Archive for February, 2006

Rewinding the same clock

By Razib Khan | February 28, 2006 1:05 pm

Here is a popular press piece on Geert Vermaij’s paper in PNAS where he argues that evolution is not highly contingent process on particular historical events, in other words, if you rewound the clock and let it flow the rivers would occupy the same channels. These ideas seem rather similar to those of Simon Conway Morris. In the end, I think this might be a “hillist vs. mountainist” issue, draw a conceptual line somewhere, give it a label and defend your position like hell. All the while characterize your position as reasonable and moderate and caricature your “opponents” so that they seem like loons arguing either for perfect determinism or total lack of adaptional constraint.
But hey, perhaps in the end I’m just not interested in the “controversies” of paleontologists…but these macroevolutionary issues do end up percolating down to the microevolutionary level at some point in the discourse, so I better pay attention.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution

Crazy delicious! (update: or nasty bitches?)

By Razib Khan | February 27, 2006 1:59 pm

This new Science Blog is hilarious. I love their tagline!
Update: OK, I take it back. What kind of dreamworld do these bitches think they’re living in? I post something EDT giving props to their blog, and they’re still on top of the Science Blogs front page because they posted at “5 P.M.” It’s 11 AM while I write, what the hell? Are these fuckers on another continent or something???
Yo cousins, new boys don’t jump to the front of the line!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Blog

Fisher web

By Razib Khan | February 27, 2006 2:49 am

Just found this web site that has a good bibliography of R.A. Fisher’s work. Good supplement to the R.A. Fisher digital archive. Why do I obsess with Fisher? First, ANOVA is ubiquitous. Second, stories like this would shock & awe a lot less if people read The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance (PDF of full paper). Now, the text of the paper can be rather opaque, and the dancing flow of algebraic manipulations and moments magic can elude your grasp, but the gist is simple: the variance components of the offspring of heterozygous parents can be predicted a priori from Mendelian assumptions. And, this variation is not exhausted through admixture because of the discrete character of Mendelian genetics.
Update: I’ve been told that “the variance components of the offspring of heterozygous parents can be predicted a priori from Mendelian assumptions” is well nigh unintelligible. OK, the PDF of the paper is provided above…and it is a rather opaque piece of prose. Fisher tends to leap around a lot more than I think is warranted, but hey, that’s life. Basically what I was trying to get at is that variation on a trait is easily derivable from small discrete differences within the genome. People who are “mixed” in appearance are not analog mixtures, or “blends,” of parental types, they are discrete combinations of parental genotypes. This explains the link where I show two “brown” parents giving rise to a “white” twin, the standing genetic variation is preserved within the parental generation, even if it is expressed in particular specific genotypes. In the next generation it simply reemerges from the parental type in a way that can be understood assuming simple Mendelian genetics.
Mendelian genetics is a trivially easy dodge of the classical problem in Darwinian evolution: how to preserve variation for selection to work upon as a population “mixes” randomly. If offspring are mixes of the “essences” of the parental generation, then over time you will have a blurring and smoothing of the initial population variation. Darwin and others appealed to various factors, some straightforward like demographic or sexual disruption and differentiation, to preserve the range of traits, but Mendelian genetics was an elegant solution to the problem. Traits are simply reduced to the sum of their genetic parts, which themselves are never destroyed except through processes like random genetic drift and selection. Fisher’s paper shows in part how to derive exactly how the variation between relatives can be discerned, and Mendelian assumptions clearly show that parents who are genetically varied will give rise to a host of offspring, many of whom will recapitulate the variation extent within the population.
To make it even more boring, to some extent population genetics can be thought of as drawing balls from an urn.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

Conservatives and Christians for evolution

By Razib Khan | February 26, 2006 5:57 pm

Nathanial Blake, editor of the conservative campus publication at Oregon State University, has a good piece addressing the issue of evolution and evangelicals over at the Town Hall website. He points out that even C.S. Lewis, that exemplar of modern Protestant Christian orthodoxy, accepted evolutionary theory. The coupling of anti-evolutionary feeling and a segment of conservative Protestant movement goes to show that culture can tack in bizarre directions not under control from on high, the fact is that evolution was generally a marginal issue in early 20th century Christian circles, and not even William Jennings Bryan was a Young Earth Creationist. Today elite conservatives like George Will amd Charles Krauthammer still resist the conservative populist zeitgeist on this issue.
There has been a lot of discussion on Science Blogs about convincing the public about evolutionary theory. Well, people like Nathaniel Blake have credibility because they attend pro-life protests. What does that have to do with evolution? Fundamentally nothing. Cognitively and socially, a lot. Only Nixon could go to China….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Creationism

Levitt full nelsons Fuller

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2006 9:19 pm

Norm Levitt throws an excellent broadside against Steve Fuller (yes, it is a polemic, but a delicious one!).
Update: Ron in the comments suggests we be cautious about accepting Levitt’s jeremiad in its totality. He concludes:

And from our own point of view, we must view the whole universe, including those parts which the candle of our scientific knowledge does not reveal. In this effort, religion, understood as the rational ordering of our values, ethics, wisdom and compassion, is an indispensable guide.

A does not imply Z here. That is, I cautioned that Levitt’s piece was a “polemic” and use the term “jeremiad” for a reason. Though he expresses a sentiment with which I tend to concur, his details exhibit a tendency to be overly glib and superficial in his treatment of the opposition. To give an example, Levitt characterizes William Dembski as a Protestant when he is an Orthodox Christian (a convert). Additionally, his characterization of Steve Fuller implies that he is a species of Post Modernist, when he technically is not.
I believe that characterizing your opponents precisely is essential to making a good reasoned argument. Levitt’s piece has a core with which I agree, but some of the scaffolding is sloppily applied. Both Higher Superstition and The Flight from Reason, tracts penned in part by Levitt, exhibit this tendency. They are polemics that offer a great deal of red meat, but suggest that the authors do not feel fully comfortable in the landscapes of nonsense which they traverse to pass judgement.
Nevertheless, there are real issues that Levitt brings up which need to be addressed, and the primary once is that Fuller and many scholars of science seem to lack any scientific background themselves. I do not necessarily believe that a scientific background is an automatic precondition for someone to study science as a social enterprise, anymore than being a black American is a necessary precondition for studying that community. Nevertheless, unlike being a black American, full participation in the scientific culture is accessible to scholars of science. Thomas Kuhn was a physicist before he became a philospher and historian of science. And a stint as a scientist is not necessary in my opinion to understand the culture of science, but some time in a lab as a tech might help, and that is within reach of almost anyone. An analogy with anthropology is appropriate here, one does not need to become a member of the tribe, but one must certainly live amongst them. When I expressed some of these opinions over at The Valve Jonathan Goodwin missed my point by saying:

Razib, I disagree very strongly with Fuller’s position about this–to the point of mystification–but it’s parochial to suggest that more time taking multiple-choice tests and dissecting things would have affected his later thinking. It’s just completely irrelevant to the argument he’s making.

If one believes that science is “taking multiple-choice tests” and “dissecting things” than one certainly doesn’t know science. Even a year as an undergraduate in a laboratory would disabuse you of such notions! Levitt does speak to a serious problem among scholars of science. This problem is exacerbated by the problem that science is not natural, so it is even harder to understand than a typical “alien” culture (see See the Naturalness of Science and the Unnaturalness of Religion).
All that said, I think Ron’s last point is tenditious. He states, “In this effort, religion, understood as the rational ordering of our values, ethics, wisdom and compassion, is an indispensable guide.” First, I do not believe religion in general is about a “rational” ordering of much of anything. Christianity has coopted the ethical philosophy of the classical world to generate systems of Natural Law which can be “proved” a priori, but I don’t think that these “proofs” are anything other that posteriori rationalizations of innate moral intuitions. Certainly a world without poetry, religion, literature or music would be poorer to most people, but some people are tone deaf, some people lack appreciation for poetic meter and emotion and others lack a interest in the interpersonal dynamics so central to literary exposition. And yes, some people simply do not perceive a need to populate their universe with supernatural agents which bring a “rational” ordering to the laws and dynamics which characterize our natural universe, nor is there a need for these for godlings to lay the stamp of divine favor upon moral laws which they believe are good and true because they express our innermost humanity in some fashion or form. They are no less human for it.
A common refrain by those who criticize my enthusiasm for science is that there is more to life than science. My response is because I do not speak of it does not mean I do not give it its due. Similarly, the assault on the structure of modern science that the likes of Steve Fuller are engaging in to further their own careers and pet theories is naturally going to invite a sharp and vociferous response. But never confuse this response with the totality of experience and sentiment of the responders, a reflexive kick back in the face of an assault does not encapsulate the range of action of said individual.
Related: Fuller full of himself and Amongst the Savage Scientists.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Creationism

Katz

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2006 9:08 pm

…eat birdz :)
ihavewhiskershearmeroar4blog.jpg wha_evah_4blog.jpg

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Blog

Modes of religion

By Razib Khan | February 23, 2006 7:29 pm

I’ve been blogging a lot about “religion” recently, but I haven’t reallly spelled out what I mean by religion. The answer is many things. Religion, or religious belief and practice, are a suite of behaviors and concepts which explore a multi-dimensional space. This space is inhabited by a wide range of combinations of traits, some more common than others. One of the problems addressing this topic is that everyone has a different perception of the subject, a perception shaped by their own cognitive and social biases.
Here are a few of the axes which I believe religion explores:
1) The axis of intuitive supernatural agency. This is basically god(s)-belief, and serves as the lowest common denominator across cultures. Cognitive anthropologists hypothesize that this tendency emerges out of a combination of our social intelligence mixed with theory of the mind, folk physics and other pattern recognition heuristics and modules. One could posit that schizophrenics and autistics occupy two antipodes of this trait, one group seeing agents all around them, another unable to perceive agency even in human beings in front of them.
2) The axis of social ritual and participation. This is basically the liturgical and outward behavorial aspect of religion. Even in “primitive” societies rituals and rites of passage exist, and they are often imbued with supernatural significance. Some people do not take to these rituals for whatever reason (asociality, fear of crowds, etc.) while others thrive on them and the public forum they offer for their charisma.
3) The social functionality. This is basically the phenomenon where church or religious ties serve as an entree into social accepability and smooth the interactions between individuals within a society. It is a reflection of some of the ideas promoted by David Sloan Wilson regarding group selection. Some individuals might not be particularly supernaturalistic or aroused by ritual, but they know that church membership and nominal profession of belief is essential for good standing within a community.
4) The axis of mystical experience of higher consciousness. This is basically an encapsulation of the program of “neurotheology,” which attempts to show that religion can be characterized as altered states of brain chemistry. Obviously some people are more mystical in orientation, while others are relatively dead to the dreams of the cosmos. This is obviously related to #1, but I don’t think the two are coterminus subsets.
5) The axis of rationality and ideology. This is basically the creeds and doctrines promoted by the “high religions” coupled with the insitutional systems that promote them. Out of this religious mileu come the Five Ways of Aquinas or the Four Noble Truths. This mode of religious expression intersects a great deal with ethical philosophy.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture

Naturalistic biological evolution

By Razib Khan | February 23, 2006 1:35 am

The “standard model” of intellectual history presents the Presocratics as the pioneers of naturalistic explanations of the universe around us. This narrative explains how the messy natural philosophy of the Presocratics gave way to the more metaphysical and ethical schools of the late Classical and Hellenistic and Roman eras. In any case, Socialist Swine asks below:

I know that prior to Darwin people had some notion of evolution though they didn’t have a notion of the mechanism involved. Do you have any idea, who might have first suggested that species change over time?

Well, 10 minutes of google print pointed me to Empedocles, who did happen to be a Presocratic. His “theory of evolution” wasn’t exactly a process of evolution as we understand today. But, it is naturalistic, and it shows that evolutionary thought was not totally novel. The internet encyclopedia of philosophy has extensive commentary on Empedocles’ ideas, but if you want more, I suggest google print, or amazon’s search feature.
I have expressed the opinion that the human mind is biased against Darwinian evolution, but, the idea space that our species explores can be rather large. Even if you have an expectation, human variation (variance or error) often dictates that there are always those who swim against the current and generate some inevitable turbidity in the sea of human experience. In The Alternative Tradition: A Study of Unbelief in the Ancient World we see that movements like the Epicureans in ancient Greece, the Carvaka in India or the non-supernatural strain in Confucianism exemplified by sage Xunzi exhibit the naturalistic strain in intellectual history. This strain comes to the fore in complex literate civilizations where dissenters can attain critical mass and organize a counter-culture against normative supernaturalism (for instance, the Pyrrohnian Skeptics dominated the intellectual life of Athens until the rise of Neoplatonism during the Roman period). Of course we don’t need to look just to the naturalistic paradigm to see glimmers of a conception of evolution, the legends and mythologies of most peoples are riddled with transformation of animal to man and vice versa, so extracting the magical elements should naturally occur to some.
Addendum: From A Primer of Conservation Genetics:

The rate of mutation is critical to its role in evolution. Rates are low. For a range of loci in eukaryotic species, the typical spontaneous mutation rate is one new mutation per locus per 100,000 gametes (10-5) per generation (Table 3.1). Mutation rates are similar across all eukaryotes, apart from those for microsatellites.
…Mutation rates for quantitative characters are approximately 10-3 times the environmental variance per generation for a range of characters across a range of species. This apparently high rate, compared to single loci, is because a mutation at any of the many loci underlying the character can effect the trait.

What does this have to do with the rest of the post? I conceive of predisposition to religous belief as a quantitative trait. Some people are very “zealous,” some people not at all, and most people somewhere in the middle. The suggestion I’m offering here is that atheists and their ilk (our ilk) might, in part, be a byproduct of the genetic load of any population which is continuously replenished by loss of function mutation. In other words, the reason why we are always hanging around no matter the fact that our stereotypical asociality results in reduced fitness is that we are the end product of inevitable mutational processes. The low, but persistent, frequency of atheists and agnostics within a population might be a case of mutation-selection balance….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution

The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell

By Razib Khan | February 22, 2006 6:10 pm

A few science bloggers have referred to Daniel Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and the controversy that is erupting around it. I haven’t read the book, but this piece in The Boston Globe gives a very quick sketch of the ideas Dennett covers. It seems that Dennett wants to examine religion as just another natural phenomenon, a suite of behaviors and cognitive states characteristic of our species. In short, Dennett seems to be covering three primary modern hypotheses in regards to why religion seems a ubquitous aspect of our cross-cultural phenotypes:

  • The functionalist school
  • The rational choice school
  • The cognitive school

Unlike many atheists, I’ve read a lot about religion and theories of religion. In regards to the functionalist school, I’ve read Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson. In the rational choice school I’ve read most of Rodney Stark’s works, including his seminal A Theory of Religion.1 In regards to the last school, I’ve read books like Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, In Gods We Trust by Scott Atran, Why would anyone believe in God? by Justin L. Barrett, Theological Incorrectness by Jason Slone and Mind and Religion by Harvey Whitehouse. I state the books I have read (and implicitly a host of papers written by these authors and their confederates) so that readers will know “where I am coming from.” Most of my comments will directly address the last cognitive school because I suspect this is the orientation that Dennett himself most leans toward because of his own speciality in this field, but many of my assertions apply to the functionalist and economic orientations as well. So, a few quick points.
First, these works do not attempt to show that religion is false, or, more specifically to respond to a charge by some theists, they do not attempt to show God does not exist. Granted, an understanding of how religion could have come about might very well diminish the faith of many, or disabuse them of particular notions, but the same could be said for any attempt to systematically understand religous phenomena. All of these attempts to reduce religious behavior to causes and effects deal with proximate aspects of religion, not its ultimate fundamentals. In fact, some of the researchers in question are religious themselves, or strongly biased toward religion. Justin L. Barrett, one of the authors above, works for the evangelical group Young Life, while Rodney Stark’s recent work comes very close to being apologia for Christianity (in The Future of Religion Stark admits in the preface that he wishes he personally could have the solace that religion provides!). Rather than show that religion is false, most of the authors conclude that the persistence of religion is inevitable, or specifically, belief in supernatural agents is inevitable because of particular aspects of the human mind or common social structures.
Second, evolution is not the summum bonum of these theories. The grand cognitive narratives (both Atran and Boyer’s works) sometimes do have evolutionary context, but the more specific works tend to focus on more proximate phenomena, and since they view religious beliefs as a byproduct of our mental faculties there is no need to invoke selectionist hypotheses (in other words, religious emerges out of the correlation of various subcomponents of our mind which have been selected for other reasons). Both the functionalist and rational choice schools do appeal to selection more, but only in the former school is evolution (group selection) front and center.
Third, the cognitive school is firmly grounded in the lingo of the cognitive revolution. If you aren’t comfortable with this paradigm I suspect lot of the cognitive explanations will sound like gibberish. In Theological Incorrectness Justin L. Barrett offers a rough taxonomy of the study of religion. He differentiates the cognitive/naturalistic model from the humanistic model of “Religious Studies” departments and the “Culturalist” model normative in cultural anthropology strongly influenced by deconstructionism and other narrative critical paradigms. Barrett’s contention is that the cognitive/naturalistic model descends from thinkers like James Frazer who attempted to understand religion as a mundane phenomenon in a rational-empirical system of analysis. But, it supplements the intuitive analysis with the insights of the cognitive revolution as to the character of mental architecture. Rather than being something “out there,” culture is an interface between the “in here” (the mind) and the world around us. Similarly, religion is a byproduct of the intersection of our mind with the universe around us over time.
The details of the cognitive view of religion can be found in my posts on my other blog. A problem that I see with the “debate” about Dennett’s books are two fold: first, Dennett is a polemicist who has staked out positions where his opinion of religion is quite clear, second, the cognitive view of religion is difficult to parse without an overhead of terminology derived from advances in modern pysychology and anthropology.
1 – Not seminal because many people have read it, rather, the propositions put forward in this book lace all of his other more accessible popular works.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science

Book review in Science and Spirit

By Razib Khan | February 22, 2006 3:43 pm

I have a review of Nick Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors coming out in the May/June issue of Science & Spirit magazine. Wade’s book covered the intersection of genetics and human evolution, so it was a quick and interesting read.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

Politics Quiz

By Razib Khan | February 21, 2006 10:41 pm

Below the fold are the results from a politics quiz I took. Nothing surprising, but just a testament that Seed is politically latitudinarian….

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics

Dancing parameters

By Razib Khan | February 21, 2006 9:15 pm

Biology is sloppy. I always say “all parameters held equal” or “all variables controlled” because there are so many factors to consider. I am now reading a classic, The Genetics of Human Poulations, by L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and W. F. Bodmer, and here is an interesting bit from the chapter on population structure: consanguineous rates of marriage were extremely low throughout much of Europe up until the 19th century, at which point their frequency rose sharply, before dropping again during the 20th century. What was happening here? The authors note that the 19th century abolition of primogeniture and the relaxation of the granting of dispensations by the Roman Catholic Church for incestous marriages resulted in positive incentives toward cousin marriage (partible inheritance tends to break up wealth) concurrent with the removal of traditional constraints (the Catholic Church derived a great deal of revenue and acquired leverage from granting dispensations to wealthy families, and “incest” was defined broadly, out to at least 3rd degrees of relation). But why the decrease in cousin marriage in the 20th century? As cheap transport become more omnipresent and mobility became a fact of life the pool of potential mates increased, and the operational “effective population” of a deme was no longer restricted to the local network of villages. In his monograph Consanguinity, Inbreeding, and Genetic Drift in Italy Cavalli-Sforza finds that in Italy that the primary correlate for incestuous marriages was topography, that is, mountainous villages tended to have much higher frequencies of endogamy than villages which were located on active transportation networks.1 These sort of flexible dynamics are important to remember when we use single-locus Wright-Fisher models to illustrate the properties of gene frequencies.
1 – Being Sicilian also seems a major parameter in “does my uncle/aunt look a little too hot.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

The society of science

By Razib Khan | February 21, 2006 8:45 pm

A few days ago Janet posted on the importance of critical faculties in science in response to a series of posts by PZ and John on how we get the public to understand science (mostly evolution in this case). Critical thinking is obviously important in science, as is experimentation, model building, reproducibility, etc. etc. If you are a fan of Karl Popper or Thoms Kuhn (or other less luminous figures like Imre Lakatos) you have an idea about how science should or does work.
All these thinkers capture essential components of Science, but I think one important point which is often forgotten is that science is more than a way of thinking, it is a social world. As I commented in Janet’s post many (most) humans are capable of critical thinking and skepticism. I have met many Christian fundamentalists who spit out CSICOP-like talking points when it comes to magic and astrology, and I have met New Age sorts who are well aware of how ludicrous Christian fundamentalism is, yet they can not see their own irrationalities. This reminds me of an anecdote that Ibn Warraq recounted in Why I am Not a Muslim. Warraq tells how he had a Muslim acquaintance who proudly displayed his copy of Bertrand Russell’s famous Why I am Not a Christian. Warraq’s Muslim acquaintance seemed oblivious to the fact that most of the arguments Russell makes could be easily translated to a refutation of the Muslim religion!

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture

Selection at work?

By Razib Khan | February 21, 2006 6:50 pm

A story in The Economist, titled the fertility bust (in the “Charlemagne” column), offers this interesting tidbit:

Germany is something of an oddity in this. In most countries with low fertility, young women have their first child late, and stop at one. In Germany, women with children often have two or three. But many have none at all.

In other words, the mean for Germany is low, but reproductive variance (or skew) is high. With a large proportion of the population not reproducing, and another proportion reproducing above replacement, this is basically very close to truncation selection if there is a phenotypic correlate (eg; only fat women reproduce within the population). If the variation in reproductive output has no genetic correlation than it is irrelevant from a microevolutionary perspective. But if the reproductive value is correlated with geography or some other parameter than it is likely that there is some genotypic bias in terms of fitness. With 80 million people it seems unlikely that Germany will suffer from a mutational meltdown, so if fitness is heritable (that is, the fecund transmit their fecundity to the next generation) a bounce back seems inevitable, all parameters held equal.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution

Technical issues

By Razib Khan | February 21, 2006 5:07 pm

I’ve increased the security of comments (required email, etc.). This might cause issues, more here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Blog

The story of symbolic algebra

By Razib Khan | February 20, 2006 2:07 pm

Chad is not happy with my previous post where I consider that we shouldn’t expect that everyone should be able to pass algebra conditional upon a deep understanding of the subject. First, let me state that my post was in part operating outside what I will call the “Cohen narrative.” Rather, I wanted to interject the opinion that variation is a contingent fact of human history (otherwise, we wouldn’t have been shaped by natural selection). I was attempting to offer that the alternatives are not black and white in that everyone should learn algebra or that everyone need not learn algebra. Granted, many of the observers qualified that any educated person needed to know algebra. I simply suggest that not everyone is educable to the same extent. If basic literacy and arithmetic are the standard for being educated, then everyone is probably educable. If algebra and geometry are the standard for being educated, I suspect a large minority are not educable. If basic diffential and integral calculus is the standard for being educated (18th century math) than only a small minority are educable, and excluding Matthew Yglesias (Harvard, philosophy, 2003 magna cum laude). If the ability to learn multiple languages with a reasonable level of fluency after initiation of puberty is the standard for being educable, then I must withdraw my name from the pool based upon induction.
This goes to another part of Chad’s comment, where he states: it seems a little too Steven Pinker– “our ape-like ancestors on the savannah didn’t need algebra, so we never evolved the brain module for it…. Well, I don’t have that much of a problem with Steven Pinker, though I disagree on a lot of details with him. But in the case of algebra Chad’s point is pretty orthogonal, if you may excuse a mathematical analogy, to what I’m getting at. I don’t think higher cognitive functions are really “hard wired” as tightly integrated modules which were subject to selection during our Pleistocene past. A bit off topic, I suspect humans are still subject to selection on cognitive traits, and that our phenotypic variation is in part a reflection of this. So the “evolution on the savannah” narrative is one I will forgo. But, as I alluded to in my reference to The Number Sense, it seems to me that abstract mathematics is a cultural innovation which is contingent upon a wide range of congitive faculties. When I state abstract mathematics, I am being precise because analog numeracy is a capacity which rats and pigeons exhibit. We do possess a gestalt ability to “count” a set of objects arrayed before us. But, this ability reaches its limit somewhere around 10 objects for the vast majority of humans. Though we can assess rough proportions and have a general sense of “amount,” if you threw 58 marbles at front of any normal person they couldn’t spit back a number with any level of accuracy. They could tell you about how many marbles they were seeing with rough consistency, but they would have to count sequentially in their mind’s eye or verbally. Counting precisely (as opposed to comprehending the rough gist of proportions and amounts) requires extending our learning facilities, and coopts language and meta-representational capacities. I offered the example of individuals who suffer brain damange which imobilizes both their fingers and their ability to meta-represent sequences of numbers to suggest that even this cultural innovation is in part rooted in a pre-existent cognitive architecture.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science

Multiculturalism

By Razib Khan | February 19, 2006 11:27 pm

Update: Link fixed.
I have a long post on my other website commenting on Amartya Sen’s new piece in The New Republic, Chili and Liberty. First paragraph below:

Amartya Sen has an interesting piece in The New Republic titled Chili and liberty: the uses and abuses of multiculturalism. Sen’s piece addresses the paradox in the interpretation of “multiculturalism” in some quarters where it implies separation of distinct cultures into a “plural monoculturalism.” That is, a nation where separate ethnic and religious groups live apart within the same polity. A pre-modern form of this system would be the millets of the Ottoman Empire, where religious leaders would be responsible for and command their own particular community. A contrasting dynamic is the admixture of various particular traditions and forms into a new cultural complex, in Sen’s case he points to the emergence of curry powder, a British colonial invention that has become synonomous with South Asian culture and now is a common part of the British culinary scene. Going back to the Ottoman example, the fez which Kemal Attaturk famously banned as an example of retrograde practice was originally introduced only one century prior and had little sectarian implication.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture

One book to educate them all

By Razib Khan | February 19, 2006 4:56 pm

OK, a question. Imagine that you are the only adult left in the world and everyone else is under the age of 6. Assume helper robots obviate the need to micromanage the lives of the children, toddlers and infants in your care. You can choose one book from each of the disciplines of humanity to educate these children. Ignoring your own field of specialization, which book would you choose for “science”? You have 30 seconds!
My answer: I initially considered The Principia by Isaac Newton, but upon 15 seconds of reflection concluded that that might be too high of a level and the tome might turn into a “sacred” text which blocks rather than spurs intellectual development. The greatest minds of England in Newton’s own age had great difficulty with his ideas. So, the second choice which I settled upon The Elements by Euclid because of its use of axiomatic methods in mathematics.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture

Gene loss in humans

By Razib Khan | February 19, 2006 4:44 pm

Tim posts on the recent PLOS paper Gene Losses during Human Origins published by the Wang et al. If that gets you all excited, check out The Origin of Subfunctions and Modular Gene Regulation and Preservation of Duplicate Genes by Complementary, Degenerative Mutations. I might lionize the contributions of R.A. Fisher, Sewall Wright and J.B.S. Haldane to evolutionary biology, but as I posted before, tools need tasks, and the mass of data being unveiled by genomics is uncovering many surprises. Science isn’t about a priori inference, it is about venturing into the wilds, and by the grace of god we live in an Age of Discovery (the post-genomic era).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics

Science Blogs technical issues

By Razib Khan | February 19, 2006 4:33 pm

Orac is having technical issues with SB, and on some blogs comments post very slowly. I just wanted to post a notice because the problems are spotty and some of us aren’t having issues.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Blog
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