Archive for January, 2006

Fuller full of himself

By Razib Khan | January 31, 2006 3:34 pm

The Guardian has a piece titled Steve Fuller: Designer trouble, in reference to testimony that the aforementioned professor gave to the Dover court. After reading the article I have to say that I’m not surprised that he testified, he seems to not be of any camp aside from that of Steve Fuller, and oh how he loves himself. Fuller notes that “It is not like people love you for doing this” in reference to his pro-ID testimony at Dover. Sure, but it gets you 1400 word write ups in The Guardian, along with putting “social epistemology”1 on the map that has to make you somebody.
Addendum: Fuller repeats the common assertion by many that monotheism is a necessary condition for the initiation of science (see Rodney Stark’s recent books for a strong form of this argument). I’ve seen this contention before, and I’m not convinced, though I don’t discount it. Of late my main problem has been the tendency of some historians and sociologists to make inferences from perceptions and assumptions about mental states when I sense that these scholars aren’t up to speed on the latest work in cognitive psychology which tells you to be cautious about conclusions you derive from introspective common sense.2 This sort of abduction should be treated with care, but my impression is that Fuller has used the Christianity ~ science connection in debates several times. That makes his defense of Intelligent Design all the more irritating, because the high standard of proof and certitude that he holds evolutionary theory to doesn’t extend to his own views, which in this case seem to be far more tendentious.
1 – If Wikipedia is to be believed a lot of social epistemology is pretty sensible (and some not). Some of my more off the wall posts definitely assume a sort of social epistemology framed by a transhumanist teleology. It just goes to show you that it is how you use a tool, not the tool itself, that is problematic.
2 – Example (roughly adapted from Stark) – Chinese believe in an unknowable essence, Christians believe in a comprehendible personal God, ergo, Christian universe is comprehensible, making science possible. Chinese universe is unknowable, it just is, making science impossible. Leaving aside the assertions about the character of Chinese and European religious worldviews for a moment, I am skeptical that Chinese and European intellectuls really had a non-nominalist sense of what these terms meant and cognitively represented higher powers any differently. I believe in these generalizations as much as I do in Max Webers work where he predicted that East Asia would never develop economically because of Confucian values (now Confucian values are the reason for development!).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Creationism

Evolution bites on the web

By Razib Khan | January 31, 2006 2:53 pm

When I use terms not in regular circulation like linkage disequilibrium, or those which I suspect aren’t as well understood as I think they should be, like random genetic drift, I usually make reference to the companion website to Mark Ridley’s text Evolution (if you followed the links to the terms you will note this). If you have a little spare time you should check it out, it isn’t too taxing. Of course, those with a strong lay interest in evolution might want to purchase Ridley’s Oxford Reader anthology, Evolution. This is the closest thing to “airport reading” that I’ve seen that still remains technical enough to add value to your knowledge base.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution

Transhumanist delusions about the first derivative?

By Razib Khan | January 31, 2006 1:20 pm

In response to a skeptical response to my post below from RPM I have posted an entry on my other weblog asking whether I am deluding myself in thinking that our generation is at an axial pivot in the progression of ages. If previous posts on this topic are any clue, the discussion should be spirited.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Transhumanism

Blogs of the Union

By Razib Khan | January 30, 2006 10:30 pm

Radio Open Source is calling for Blogs of the Union ()posts. So here I go….
Ten years ago the internet was a new and innovative technology that was going to change our lives as it entered into mass culture. Today I doubt most citizens of this union could imagine a world without the internet or wireless technology. What was once cutting edge is now banal. No doubt when we reflect on our lives many of us old enough to remember the Jetsons wonder why so little has changed, but I believe that is a false perception, for when the future is the present it fails to elicit awe. We may not live in an age of flying cars, but we live in one where Google has made old-fashioned erudition obsolete. Today we can foresee a day when total knowledge of our personal genetic code is within reach. We have even sent a probe to the outermost planet. The rate of change that we take for granted in our lives was unimaginable even a generation ago, and it seems likely that the rate of this rate of change is increasing ever more. We should appreciate the lives we lead because it seems likely that our generation is the bridge between the vast epochs of man’s past when he was still a creature of his nature, limited by the tools that evolution provided, and the post-human future when the melange of bioengineering and cybernetics consumes us. Let us give thanks for the affluence that technology affords us. And let us look to the past and cherish who we were as a people, for it may be that we will be the last who will be able to relate in any fundamental way with the experience of what it has meant to be human for the last 50,000 years. We are the end, and hopefully the beginning.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Blog

Wet or dry ear wax?

By Razib Khan | January 30, 2006 2:20 pm

Life can be really funny. When I was in college I was incorrigibly curious and I asked a Korean American friend if his ear wax was dry (I’d read that East Asians had dry ear wax once) and his response was, “Isn’t everybody’s?” When it comes to interpersonal differences there are many things we take for granted and extrapolate to others that aren’t necessarily true.1 Nick Wade in The New York Times has an interesting write up about the genetics of the ear wax phenotype. While the populations of Europe and Africa have wet ear wax, those of East Asia have dry ear wax. Other populations are somewhere in between. Nature Genetics has the original paper (don’t be surprised if the link takes a while to load).
Here are the worldwide distribution of the alleles:
earwaxmap.jpg
The trend is pretty clear, modal in Northeast Asia and decreasing everywhere else. These figures show why the authors assume that selection is at play here, linkage disequilibrium implies that recombination has not had time to break apart the correlations as neighboring portions of the genome were dragged along with the increase of frequency on the single nucleotide of interest. Wade finds a quote from a scientist who says this could be the result of random genetic drift. I don’t buy it, because drift is a default explanation offered by many when they don’t have any other plausible model on hand (runaway sexual selection is another explanation of this sort). The LDE noted above suggests that positive selection was occurring at that locus. One can posit models that generate these distributions via drift, perhaps fixation in a small population which has an enormous demographic expansion into the surrounding populations. This would have had to have happened before 8-10,000 years BP because the New World populations in North America possess the allele. It just seems more parsimonious, along with the LDE data, that selection is at work (rather than reinvent the wheel, here is RPM’s “Detecting Natural Selection” series, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII).
The authors posit many hypotheses for why selection for dry ear wax, or, more properly for the allele, A, which in the homozygotes generates dry ear wax, should have increased its frequency in Northeast Asia. To them it seems likely that the ear wax phenotype is a byproduct of pleiotropy, that is, another trait was generating the fitness differentials correlated with this allele, and the fact that it had other phenotypic effects was incidental. I found this “fact” amusing:

They write that earwax type and armpit odor are correlated, since populations with dry earwax, such as those of East Asia, tend to sweat less and have little or no body odor, whereas the wet earwax populations of Africa and Europe sweat more and so may have greater body odor.

The adults I have known who do not need to make recourse to deodorants to ward off body odor have all been East Asian females. No surprise.
Addendum: One point made Wade’s article is that South and Central Asians who exhibit intermediate frequencies of the alleles might have gotten them via admixture. In the case of Central Asians this is plausible, genetically and historically they tend to bridge East and West. I am skeptical in the case of South Asians, it seems more plausible to me that the same selection pressures which benefited the allele in East Asians might have some advantage in Southern Asia, as Indians are not a recently admixed population (at least that the balance of the current research).
Via John Hawks.
Reference: Yoshiura et al. 2006, An SNP in the ABCC11 gene is the determinant of human earwax type, Nature Genetics.
1 – Another example seemed to be that many of the females in my dorm assumed that men had an urge to urinate when they laughed hard, while most of the males were pretty confused about this.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

Finding out who your "ancestors" were via DNA

By Razib Khan | January 29, 2006 10:54 pm

Newsweek has an entertaining story which highlights the recent penetration of science into the venerable enterprise of genealogy. The good:

…Adopted at birth, Royer knew nothing about her biological parents. But certain physical traits-wide nose, dark skin-led people to guess that she was Iranian or even Cambodian. “I always wondered,” she says. Two hundred dollars and a swab of her cheek gave her an answer: Royer’s maternal ancestors were most likely Native American. The knowledge, she says, “makes you feel more of a person.”

The dumb:

DNA testing is forcing some people to rethink their identities. Phil Goff, 42, of Naperville, Ill., thought his heritage was pure English, but a Y chromosome test matched him at least partially to Scandinavia. Now he wonders if he has any Viking blood in him.

Note the contrast here. In the first case, we have an extreme and unfortunate situation where an adoptee doesn’t know the identity of her biological parents and whose appearence bespeaks an “exotic” lineage. The conditional probabilities, that is, take the lack of knowledge about antecedants and physical clues into account, work out so that an mtDNA test can be very illuminating. In the second case we have a situation where you are attempting to make inferences far back into the past and resolve distinctions that are relatively minor in comparison to the first scenario. Not only are Scandinavians and the English relatively affinal populations in comparison to Native Americans and Europeans, but there is plenty of evidence of gene flow between Scandinavia, northern German and England. Additionally, the historical literature (as well as linguistic clues) tells us that the “Danelaw” of the north and east of England was actually settled by a fair number of Danes ~1000. Drawing too many inferences from a uniparental lineage can be very misleading, all you are gleaning is the coalescent for that one gene. Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes actually found that half the people with his surname share the same Y chromosomal lineage. That doesn’t mean they are particularly closely related at all, they simply have a patriline in common. Similarly mtDNA lineages are tracing a sequence of mothers and daughters.These tests don’t speaking to the overwhelming majority of your ancestral paths which are “broken” by mother-son or father-daughter steps.1 Another problem is that many of the haplotypes might be misclassified. Or consider an individual who hails from southern India but was told by Spencer Wells (pretaped video) about “ancestors who left Central Asia for Europe” after his DNA was sequenced by the Genographic Project. The article also highlights autosomal methods bandied by DNAprint Genomics which give you a measure of your various ancestries. And they also have problems.2 When friends ask me if they should shell out a few hundred dollars I usually say no, because I don’t think that these tests tell you anything you don’t know (there are exceptional cases, such as the one above).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

Every ratio 3:1!!!

By Razib Khan | January 28, 2006 4:11 am

Science isn’t perfect, it often misses obvious truths. Consider the 2005 Nobel in medicine, awarded for the work of Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren in establishing the connection between Helicobacter pylori and ulcers. After the fact you hear many stories of doctors who had stumbled onto the solution, antibiotics, long before the scientific consensus. Many others now understood why they always saw these pathogens in samples taken from patients with ulcers. Now it all makes sense, but these sort of screw ups make you wonder how far we’ve gone past Galen! Falsification is a decent formalization of the scientific process if you distill it down to its bare essentials, but it ignores the reality that science is executed by people, not computers. Thomas Kuhn’s work in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions speaks to that sociological reality, instead of a gleaming geometrical crystal city, natural science is filled with booming unplanned towns, citadels being swarmed by unexepected squatters, and castles in the hinterlands striving in vain to maintain their relevance. Even mathematics, that most rational of disciplines, is driven by an engine of intuitive insight and gestalt understanding, no matter the clean final product carved from axioms. Alas, science has a low signal to noise ratio, but paraphrasing Winston Churchill, it’s the best system we’ve got.
Of course, because of the socially contextual nature of much of science there is a niche for historians and sociologists to study it as a subculture. It is on the great mound of noise in which the signal swims that Will Provine has established his career as the historian of evolutionary genetics. His biography of the American population geneticist Sewall Wright displayed not only an encyclopedic knowledge of the personalities who touched Wright’s life, but the technical details of the theoretical biology which served as his legacy. It was with an understanding of this background that I came to Provine’s The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics.
Basically a slim elaboration on his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Chicago this text explores the social and scientific dynamics between the initial high tide of the Darwinian phase in evolutionary theory and the reemergence of its primacy during the 1920s as population genetics fused the Mendelian framework with the wealth of statistical tools that were found in the biometrical school. In the interregnum Darwin’s original ideas which emphasized the importance of natural selection on continuous variation as the primary motive force for evolutionary change were relegated to the margins. A thorough survey of this period can be found in Peter J. Bowler’s The Eclipse of Darwinism, but Provine’s work is more narrowly focused, and tends to put the spotlight upon individuals rather than grand social movements. The importance of personality in inflating semantic confusions and mediating sociological dynamics shows exactly where much of the noise in the scientific system comes from.
In short Provine’s thesis centers around the conflict between the Mendelians, led by William Bateson, and the biometricians, headed by Karl Pearson (the Pearson’s correlation coefficient), and the subsequent fusion which culminated in R.A. Fisher’s 1918 paper, The Correlation between relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance. The conflict between these two groups was in part on genuine scientific grounds, but Provine makes it clear that personal animosity, turf wars and inability to master the methodologies of the other side perpetuated a discord which was really much ado about nothing (and resulted in far less getting done).
The dispute had its seeds in the somewhat confused ideas of Francis Galton in the field of evolution. Unlike his cousin Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace Galton did not believe that natural selection upon continuous variation within populations was sufficient to explain evolutionary change. Like many scientists, including Thomas Huxley, Galton contended that evolution was due to the emergence of unique mutant forms, “sports,” which were at sharp discontinuity with the normal variation within a population. Galton did not accept that selection upon continuous variation would induce evolutionary change because he had some peculiar ideas in regards to regression toward the population mean. He seemed to posit some sort of innate stabilizing factor within a population which kept it around a species typical mean, bounded by its range and characterized by a particular variance. So individuals at the extremes would give rise to offspring who would regress back toward the mean of the population. Mutant varieties on the other hand might offer the opportunity to break out of this tendency by generating de novo a new central tendency. Pearson, Galton’s protege, pointed out that he neglected to consider that repeated generations of assortative, or selective, mating of exceptional individuals would avoid the problem of regression back toward the ancestral mean as “mediocrity” (that is, random mating of exceptional individuals with less than exceptional ones) would not dilute the offspring and successive population means would be established.1

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

But it does move….

By Razib Khan | January 26, 2006 2:43 pm

All of the other science bloggers are talking about the finding that the British might be more Creation-friendly than we’d have thought. My first thought is that we need to be careful about the survey. But my second thought is to remind myself that a 1988 survey (page 8 of the PDF) found that “…one-third of British adults understood that the Earth rotates around the Sun once a year….” vs. “…half of US adults know that the Earth rotates around the Sun once a year….” (year 2000 for the American survey). The difference in anti-evolutionary activism in the two nations is, I suspect, a function of British class structure and popular deference to elites.

Anyway, I’m going to snag some data from religious tolerance on evolution internationally:

Q: “In your opinion, how true is this? …Human beings developed from earlier species of animals..”

Nation & percentage answering affirmative

United States < 35.4
N. Ireland 51.5
Philippines 60.9
Ireland 60.1
Poland 35.4
Italy 65.2
New Zealand 66.3
Israel 56.9
Norway 65
Great Britain 76.7
Netherlands 58.6
W. Germany 72.7
Russia 41.4
Slovenia 60.7
Hungary 62.8
E. Germany 81.6

Update: Thanks to Dan for the correlation matrix for the data above below the fold….

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Creationism

Feather development in 3-D

By Razib Khan | January 26, 2006 11:16 am

Over the past 5 years Matthew Harris has been doing some interesting research into feather morphogenesis, and he has produced some must watch videos. His work on quantitative modeling of development via the activator-inhibitor system is, I believe, a necessary precursor in fruitfully talking about the evolutionary context of feathers. To my mind the videos are essential for anyone who isn’t fluent in molecular developmental biology (like me), so we can have the big picture in mind when digging through the essential details.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Development

Earth like planet detected?

By Razib Khan | January 25, 2006 5:10 pm

Since Chad Orzel hasn’t posted on it, I figured I’d link to this story about a Nature letter which announces the discovery of a planet 5.5 times as massive as our own! This is pretty cool, I was a big fan of astronomy when I was a kid, and it certainly is the science with tickles my “shock & awe”-o-meter. But combined with the possibility of sub-thousand dollar genomes in the next 5 years, it really does make me feel like we are at the End of Times and soon we shall be as gods. OK, that was a hyperbole, but I can dimly grok the difficulty of a extrasolar detection feat like this….
Update: Chad comments copiously now.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Q & A with Judith Rich Harris

By Razib Khan | January 25, 2006 3:55 pm

Judith Rich Harris is author of The Nurture Assumption and the forthcoming No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. Her controversial thesis is that parents don’t matter, genes and peers do, in making you who you are as a person. You can read my Q & A with her over at my other website. Here is the paper (PDF) that started it all….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Psychology

Fairies under the rock….

By Razib Khan | January 25, 2006 2:33 pm

This article about the halting of land development in Scotland because of “fairies” under a rock is illustrative. When comparing nations in regards to belief in the paranormal we often assume that “modernity” and education have banished magical thinking. I don’t believe it is so, rather, magic is still there, ready to surface when given an opportunity. Many would commend Europeans on their acceptance of evolutionary theory, but it is important to note that surveys of public opinion on the other side of the Atlantic suggest a folk far more demon-haunted imagination than one might suppose (search within the PDF linked above for “astrology”). I have noted before that cognitive anthropologists have long posited that our mental biases are synthesized in a fashion so that we are predisposed to see ghosts, believe in supernatural gods and the existence of an afterlife. The difference with Creationism in the United States is that a strong streak of intellectual populism taking strength from organized evangelical Protestantism has rejected the elite counterintuitional consensus (in this case derived from established science), and has generated a counter-paradigm which strongly appeals to preexistent intuitions. This is why I suspect that the fight against Creationism in the United States is going to be the work of generations, the counter-paradigm is evolved toward being intelligible because of the cards evolution has dealt. In contrast, moving beyond a belief in evolution (i.e., simple acceptance of the legitimacy of scientific specialists) to understanding the process requires mental output, putting evolutionary theory at a psychological disadvantage in a world where time and energy are finite. This may explain the obfuscation I have observed amongst the new Creationists, the more technical they can make the discourse the greater skepticism they can engender in the public until finally they simply accept their intuitions as the default option, which strongly biases them towards Intelligent Design or one of its iterations.1
1 – Humans possibly possess an agency detection mechanism, so any design based theory starts out with an advantage since design intuitively implies agency (The Blind Watchmaker explains why design does not necessitate agency, but most people have neither the time nor inclination to read 400 pages of exposition that will throw cold water on their ‘common sense’).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy

"Dangerous Ideas"

By Razib Khan | January 24, 2006 12:30 pm

A few weeks ago Edge.com asked prominent thinkers what their Dangerous Idea was. The poser of the question was Steven Pinker, and he’s on Radio Open Source today (you can listen on the web, wait ’till 7 PM EDT). I offered my 2 cents in the comments, the basic gist of which was that the explosion of information and the ability to access it in the modern world makes secure understanding and knowledge more difficult than in the past. Professionally obfuscatory paradigms like Post Modernism and neo-Creationism can arise precisely because trust and good faith are more crucial in a world where one person can’t understand even one discipline in depth.
Another point I also wanted to make is that there are two genres of “Dangerous Ideas,” ideas not particularly dangerous in academia but dangerous in the context of the wider culture, and ideas that are universally verboten. All those who assert rejection of the soul and free will are dangerous ideas also know that the former is probably normative among many intellectuals, and the second is not particularly revolutionary, both philosophy and religion have examined it for centuries. Now consider Pinker’s response, the first part in regards to sex differences is probably widely accepted outside of academia, while the second portion in regards to intergroup differences tracking race or ethnicity has been a cultural third rail for several decades. I believe that understanding of some intergroup differences more salient than lactose digestion capacity will arise out of the genomics, and there are already hints of this in the HapMap. I suggest intellectuals now move to making the public more conscious of probability distributions and bayesian logic.
Update: A reader would have you know that I was noted as the “best comment” on the thread for this particular episode of Radio Open Source. The archives aren’t up yet, but just go to their site and scroll down their left bar, it should be there soon. About 45 minutes into the show Brendan reads comments from the thread and states that I had the best one :) Seed doesn’t pay me the big bucks for nothing!
Update II: OK, listen here (24 MB mp3).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture

A monkey too smart

By Razib Khan | January 23, 2006 9:18 am

Yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine who is a graduate student at a university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the department of “Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.” My friend asserted that most people within her department are dumb, overbearing, arrogant and uninformed. Her concern was that this was within a department specializing in evolutionary theory at the nation’s elite university!
Then we got to talking about Intelligent Design, and I mentioned how a link from The Corner resulted in an influx of Intelligent Design proponents on my other weblog. Now, as a kid growing up in a conservative religious part of of the country I’d debated Creationists many times. I knew their tricks, from the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the Moon Dust argument. But what I encountered this time was a new species. I was greeted by an assault from the technical end of molecular & population genetics. An individual was asserting that Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection showed that evolution was not viable as a long term project. In short, this theorem states that the rate in increase of fitness is proportional to the additive genetic variation. Since selection on this additive genetic variation should exhaust the variation itself, over time the change in fitness should approach zero as variation is depleted. But this ignores the reality that mutation (and sometimes migration) can replenish additive genetic variation, and it neglects that many evolutionary population geneticists are skeptical about the widespread applicability of the theorem beyond one locus. Now, not getting into issues of mutation-selection balance and what not, the fact that a neo-Creationist tried to pull this trick on me was shocking and disturbing, because I’m skeptical that many intelligent people would have a cogent response. The individual even tried to spin some talking points out of the neutral theory of molecular evolution.
The reality is that this is simply a variation on the Second Law of Thermodynamics tactic, memorize some technical issue and try to bluff your way through the debate. Fortunately, I wasn’t taken in, and many of my readers have enough evolutionary genetic saavy to see the game for what it is, but, this sort of behavior is grossly undermining of the attempts to engage in good faith science. The fact is that no one human can master all technical aspects of the world and we have to rely on experts who we assume understand what they are talking about. When neo-Creationists and their ilk inject themselves into the discourse, and confuse and deceive those outside the technical circle, the noise in the system of science increases greatly. Ultimately the complexity and technicality of modern science means that it is difficult for anyone to attain a gestalt understanding of whole fields and theories, let alone multiple disciplines. Good faith, sincerity and honesty1 play crucial lubricating roles in the process of knowledge acquisition and model building, and the neo-Creationists sacrifice all of these in the service of a greater God. Which gets me back to where I started, many scientists are bullshit artists. They get where they get often because of political skill and good verbal repackaging of derivative work. Marry that to the mercenary intellectual outlook of the neo-Creationists and I think we are likely to see an escalation of the “conflict” between science & non-science in the next few decades. The Creationists are evolving….
1 – What about reproducibility and peer review you say? Talk to Hwang Woo Suk. The system of science is corrective in the long run, but its efficiency is still contingent upon the parameters I pointed to above.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution

Evolution + psychology

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2006 10:43 am

I have a post on the importance of understanding human psychology in relation to evolution and Intelligent Design/Creationism on my other weblog.
Related: Ed Brayton has the nitty gritty on what’s going on in Utah.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Creationism

Cheap genomes

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2006 9:31 am

The Harvard Crimson reports on George Church’s attempt to develop super-cheap genomic sequencing, though this time he’s giving a $10-20,000 price point quote instead of $1,000. Scientific American has a subscription only piece.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

Nature, culture & the revival of the naturalistic paradigm

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2006 1:49 am

In the interview below with anthropologist Dan Sperber I allude to the “naturalistic paradigm” in anthropology. What does this mean? Sperber, along with Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Laurence Hirschfield are anthropologists who treat culture as an outgrowth of a natural and reducible process mediated by the human mind. Sperber often speaks of the “epidemiology of representations.” He examines the dynamics which constrain the transmission of cognitive representations within and between cultures, in short, memetics with an awareness of the limits and biases of the mind as elucidated by cognitive psychology.
The difference between the naturalistic paradigm and the standard social science model employed within cultural anthropology today is detailed very well in the short book Theological Incorrectness, by Jason D. Slone. Slone’s book is an elaboration on his doctoral thesis, where he argued that people often represent ideas about god(s) in their minds which are at sharp variance with their professed creeds. Despite the putatively narrow focus of Slone’s work the first third is an incisive critique of the standard anthropological program which is emphasizes “thick description” and “local pecularities” at the expense of general assertions and insights about human behavior. As Scott Atran notes, the problem with the localized model which emphasizes culturally based differences and mutual unintelligibility because of the lack of common references is that the very act of perception of difference indicates that those outside the culture can intuit the general character of that culture without being of that culture. In other words, the very act of going beyond assertion to argument implies knowledge and understanding which is denied by the argument!
The school of naturalistic anthropology deviates from this self-refutation and takes a step back from the continuous process of critique as it attempts to synthesize the findings of cognitive psychology, anthropology and evolutionary psychology. It assumes that humans have universal cognitive modalities which are constrained and canalized by biological points of departure. Our capacity for abstraction and system building is buffered by the nature of our intuitions about the world around us, and the semantic distinctions we make often have more to do with coalition building than a genuine difference of ontologies.
In short, while some would assert that the seminal function to analyze is:
Culture(input) = behavior
The naturalistical model might assert that the central dynamic of study is:
Mind(input) = culture
In other words, cultural is a function of the inputs into the human mind, as opposed to mind being conditioned by cultural filters.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy

10 questions from Razib

By Razib Khan | January 19, 2006 12:17 pm

Over at my other weblog I have been doing a “10 questions” series. Here are the ones I’ve done so far:
John Derbyshire of National Review and author of Prime Obsession
Armand Leroi of Imperial College and author of Mutants
Warren Treadgold of Saint Louis University and author of A History of Byzantine State and Society
Dan Sperber of Institut Jen Nicod and author of Explaining Culture
Ken Miller of Brown University and author of Finding Darwin’s God

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Blog

The gifts of the Trinity

By Razib Khan | January 19, 2006 10:20 am

We are all aware of Darwin, but the men who were instrumental in the rise of the Modern Synthesis and the banishment of the Eclipse of Darwinism are not figures who loom large in the public imagination. In the domain of population genetics they would be R.A Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright. R.A. Fisher’s daughter wrote a good biography that chronicles his private and public life, Life of a Scientist. Statistically oriented people will be particularly interested his conflict with Jerzy Neyman. Will Provine’s Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology is probably the most multidimensional single volume tome you could stumble upon which still remains accessible. Like the Holy Ghost J.B.S. Haldane is someone who I haven’t really been able to put a fix on as easily, but his Causes of Evolution was worth the read (I haven’t read any biographies, but Marek Kohn’s A Reason for Everything spends a great deal of time on him). You can find many of the papers of R.A. Fisher at the digital archive maintained by the University of Adelaide. His Genetical Theory is a pithy, if somewhat technically opaque, exposition on his outlook on evolutionary biology. Wright’s Evolution and Genetics of Populations is more verbose, as befits a less abstract and more empirical thinker.
Let me finish with a quote from The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change by Richard Lewontin:

For many years population genetics was an immensely rich and powerful theory with virtually no suitable facts on which to operate. It was like a complex and exquisite machine, designed to process a raw material that one had succeeded in mining. Occasionally some unusually clever or lucky prospecter would come upon a natural outcrop of high-grade ore, and part of the machinery would be started up to prove to its backers that it really would work. But for the most part the machine was left to the engineers, forever tinkering, forever making improvements, in anticipation of the day when it would be called upon to carry out full production….

Lewontin was writing in the wake of his discovery that polymorphism levels were far higher than either the Fisherian “Classical School” or the Wrightian “Balance School” would have predicted. This spurred on the development of Neutral Theory, which holds that most substitutions of one allele for another on a locus are due to randon genetic drift operating upon mutations which do not exhibit negative or positive fitness deviations from the population mean. Today the rise of computation and incredibly powerful assaying techniques are starting to provide a great deal of raw material for the abstract analytic theoretical engine to sieve through. Hallelujah!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

Not so dead past

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2006 10:17 pm

Many people have been revisiting old posts so that new readers could get a “taste” of their blog. Below are some representative posts which span my varied interests….
Daughter of the Enlightenment, Journey of Men, The Germanization of the liberal Idea, 8th grade math for the rest of us, Gene expression might matter, Slow and diverse food, Up to medievalism, Theological incorrectness, The madrassa & me, Way of the Hui, Taste & behavior genetics, Dissolving the dominance of dominance , Beyond the Punnett Square, part n, Extremism in defense of precision is no vice and The gods of the cognitive scientists.
I also mentioned to Chris Mims today that I suspect I’m the most “right wing” of the Science Blogs recruits, and I decided to take a Political Compass test, which I do about once a year, and my results were predictable:
Economic Left/Right: 2.13
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.67

You can see where I map here. Though my answers have shifted over the years I always seem to end up to be a mild Right libertarian. But though the vector is pretty uniform, I have to say that its magnitude has been decreasing over the years as I have lost interest in politics.

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