Institutional religion needs institutions

bw04060031396378081It is a common assertion to state Christianity helped maintain the continuity of Classical civilization down to the Medieval era, through the “Dark Age” of Europe after the Fall of Rome. A more extreme position is that Christianity was a necessary condition for the maintenance of this civilizational tradition. I recall once reading an alternative history short story where illiterate tribesman visit the ruins of Rome, and muse about the consequences of Maxentius’ victory over Constantine at Milvian Bridge (this is the “point of departure”).

Obviously no one denies that the Christian Church was essential in maintaining ancient learning and ideas, whether through concrete steps such as copying in scriptoriums, or, more abstractly by integrating with into intellectual armamentarium tools developed by the Greeks (e.g., Greek philosophy). But, there is a line of thinking that asserts that there was something profound about the Christian religion which allowed for the maintenance of civilization against the barbarian hordes. Whether it is true or not is not an argument that is winnable in this space. But, the power of ideas to shape the course of human history is more tractable.

What I would suggest is that complex human phenomena, such as Christianity, are not reducible down to abstract sets of ideas in terms of how they manifest themselves in our world. That is, Christianity is only marginally about the Athanasian Creed, or even the sacrifice made by the Son of God, from a naturalistic perspective. Rather, the religion includes a broader set of institutions and folkways which derive from the culture at large (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church is the “ghost of the Roman Empire”). Additionally, it also expresses common human intuitions about the world and social relations.

But, as a complex cultural phenomenon, Christianity is conditional on complex culture. That is, Christianity may have aided the preservation of learning in the Dark Ages, but it couldn’t be the necessary cause of this preservation because too is an effect. The persistence of Christianity in the post-Roman world was a hallmark of those regions which maintained Romanitas to a greater extent. Christianity seems to have disappeared broadly (even if it persisted residually) from areas of the Roman Empire where there was total social collapse and transformation; the regions of Britain conquered by the Anglo-Saxons, much of the interior of Pannonia, Dacia, and Thrace. These are zones of cultural turnover. But, we know from genetics that a substantial local population persisted. In the Balkans and England a large minority of the ancestry derives from migrations which occurred after the year 500, but only a minority. But, the Roman majority clearly lost the cultural commanding heights, and with that the elite support for Christianity. These were zones that had to be re-Christianized in later centuries, even though a substantial proportion of the population probably had had Christian ancestors before.

congo_main_1894003fIt isn’t that there was a proactive campaign of paganization, analogous to what occurred in 17th century Japan against the Christian population, who were forced to register with Buddhist temples. Rather, the total defenestration of the old Roman elites in these areas made it so that the new elites seem to have had little incentive to convert and patronize the old religion. This is in contrast to the situation in post-Roman Gaul (Francia), Spain and Italy, where Roman era elites maintained enough continuity to influence the German warrior elites (though in many cases these elites were already Christian, they were Arian sectarians, whose religious difference marked them off from the old nobility and the peasantry).

This all came to mind when I began to read portions of Congo: The Epic History of a People. I am reading this book for two reasons. After Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, I have come to think that the Congo basin is one of the great laboratories of the forces which drive cultural geography. As such, I have an eye out for books on the Congo. Second, it was a summer reading deal for the Kindle, and so cheaper than a Starbucks coffee.

The second relevant to this post: after the decline of the Kingdom of Kongo a residual memory of Christianity persisted across broad areas. But, Christianity became integrated into African shamanism and folk religion, and lost all its substantive distinctiveness from African traditional religion. The few Europeans who ventured into the interior in the 19th century reported villages where there were survivals of Christian ideas, but they had transformed beyond simple recognition. In the 20th century the southwest portion Congo basin, which been under Kongo rule, therefore became the focal point for missionary activity again.

What is true for Christianity is probably true for many complex human ideas and institutions that we think are here for good. The reality is that complexity of thought and contingency of logic are dependent on the surpluses generated by a a highly developed economy and centralized state.

Addendum: The tendency to culturally evolve seems normal. It happened to Islam in China when it was isolated from the broader world Islamic community.

Why I’m bearish on Netflix

Netflix-Old-LogoMy Netflix account is going up in price from $7.99 to $9.99. They had warned this was going to happen. I don’t use Netflix much, so I’ve wondered if I should cancel (I have Amazon video options through Amazon Prime too). I probably won’t do so now, as it’s really cheap. But I don’t have time to “binge watch” television shows, and never get around to watching movies. So who knows?

The New York Times magazine had a piece up recently, Can Netflix Survive In the New World It Created. It’s interesting, but I want to again highlight Netflix’s culture in relation to employment: they focus on ‘superstars’ and don’t have any loyalty nor do they expect loyalty. The person who pushed for this policy was herself let go:

One of my last interviews at Netflix was with Tawni Cranz, the company’s current chief talent officer, who started under Patty McCord in 2007. Five years later, McCord, her mentor, left. When I asked her why, she visibly flinched. She wouldn’t explain, but I learned later that Hastings had let her go.

As long as Netflix is riding high, its policy in relation to employees will return yields. The problem is when the first sign of trouble crops up literally every employee will be running out the doors. I think Netflix is basically like an asexual lineage. When it’s optimized for its environment, it doesn’t pay the “two-fold cost of sex,” and it enters growth phase. But these lineages are far less robust to environmental turbulence, as all their eggs are in one genetic basket. Similarly, Netflix has put all its eggs into the basket of ideal and high return skills for current market conditions. There is no reserve of loyalty or cohesion to push through tough times, when ‘rational’ employees with prospects, which all of its employees presumably have, would simply jump ship.

Open Thread, 6/26/2016

18920161I have been very busy obviously. This is not a complaint, though I wish I could spend more time with my family. I do things professionally that I love. And, I’m well compensated for it.

Many people are not in a similar situation. I don’t have a major comment on the recent British vote aside from the fact that in a democracy with one person (adult) one vote the outcomes are not always going to be congenial to elites. I’d rather not be reductive, but, if people in large numbers are behaving in a manner that you perceive to be nihilistic, it may have something to do with your lack of comprehension about their values or prospects. The elites over the past ten years do seem to be engaging in a full throttle game of economic (neoliberal and pro-corporate) and cultural capture of the nation-state. This has triggered populism of the Left and Right. In popular democracies that means that the elites can sometimes lose, because non-elites believe they have nothing to lose.

Obviously I have not been able to sit down and write a long treatment of Iosif Lazaridis’ magisterial The genetic structure of the world’s first farmers. Greg Cochran has some comment, while the comment threads of Eurogenes are often informative. I would recommend that you read the supplementary document first. It’s basically a small book.

A few quick comments though. David Reich has stated that all of the world’s major populations are the products of relatively recent admixtures (i.e., the last 10,000 years after the Ice Age). In Lazaridis’ et al. the authors suggest that West Eurasian populations can be thought of as a mix of four root populations which flourished ~10,000 years ago. But I’d like to add that two of the four, the farmer populations, are themselves admixtures between two very distinct streams. A step backward and you have three root populations: Basal Eurasians, Ancient North Eurasians, and a variegated “West Hunter-Gatherer” set of groups. We have ancient genomes for the last two groups in a relatively unadmixed form, but not the first.

Also, 2007 PNAS paper Genetic evidence for a second domestication of barley (Hordeum vulgare) east of the Fertile Crescent: “We use differences in haplotype frequency among geographic regions at multiple loci to infer at least two domestications of barley; one within the Fertile Crescent and a second 1,500–3,000 km farther east. The Fertile Crescent domestication contributed the majority of diversity in European and American cultivars, whereas the second domestication contributed most of the diversity in barley from Central Asia to the Far East.” (via Jeff Ross-Ibarra)

One of the things that ancient genomes have taught us is that the past was subject to heroic tumult. Demographic shifts were not like the diffusion of heat through space, but a phase transition. At some point I want to go back to the most ancient oral and textual memories of Holocene man. In particular, the Rig Veda seems likely to have fragments of a world that made us. Any suggestions for good translations? (I have the Griffith one).

Comments have been pretty good recently by the way. Keep it up.

What else is going on?

Genomics: blue sky science to commodity in 15 years


The chart is from an article in Nature. But the source is NHGRI. It illustrates that between 2008 and 2012 genomics as a field crushed Moore’s law. Then there was a leveling off between 2012 and the middle of 2015. Illumina had a quasi-monopoly for that period and sequencing costs did not decrease too much. But something changed in the past year. As you can see it’s as if we’re back in 2008, or at least we see hints of the beginning of another major crash. I assume part of this is that Oxford Nanopore is finally starting to present a possible future of a disruption of Illumina’s dominance. Though that’s still a very speculative possibility.

But second, Illumina itself sees sequencing as a commodity service, and is pushing the price point down to get more data out there. Sort of like IBM transitioned from being a company that sold you big metal boxes, to a company where big metal boxes were part of an ecology of services that you purchased, Illumina is imagining a future where the sequence is just the first step, and not a very remunerative one at that.

To take a step back, we’ve gone from the 1990s, where the human genome cost about $3 billion dollars to sequence, to today where small firms like Full Genomes are pushing $1,450 high quality whole genomes to consumers. Veritas is gone even lower, though it seems that they’re limiting the supply right now.

It’s easy to be pessimistic. But there is reason for optimism about the power of technology.

The problem of evil in A Song of Ice and Fire

340px-Codex_Gigas_devilThere has been extensive discussion online about the fact that the character of Ramsay Bolton on the HBO television show Game of Thrones was irredeemably psychopathic, cruel, and so ghoulishly sadistic as to be a cartoon of evil. But as a reader of the books I’ve generally shrugged off these complaints, because the character is even more perverse on the page than the screen. If you don’t believe me, this article in Vulture lays it out comparatively. It isn’t just that Ramsay kills people, most of the “nobility” in George. R. R. Martin’s world are butchers. It is who and how that is more shocking. For Ramsay killing is not simply a means, but an ends.

Screenshot 2016-06-20 20.31.42Not only is the book Ramsay even more inhumane than the television Ramsay, but he doesn’t exhibit an incongruity between his physical appearance and his behavior, as he does on the television show. That is, while the actor who plays Ramsay is handsome, in the books he described as not not physically attractive at all.

All this in and of itself doesn’t raise eyebrows. George R. R. Martin doesn’t write characters who are boy-scouts. He admits to preferring shades of gray. But Ramsay is no shade of gray. Who then is the equivalent to Ramsay? It seems that in this case Martin’s world is somehow unbalanced.

The Riders of Rohan turn the tide at Cannae

18925629._UY200_The show runners of Game of Thrones (the HBO television which will actually complete its run under its original creators) admitted that they patterned part of the battle in yesterday’s episode on the Battle of Cannae. This was obvious to me, as I was actually thinking that the Boltons were exhibiting something similar to the Carthaginian double envelopment. Pretty cool synthesis of a callback to The Two Towers, as well as integrating real history.*

If you want to read a great description of Cannae, I’d recommend Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars.

* Somewhat anachronistically, as the phalanx formation was used by the Romans, and perhaps not the Carthaginians.

The New Real Preview Review

If you aren’t following the New Real Peer Review, you should. Endless enjoyment. What happened to the “old” Twitter account? The Daily Caller has an article about it, Social Justice Warriors Declare Battle On Colleague For Exposing Their ‘Research’. Aristotle may be a dead white male, but he had these people dead his sights:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homera denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.

Scientists are political too. But their object of study is real, and imposes the ultimate veto, that of the truth test. Critical Theory in contrast is fiction, and of a socially destructive rather than edifying sort.

Daenerys: very inbred but not very Targaryen

Screenshot 2016-06-14 22.09.51
Credit: poly-m (deviantART)

Vox has a post up, This comprehensive Targaryen family tree explains Game of Thrones’ most complicated dynasty. I don’t really know if the family tree explains much, but it’s interesting. It does highlight two important dynamics which are probably important.

Screenshot 2016-06-14 22.51.18The Targaryen’s are notoriously inbred. The rationale for this is that their affinity with dragons is a heritable trait, and that is the basis of their power (or it was before all the dragons died, at least until Daenerys brought them back). If they mixed their genes with outsiders presumably they would dilute that ability. Of course that doesn’t take into account selection for the trait, which would diminish any dilution through outbreeding.

As you can see Daenerys’ parents and grandparents were full siblings. Using a pedigree method her Wright’s coefficient of inbreeding would be 0.375. For a point of comparison, the child of parents who were full siblings, but whose own parents were unrelated, would have a coefficient of inbreeding of 0.25. The terminal individual in the genealogy of the Spanish Habsburgs, often cited as a case study of how inbreeding can lead to the extinction of a lineage through sterility and imbecility, had a Wright’s coefficient of inbreeding of 0.254. Something really doesn’t add up in terms of the viability of the offspring of the Mad King and his sister-wife (to get a sense of what multi-generation inbreeding might do, please see the Colt family). But then, it’s fantasy, and genetics is one area where George R. R. Martin’s gritty verisimilitude gives way to flights of fancy.

a-knight-of-the-seven-kingdoms-jpgA second aspect of the generation which Daenerys is a member of is that they are not very Valyrian in terms of their ancestry. More precisely, they are at most ~1/8th Valyrian.

This might surprise some, as the incestuous and closed-off nature of the Targaryen’s plays a huge role in the backdrop of George R. R. Martin’s novels. But incestuous marriage is actually a resurrected custom of the previous two generations before Daenery. Her great-grandfather, Aegon Vth, “Egg” from the novellas, was the result of two generations of outmarriage (so he was outbred). This pattern of outmarriage was not a conscious shift in the mores of the Targaryen royal house, but happenstance. Aegon’s father and grandfather both came to the throne because other senior claimants died. They were not expected to become kings. Aegon’s mother was a Dayne, while his paternal grandmother was a Martell. He himself married Betha Blackwood (a family of First Men background which still worships the old gods). Therefore, Daenery’s two grandparents were both 1/8th Valyrian, her parents were 1/8th Valyrian, and she is 1/8th Valyrian (at least that’s the expected value).

Latest version of ADMIXTOOLS is up!

Screenshot 2016-06-13 18.15.37

Just been notified that there’s an update to Admixtools GitHub. Also, of interest to some: “This contains a public domain version of qpGraph, using the GNU subroutine library (gsl).” You can find example data the Reich lab website.

(related note, also might check out Alicia Martin’s GitHub, it has a lot of local ancestry stuff)