Western contact with China did not occur 3,000 years ago

12_01_2016_Alice_headshotThe new Alice Roberts documentary is going viral. Or at least its spin is.

E.g., Western contact with China began long before Marco Polo, experts say:

However, Chinese historians recorded much earlier visits by people thought by some to have been emissaries from the Roman Empire during the Second and Third Centuries AD.

“We now have evidence that close contact existed between the First Emperor’s China and the West before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought,” said Senior Archaeologist Li Xiuzhen, from the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum.

A separate study shows European-specific mitochondrial DNA has been found at sites in China’s western-most Xinjiang Province, suggesting that Westerners may have settled, lived and died there before and during the time of the First Emperor.

Let’s go with the easy part first: there were no “Western” people when the Afanasevo culture was pushing into the fringes of what is today Xinjiang.

There are two extreme polarities of definition of what Western is. One is cultural.

516C6LMzGTLAs outlined in David Gress’ From Plato To NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, the West did not emerge fully grown like Athena from the head of Zeus in the 6th century BCE along the Aegean. Rather, the West evolved organically as a synthesis over time of Classical Greco-Roman elements, Christianity, and later the post-Roman societies, often dominated by barbarian martial elites. By  this definition it is clear that a blue-eyed Sogdian merchant who was resident in Xian in the 7th century was not Western. Their only affiliation with the West would be adherence to Christian Church derived from Persia, and even here this stream of Christianity was relatively marginal that of the Western variety (most Sogdians were probably Zoroastrians of course).

A second definition of being Western is racial, whether explicit or implicit. That is, there is an association with being Western and white. This is certainly true, but the problem with this formulation is that though Western people were invariably white, white people were not invariably Western. To give a concrete example, Buddhist Tocharians who had light hair and eyes, and flourished as late as 1000 A.D, were white people by any definition, but they were not Western in anything but the most reductive and biologistic sense. The cultural valence of what it means to be Western is clear on the southeastern fringes of Europe, where Muslim populations are often considered non-Western, even when they are genetically similar to their Christian neighbors.

The mtDNA they found is probably of haplogroup U, or perhaps H. Its presence in Eastern Asians is unsurprising, as skeins of migration seem to have laced themselves across the landscape of Eurasia across the whole Holocene, and earlier.

Finally, I think the media is misleading its depiction of Greek influence. Greco-Bactrians were culturally influential for several centuries in Asia. The Greek influence then did not come from the Mediterranean, but from the furthest outputs of Hellenistic society. Still noteworthy, but not so spectacularly surprising.

Asian American model minority myth remains mythical

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American Math Olympiad Team, 2015

For various ideological reasons there is an idea in some parts of the academy that Asian Americans are not a “model minority.” That that “model minority” designation is a myth. The mainstream media often repeats the idea that this is a myth which has been “debunked.”

Actually, it hasn’t been debunked. Rather, through a set of common talking points and empirical shell games Asian American achievement is masked, obfuscated, and explained away. This is not to say that Asian Americans have not, and do not, experience racism. But, it is to assert that the perceptions of Asian American success in particular domains is not an illusion. Your eyes and mind are perceiving real patterns (see here for a typical example of the “Asian American model minority myth”).

From PBS, These groups of Asian-Americans rarely attend college, but California is trying to change that:

Chang, a 22-year-old psychology student at California State University Fresno who grew up in this Central Valley city, chose to study close to home, and she’ll probably remain on campus for her master’s degree. But for someone from an ethnic group that contradicts the Asian-American “model minority” myth, even this is a rare achievement.

As one group of Asians who don’t go to college in large numbers, the Hmong help illustrate the complex changing demographics of students arriving at American universities and colleges: increasingly nonwhite, low-income, and first-generation.

Among the 281,000 Hmong in the United States, 38 percent have less than a high school degree, about 25 percentage points lower than both the Asian-American and U.S. averages, according to the Center for American Progress. Just 14 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, less than half the national average.

Upending the stereotype that most Asian-American children go to college, the Hmong and other Southeast Asian immigrants including Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese have markedly low college-going rates — especially compared with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans, who are actually more likely than other Americans to earn bachelor’s degrees.

This is the “Hmong gambit.” I’ve been hearing about this for 20 years from Asian American activist friends. The Hmong are genuinely marginalized. They were marginalized in Laos as well, where they were a hill tribe outside of the pale of Theravada Buddhist civilization. The fact that they have particular trouble integrating into the United States in comparison to other Asian Americans is not surprising. But the Hmong are not very representative of California Asian Americans. 

UC Berkeley provides undergraduate (non-international) student data. And you can find various Asian American ethnic numbers from the Census and other sites.

Berkeley 2015 % California 2010 % Ratio
Chinese 20.5% 3.9% 5.26
Filipino 3.4% 3.9% 0.87
Japanese 2.1% 0.7% 2.82
Korean 5.3% 1.4% 3.94
South Asian 8.2% 1.8% 4.55
Vietnamese 3.6% 1.7% 2.1

One thing you can see immediately is that the reporting is sloppy and uninformed. Vietnamese shouldn’t be bracketed with other Southeast Asians. They are somewhat overrepresented at Berkeley. This is not surprising. Many of the Vietnamese are themselves Hoa, or from the Catholic middle class. The Filipinos are represented at about their proportion in the population. The Chinese, South Asians (mostly Indian), Koreans, and Japanese are all overrepresented.

At this point you might wonder about all the other groups such as Pacific Islanders, Cambodians, and Mongolians (?). But look up the numbers and you’ll see that the six groups above represent 80-90% of Asian Americans in California. These are representative communities, not the Hmong.

Note: One aspect of the “model minority myth” myth is that the 1965 immigration system, which was highly selective for the first post-65 wave of Asians, shaped modern conceptions. More or less this is a lie, as the “model minority” thesis was formulated in the 1960s against the backdrop of black urban unrest, and when “Asian American” mean Chinese and Japanese, who were by and large descendants of very modest people. In the case of the Japanese in particular it is well known that those who left the home islands were often the most socially and economically marginalized.

Mormons among the gentiles

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David_Hackett_Fischer_-_Albion's_Seed_Four_British_Folkways_in_America.jpegThere has been lots of comment on Mormons and politics recently. I think the key aspect which is underemphasized in these pieces are the deep differences within Anglo-American cultural streams (as opposed to the short-term reasons for Mormon disaffection from the conservative coalition, such as their internationalism). If you haven’t read Albion’s Seed, you should. If you have read Albion’s Seed, also read The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America, and American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North AmericaThe Cousins’ Wars in particular frames Albion’s Seed into a global context.

51FGXEssAhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The major insight from these works of narrative history is that a model which incorporates the genealogical origin of Anglo-American subcultures hundreds, and even thousands, of years into the past can be quite fruitful. In David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed the biggest chasm is arguably between Yankees and the Scots-Irish. Geographically distinctive today, even their origins in the British Isles were disparate (mostly East Anglia toward London, and borders of England and Scotland, respectively).

The cultural elites of the Yankees ultimately gave rise to a large portion of the Northeastern WASP ascendancy (including the Bush family) in a direction fashion, or influenced immigrants who assimilated into that subculture (including the Kennedy family). The ~30,000 settlers who took root in New England in the 1630s ultimately became the ~750,000 colonials in the New England colonies at the cusp of the Revolutionary War. The Scots-Irish in contrast are identified not by their elite families, the ‘backcountry ascendancy,’ but their marginalized position as a subculture in comparison to the other Anglo-American streams. When they arrived in the mid-18th century from Ulster and the English-Scottish border region they were termed “crackers.” Here is the Wikipedia entry explaining the origin of the term:

A 1783 pejorative use of “crackers” specifies men who “are descended from convicts that were transported from Great Britain to Virginia at different times, and inherit so much profligacy from their ancestors, that they are the most abandoned set of men on earth.” [3] Benjamin Franklin, in his memoirs (1790), referred to “a race of runnagates and crackers, equally wild and savage as the Indians” who inhabit the “desert[ed] woods and mountains.” [4]

The differences between the Yankees and Scots-Irish redound down to the present. In 1850 Arkansas and Michigan were two states of roughly similar population settled at the same time, by Scots-Irish and Yankees respectively, in the main. While Arkansas hardly had any public schools, Michigan had hundreds. The differences between Yankees and Scots-Irish emerge over and over in the cultural fissures of “mixed” states such as Ohio, Illinois, and Kansas.

How does this tie in to Mormons? The early cultural history of Mormons is directly rooted in the Yankee Diaspora. The Yankees of New England were a fecund lot in the years around 1800, and they spilled over into upstate New York, and across a vast swath of the Midwest ringing around the Great Lakes. The original Mormons were by and large Yankees, and their migration west took them into the lands of the Scots-Irish, who descended upon them like wolves to the slaughter, as was often the case when Yankees faced Scots-Irish in an unorganized fashion.

Below the fold is a post from 2008 that I wrote which I think is now relevant again. So I am reposting it. The Mormon position within the Religious Right is one driven by sincere and genuine alignments of values, but on a deep level it will always be tactical individually, because this is an alliance of two very different groups in their mores and history. That means that one shouldn’t expect individuals from one group to die on the hopeless hill for the other.

Read More

Open Thread, 10/09/2016

8412068Episode 728: The Wells Fargo Hustle. Elizabeth Warren is right, there won’t be any accountability at the top. Hope I’m wrong.

Started reading A New History of Western Philosophy last summer, but got bogged down in the medieval section. I started reading it last week and it’s going much faster now that I’m in the “modern” section.

Sensitivity of quantitative traits to mutational effects and number of loci.

Reference-based phasing using the Haplotype Reference Consortium panel.

The genetic history of Cochin Jews from India.

How the compact disc lost its shine.

Actually, Facebook’s New Craigslist Competitor Should Be a Little Debauched. How is it that CraigsList is still around?

Piece of carved wood suggests Persian taught maths in Japan 1,000 years ago.

Ages of Discord: My Third Independently Published Book (Peter Turchin’s).

A Review of Cognitive Abilities in Dogs, 1911 Through 2016: More Individual Differences, Please!.

Eczema as an outcome of an ancient sweep

Screenshot 2016-10-08 09.46.41
Screenshot 2016-10-08 10.06.17Many people have skin problems. Though luckily I’ve never had an issue with acne, most people who know me personally are aware that I suffered from extreme eczema as a child. Most of the major issues occurred when I was under five years of age, and in my first few years, so I have only minimal first hand recollection. The problem runs in my family, though I was the most extreme sufferer. Eczema also correlates with asthma, something I also suffer from.

Naturally I was curious about this new paper in Genome Biology, Atopic Dermatitis Susceptibility Variants In Filaggrin Hitchhike Hornerin Selective Sweep:

Human skin has evolved rapidly, leaving evolutionary signatures in the genome. The filaggrin (FLG) gene is widely studied for its skin-barrier function in humans. The extensive genetic variation in this gene, especially common loss-of-function (LoF) mutations, has been established as primary risk factors for atopic dermatitis. To investigate the evolution of this gene, we analyzed 2,504 human genomes and genotyped the copy number variation of filaggrin repeats within FLG in 126 individuals from diverse ancestral backgrounds. We were unable to replicate a recent study claiming that LoF of FLG is adaptive in northern latitudes with lower ultraviolet light exposure. Instead, we present multiple lines of evidence suggesting that FLG genetic variation, including LoF variants, have little or no effect on fitness in modern humans. Haplotype-level scrutinization of the locus revealed signatures of a recent selective sweep in Asia, which increased the allele frequency of a haplotype group (Huxian haplogroup) in Asian populations. Functionally, we found that the Huxian haplogroup carries dozens of functional variants in FLG and hornerin (HRNR) genes, including those that are associated with atopic dermatitis susceptibility, HRNR expression levels and microbiome diversity on the skin. Our results suggest that the target of the adaptive sweep is HRNR gene function, and the functional FLG variants that involve susceptibility to atopic dermatitis, seem to hitchhike the selective sweep on HRNR. Our study presents a novel case of a locus that harbors clinically relevant common genetic variation with complex evolutionary trajectories.

This shows the importance of whole genomes, as the earlier result correlation variation to climate seems to be due to ascertainment bias in terms of SNP discovery. Additionally, it’s intriguing that the haplotype which eczema-like diseases are associated with is very ancient. It’s found in Africans, and ancient genomes. So it’s been segregating in human populations for a while. That indicates some sort of balancing selection going on, so that it’s never purified.

What they found is that in Chinese samples there has been a recent positive sweep. I don’t really buy their conclusion that the haplotype wasn’t found in European hunter-gatherers, they don’t have a large enough sample. But it does seem to be a case where there is balancing selection maintaining standing genetic variation, which purified may be selected for or purified in some populations.

This may be a more common dynamic than we might realize. Many complex diseases may exhibit risk profiles due to being dragged up in frequency because of associations with a nearby region, or, a genetic-correlation where the positive benefit is greater than the negative.

More than can be imagined in your models

Migraciones_austronesiasGgas_human_socOne of the most incredible journeys that the human species has undergone is the Austronesian expansion of the past 4,000 years. These maritime peoples seem to have emerged from the islands of Taiwan, and pushed forward south, west, and east, so that their expansion pushed to East Africa, and the fringes of South America. There now also some circumstantial evidence that Polynesian contact with the Americas predates the Columbian Exchange. Looking at the map above in hindsight it seems natural to imagine such contacts.

Though where the Austronesians went is incredible, their origins are somewhat more opaque, but rather tantalizing. That is because their original expansion was likely just before the horizon of history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond alluded to the “express train” vs. “slow boat” models of the expansion. Basically, whether the Lapita peoples rapidly pushed out from Taiwan, or whether there was a long period of coexistence with Melanesians in Near Oceania. Over the past few years genetics seems to have supported the “slow boat” model.

Here is a paper from 2012, Population Genetic Structure and Origins of Native Hawaiians in the Multiethnic Cohort Study:

The “Express Train” and the “Slow Boat” models of Polynesian migration are expected to have uniquely distinct genetic signatures on present day genomes of Native Hawaiians. Under the “Express Train” model, the proportion of admixture in Native Hawaiians of Melanesian and Asian ancestry is expected to be near zero, whereas under the “Slow Boat” model, the proportion of admixture is expected to be substantially greater than zero. To test these two models, we conducted a supervised ADMIXTURE analysis using Papuan and Melanesians as one source population of Polynesians and Han Chinese, She, Cambodian, Japanese, Yakut, and Yi as surrogates for the second source population of Taiwanese aborigines [18], [19]. Importantly, we did not fix ancestry for the Melanesians or Asians and therefore allowed for admixture within either ancestral groups–thus, mitigating bias by earlier admixture processes and allowing for accurate clusters of ancestry membership. We set K = 2 and estimated in 40 100% Native Hawaiians an average of 32% and 68% of their genomes to be derived from Melanesian and Asian origins, respectively (Figure 4). This notable proportion of Melanesian admixture (32%) among Native Hawaiians, substantially greater than zero, lends support of the “Slow Boat” model of ancestral origins.

This is not an isolated study. Y chromosomes indicate substantial Melanesian admixture, while the mtDNA does not. One inference then was a “slow boat” model predicated on matrifocality. That is, expanding Polynesian groups were centered around matrilineal lineages, and absorbed Melanesian men into their communities. The above research was from a Hawaiian data set, but the results are consistent across Polynesia in relation the proportion of Melanesian ancestry.

Case closed? No so fast! Ancient DNA has now been brought to the question, and fundamentally changed our perceptions. Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific:

The appearance of people associated with the Lapita culture in the South Pacific around 3,000 years ago1 marked the beginning of the last major human dispersal to unpopulated lands. However, the relationship of these pioneers to the long-established Papuan people of the New Guinea region is unclear. Here we present genome-wide ancient DNA data from three individuals from Vanuatu (about 3,100–2,700 years before present) and one from Tonga (about 2,700–2,300 years before present), and analyse them with data from 778 present-day East Asians and Oceanians. Today, indigenous people of the South Pacific harbour a mixture of ancestry from Papuans and a population of East Asian origin that no longer exists in unmixed form, but is a match to the ancient individuals. Most analyses have interpreted the minimum of twenty-five per cent Papuan ancestry in the region today as evidence that the first humans to reach Remote Oceania, including Polynesia, were derived from population mixtures near New Guinea, before their further expansion into Remote Oceanian…our finding that the ancient individuals had little to no Papuan ancestry implies that later human population movements spread Papuan ancestry through the South Pacific after the first peopling of the islands.

These results strong indicate that the original Lapita migration did not mix with Melanesians. And, the ancient samples share common ancestry with modern Polynesians, so that their heritage persists down to the present. Looking at the distribution of Melanesian ancestry they concluded this admixture occurred on the order of ~1,500 years before the present (their intervals were wide, but the ancient samples serve as a boundary). Additionally, in line with the Y and mtDNA the X chromosome indicated more of the ancient ancestry than the autosome. The authors conclude that “it is also possible that some of these patterns reflect a scenario in which the later movement of Papuan ancestry into Remote Oceania was largely mediated by males
who then mixed with resident females.”

The take home message than is that we need to be more modest with our models. Without ancient DNA it seems likely that we would not have stumbled onto this result; the ancestry deconvolution methods which date admixture have wide confidence intervals when you go back far in time.

How to look at population structure

700px-Neighbor-joining_Tree-2

51qciM4cBhL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_A friend asked me about population structure, and methods to ferret it out and classify it. So here is a quick survey on the major methods I’m familiar with/utilize now and then. I’ll go roughly in chronological order.

First, you have trees. These are pretty popular from macroevolutionary relationships, but on the population genetic scale (intraspecific, microevolutionary) you’re mostly talking about representing distances between groups in a tree format. You saw this in History and Geography of Genes, where genetic distances in the form of Fst values (proportion of genetic variation unique to between two groups) were used as distance inputs.

A problem with trees is that they don’t model gene flow, a major dynamic on a microevolutionary scale. Also, complex relationships can get elided in tree frameworks, and as you add more and more populations you often end up with an incomprehensible fan-like topology.

journal.pgen.0020190.g005Then you have principle component analyses (PCA) and related methods (e.g., multidimensional scaling, which is very different in the sausage-making but generates a similar output). Like trees, this is a visualization of the variation, in this case on a two dimensional plot (please don’t bring up three dimensional PCA, there’s no such thing until holograms show up).

The problem with PCA is that different types of dynamics can lead to the same result. For example, someone who is an F1 of two distinct groups occupies the same position as a population which happens to occupy a genetic position between two groups. Additionally, by constraining the variation into two dimensions, one can mislead in terms of relationships. There are many dimensions, but operationally you focus on on two at a time.

A paper of interest, Population Structure and Eigenanalysis.

Rosenberg4Next you have model-based clustering introduced in Jonathan Pritchard’s Inference of Population Structure Using Multilocus Genotype Data. There are many flavors of this, but they operate under the same framework. You have a model of population dynamics, and see how the genotype data can be explained by parameters of the model. Of particular interest is assignment to one of K populations, which can be combined to explain the variation in the data.

Unlike PCA these model-based methods are rather good at identifying people who are first generation mixes, as opposed to those from stabilized groups along a cline. But, they also produce artifacts, because they are quite sensitive to the input data, and lend themselves to cherry-picking.

journal.pgen.1002967.g003 (1)Earlier I said that one problem with the tree methods is that they don’t model gene flow. Joe Pickrell’s TreeMix does so. Like the original tree methods, and unlike PCA or unsupervised model-based clustering, you specify a set of populations. Then you compare the populations in terms of their genetic distance, and fit them to a tree, but add migration parameters to that tree where the fit between the tree and the data is the most tenuous fit.

All visualizations are deformations of reality. TreeMix attempts to mitigate this somewhat by introducing another representation, that of migration.

Screenshot 2016-10-02 22.38.02Next we have local ancestry methods. By local ancestry, basically we mean methods which can assign ancestry to particular regions of the genome. While tree methods measure differences across pooled populations, PCA and model-based methods compare genotypes between individuals (this is a simplification, but bear with me). Local ancestry methods, like RFMix, compare regions of the genome with each other.

Related to, but not exactly the same, as local ancestry methods are haplotype based methods. In particular, I’m thinking of the FineStructure and its related methods. These leverage variation across the genome in terms of haplotypes, rather than just looking at genotypes. They also tend to benefit from phasing, for obvious methods. FineStructure and its relatives tend to need more marker density than model-based methods, which require more marker density than PCA, which requires more marker density that tree based methods. These haplotype based methods allow for correction of and accounting for forces such as genetic drift, which tend to skew results in other methods.

Finally, there is the AdmixTools framework which is good for testing very explicit hypotheses. While many of the above methods, such as TreeMix and unsupervised model-based clustering, explore an almost open-ended space of structure possibilities, the methods in AdmixTools exists in large part to test narrow delimited models. This goes to the fact that many of these methods are complementary, and you should use them together to arrive at a robust result. For example, if you are assigning populations for TreeMix, you should use PCA and model-based clustering to make sure that the populations are clear and distinct, and outliers are removed.

There’s a lot I left out, but many of the other methods are just twists on the ones above.

Open Thread, October 2nd, 2016

9780192805577Online Life Is Real Life, Aleph-Nought in a Series:

I thought of this while I was reading John Scalzi’s epic post about self-presentation, prompted by someone who complained that he behaved differently in person than that person had expected from Scalzi’s online persona. (Personally, having met John in person several times, I don’t see it, but whatever…) Scalzi rightly notes that there’s nothing at all wrong with this, and that much of the difference is (probably) just basic courtesy and politeness.

It’s a major pet peeve of mine that people deduce from what they see on this blog and Twitter to generate a full picture of whom I am. If the data you saw were representative, then that might be one thing, but they really aren’t. Rather, they’re strongly biased.

A long time reader (as in, back to the ScienceBlogs days) is someone who I now socialize with semi-frequently. One observation he makes is that I tend to engage in more unguarded bloviating in real life. That sounds about right. In real life everything I say is not recorded for posterity.

The basic insight thought is that there is much you don’t see when you consider just what you see.

When people engage in others, they use theories to fill in the background of their interlocutors. It’s pretty impossible not to do so. On the other hand, theories are always imperfect, and you shouldn’t get surprised when those who you theorize about are angry when your theories miss the mark.

One way that my “non-internet” and internet personas do align well is that I’m rather aggressive. If think you’ve mischaracterized me, I won’t be happy in person, or online.

I read Foucault: A Very Short Introduction on a plane last week. I have the “very short introductions” series a great deal (have also read Hegel). It strikes me they’re good to orient and refresh you before a deeper dive.

A commenter below dismissed the importance of the genealogy of intellectuals and their movements in comparison to mass culture. But reading Foucault: A Very Short Introduction you see clearly the lexical armamentarium on display decades before it would percolate to Facebook threads and MSNBC.

51k6n6ma-NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Reading about Postcolonialism, I’m really struck by the possibility its intellectual apogee was already attained by Edward Said in Orientalism. I read Said about 15 years ago, but dismissed the work. My objection? It was simply wrong on many facts. In hindsight, it strikes me that I was naive in regards to what people admired about Said’s work, and its significance. That is, it’s importance was not as a narrative about the historical past, but possibilities for narrative frameworks relevant for organizing the political present.

Campus debate on Black Lives Matter called racist, shut down by protesters (VIDEO). If state campuses are to be thought of as arms of the Left-progressive movement in America, I can’t see any reason for states where the majority of the population is not Left-progressive to continue funding them.

My friend David Bachinsky has a GoFundMe to help fight his brain cancer.

Next Big Tech Corridor? Between Seattle and Vancouver, Planners Hope. Next year in Jerusalem. There is only one. There shall be only one.

Pre-Industrial Societies Reward High Status Men With More Children.

ASHG in Vancouver in two weeks….

Winning isn’t everything, winning your team is

41mWHpXBYvL._SX370_BO1,204,203,200_A few days ago I joked on Facebook that life isn’t about the score up on the board, but standing with your team. By this, I have come to the position that when it comes to arguments and debates the details of the models and facts, and who even wins in each round, is irrelevant (barring extinction) when set against the value and gains to group cohesion. In the middle 2000s a friend advised that I should be more explicitly partisan and ideological, because that is how I could gain friends and allies in my hour of need.

In my short jaunt through Theory writ large I have finally come that conclusion as well. I am a naive realist and a positivist. I work under the assumption that there is a world out there, that that world out there manifests itself in the order we see when we decompose it with analysis and empirical methods. As long as I kept my eyes on prize, the “score,” I felt at peace.

This was dangerously naive. Whereas before I had worked under the hypothesis that my interlocutors were falling prey to cognitive biases when they engaged in ad hominem or logical fallacy, I am now coming to suspect that one some level they are aware that they are engaging in the dialectics of ultimate victory. Every battle they lose is simply another opportunity to shore up their forces in future battles. Just like Rome against Hannibal, their contention that the structure of human society, rather than the world “out there,” is determinative, may very well be true in relation to all that matters.

9780195335613Years ago I laughed at D. Jason Slone’s satirical tongue-in-cheek take on “discourse” and “Theory” in Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. Slone was working in a positivist and analytic tradition which attempted to understand religious phenomena on a rational level, to turn it into another phenomenon among phenomena. But with all due respect, Slone works in relative obscurity more than a decade later, while some of the people he mocked for being wrong walk hallowed halls. Who was truly right in all that matters in this world?

Slone knew the score. His side easily runs up the points. But while his side, my side, focuses on the banality of reality, their side, the other side, works to secure victory in the hearts of men. When you have gained master over human sentiment, you gain mastery over human action.

As an illustration of this, consider this piece in Vox, A new school year. A new fight against affirmative action. This time at Harvard. People make fun of Vox, but I believe that the people running it actually do think empirics matters. They attempt analysis. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to who and whom.

The Vox piece interviews a professor OiYan A. Poon, who expresses views typical of a certain segment of the professional Asian American intelligentsia. I say professional Asian American in the sense that these individuals are professionals at being Asian American, at being the Asian American voice among progressive cultural elites. Their Asianness is almost incidental to their identity, which steeped in what might be the termed the discourse of white supremacy, predicated on cross-identity alliances against Oppression.

At this point I might “fisk” Poon’s assertions, many of which don’t bear even superficial scrutiny, or her assertion that Asians who oppose her politics are basically stooges of white people without any independent agency. But that’s not the point of this piece at Vox. It’s not to explore facts, it’s to reinforce narratives. The author of the piece engages in no critical rationalism, no attempt to actually probe the assertions Poon makes, because Poon is on the right side, the right team. The interview is an exercise in team building, not an attempt to describe the real world that would hold up to any deep scrutiny. The people at Vox probably don’t see it this way, because the shape of reality has already been determined, the terms of have been set.

They believe because it is absurd. They make the leap of faith.