as the Greeks and Hebrews had.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut these sorts of constructions aren’t created out of whole cloth. Rather, they bring together extant folklore and legend and attempt to create a coherent whole. To create his legendarium Tolkien poured into his world dollops of much of the lore of the European North. Even the geography of Beleriand recapitulates Northwestern Europe. And oral societies can preserve much detail across thousands of years. Doug Jones points out that local Indians in the Pacific Northwest have a cultural memory of the explosion of Mt. Mazama 8,000 years ago, which led to the creation of Crater Lake. Though we need not take the Book of Invasions, and the legends of pre-Christian Ireland literally, nor should we dismiss them as fiction without any historical content. The problem is that we need other avenues of exploring prehistory besides archaeology and myth.

Genetics provides that. Today an open access paper in PNAS dropped, Neolithic and Bronze Age migration to Ireland and establishment of the insular Atlantic genome, which makes much concrete about the settlement of Ireland before history. If you read Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe and Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia ,the general results will be unsurprising, and are illustrated above in the PCA. Here’s the abstract:

Modern Europe has been shaped by two episodes in prehistory, the advent of agriculture and later metallurgy. These innovations brought not only massive cultural change but also, in certain parts of the continent, a change in genetic structure. The manner in which these transitions affected the islands of Ireland and Britain on the northwestern edge of the continent remains the subject of debate. The first ancient whole genomes from Ireland, including two at high coverage, demonstrate that large-scale genetic shifts accompanied both transitions. We also observe a strong signal of continuity between modern day Irish populations and the Bronze Age individuals, one of whom is a carrier for the C282Y hemochromatosis mutation, which has its highest frequencies in Ireland today.

The paper is open access. You should read it. And the supplements.

Broadly speaking Ireland fits the template for much of Northern Europe. First there were hunter-gatherers. The Mesolithic people were almost certainly part of the same group which expanded rapidly out of refuges along Europe’s southern fringe during the Pleistocene. Hunter-gatherer genomes tend to exhibit indications of low population size, and are quite homogeneous.

Second, there were the Neolithic farmers, who arrived from Anatolia. The modern population which is the best “fit” for this group today are the Sardinians. In Central Europe they began as the LBK, while in southwestern Europe they were the Cardial culture. Like the hunter-gatherers this set of cultures, radiating from a common source in western Anatolia, were genetically homogeneous, with little inter-group divergence. But, unlike the hunter-gatherers their population sizes were large. To varying degrees in various regions and times these people absorbed elements of local hunter-gatherer substrate. Their genetic distance from the European hunter-gatherers was very great, initially settlements in close proximity were as distant as modern Chinese and Northern Europeans in terms of variation. Additionally, they were physically distinct externally. The hunter-gatherers were by and large carriers of alleles which today are strongly correlated with very dark-skinned people, with the exception of mutations around the locus associated with variation in eye color in Europeans. Inexplicably the hunter-gatherers may have had pale eyes set against very dark faces. The farmers had dark eyes, but their skin was certainly much lighter.

Screenshot from 2015-12-28 22:21:28Finally you have the third group, which arrives in Northern Europe during the Copper Age with the Corded Ware culture, also known as the “Battle Axe” culture, between 4,500 and 5,000 years ago. There they seem to overwhelm the Neolithic farmer groups, which had overwhelmed the hunter-gatherers earlier. Genetically the Corded Ware were a compound of three groups, one with with deep affinities to the European hunter-gatherers, another with peoples from the Caucasus, and finally lastly a genetic imprint from ancient Siberians. By the time this group began expanding toward peninsular and maritime Europe it has certainly absorbed local genetic substrate. In Ireland the Neolithic culture climaxed in the form of a Megalith building complex of cultures which seemed to be strung out along the Atlantic fringe of Europe. This ceased with the arrival of the Bell Beaker culture around ~4,500 years ago.

Two of the genomes are reasonable coverage, 10x. This might not be “medical grade,” but for population genomics this is pretty good (though I notice they didn’t run PSMC, which I think often requires more coverage). One individual is a female from a farmer culture who died ~5,000 years ago, and the other a male who died around ~4,000 years ago. The PCA above makes it clear that the female farmer is placed very near other early European Farmers (EEF), and the male (along with lower coverage confederates of similar provenance) smack in the middle of Bronze Age Northern Europeans. The admixture plot above confirms these findings.

But there are some wrinkles. PCA, Admixture, and f and D-statistics indicate clearly that the Irish Neolithic female had more hunter-gatherer ancestry than earlier LBK samples. Second, the Irish Bronze Age males had ancestry related to early European framers. At one point they give an estimate of ~40 percent hunter-gatherer ancestry for the Neolithic female. To them this establishes that the arrival of farming to Ireland was a matter of demographics, not cultural diffusion. This aligns with what we’ve seen elsewhere. The transition between the hunter-gather to farmer seems to have been accompanied by a significant demographic rupture all across Europe. As one might have inferred from earlier work, the phylogenomic character of the Irish was roughly established during the Bronze Age.

One of the primary issues with trying to make more precise analyses seems to be that the three root populations which contributed to the ancestry of modern Europeans were genetically rather homogeneous within themselves. That is, there was structure among European hunter-gatherers, but that which was not due to admixture (e.g., the Eastern European hunter-gatherers clearly mixed with a North Eurasian group) was subtle, probably due to rapid expansion from a small founder group after the Ice Age. The two other components had larger effective populations, but they too underwent rapid expansion, almost isotropically in some cases (e.g., along the North European plain), so there was little time to accumulate internal structure not due to admixture with local substrate.

51WCMXOk9IL._SX382_BO1,204,203,200_But some inferences can be made with various techniques, the details for which you should read the supplements. The Neolithic female seems to be descended from Cardial, and not LBK, early European farmers. That is, the Irish Neolithic is connected to the Atlantic littoral, in keeping with Barry Cunliffe’s thesis in Facing the Ocean. Second, the excess hunter-gatherer ancestry in the Neolithic female exhibits greater affinities with the Loschbour hunter-gatherer from Luxembourg than hunter-gatherers from Central or Eastern Europe. This indicates that as with the the situation in Spain there was local admixture with hunter-gatherers over time. In Mexico indigenous population structure persists in mixed regional mestizo groups. The same is likely true then in Europe if the above results hold (in the supplements you see a fair amount of evidence that Loschbour-like populations contributed to the ancestry of contemporary Western Europeans more than Eastern Europeans who may have more aggregate hunter-gatherer ancestry).

Naturally this leads one to wonder if the early European farmer ancestry in the Bronze Age Irish samples was from the same group as that of the Neolithic farmer. The surprise is that there isn’t any strong evidence of admixture! Rather, there are better candidates for donor populations on the European continent. The most parsimonious explanation then is that the Bell Beakers mixed with early European farmers, and then rolled over the descendants of the Megalith builders in Ireland. But confidence in this sort of conclusion is weak, as the number of populations is finite, and one should be cautious about making too many inferences from a few samples (though modern Irish are actually a decent proxy for the Bronze Age Irish). The broader point here is again that though there are three broad populations coming together in any given target group, we don’t have a good sampling of all the constituent populations of the three source populations, nor a good grip on the internal substructure across these groups, in part because the structure itself was minimal to begin with due to recent demographic expansion.

Whatever the details may be, the fact that dramatically different peoples were interacting during Irish prehistory should make us reconsider the veracity (or our dismissal) of legends pieced together from folklore and oral history. The Neolithic Irish female likely had a complexion similar to modern Southern Europeans (she was homozygous derived on both SLC24A5 and SLC45A2, so she was likely brunette white, rather than olive or brownish). But she and her descendants were possibly notable darker and physically different in mien from the Bell Beaker people, who were well on their way to becoming truly “fair and delightsome.” And yet it seems plausible that deep into the Neolithic period there were relic hunter-gatherers persisting in out of the way locales, inappropriate for agriculture. They may have looked very different indeed. It is easier to dehumanize when the Other looks different by their nature.

The Greeks in the centuries after the fall of the great kingdoms of their Bronze Age Mycenaean forebears referred to the constructions of that period as cyclopean, as if only creatures of myth could have wrought such architecture.  And yet the Greeks knew that the Mycenaeans were their ancestors, and the two groups shared a common language and broader culture! Oral history preserves memory; Troy was real, and it was part of the fringe of the Greek world. But it also distorts and confuses. The men of yore become legends, giants, monsters. What would the Bell Beakers have thought when they arrived to an Ireland where the civilization of the Megalith builders was collapsing, both due to exogenous shocks (the Bell Beakers!) and endogenous forces. In subsequent centuries perhaps the fairy folk had withdrawn to their own world, leaving their coarse but imposing constructions as a testament to their powers in the days of old, as they faded into mythology and legend. And it may be that Cú Chulainn, the son of the god Lugh, who was a Tuatha de Danann, is a recollection of the emergence to maturity of a man who fused the blood of the old people with the new, and whose dark features bore testament to a race whose legacy was fading in the land?

Of course that is all speculation, but it is no longer unfounded. The book of Europe and ancient DNA is coming to a close in regards to outlines of the tapestry. We are in the phase of filling in details, and scholars need to truly become interdisciplinary, and marry what genes are telling us about demographics, with linguistics, archaeology, and folklore. The synthesis may be the closest to a time machine we get.

Cultural appropriation and cultural (d)evolution

Madame_Jeanette_and_other_chilliesThe venerable journal The Atlantic is now publishing pieces with these headings: The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation: Borrowing from other cultures isn’t just inevitable, it’s potentially positive. “Potentially positive”? The very fact that that needs to be specified suggests how far we’ve come. Whole cuisines are based on borrowing from other cultures. When I was visiting Bangladesh in 1990 my cousins were surprised to find out that potatoes were indigenous to the New World. I didn’t even want to bring up the history of the chili pepper. The same people who assert that race is a fluid incoherent arbitrary social construct can render judgments about the boundaries and values of cultures, often not their own, and act as if they’re Platonic timeless ideals (all the while asserting that they don’t hold to this model, when admitting to realistic flexibility about the fluidity of culture and identity would render their Maoist jeremiads toothless).

Sacred object to Hindus being appropriated as food
Sacred object to Hindus being appropriated as food
Brass tacks: the idea of “cultural appropriation” is an academic term that has bled into mainstream discussion as a way for various elites to police people and put them in their place. By creating an academic construct whose boundaries and criteria are known (OK, honestly, made up ad hoc on the spot) only to the initiate they can deign to provide lists of “dos and don’ts” to the plebs. It is 21st century abracadabra. You feel uncomfortable with something, and generate the appropriate academese to justify your feelings post hoc. The whole project would seem farcical if it weren’t so serious. Oberlin’s cafeteria cultural appropriation fiasco shows what happens to this sort of cultural tool; pedantry is drafted to serve prosaic needs. Basically, the food was shitty, so the students started making recourse to the garden variety ideological levers that they’re taught to take seriously. In the 1960s privileged students at elite universities taught Marxist theories realized that they were the oppressed class which needed to ignite the revolution. How far campus radicalism has fallen! Oppressed by shitty mystery meat modern day students are offended and declare that it’s “Not OK.”

Everyone knows about Facebook now

Screenshot from 2015-12-28 03:14:11

It looks like people are searching for Facebook less often on Google over the past 3 years. Probably because everyone knows about Facebook now. People have been looking for signs of decline for many years. I was in that game too. It seemed inevitable. But perhaps Facebook is going to be the boring and persistent “climax ecosystem” of the social web for the next generation or so?

Epigenetics does not a revolution make

51x-WwY-sAL._SX387_BO1,204,203,200_Periodically I get frankly stupid comments that seem to imply that the incredible swell of results coming out of molecuar genetics and genomics are revolutionizing our understanding of evolutionary and population genetics. Over the past generation it’s been alternative splicing, then gene regulation and evo-devo, and now epigenetics is all the rage. The results are interesting, fascinating, and warrant deeper inquiry (I happen to see graduate school admission applications for genetics, and I can tell you that conservatively one out of three applicants mention an interest in epigenetics; the hype is grounded in reality, as epigenetics may be a pretty big deal in human health that we can effect).

But these fields don’t tear down the bigger picture of evolutionary and population genetics in terms of what they teach us. It is not a revolution (see Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life for a dissenting take, but note that the authors are minority voices). Unfortunately the belief that everything has changed is widely held. I can understand why and how social scientists who wish to downplay classical heritability of traits would latch upon epigenetics (it’s this decades’s gene-environment interaction), but even biologists outside of genetics have told me in conversation that they assumed that the fields of evolutionary and population genetics has been “revolutionized” and the textbooks had to be “rewritten” (these are real words/phrases). Now mostly it’s because of epigenetics.

My patience with this sort of thing is minimal at this point. I’ve had to deal with it so much that I’ve written several “why genetics has not been revolutionized” posts. And here’s another. The media certainly isn’t helping by hyping so much. Rather soon we’ll see someone writing about how epigenetics is “disrupting” evolutionary biology like Uber is disrupting transportation! About ten years ago I remember trying hard to convince a producer on a public radio show out of doing a segment about how epigenetics was changing everything we knew about evolution. I just didn’t believe it was the case. He was frustrated, but thankfully he didn’t just go and just find people who wanted to say what he would have preferred to have been said on air. (and I’m sure he checked in with several people and they all came back with the same feedback)

The most recent edition of the closest thing that I know of to a Bible of population genetics, the venerable Hartl and Clark text, is nearly ten years old. In the last edition there was a chapter on “population genomics,” a field which really didn’t exist for the earlier editions. But I doubt that “population epigenomics” will be added for the next edition. Not because it isn’t potentially something important or research-worthy, I just don’t think that it will be a necessary part of every population geneticist’s toolkit (in contrast, pretty much all population geneticists who work with empirical data are going to become genomicists, if they aren’t already).

41PHSZN6AELIn science the word “revolutionary” is a big deal. Genomics has not revolutionized evolutionary and population genetics, so I definitely don’t think epigenetics has revolutionized these fields. There’s a reason that The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, written by R. A. Fisher in the 1920s, is still useful reading for someone interested in evolutionary and population genetics. Fisher’s fusion of Mendelian genetics with evolutionary theory (along with the efforts of Sewall Wright and J.B.S. Haldane) allowed for the development of a formal field which could extend beyond verbal logic and empirical description. Perhaps the second major revolution to identify in the 20th century would be the emergence of molecular methods in assaying genetic variation after the work of Lewontin and Hubby. Though genomics has resulted in a quantitative increase of data on the orders of magnitude beyond what was available with allozymes in the 1960s, my own judgment is that the top-level inferences from the earliest results using coarse molecular markers have not been overturned as much as refined and specified. Genomics allows for a scaling up of the empirical possibilities, but it is a matter of extension more than doing something new under the sun.

5190MX7FYQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As with many things much of the confusion has to do with semantics. In his book The Darwin Wars Andrew Brown makes a distinction between thinkers who conceive of an ‘analytic gene’, as opposed to the more concrete sort favored by molecular geneticists  today. By the latter, I mean a specific sequence mechanistically bound together in what we would today term a ‘genic region,’ transcribed and (a subset in many cases) translated into proteins. Though those with a fidelity toward the latter definitions often imply that their views are more concrete and adhere more to reality, it is important to note that the foundations of Mendelian thought are fundamentally about analysis as opposed to mechanism. There is a reason that a core textbook for introductory genetics is titled Genetic Analysis. Genetics began as inferences about the nature and character of inheritance from observed patterns, not by understanding molecular biological mechanisms. Mendelian genetics flourished 50 years before the final understanding of its molecular basis in DNA. Evolutionary biology emerged as a field 50 years before genetics as we understand it emerged.

Why? Let me quote two passages. First, from Dan Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:


Darwin’s ideas about the powers of natural selection can be lifted out of their home base in biology. Indeed, as we have already noted, Darwin himself had few inklings (and what inklings he had turned out to be wrong) about how the microscopic processes of genetic inheritance were accomplished. Not knowing any of the details about the physical substrate, he could nevertheless discern what if certain conditions were somehow met, certain effects would be wrought. This substrate neutrality has been crucial in permitting the basic Darwinian insights to float like a cork on the waves of subsequent research and controversy, for what has happened since Darwin has a curious flip-flop on it. Darwin, as we noted in the preceding chapter, never hit upon the utterly necessary idea of a gene, but along came Mendel’s concept to provide just the right structure for making mathematical sense out of heredity (and solving Darwin’s nasty problem of blending inheritance). And then, when DNA was identified as the actual physical vehicle of the genes, it looked at first (and still looks to many participants) as if Mendel’s genes could be simply identified as particular hunks of DNA. But then complexities began to emerge; the more scientists have learned about the actual molecular biology of DNA and its role in reproduction, the clearer it becomes that the Mendelian story is at best a vast oversimplification. Some would go so far as to say that we have recently learned that there really aren’t any Mendelian genes. Having climbed up Mendel’s ladder, we must now throw it away. But of course no one wants to throw away such a valuable tool, sill proving itself daily in hundreds of scientific and medical contexts. The solution is to bump Mendel up a level and declare that he, like Darwin, captured an abstract truth about inheritance. We may, if we like, talk of virtual genes, considering them to have the reality distributed around in concrete materials of the DNA)….

51k+5+6j9OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Origin of Species is a rich and worthwhile read even today 150 years after its publication. Evolutionary ideas are as old as Western philosophy, and they were in the air during Darwin’s time. The reason we remember his theory is that it had a precise rigor and mechanism attached to its explanations of the empirical reality around us. In particular, the concept of natural selection driving adaptation upon heritable variation. A major lacunae, as noted above, was that Charles Darwin did not posit any plausible mechanism of maintaining variation. The attempts in The Origin of Species were reaches, and from what I recall there were multiple shifts in emphasis across the editions of this book. Without discrete particulate Mendelian inheritance the variation that was the raw material for natural selection disappeared. But observe that all that was necesssary was a system of inheritance where variation was maintained. If on an alien planet the substrate of inheritance was different in fundamental molecular configuration from DNA one would still be able to posit a theory of evolution in whose general outlines are Darwinian, because the ultimate input of heritable phenotypic variation would remain the same.

Second, W. D. Hamilton in Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Volume 1:

…I had made the decision that I would not even try to come abreast of the important work that was being done around me on the molecular side of genetics. This might well be marvelous in itself: I admitted the DNA story to concern life’s most fundamental executive code. But, to me, this wasn’t the same as reading life’s real plan. I was convinced that none of the DNA stuff was going to help me understand the puzzles raised by my reading of Fisher and Haldane or to fill in the gaps they had left. Their Mendelian approach had certainly not be outdated by any of the new findings.

51XHYubQzNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In case you are not aware of who W. D. Hamilton was, he was arguably he most influential evolutionary biologist of the second half of the 20th century (there are other contenders, but Hamilton’s name has to be in the mix). The idea of inclusive fitness was the fruit of his inquiry into the “problem of altruism” (a problem that the famed medical geneticist Lionel Penrose summarily dismissed as worthy of financial support according to Hamilton, who had a project relating to chromosome biology lined up for his potential mentee). As it happens molecular genetics, or more precisely its descendant, genomics, has taken some interest in Hamilton’s ideas even if he didn’t take quite an interest in it. The ubiquity of selfish genetic elements may be understood as an extension of Hamiltonian inclusive fitness dynamics at the intra-genomic level (there are other arguments, see Michael Lynch’s Origins of Genome Architecture). And many of the predictions that Hamilton’s formalism made in regards to the nature of the origins of sociality and sex are best explored with molecular genetic assays.

51zeajUmWhL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Finally, I want to bring to your attention R. A. Fisher’s 1941 paper Average Excess and Average Effect of a Gene Substitution (the link is not gated). Fisher was writing before DNA. His conception of a gene was analytic by necessity (though by his period it was understood that genes were resident on chromosomes). That is, he was imagining a unit of inheritance characterized by alleles. Today we often think of a defined genetic sequence as this unit of inheritance, and alleles are usually assumed to be changes on a single base pair of DNA, a single nucleotide polymorphism (though there are other types of genetic variants, such as copy number variants). But these are not necessary to work out the basics of evolutionary genetics, as is clear from the fact that Fisher, Haldane and Wright managed to do so before comprehension of mechanistic details (though as a physiological geneticist Wright thought more mechanistically, and that might explain why he was right and Fisher was wrong in regards to the reason for the existence of genetic dominance). Fisher used terms like “allelomorphs”, and many of the characters he was familiar with would have been tracked through correlations of phenotypes. In an abstract and fundamental sense an allele is just a variant segregating in the population. It could be a SNP, or a CNV, a microsatellite, or an indel. Or it might also be a regulatory element. Fisher and many of his colleagues only postulated the allele after seeing the association between phenotypic marker and the novel trait (known markers had positions on the genetic map); they were often ignorant of the detailed biophysical basis for the variation.

41ZhyEU5lGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Average effects and average excesses, keys to quantitative genetics, and underlying Fisher’s model of evolutionary change over time, have within them the richness to absorb the myriad mechanistic details cascading out of modern molecular genetics and genomics. If you read him closely it is clear that Fisher did not assume the sort of deterministic relationship that some of his critics impute to him. He understood penetrance, as did all geneticists long before the vagaries of gene expression and epistatic interaction were elucidated in their mechanistic details. But over the long haul the average effect of a substitution in the population is critical. Understanding the nature of the average effect gets you much of the way in this game, if not all the way.

There are some Christians who assert that their religion is the natural completion of Judaism and Greek philosophy.* There are others who rather argue that Christianity was a radical revolution against all that came before. Historically the latter has been a minority view. The Marcionites failed, and the Jewish origins of Christianity were sewn into the fabric of its foundational scripture in the form of the Old Testament. And despite periodic revolts, the reality is that intellectual Christianity speaks with a Greek philosophical voice. Ultimately this debate is of purely academic interest for me. But it exhibits a similarity with academic arguments and debates. In Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo Sean B. Carroll takes a traditionalist approach which suggests that novel 61DFNJkqyGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_results from the new field of evolutionary developmental biology firmly supports and extends the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. Carroll’s book is under 400 pages. It is elegantly written and economical of prose, and it proposes an evolution in our thinking about the nature of the variation which serves as the raw material for natural selection. Contrast that with the late Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which came in at nearly 1,500 pages. Published in the early 2000s, much of it was written earlier. There are only two references to epigenetics within it. If Gould had not died in 2002 he would probably have come out with a new revised edition by now, and I’m rather confident that epigenetics would loom very large indeed. Though Sean B. Carroll is a very eminent scientist, he remains a bit player on the public intellectual scene. That’s because he does not promise revolution, he comes bearing a twist on the orthodoxy. In contrast, Gould’s prolix prose was rich with the promise of paradigms shattered and lost, and grand visions of heretics risen up to prophetic status, as the statues of the grand old men of the Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy were torn down to make way for the new idols (this old Paul Krugman slap at Gould is pretty on point about why he was so popular in the 1990s). Reality is more prosaic than intellectual revolts plotted in used bookstores!

Carroll’s ended with a quotation from Charles Darwin because his espousal of a particular theory in regards to evolution was in no way contradictory to the spirit of The Origin of Species. Endless Forms Most Beautiful was a paean to Darwinism, properly conceived. Charles Darwin was no dogmatist in regards to the origin of variation, though he was blind to the possibility that Mendel’s experiments provided. I doubt he would have taken much umbrage at Sean B. Carroll’s update to the canon, as its genetic nature postdated him by decades. Some of the original Mendelians had arrayed themselves against the biometrical school, which considered itself a custodian of Charles Darwin’s thought during the period when classical evolutionary theory was somewhat in decline (see The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900). But as told in Will Provine’s The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics the conflict was short lived, and the synthesis which emerged from the debates of that period laid the basis for modern evolutionary biology, a field far richer and more robust than during Darwin’s own time.

And I may be wrong here as I’m no historian of Watson and Crick’s discovery, but I don’t see that they thought of themselves as overthrowing Mendelianism, as opposed to putting it on a firmer molecular and biophysical basis. A comprehension of the biological machinery within the synaptonemal complex only enriches and extends our understanding of the nature of Mendelian process.

Quantum mechanics was a revolution in physics because it introduced a whole domain of understanding which operates outside of the purview of classical physics, parallel to it to this day. The modern project of unification and reconciliation continues and is unfinished. In contrast Darwinian evolution, Mendelian genetics, and molecular genetics extend and complement each other. If quasi-Lamarckian heritable epigenetic patterns within the genome were so powerful and ubiquitous as to overturn a Mendelian understanding of heritability, then the Mendelian model of inheritance would not have been so persuasive and crystal clear in the first place in the analyses of the Fly Room. If our understanding of evolution and genetics was contingent on perfect understanding of the molecular mechanisms and machinery by which evolutionary processes occur, then we’d have been at a loss before 1952 (in actually, 1952 was only the start in any case). We weren’t in the wilderness, because understanding can manifest itself at multiple layers of abstraction and complexity. Just as a deeper understanding of neuroscience can only benefit psychology, so a deeper understanding of biophysical phenomena such as epigenetics will only enrich our understanding of evolutionary and population level dynamics. There is no revolution in evolution. At least until we get better with CRISPR….

* This is a general trend. Some Chinese Christians have argued that the religion completes and complements Confucianism, while Karen Christians point to similarities between Christianity and indigenous religious beliefs.

Open Thread, 12/27/2015

On_Food_And_Cooking_UScoverI mentioned On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen a few days ago. The section on irradiated meat was interesting to me as it exposes the reality that there are many things we can do to improve human existence, but that we don’t for cognitive reasons. The authors notes that meat irradiated with E. coli is edible for three months after being sterilized, but that since it is adulterated consumers wouldn’t want to consume it. Adulterated in that the E. coli is often present in feces which contaminate the meat. Myself, I would gag attempting to eat sterilized feces. This is certainly a very adaptive evolutionary reflex; a substantial proportion (more than 50% in some sources) of the solid material in human feces are bacteria. But I suppose the question is how much feces we are already consuming. In a “perfect world” food inspection regimes would make irradiation irrelevant. Because people fear radiation, and think that irradiated meat is radioactive, this method isn’t used much. And food safety in the United States is such that the public health risk is low. But a substantial proportion of illnesses in the United States today are due to contaminated food. Most estimates are probably a lower bound because many illnesses we may assume are airborne or due to contact with a physical surface may have been mediated by food handlers (which obviously irradiating meat wouldn’t do anything about!) There are major problems as a society we don’t address or can’t, but it seems that in areas like food distribution we actually have the technology in many cases, but our surfeit of supply means we have the luxury of not making recourse to it. Yet.

By the way, gut flora is going to be a big thing. But we really don’t know much about it. I’d hazard to guess it might be bigger thing in the short/medium term (say up until 2025) than CRISPR.

Please use the “open thread” for making off topic comments. Usually I check the open threads and reply in batch, but if it’s an off topic comment I’m way less likely to respond.

New Jersey School District Eases Pressure on Students, Baring an Ethnic Divide in The New York Times. The ethnic divide is one familiar to many people who live in Silicon Valley. E.g., The Tiger Parents of Silicon Valley: White and Asian students in California schools self-segregate. That’s a pity—and a problem. Though in general I sympathize more with the “white” parents (the racial aspect is salient, but the factis that most of the Asian American parents are first generation and grew up abroad in these scenarios, so there’s a major confound), this reality from the first piece rings true:

“They don’t have the same chances to get their children internships or jobs at law firms,” Professor Lee said. “So what they believe is that their children must excel beyond their white peers in academic settings so they have the same chances to excel later.”

41n4FabPOWL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Everyone knows that the Ivy League and other elite colleges seem to have standards where students of Asian ethnic background need to have stronger academic scores and preparation to get the same consideration in “holistic” admissions. So it is natural that the parents of these students would emphasize this aspect of schooling. Additionally, first generation immigrants by and large don’t have the same accumulated social capital in this country in terms of connections, though I’m skeptical that this remains true for very long (see Greg Clark’s The Son Also Rises). But a final issue may be that by focusing so monomaniacally on proximate hurdles and metrics these students do not cultivate other, perhaps softer, skills, necessary in the professional world.

The testing culture which dominates East Asia today has its culturally contingent roots in the ideal of a meritocracy which arose in the wake of the Confucian-Legalist synthesis of the early Han, finally maturing in the Song dynasty. But the testing itself was only a means toward an ends, which was rule by benevolent and broad-minded scholar officials, rooted in a deep traditional humanism. In other words, the goal was to produce a cadre of liberally educated gentleman who would act not just in their own self-interest, but toward human betterment more broadly. In other words, arguments against the cram school culture which prizes individual excellence and success at all costs exist within societies from which these systems emerge, but these arguments are difficult to make in the context of a perception of a winner-take-all stakes in the game of life (though perhaps more thought should be given to all the Asian American kids who are not perfectly academic and don’t live up to expectations, and suffer a lot of emotional distress, and often hate, and frankly detest, their parents as adults).

More concretely, being a “bro” who can kick back with some beers is obviously a benefit in many professional contexts. Back when I worked as a programmer a lot of lunch discussions revolved around gaming. Since I haven’t played since I was 16 I was naturally excluded. Not that I’m complaining, but it goes to show how much everyday interaction revolves around tacitly shared norms and interests. And of course, at higher reaches of industry there are gains to traits like height and voice quality which can’t be overcome by a higher GMAT score.

tnapb4As a parent myself I’m thinking a bit more concretely about these sorts of issues. A few of my friends are major proponents of Unschooling. I probably won’t go that far myself, but as a major fan of The Nurture Assumption I think the key is not to engage in one-size-fits-all thinking. Individual differences matter. The variation in competencies and interests of my children are already evident, and it strikes me that these are important to consider in any system of pedagogy. An acquaintance of mine once expressed frustration that one of his two children didn’t seem academic at all, despite the fact that both his parents and older sister were. I tried to suggest that things like this just happen, that social inputs and incentives have limits, and non-zero heritability means you can’t just predict offspring from parents. Rather than being frustrated a more fruitful path would be to understand what would have best optimized the child’s skills, rather than trying to force him into becoming a National Merit Scholar like his sister (which was going to be unlikely in any case).

There should be some awesome papers in human population genomics coming out this year. Also in population genomics more broadly. Speaking of which, the next Bay Area Population Genomics Meeting (XIII) is going to be at Berkeley on February 13th.

k10543Right after finishing Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts (I’m 2/3 of the way through) I’m going to read The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. This entails a touch of rearrangement of my stack, but not too much. Since I have stated in the public record that I believe humans are domesticating ourselves I’m probably a good candidate to receive the thesis that Joe Henrich is presenting favorably. Speaking of which, he now has an appointment at Harvard, a good indication that his research program is now ready to go into “prime time.” God knows when I’m going to have time to read fiction, but probably it will be Seveneves, though I’ve been putting off reading The Wise Man’s Fear for a while. Good book recommendations are always welcome.

Here are some books I’ll prioritize for the New Year which have been sitting in my Kindle for a while:

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. I’ve heard great things about this book for years.

The Complete Works of Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Invaders. I referenced and skimmed parts of this book, but I’ll finally read it (it should be fast, I know the topic a bit).

Nexus. My friend Ramez Naam wrote a science fiction trilogy a few years back. An admirer of his nonfiction work, which I’ve read, so I’ve been meaning to check this out.

Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States. I’m often dispositionally skeptical of Michael Lind’s arguments, but often come around to seeing value in them.

Nagel9780199919758(RGB)The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies

Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. Shadi Hamid tends to avoid cant in his pronouncements.

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. There is more to science than genetics. Trying to tell myself that….

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. An important book that I’ve been putting off reading. My friend Carl Schulman contributed a fair amount to this book as a research assistant.

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I hope the author is well versed enough to characterize Neo-Darwinism correctly! The glaring problem with Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution is that the author’s mastery of the material under critique was too superficial to be persuasive (i.e., often he was criticizing an argument that didn’t exist in the science).

Learning Python. This is the year I’m going to grow up and move beyond Perl I think….

A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth. I’m a big behind the times when it comes to natural history. This was the door into evolution for me, but the past decade or so I’ve been focused on microevolutionary processes.

Culture Evolution evolves in the 21st century


Though we often think of evolutionary processes as either matters of bones (i.e., paleontology) and genes (i.e., evolutionary genetics), that is not strictly true. There are other domains of study where evolutionary thinking and frameworks have been applied. In particular I’m thinking of evolutionary thought in the context of culture. This has a long history, and evolutionary models as metaphors are commonly bandied about, from Herbert Spencer to Richard Dawkins. But the reality is that there is little systematic and formal investigation of the topic. In the late 1970s to the middle 1980s six scholars attempted to change this. First, E. O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden in Genes, Mind, And Culture: The Coevolutionary Process. Arguably the most ambitious of the projects, Wilson and Lumsden have moved onto other things. Next you have L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman with Cultural Transmission and Evolution. By and large both authors have moved onto other things, though Feldman at least still produces some research in the area of cultural evolution. I asked Cavalli-Sforza about cultural anthropology’s reaction to this book in 2006. He responded:

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science – the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work.

His pessimism about cultural anthropology was warranted in my opinion.

0226712842Finally, you have Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd’s Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Both these authors were explicitly influenced by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman’s ideas (I believe they also took courses where Feldman was an instructor at Stanford to get up to speed on formal evolutionary modelling). But they’ve continued to extend the ideas they outlined in Culture and the Evolutionary Process, and given rise to a whole school of thought (e.g., Joe Henrich, author of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, and now a professor at Harvard, was Robert Boyd’s Ph.D. student at UCLA). A popularized version of their ideas can be found in Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution . The fact of the vitality of this research program is evidenced in part by how cheap copies of Culture and the Evolutionary Process are in comparison to the other two works. I have all three, but the first two I grabbed at used book stores where I stumbled upon them and immediately realized that they were listed far cheaper than they’d be online, because copies are so much rarer.

41CAhu6biSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If you are interested in the above topic, you should get a hold of at least one of the above books. For those with some background in evolutionary genetics modeling, you’ll feel very comfortable (I recommend Mathematical Models of Social Evolution: A Guide for the Perplexed for an up-to-date take). But today I bring this all up because Peter Turchin has just announced the birth of a new organization, Cultural Evolution Society. In describing the backstory of how this society came about Peter references a visit to Davis in 2014. I happen to have been there, and had good fun with with both Peters (Turchin and Richerson) dining on Korean barbecue and downing red wine. The precis for Ultrasociety was already present in Peter’s mind at that point, but I don’t recall talk about a society for the study of cultural evolution. That may be due to the fact I wasn’t privy to all the conversations, or, that I was rather inebriated soon enough as there was no way I could keep up with Peter Turchin!

I sincerely hope more students interested in evolution will begin to look to cultural processes as well. If you are a human evolutionary geneticist it strikes me as not just something that would be a bonus in terms of insight, but a necessary aspect of the field. For the past generation there has been a emphasis on culture alone, as the co-evolutionary ambitions of Wilson and Lumsden in their original groundbreaking work have been somewhat set to the side. I think that will change in the near future, as many of the thinkers who are pushing the field forward know that at some point cultural evolution and evolutionary genetics will fuse again….

“Authentic” cheese as genuinely authentic….

On_Food_And_Cooking_UScoverUsually around the holidays I pick up our family’s copy of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Since I’m a bit of a science-nerd reading a chapter here and there is really fun, even when it’s a re-read. Yesterday I went over the section on cheeses. Both the science and history were rather interesting, and I particularly considered deeply the cross-cultural and generational issues.

51ZsvFndtKLGrowing up in the northeast as a kid I ate Kraft singles, but when I moved to Oregon it was all about Tillamook. I hadn’t thought about this contrast until a friend who went to graduate school in Boston brought it up as a major culinary difference. Of course the Pacific Northwest, or Wisconsin for that matter, have nothing compared to the diverse and historically ancient traditions of Europe when it comes to cheeses.

The author of On Food and Cooking attributes the rise of cookie-cutter bland American cheeses to the combination of this nation’s short history along with the rise of industrial food production in the 20th century. Since the first publication of the book though in the 1980s much has changed. I haven’t touched a Kraft singles in over 20 years, and a slab of Tillamook cheddar is my “basic cheese” now. Though there is a socioeconomic aspect to this, I think part of the change has been a genuine shift toward consuming more diverse flavors and textures. The marketplace has changed, and tastes have expanded.

61zbPp0Oe6L._SX522_In my post on Chipotle my criticism had a lot to do with the fact that I think Chipotle is to “authentic food” what Taco Bell is to “Mexican” cuisine. I’ve gone to Chipotle in the past, it’s food is fine, but the talk about locally sourced and GMO-free just struck me as so much cant (albeit, profitable for a long time). Some things are simply difficult to commoditize. Once you commoditize them then problems ensue. But when it comes to the proliferation of cheeses in America today, it’s actually the importation and spread of traditions which have a long history. They’re authentic not because they’re repackaging distinct constituent elements of authenticity (e.g., “hand-made”, “local”, “seasonal”), but are organically developed traditions which accrued through historical trial and error, and not marketing artifice. Often these cheeses cost a great deal more on a per unit basis than a slab of Tillamook cheddar, let along Kraft singles, but I think a piece of fromager d’affinois is worth it.