George R. R. Martin making up ethnography as he goes along

91I3cXu7PxLOne of the most surprising things that I encountered when reading The World of Ice & Fires is how many noble houses outside of the North still claim paternal descent from the First Men. Reading the books I had no idea the extent of it. For example, the Blackwood house of the Riverlands worship the Old Gods of the First Men, so their derivation from this group made sense. But I had no idea that House Dayne, House Royce, or House Westerling, descended from the First Men. And that’s not the least of it. When Aegon I conquered the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, four of these lands were ruled by houses directly descended down the male line from the First Men (the Lannisters descend from the First Men through their maternal line).

Here are the list:

– the Starks, you knew this.

– House Greyjoy, of the Iron Islands and portions of the Riverlands. They descend from the legendary Grey King, rather than a specific semi-historical individual, as the Andal families do. Though culturally diverged it seems likely that the people of the Iron Islands are part of the First Men migration.

– House Gardener. These were the kings of the Reach. After they were exterminated by Aegon I the Tyrells took their place as the preeminent house of this region. They descended from Garth the Greenhand.

– House Durrandon. These were the kings of the Stormlands. Robert Baratheon’s ancestor married the daughter of the last king.

Gardener and Durrandon were both culturally assimilated to Andal folkways obviously (the legendarium even states when the kings converted to the Faith of the Seven). But the fact that these two dynasties persisted after the Andal cultural revolution is rather peculiar to me. The Lannisters were Andal kings of the Westlands, but their name is from the First Men (a male Andal lord who married into the house adopted the name when there wasn’t another male heir). In the Riverlands the Tully house was preeminent, but there were no kings. The Martell princes of Dorne were Andals on the male line, but famously they intermarried with the Rhoyne people and became culturally amalgamated so that it is hard to describe them as prototypical Andals. Finally, the Arryns of the Vale are classical Andal kings, and they are described as “oldest and purest line of Andal nobility.” That would be strange to note if it were not for what I describe above.

George R. R. Martin has admitted that he’s making things up as he goes along to satisfy fans. Though he might have known Hodor’s fate as far back as 1991, I doubt he knew the genealogies of the noble houses, or their ethno-religious backgrounds. Rather, people kept badgering him, and he responded, and when he stated something in print/web it became canon. So here we are.

Open Thread, 5/29/2016

I call the guy above “the rabbi of the geeks.” The depth and nuance of his analyses are incredible. (I don’t watch the non-GoT commentaries from him because I have no idea what he’s talking about)

51NWscXxuDL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I recently read Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World. It’s a quick read, at 300 pages, though it traverses the gray land between being academic and aimed toward a popular audience (Hamid’s political science background informs his analysis, and I’m pretty sure I missed some stuff in there since that isn’t my background). I will be posting a very long reflection/review on the book and its topic closer to its publication date (I got a review copy). More precisely, a post will go up on June 6th. But before that I thought I would commend that you check out the book if you are broadly interested in the topic. Hamid engages with facts and managed to display a fair amount of epoché, whereby his own personal religious and political commitments are set aside long enough for there to be some genuine analysis. Unfortunately, this is a rare thing in our day and age. My main disagreements with the book are theoretical, conceptual and semantic, rather than descriptive. More to come on this.

51OftfuYlSL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_With some hindsight I have to say that The Monkey’s Voyage is an important book. It is far more influential in my thinking a month out than I would have thought before I picked i up. By and large I hold to the scale independence of evolutionary processes, but to a great extent that has resulted in me ignoring macroevolutionary processes and fields. In hindsight this was short-sighted of me. I’ve already started integrating the insights from The Monkey’s Voyage into my mental models. In particular, the reality that geographic distributions of populations are highly dynamic, and turnover is ubiquitous. Yes, The Monkey’s Voyage focuses on macroevolutionary time scales, but I think it’s a general dynamic with relevance for microevolutionary (and historical) scales as well.

Nick Denton, Gawker Founder, Assails Peter Thiel as ‘Vindictive’ Foe. Last summer I was approached by lawyers working with potential plaintiffs against Gawker. I didn’t join because 1) I wasn’t sure there was any merit to my case (I’m a “thought criminal” so of course The New York Times didn’t want to be associated with me!) 2) I’m a person with a lot of other things going on aside from my media “career” (which for obvious reasons didn’t ever get started anyway) so it wasn’t too big of a deal for me personally 3) Gawker and the media-industrial complex are powerful and might be able to destroy other aspects of my life which actually are important to me in a deeper way if they wanted to come after me.

thielbinbThe media are flipping out right now because of the “injustice” Peter Thiel has wrought upon Gawker. The reality is that the media commits blatant ethical and moral violations against private individuals all the time, they are simply “little people” who are collateral damage in the battle for “justice.” You have to break some eggs to make an omelette, right?

When journalists are treated the same way they treat others they often become very angry. Journalists, like lawyers, think they have a noble calling, so they want their profession insulated from being attacked or diminished. That is human nature. Most of the rest of us are less than sympathetic. Journalists have an important job. Often it is difficult. It is important. But sacred? Nothing’s sacred. That’s what you learn by consuming the media today (also, my minimal interactions with journalism have made it clear to me that it’s a biased and selectively outraged field; you knew that, but I can confirm that).

51fGEWZ08UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_At about the same time the lawyers for Hulk Hogan contacted me I was clued in to the fact by someone else that Peter Thiel was obviously working to destroy Gawker, and that it was a long game for him. If someone like me, who spends most of his days thinking about site frequency spectra and the role of inter-group conflict in multi-level cultural selection (to give two interests of mine), knew that Thiel was involved last year, it had to be widely known among many. I can’t believe Denton didn’t know, unless his social circle is that insulated or he’s alienated so many people that they wouldn’t think to give him a heads up (in 2006 when Denton started talking about the possibility about outing Thiel apparently Thiel told Denton to not do that unless he wanted Thiel to come after him). The idea that this was some huge secret and nefarious plot is ridiculous. Peter Thiel is smart, why would he have told many people what he was up to if secrecy was important?

This TPM piece on Thiel, The Eccentric Tech Billionaire Behind The Gawker Suits Has Some Curious Ideas, illustrates why some of us have so little respect for the “nobility” of journalism. Peter Thiel does not subscribe to the latest 95 theses promulgated by the committee to promote social justice. No shit? Neither do a lot of people.

All men must die. If you are a progressive the day will come where you have to confront whether you will let #TeamProblematic dictate your thoughts down to every detail. I know that many of my liberal/progressive friends privately roll their eyes and go along because of team spirit, but all unsustainable things must come to an end. Though the long game can be long indeed. In any case, no surprise, #ImWithPeter.

There will be a short pre-recorded segment on the company I’m working for on NBC’s Today Show between 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM tomorrow (Monday the 30th). About three minutes. Fun fact: I did the genotype calling specifically on the dog being profiled! Also, we’re selling kits on the website now. Standard on the order of one month turnaround.

51B5+P66c6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A reader mentioned Lord Dunsany in the extensive comments below (not totally surprising that I have a lot of fantasy geeks in my readership). As I’m something of a philistine I had no idea who Lord Dunsany was. So I looked him up. Well, I noticed that King Elfland’s Daughter was available for 99 cents as an e-book, so I got it. Quite interesting so far, especially with the archaic prose. The reader who brought it to my attention contended that Dunsany lay at one of the spectrum, with the other end defined by someone like George R. R. Martin. Seems about right so far. I don’t have much time to read fiction, but it seems worth exploring this a bit further.

9789814414012On Twitter I saw a reference to Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. I read a bunch of pages (actually parts of many chapters) on Amazon. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I purchased it. Recommended, though I haven’t read much of it since I was spending the last few days reading Islamic Exceptionalism. This is an interesting topic though. As some of you know I am more and more convinced that aspects of Buddhist institutional structure were laundered into Islam by Central Asian ulema in the 9th century.

Someone asked me to comment on this, A European Mitochondrial Haplotype Identified in Ancient Phoenician Remains from Carthage, North Africa:

While Phoenician culture and trade networks had a significant impact on Western civilizations, we know little about the Phoenicians themselves. In 1994, a Punic burial crypt was discovered on Byrsa Hill, near the entry to the National Museum of Carthage in Tunisia. Inside this crypt were the remains of a young man along with a range of burial goods, all dating to the late 6th century BCE. Here we describe the complete mitochondrial genome recovered from the Young Man of Byrsa and identify that he carried a rare European haplogroup, likely linking his maternal ancestry to Phoenician influenced locations somewhere on the North Mediterranean coast, the islands of the Mediterranean or the Iberian Peninsula. This result not only provides the first direct ancient DNA evidence of a Phoenician individual but the earliest evidence of a European mitochondrial haplogroup, U5b2c1, in North Africa.

518F-qjf9rL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_We should be careful about making such strong inferences from mtDNA lineages when the geographic distance wasn’t that great. But, several years ago I read Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage. It’s a good book, and worth reading at least for its description of the Battle of Cannae. There’s a reason we remember Hannibal. He was seriously bad-ass. Additionally, his family, the Barcids, had somewhat of a cosmopolitan background. Not too surprising in light of the cultural melange which Carthage had become (it had its own Senate, and seems to have been strongly influenced by Hellenistic culture). So, if I recall correctly one of Hannibal’s female ancestors may have been a Greek woman from Sicily. It light of this sort of fact we should not be entirely surprised if people in Carthage had typically European mtDNA lineages (in fact, because of Greek colonial expeditions were extremely male biased Hannibal likely had a native Sicilian mtDNA, if that woman was part of is unbroken maternal line).

Spontaneous mutations and the origin and maintenance of quantitative genetic variation. Out of Trudy Mackay’s lab (she’s the co-author of the later editions of Introduction to Quantitative Genetics). Great to see prominent professors publishing in a place like elife.

Geneticists and historians need to work together on using DNA to explore the past. More precisely:

Other efforts to get geneticists and historians speaking the same language are under way. A consortium led by ancient-DNA researcher Hannes Schroeder, at the University of Copenhagen, recently won a €1.2-million (US$1.3-million) grant for a collaborative research project called CITIGEN to make his field more accessible to historians and other humanities scholars. Like Geary, Schroeder worries that historians will be left behind if they fail to incorporate genetics into their research. “The train is running, and you jump on it or you miss it,” says Schroeder, who is also involved with an effort using ancient DNA to study the transatlantic slave trade.

Neanderthals built cave structures — and no one knows why. This stuff is getting crazier and crazier.

In ‘Game of Thrones,’ it’s time to start rooting for the White Walkers. Not really. But there is some logic to it. The “nobility” of Westeros seems so depraved, the White Walkers strike me almost like the medieval idea that the Mongols were the scourge of God.

The Holocene origins of Indians nearing conclusion

Source: Indian genetic history in three simple graphs

Mohenjo-daro_PriesterkönigAt the Eurogenes blog there has been a lot of analysis of South Asian genetic history in light of ancient DNA recently. Part of this is probably due to the fact that “Euro” genes (that is, the genetic history of European peoples) are now understood to be inextricably tied to demographic pulses and shifts which are deeply rooted in Eurasian cultural revolutions over the past 4 to 10,000 years. Only a very small fraction of the ancestry of modern Europeans dates to the period before the Last Glacial Maximum ~20,000 years ago; at least according to ancient DNA. And most of the ancestry is conditional on events which occurred during the Holocene, the past 10,000 years.* To give a sense of how recent all this is, when the first cuneiform tablets were being written, the demographic-genetic revolution which was to begin the transformation of Northern Europeans into what we now know as Northern Europeans had not completed itself, and in many regions not even begun (e.g., the Swedish-Battle Axe culture begins in 2800 BCE, several hundred years after the earliest writing in Sumerian).

Screenshot 2016-05-28 16.24.36They say you need two hands to clap. And India is the other hand that we have now when comes to understanding this process. There’s now a lot of circumstantial evidence to tie Indians to Europeans in moderately complex ways. To the left is a figure from the supplements of Punctuated bursts in human male demography inferred from 1,244 worldwide Y-chromosome sequences. You see that the phylogeny of R1a in South Asia really is a burst. There’s just not that much genetic difference between all of us South Asian R1a males, irrespective of region and caste. We’re pretty much all on a particular branch, Z93. Rare outside of South Asia today (it is found in the Altai and in Central Asia), it has been discovered in ancient males from the Srubna culture of eastern Ukraine ~4,000 years ago. In Europe R1a is found mostly in Northern Europe, and especially Eastern Europe. And yet if you look further up in the supplements you see that for haplogroup J2 most of the males are partitioned between South Asians and Southwest Europeans. Additionally, the two large branches of J2 have both South Asians and Southwest Europeans, suggesting that divergence in J2 predates the arrival of J2 bearing males to South Asia and Southwest Europe. Finally, unlike R1a you can see visually that the phylogeny of J2 is less explosive; there are more clean sequences of mutations to differentiate the various branches of this patrilineage. J2 is common, but it did not undergo nearly the same burst as R1a. It’s prevalence is due to more continuous and gradual demographic processes.

51IZQjMbVlL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_What does this mean? Various genome bloggers have been arguing since the late aughts that there seem to be two West Eurasian admixtures into South Asia, who are clearly a compound of West Eurasians and non-West Eurasians. This was supported to some extent by the 2013 publication of Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India, which found evidence for more than one admixture event in a subset of populations. Then, ancient DNA from the Caucasus added more evidence, Upper Palaeolithic genomes reveal deep roots of modern Eurasians. If you dig deep into the paper you see that Indian populations which are likely to be due to one(ish) admixture event are best modeled as a synthesis between the Kotias Caucasus hunter-gatherer and a non-West Eurasian population (i.e., Ancient South Indians or ASI). But some groups, such as high caste North Indians, seem to be better modeled with ancient Eurasian steppe groups as the source population (these groups themselves have ancestry from a Kotias-related/descended group).

In 2016 the ultimate judge is going to be ancient DNA. In the next year or so I think it will tell the tale that we’ve been hearing in the winds of modern contemporary genetic variation. What I think is that it will confirm part of the narrative and model pushed forward in First Farmers, Peter Bellwood’s book from the middle aughts. The Dravidian languages were brought to India from West Asia in the early-to-middle Holocene by agriculturalists descended from or related to the hunter-gatherers of the Caucasus. They mixed with indigenous hunter-gatherer populations, and gave rise to the first people we would recognize as modern South Asians genetically. Eventually they built what we term the Indus Valley civilization. The relatively evenness of this mix between West Asian descended Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and ASI across South Asia is due to the fact that much of the subcontinent was sparsely populated, and the farmers demographically overwhelmed the indigenous groups. The fact the non-Brahmin upper and middle castes are genetically somewhat different from tribal populations and Dalits in South India is probably due to the fact that the indigenous populations were absorbed at the lower levels of the nascent civilization.

The arrival of Indo-Europeans may or may not have been an “invasion” in a classical sense, but it was highly disruptive. The phylogeny of R1a in South Asia is strongly indicative of an incredible reproductive advantage for males bearing this haplogroup. In fact, R1a is more expansive than Indo-Aryan languages, and is found across language and caste, including among tribal populations. Previously this was argued as a reason for why R1a in South Asia must be old and indigenous to South Asia. Next generation sequencing of the Y chromosome has looked closely, and that is unlikely. The expansion of R1a, and the South Asian branch, is very recent. It hints at cultural processes of male domination and elite diffusion of lineages which we do not have a good theoretical grasp of at this moment.

But this is not the end of the story. I have spoken only of West Eurasians. What of the other half of the ancestral glass, the ASI? I have not explored this literature in detail, but there is now suggestive evidence I believe that ASI themselves may have been intrusive to the subcontinent, perhaps as hunter-gatherers migration out of Pleistocene Southeast Asia. The closest modern population to the “pure” ASI ghost group are the Andaman Islanders, and they arrived where they are today not from the Indian subcontinent, but from Burma. There is now a modest amount of evidence through various angles that the ancestors of the Munda people of South Asia must have arrived as part of the Austro-Asiatic agricultural migrations from what is today interior South China. They are not primal. There is no reason to think that that this was the first eruption of humans from this region into South Asia. Those with more understanding of paleoclimatology need to weigh in, but it may be that in the drier conditions of the Pleistocene South Asia had a naturally smaller population than Southeast Asia, so that the latter was always going to be a source and the former a sink, in terms of demographics.

In any case, if the model fits, eventually a preprint you must submit. I think the age of speculations will give way to the age of understanding, though I have no inside information at this point….

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Draining the gods from the world

51CIf5MFrJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the comment thread below there was a lot of discussion about fantasy literature. This is a topic which I have some opinions, because when I consumed fiction regularly, it was mostly fantasy and science fiction (yes, I’m a nerd). The eruption of Game of Thrones into the popular culture space has brought this classic nerdy genre into the foreground.

Though fantasy is by its nature not of this world, the reality is that some level of plausible coherence rooted in verisimilitude is necessary for it to be broadly accessible and enjoyable. Apparently Robert E. Howard wrote the Conan the Barbarian books partly because he enjoyed writing speculative historical fiction, but didn’t have the time or energy required to become well versed enough in a place and period. Therefore, he created the Hyborian Age as a distant prehistoric epoch which was misty and vague enough that he could let his imagination flow freely while still borrowing heavily from the historical and anthropological furniture of our own universe. Sometimes this can get a little ridiculous. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic books are in some ways historical fiction loosely inspired by the fantasy genre (he’s exhibited this pattern of drawing closely from historical periods and places over the last 20 years)!

And yet most fantasy deviates more strongly from our own universe, creating its own “secondary world” where correspondences to our history and places can be made, but which are more tenuous or speculative. Even in cases where connections are as clear as Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, there are very salient differences which mark the work as fantasy as opposed to fantasy inflected historical fiction. For example, Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series draws from 10th century Germany (she states this plainly), but the world is inhabited by various mythological or non-human peoples, as well is being much more gender-egalitarian than our own. I was a little skeptical of the latter part because conventional sexual dimorphism still seemed to hold in Crown of Stars, and that is I believe one of the natural reasons that men in pre-modern muscle-powered societies tend to produce highly patriarchal systems of political organization.

Which gets at the point about verisimilitude: there are stock fantastical aspects of this genre which I can take in stride, but subverting the more banal scaffolds of reality which root the world in something we can relate to bothers me. This is less of an issue in science fiction. I have read works where women take the roles of protectors to men, who conversely dominate the home. But, these works often posited biological changes where females were larger than males. In other words, they exhibited some internal coherency, insofar as the structure of the genre involves subverting and altering the parameters of what we might consider “natural.” In k10063contrast, the fantasy genre often takes us “back” to a world that resembles a static and socially “traditionalist” order, as if to counteract the shocking reality of magic or supernatural beings being normal phenomena which interpose themselves into our existence regularly.

That is why for me religion in particular is an important aspect of the texture of any fantasy work. Religion is looms large in, is often even essential and central to, the Weltanschauung of pre-modern humans. In Big Gods the author argues that a transformation of our conception of gods and their role in our lives was critical in driving the emergence of complex societies over the last 10,000 years (others point the arrow of causality in the opposite direction). Even if particular individuals who were leaders in pre-modern societies were personally not pious (e.g., Julius Caesar) the societies in which they were eminent were always suffused with religious sentiment and practice (e.g., Rome).

SilmarillionAnd yet there are two authors who in my mind stand out for giving a “thin” treatment of religious belief and practice in fantasy literature: J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula K. le Guin. These two authors are very different, very eminent in the field, and, have differing views from me on a range of topics.

I have read widely on Ursula K. le Guin’s opinions in interviews, essays, and notes in her collections of short stories. She is a very political liberal author who has sympathies with anarchism and Daoism. Additionally, le Guin has stated she she is not particularly interested in the “hard sciences,” as opposed to the “soft sciences,” and even evinced a fascination with post-structuralism in one essay! (her father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber)

In other words, I have major differences with Ursula K. le Guin in terms of our views and assessments. But overall I’ve enjoyed most of her work. She can get annoyingly preachy on occasion, but le Guin is a great prose stylist, with an ability to be evocative without being pretentious (much of her work is aimed at juveniles and young adults, so that probably necessitates enforced clarity). Because of her liberal politics she enjoys inverting, distorting, or confounding racial expectations. Unlike most of science fiction and fantasy, especially in the period she was writing actively, le Guin’s protagonists are not invariably white males. Despite not being a white male personally I have no major issue with identifying with white male characters (race is not a major personal identity for me). But, because le Guin has non-white/non-male protagonists her works are often situated in worlds that depart from the standard issue fantasy or science fiction settings. And often that’s a good thing.

Her Earthsea novels are epic fantasy, but are strong departures from the typical Nordic backdrop one finds in this genre. Most of the people, and the protagonists which are you meant to identify with, are clearly non-white, with dark brown to olive complexions and dark hair. In contrast, the only recognizably Northern Europe modeled population are marginal barbarians, beyond the limes of the oikoumene, with bizarre folkways and practices. But Earthsea is not a progressive cartoon. Its system of magic is novel and memorable, while its geographic setting is on a world which is characterized by a vast archipelago of islands, rather than on contiguous continents! This is somewhat strange, but not totally fantastical. Consider Majapahit. All of these elements are atypical of classical epic fantasy, but they don’t go beyond the bounds of imagined possibilities, or even plausible realities.

J. R. R. Tolkien couldn’t have been more different. A Roman Catholic who valorized the British bourgeois and supported Franco, his politics are inverted from those of le Guin. An incredible world-builder, Tolkien famously invented the template for epic fantasy. Some writers, such as Terry Brooks, have made very lucrative careers rearranging the plot elements and motifs from Tolkien’s novels. Unfortunately much of fantasy for decades consisted of clones of Tolkien’s work, in part because his world was so lovingly constructed and fleshed out, and also because it was so easy to just generate derivative narratives. This was the standard against which le Guin created her film negative when it came time to world-build.

And yet both authors gave little space to the elaboration of religious phenomena in their pre-modern fantasy! The only conventional theists in Earthsea are the barbaric (white) Kargads. The other inhabitants of Earthsea are similarly to atheist Daoists, rather like le Guin herself. And just as with race and place, she has admitted plainly that she excluded and marginalized supernatural religion because she didn’t much care for it. She wanted to make something radically different.

The situation with Tolkien is more complex. His world had demi-gods (Ainur) and God (Eru). These are not entities you have faith in, rather, they clearly exist and are known to exist to all. The antagonists do not disbelieve in the Ainur, they rebel against them. Tolkien himself was a Catholic, and claimed his work was fundamentally Catholic, but many critics are skeptical. Some have suggested because he was very religious in a Christian sense, and well versed in the folkways of the Northern European pagans from whose mythos he drew to construct his world, he was uncomfortable with realistically integrating their religious system into his work. It offended his Christianity to see what were clearly Northern European people practicing false religions. Though le Guin and Tolkien are starkly different in their attitudes toward religion, they ultimately arrive at the same conclusion that a realistic religious system is not congenial to their own preferences or comfort.

I believe their readers are more poor for it, and it detracts from the thick textures which otherwise characterize their worlds.

If maternal stress is a problem, stop stressing pregnant women out!

Screenshot 2016-05-25 01.10.34The title is my response to this article in The Washington Post, Inequality might start before we’re even born. The screenshot to the left is from Twitter, and shows an alternate title. The article is written by a journalist whose work I normally am appreciate of, but when I saw that I started swearing. There’s just no way that that’s nothing but some spurious correlation. But this research is just too sexy not to write up. It has everything. Inequality. Scientific revolution. And some catchy hooks which relate to American culture (sports).

expecting-betterObviously stories like the above are why Emily Oster had to write Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong–and What You Really Need to Know. Mind you, the fact that Mendelian genetics works as a model should give you a clue as to the reality that epigenetic stress is not ubiquitous in explaining inter-generational variation. But it doesn’t hurt to have a University of Chicago economist step in to rebut the latest well-meaning moral panics.

Here is the reason I am posting this: if you actually believe that mild stress has major long-term impacts, why would the media post a piece that probably induces stress in pregnant women!

Human inequality is not fair: NBA edition

The_Sports_Gene_Book_Cover_2013Interesting piece in The Wall Street Journal, which could have been cribbed from David Epstein’s The Sports Gene (a very good book I might add), NBA Basketball Runs in the Family (if you go to Google News and search for the title it should come up and you can get a free copy):

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of biographical data on every NBA player, 48.8% are related to current or former elite athletes—defined as anyone who has played a sport professionally, in the NCAA or at national-team level. While other leagues feature notable dynasties—the Manning’s of the NFL or the Griffey’s in baseball—only about 17.5% of NFL players and 14.5% of MLB players are related to other elite athletes, based on a similar study.

The connectedness in the NBA likely comes down to the importance of height in elite basketball. The average NBA player is about 6-feet, 6-inches tall, which is 11 inches taller than the average American male, according to Census data.

As indicated in the piece you aren’t seeing that the 10,000 hour rule is a secret passed down within families. If you are not very tall it is unlikely that 10,000 hours of practice will result in you becoming a professional athlete in the NBA. The article emphasizes that the enrichment of those with relatives who had played in the NBA is far greater than the NFL or MLB, but please note that the average person’s odds of entering any professional sport is infinitesimal. Well, not quite, but the odds are low.

The piece in The Wall Street Journal is valuable for the added data, but there a few conceptual aspects which I’m not satisfied with. Researchers have known for decades that most of the variation in the population in non-malnourished societies in height is due to variation in genetics. 80 percent heritability is conservative. This can lead to some confused intuitions though. The correlation between siblings is high, but not that high, in the range of ~0.50. That translates to an average difference in height of nearly two inches.

41ZhyEU5lGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In other words, parental or sibling success in the NBA is not destiny. On the contrary. Nearly half of current players may have had relatives who played in the NBA, but most of the people who have relatives who played in the NBA did not themselves play in the NBA. But, obviously having relatives is incredibly predictive of much higher than normal odds (orders of magnitude greater!) of becoming a professional.

Why? As noted in the article NBA players need to have an intersection of traits which are very deviated from the norm. The range restriction on height, with “very short” players being mildly above average the human male median, shrinks the pool of potential candidates a lot. Fourteen years ago James F. Crow wrote Unequal by Nature: A geneticist’s perspective on human differences. Crow observes “that whenever a society singles out individuals who are outstanding or unusual in any way, the statistical contrast between means and extremes comes to the fore.” As it happens being a professional basketball player is not just about height; one needs to also be athletic, and exhibit a modicum of agility and skill. At the collegiate level there are many relatively tall players, but most of them do not have the skill level of an NBA player. The best-of-the-best have often been NBA players who combine great height with high skill levels (e.g., Lebron James, Magic Johnson, and Kevin Garnett being examples; Michael Jordan, a few inches shorter than James, had greater skill, but he is close to the NBA median).

The article also highlights the fact that individual humans often want to attribute their own success to their hard work, or choices their parents made. Many of the players interviewed did not deny the importance of their size and athletic endowments, but emphasized the importance of learned work ethic and competition with family members of similar skill levels and physique. This illustrates two other aspects of quantitative genetics: gene-environment interaction and gene-environment correlation. Obviously these are real phenomena. But are they really relevant for an NBA player?

David Robinson grew up in a middle class family (his father was an engineer). He scored 1320 on the pre-recentered SAT (that puts his IQ well above two standard deviations) and majored in mathematics at the Naval Academy. Robinson’s non-basketball activities were, and are, copious (and not in a Dennis Rodman fashion).

He was not initially very good at basketball in secondary school, but underwent a massive growth spurt in his late teens. Eventually he became a standout basketball player at the collegiate level, and went on to a storied career (after serving some time in the navy). My point with recounting this is that even someone like David Robinson, who had many alternative paths, talents, and opportunities, and evinced no burning desire to become a basketball player at all costs, became a professional. Why? Because his raw talent was clear, and the reality is that becoming a professional basketball players is highly lucrative. The average NBA player earns millions. Even a washout player can earn millions in one year.

So we are at this point moving from the domain of quantitative genetics, to economics. Incentives matter. Millions of young people delude themselves into thinking they have a chance. The reality is that even someone like Jeff Hornacek, perhaps a mascot for those who argue that work ethic can match talent, is not physically typical (he’s 6’4). And, let’s be honest, work ethic matters a lot, but it too is heritable (mediated through conscientiousness). Wheels within wheels….

Open Thread, 5/23/2016

The origin of the white walkers (GoT).

a-game-of-thronesDon’t click the above unless you want a major book spoiler. But the television show Game of Thrones is pushing deep into uncharted territory. And by book spoiler, I don’t mean the reveal about Hodor. Rather, the scene above reveals the origins of the Others, also known as the white walkers.

Or does it? We’re now in a zone where perhaps the show is deviating from George R. R. Martin’s own vision. But I doubt it, because the explanation is actually true to the author’s philosophy when it comes to fantasy. There’s a lot of naturalism, and magic and the supernatural are inferred, and their exact character are difficult to pin down. By this, I mean that in J. R. R. Tolkien the supernatural mythos was well developed, and all understood it to be concretely real in a straightforward sense. Similarly, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson have universes where gods clearly exist and have supernatural agency. George R. R. Martin’s world of grays is more attuned to the mindset of a religious skeptic, to the point of have a fair number of religious nonbelievers as major characters.

One month out now from the Evolution Meeting. Will probably drop in now and then as I’m normally not that far from the convention center.

A bunch of people in the tech scene in Austin are rather upset about the whole Uber/Lyft leaving town thing (honestly, I’ve been hearing about this for 6 months, but like a lot of people I just didn’t believe it would come to this). So there’s one solution, Nonprofit Uber alternative springs from Austin tech minds. Should be up and ready for the Evolution Meeting. So who knows.

Spent the weekend with some out of town friends who are immersed in genomics. Always fun when you can spend a day talking shop in this sort of fluid manner.

Some people complaining again that I’m not nice to commenters. First, these complaints never have any effect. Second, a lot of you shouldn’t comment when you have nothing valuable to contribute to a particular thread. Some of you lack domain specific insight. And some of you are just plain old stupid, even if well intentioned. I hope my irritation that you comment makes you feel appropriately unwelcome.

Speaking of rudeness, Bruenighazi: how a feisty Bernie blogger’s firing explains Democratic politics in 2016. And, Is Matt Bruenig a Populist Martyr? Bruenig certainly seems to behave in a nasty manner in relation to those on his “enemies list.” That probably justified Demos firing him, as that sort of behavior can ruffle too many feathers. But that doesn’t negate the reality that his picking on someone in a position of power, as he did, probably was the immediate cause of what happened to him. Additionally, I’m not going to lie, I exhibit more tolerance towards class-based attacks than I do race/sex/gender stuff, because so often the latter is just signaling and opportunism. I am not on the Left, so I don’t support a lot of Left economic policies, but the logic of self-interest here is at least somewhat logical. In contrast, race/sex/gender identity politics easily devolves into parody.

On the other hand, this massive decline in poverty is despite Left activism against markets.

The ancient scramble for Eurasia


When I wrote the Pleistocene was humanity’s Hyborian age, I meant humanity. For contingent reasons the new genetic sciences of ancient DNA have elucidated the history of northwest Eurasia first. But prior to the Great Divergence Europe was not quite so exceptional. In fact the historian Victor Lieberman wrote Strange Parallels, his macrohistory of Eurasia, to highlight just how similar the trajectories of Western Europe and mainland Southeast Asia were up until the early modern era, when the West distanced itself from the rest. In short, European prehistory updates our priors for the prehistory of us all.

For various reasons having to do with professional responsibilities I look at TreeMix plots quite often. Like PCA TreeMix is great for exploratory data analysis. You throw a bunch of populations in there, and it searches a bunch of parameters which can fit the model. But often the results are weird.

They’re not weird because they’re “wrong.” They’re weird because we’ll forcing data to give us answers, and the model pops out something which is reasonable with the conditions imposed on it. And often we just don’t have the big picture. Statistical inference was indicating strange connections between Native Americans and Europeans for the past decade…but it took ancient DNA from Siberia to resolve the mystery. Europeans and Amerindians exhibit ancestry from a shared common population. In Europe this ancestry is relatively recent, on the order of the past ~4 to 5 thousand years. Statistical genetic inference can tell us our model is missing something, but it can not always specify clearly just exactly what we’re missing.

The image above from a TreeMix plot is hard to make out; click it. But what it will show you are two things which are strange:

1) Gene flow from between the East African (mostly HapMap Masai for what it’s worth) node and Mbuti (HGDP) to the Papuans (HGDP).

2) Gene flow from near the East African node to the point which defines the whole East Eurasian, Amerindian, and Oceanian, nodes.

I would laugh this off, but I see it all the time in TreeMix. I know I’m not the only one. I have no explanation for it. It’s obviously not recent admixture. Rather, there are affinities between populations which we just don’t have a good model for. Knowing what we know about ancient Europe it is mostly likely that these gene flow edges which seem inexplicable reflect prehistoric events which make sense only in the context of population patterns which have been totally obscured over the last 10,000 years. Ancient DNA from China will probably shed a great deal of light on these topics. I predict that the Chinese will exhibit the same discontinuity with their Paleolithic ancestors that modern Europeans do, and the affinities between East Eurasians and some Africans in these TreeMix plots probably is a shadow of a “ghost population” which has been absorbed in Eurasia, and may have contributed to some of the ancestry of a group which migrated back to Africa.

Notes I set TreeMix to check for covariance across blocks of 1000 SNPs. I had 215,000 total markers in the data set (very high quality ones). I rooted it with Mbuti, set 5 migration edges, and ran it 10 times. They all looked the same. Most of the populations are pooled from public sources.

Europe on a finer cartographic scale

In the comments below it seems that most people don’t know about the existence of Eurostat, and the NUTS2 and NUTS3 maps which they generate. They’re really great, insofar as they give you a fine-grained picture of variation within Europe. Sometimes you see how national boundaries matter a great deal…and in other ways how they don’t.

Above you see a NUTS3 map of purchasing power in relation to the European median. A few things that are salient.

1) France and the United Kingdom exhibit a great deal of wealth concentration around their capital cities.

2) The geographically fragmented and culturally diverse zone from the Low Countries down to Italy’s Po River Valley is seems to be characterized by a large number of economically vibrant cities/regions. The only common variable that I’ve ever been able to point to for this area is that they were under Habsburg hegemony for a very long time.

3) There are zones of poorer nations, such as Spain, which are wealthier than most regions of wealthier regions (e.g., Catalonia is more prosperous than the north of England or rural France across the border).

4) A few of the cities of Eastern Europe seem to be diverging from their host nations.

Below are screenshots of maps I generated from Eurostat, submitted for your comment (remember, don’t be stupid).

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