My own inclination has been to not get bogged down in the latest race and IQ controversy because I don’t have that much time, and the core readership here is probably not going to get any new information from me, since this is not an area of hot novel research. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t talking, and I think perhaps it might be useful for people if I stepped a bit into this discussion between Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates specifically. My primary concern is that here we have two literary intellectuals arguing about a complex topic which spans the humanities and the sciences. Ta-Nehisi, as one who studies history, feels confident that he can dismiss the utility of racial population structure categorization because as he says, “no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.” I am actually more of a history guy than a math guy, not because I love history more than math, but because I am not very good at math. And I’ve even read books such as The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race and The History of White People (as well as biographies of older racial theorists, such as Madison Grant). So I am not entirely ignorant of Ta-Nehisi’s bailiwick, but, I think it would be prudent for the hoarders of old texts to become a touch more familiar with the crisp formalities of the natural sciences.
Because of Angelina Jolie’s revelation, the Myriad Genetics case is in the news again. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up. Because of the patent Myriad can charge thousands of dollars for a test which would otherwise be much cheaper (and putting it out of reach of many without health insurance). My question here is simple: if you are a geneticist do you think Myriad’s position has any validity? The reason I ask is that I know many geneticists, and I know many geneticists read me, and I follow many geneticists on Twitter, but I’ve never encountered one who would be willing to defend Myriad’s position as plausible and passing the smell test. If you are one of those geneticists please leave a comment, because I’m honestly curious.
I went to the talks about the Myriad case at ASHG, and I have to say it was all law, and no science. The science was confused and laughable. The panelists themselves rolled their eyes and expressed resignation as to the garbled ratiocinations of the judges who reviewed the case. There is a classic “two cultures” problem.
A few years ago I predicted to some friends that ancient DNA would transform our understanding of the human past. The reason being that inferences of population movements via material remains were imprecise at best. We are beginning to see my prediction come to fruit (mind you, the prediction was not a bold or courageous one). A new short communication in Nature Communications, A European population in Minoan Bronze Age Crete, addresses an old and frankly somewhat outdated question: whether the first European literate civilization derived from a transplantation from Egypt, or was autochthonous.
I say that this is a somewhat outdated test because the modern proponent of this theory, Arthur Evans, lived a century ago, when our understanding of pre-Classical antiquity (i.e., the world before 600 BC and literate alphabetic Greek civilization) was sketchy at best. The reality is that ancient Crete, like the ancient Levant, does seem to have been in the greater Egyptian culture sphere of influence, just as ancient Elam (southwest Iran) was a de facto part of the Mesopotamian world. But we know the language of the Elamites, and it was not related to Mesopotamian languages. Just as the Finns have been influenced by their Nordic neighbors, so were the Elamites influenced by their Sumerian neighbors. But their linguistic difference points to fundamentally distinct origins. And so it is with the Minoans. It was already likely from the peculiar nature of Minoan writing, Linear A, that this civilization was not a simple derivation of Egypt. These genetic data just add more evidence.
Kevin Mitchell of Wiring the Brain has a very long post up inveighing against the specter of eugenics. I don’t have a great deal of time to engage Kevin right now.* But in addition to Kevin’s post I highly recommend this episode of WBUR’s On Point. It has Steve Hsu on, and he articulates many of the positions that I myself hold. Steve’s work with BGI has triggered the latest discussion of eugenics thanks to Vice‘s sensational representation of the research project and its aims. But it’s a useful discussion to engage in, even if the starting point is a little unfortunate.
I will state though Kevin’s argument seems to be predicated on the implicit assumption that his interlocutors hold to some sort of Platonic ideal of the most-perfect-human. There’s no such thing obviously, and even those who sympathized with eugenic policies such as W. D. Hamilton rejected this notion at the end of the day. Rather, human traits are evaluated in terms of how they serve the flourishing of individuals and society according to understood values. Intelligence is generally assumed to benefit individuals, and, I believe that it benefits society as well through innovation. Innovation drives the productivity growth which is the foundation of our post-Malthusian age.
I haven’t been able to blog much because of various other responsibilities, but I definitely do feel pent up posting energy. So when I come back I assume that I’ll have a lot of stuff to say. Meanwhile I’m chortling a bit about this bizarre attack on my friend Steve Hsu. Here’s the issue that I always have with this: Steve managed to get tenure as a theoretical physicist. When you’re talking to someone who is an academic theoretical physicist it is generally optimal to not assume a priori that they’re ignorant dullards. Unless that is you want to just engage in empty signalling rhetoric.
Though despite not having concerted time to write, I am tweeting a lot since that requires only minimal lengths of attention. Mostly it’s just repeating the functionality of my Pinboard, though I do comment and what not.
Finally, I keep hearing that the Big Five personality typology is much more scientific than Myers Briggs. So I took a bunch of tests which purport to analyze the Big Five categories.
Extraverted: Very high. Consistent. I was 90-99% on all tests.
Agreeableness: Low. Consistent. Generally in the 15-0% range.
Openness: Medium. This was not very consistent. 40-60% range.
Neuroticism: Erratic. For whatever reason I varied from 20-80% here.
Conscientiousness: Medium. But there was some variation.
Oh, and here’s a list of books I’ve rated for Good Reads.
The above figure displays results from males in the General Social Survey who answer yes to the proposition that they’ve watched a pornographic film over the past year. This fact was cited in my post Porn, rape, and a ‘natural experiment’, to disabuse people of the notion that porn consumption has increased radically the past generation. I was aware of this finding, and so generally am careful to focus on the quantity of porn consumed, rather than the social penetration of porn consumption. No matter what the “survey says,” the IT sector is quite aware of the fact that pornographic material is a very high fraction of internet traffic (e.g., more people check Pornhub than BBC).
But I am not sure sure we should trust the GSS results any more at this point. I did some cursory poking around and last month there was a large sample size survey of Dutch youth to investigate the effects of porn consumption, Does Viewing Explain Doing? Assessing the Association Between Sexually Explicit Materials Use and Sexual Behaviors in a Large Sample of Dutch Adolescents and Young Adults:
The study found that 88% of men and 45% of women had consumed SEM ["sexually explicit material"] in the past 12 months. Using hierarchical multiple regression analyses to control for other factors, the association between SEM consumption and a variety of sexual behaviors was found to be significant, accounting for between 0.3% and 4% of the total explained variance in investigated sexual behaviors.
How the sample was collected is important for generalization, so I want to reproduce that part of the method in case you don’t have access:
Standard apologies that I have had not the marginal time to blog much, but I thought it was important that I least note that Dr. Peter Ralph and Dr. Graham Coop’s paper on identity-by-descent segments and European populations and history is out in its final form in PLoS Biology, The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe. I’ve been familiar with the outlines of these results for about a year now, and to be frank I am still digesting them. The media hype will come and go, with true but to some extent trivial headlines that “all Europeans are related,” but the consequences of these sorts of genetic inquiries into the relatedness of populations are going to be long lasting. At least they should be.
But before I go on about that, if you find the paper itself a bit daunting (though the main body of the text strikes me as eminently readable for a piece of statistical genetics), see Carl Zimmer’s condensation. With this sort of result there is liable to be confusion, so note that Graham Coop has been posting comments on Carl’s blog (and elsewhere, and you can always send him a note on Twitter). Additionally he has a very readable FAQ out. Dr. Coop told me on Twitter that there would even be updates tomorrow as well! In particular one aspect of the paper which I noticed is that most relatively short, but detectable segments (~10 cM), between any two individuals in many nationalities is not going to be evidence of recent genealogical affinities, but deeper historical process.
In some quarters it is now “conventional wisdom” that Google Glass is going to seem dorky and laughable at first. But it’s probably just the pre-alpha version of the type of technology which seems inevitable (and is familiar to anyone who has read cyberpunk science fiction).
Update: Just to be clear, I think the variation across cultures is probably explained in large part by confusion as to what is being asked, and differential sampling. In particular, I suspect that the ‘Turkey” sample is more representative than the “Bangladesh” sample, because Turkey is a more developed society.
I’ve mentioned before that many (most?) Muslims are Creationists, broadly understood. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey 42 percent of American Muslims accept that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth. This is roughly in line with the American public, if a touch on the Creationist side. The numbers are similar in Turkey. Also, it must be mentioned that unlike most I have some experience with educated (and scientifically trained) Muslims, and can attest to the fact that many are Creationists (my family).
So the results of a new survey of the world’s Muslims by Pew took me aback a bit, in that it reports widespread acceptance of evolution among Muslims. To add to the plausibility the results for Turkey are in line with previous findings: a bit more of Turkey’s population are Creationist than not. The results for highly secularized European Muslim populations are plausible, though the gap between Albania and Kosovo is somewhat strange. But look at the results for Bangladesh and Lebanon!
A few years back I was rather fixated on issues of maternal fetal health. In particular I was worried about gestational diabetes in relation to my wife because I come from an ethnic group with an elevated risk for these sorts of problems, and the effect when you are in mixed-race marriages seems to be additive (i.e., unlike some risk factors associated with pregnancies the mother’s ethnicity is not the only relevant variable). This is embedded in the broader suite of metabolic diseases which exhibit ethnic variation. Early work on genome-wide selection in humans yielded the result that there was a strong enrichment for signals of adaption within regions of the genome associated with metabolism, so this should not be that surprising. Humans are a geographically dispersed species that inhabits a wide range of environments, so natural selection would shape the distribution of phenotypes within populations if evolution is a significant historical process (it is).
A paper in last month’s Trends in Genetics highlights more precisely how natural selection would operate in a life history context in specific cases. Many ways to die, one way to arrive: how selection acts through pregnancy:
When considering selective forces shaping human evolution, the importance of pregnancy to fitness should not be underestimated. Although specific mortality factors may only impact upon a fraction of the population, birth is a funnel through which all individuals must pass. Human pregnancy places exceptional energetic, physical, and immunological demands on the mother to accommodate the needs of the fetus, making the woman more vulnerable during this time-period. Here, we examine how metabolic imbalances, infectious diseases, oxygen deficiency, and nutrient levels in pregnancy can exert selective pressures on women and their unborn offspring. Numerous candidate genes under selection are being revealed by next-generation sequencing, providing the opportunity to study further the relationship between selection and pregnancy. This relationship is important to consider to gain insight into recent human adaptations to unique diets and environments worldwide.
No time to comment extensively, but check out The draft genomes of soft-shell turtle and green sea turtle yield insights into the development and evolution of the turtle-specific body plan (open access). The paper and the ScienceDaily press release allude to some phylogenetic confusion as to the relationship of turtles to other reptilian lineages, but my own superficial knowledge of this area left me rather unsurprised by this tree. What am I missing? Though reading the Wikipedia entry it seems that spotty marker coverage has produced a lot of controversy. What’s more striking to me is that so many terrestrial vertebrate lineage seem to have emerged over a relatively short period of time. Though presumably this may simply be an artifact of the reality that most lineages go extinct so we’re only left with relatively deep branching patterns. Someone who knows fossils can chime in.
Over at The American Conservative Noah Millman and Rod Dreher are having a discussion over the basic premise that founding texts (e.g., Bible, Koran) and individuals (e.g., Jesus, Muhammad) have a deep influence upon the nature of a religion. Long time readers will be aware that I side much more with Millman on this. In fact I recall that years ago in the comments of Ross Douthat’s old blog at The Atlantic (alas, comments are gone from their archives) I took the more maximalist position that theology and logical coherency are not particularly relevant toward understanding religious phenomena in an exchange with Noah (he made an analogy with law, and I responded that that proved my point about the pliability of religious ideas).
Yesterday I pointed to a paper which was interesting enough, but didn’t pass the smell test in relation to other evidence we have (at least in my opinion!). A primary concern was the fact that uniparental (male and female lineages) show a peculiar distribution of variation in comparison to autosomal genetic variation (i.e., the vast majority of the genome) in the case of Europe (genome-wide analysis suggest more of Europe’s variation is partitioned north-south, but Y and mtDNA results often imply an east-west split). But a secondary concern I had was that I felt the models were a bit too stylized. In particular following Cavalli-Sforza and Ammerman the authors concluded that demic diffusion better fits their results of genetic variation in Europe (as opposed to continuity of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers). This is likely correct, but these are not the only two models.
A paper out in Nature Communications, using analysis of the phylogenetics of whole ancient mitchondrial genomes, outlines my primary concern when it comes to the models being tested, Neolithic mitochondrial haplogroup H genomes and the genetic origins of Europeans:
Haplogroup H dominates present-day Western European mitochondrial DNA variability (>40%), yet was less common (~19%) among Early Neolithic farmers (~5450 BC) and virtually absent in Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Here we investigate this major component of the maternal population history of modern Europeans and sequence 39 complete haplogroup H mitochondrial genomes from ancient human remains. We then compare this ‘real-time’ genetic data with cultural changes taking place between the Early Neolithic (~5450 BC) and Bronze Age (~2200 BC) in Central Europe. Our results reveal that the current diversity and distribution of haplogroup H were largely established by the Mid Neolithic (~4000 BC), but with substantial genetic contributions from subsequent pan-European cultures such as the Bell Beakers expanding out of Iberia in the Late Neolithic (~2800 BC). Dated haplogroup H genomes allow us to reconstruct the recent evolutionary history of haplogroup H and reveal a mutation rate 45% higher than current estimates for human mitochondria.
There’s a new paper in PLoS ONE, Female and Male Perspectives on the Neolithic Transition in Europe: Clues from Ancient and Modern Genetic Data, which uses a combination of contemporary and ancient (that is, from subfossils) Y and mitochondrial DNA to understand the demographic past of Europe. Recall that the Y traces the direct male lineage, and the mtDNA the direct female lineage. Because they don’t recombine and generate clean converges back to a last common ancestor (there is no reticulation because there is no sex on these loci; they’re inherited from one of the two parents), they’re amenable to a lot of nifty demographic inference generation. In this paper they test specific models, and produce probability distributions of those models. Since it is open access I invite you to read the paper. The problem with these sorts of papers is I have a hard time trusting them until I replicate the results or have a sense of how cranky the software/code is!
I read John Horgan’s The End of War a few month ago now, but I haven’t gotten around to saying much about it. Part of the problem is that I don’t know what to think. It’s a small book which manages to wander in many different directions, and the primary focus is Horgan’s mantra that war is not an inevitable fact of the human condition. Since I agree with that proposition much of the argumentation was lost on me.
And yet there is one aspect of the book which was notable: a disputation of the Richard Wrangham’s work in Demonic Males. I’m still quite a fan of Wrangham’s thesis, but over the years I’ve become much more skeptical of one of the primary methods he employs: extrapolation from another ape (in his case, chimpanzees). Similarly, I’m also skeptical of those who claim that we’re more more like bonobos (here’s looking at you Frans de Waal). No, we’re human beings, and our common ancestor with other apes may have been very different from all the descendant lineages. Our cousins are informative and interesting, but we shouldn’t confuse ourselves for our cousins.