Archive for June, 2006

Library encounters

By Razib Khan | June 22, 2006 11:25 pm

I swung by the public library today to pay a $1.25 fine. Offhand I asked the librarian what the biggest fine she’d ever encountered was, and she leaned forward and whispered, “$1,000.” What she told me was that someone simply came in and paid $1,000 rather than returning their checked out books. I suppose some people have never heard of used book stores! But, the librarian continued that enormous fines were not that out of the ordinary, and that one collection agency specializes in library accounts. Finally, she explained one point of interest to me: a disproportionate of the very high fines are accrued by first time library users! She explained that many individuals got so excited about getting a library card that they checked out dozens of books…and they never returned because their initial literary enthusiasm would abate and they couldn’t be bothered to return to the library to drop off their books.


Differences can kill

By Razib Khan | June 22, 2006 3:01 pm

Three human gene variants appear to influence tb susceptibility:

Approximately one-third of the world’s population is thought to be infected with the M. tuberculosis pathogen, yet only about 10 percent becomes ill with the active disease. Researchers suspect that a variety of factors interplay to determine who develops the full-blown disease. For example, in February 2006 Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers were part of a team that identified a mechanism that explains why people of African descent may be more vulnerable to the disease.

The paper is reputedly in the PNAS – Early Edition section.


Not a Khan after all!

By Razib Khan | June 21, 2006 5:20 pm

Steve points me to this story which reports that the man reported to be the first direct line descent of Genghis Khan among Europeans is not a Khan. Nevertheless, the more important point holds: the success of the Khan patrilineage seems distinctly an Asian phenomenon, showing how fickle social status for males can be across space & time….


Religious people are less intelligent

By Razib Khan | June 21, 2006 9:25 am

At my other weblog Jason Malloy points me to Half Sigma who crunches the data from the GSS and finds that yes, religiosity is a predictor of lower intelligence. One of the most googled postings of mine from years back is where I showed that there is a positive trend for mean national IQ to predict mean national religiosity. Of course, by the numbers, most high IQ people are still religious, they are simply less religious than those of lower IQ. Anyway, here is a follow up rant from Half Sigma.
Of course, another fact is that the non-religious also probably like confirmation of the fact that they are brighter!


Jason Rosenhouse is a memetic genius!

By Razib Khan | June 21, 2006 2:51 am

A few weeks ago Evolgen expressed irritation that people kept confusing his blog with Jason Rosenhouse’s Evolution Blog. Well, check this:

Razib at Evolutionblog has asked contributors to try defining evolution in ten words or fewer.

The title “Evolution Blog” must be cognitively “sticky” or something! Jason did link to me recently, so I suspect this is where the memory leakage and conflation came into play….


Behavior Genetics & NRO

By Razib Khan | June 20, 2006 6:11 pm

Over at The Corner at National Review Online John Derbyshire has been getting into a debate with his colleagues over Judith Rich Harris’ work, and her two books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike. I find it amusing when scientific controversy comes crashing into the punditocracy, though I think it is also a good thing. To frame the issue properly, there is consistent evidence that the majority of non-genetic variation in personality is due to non-shared (i.e., non-home) environment. Judith Rich Harris proposes that peer groups account for this non-shared environment, though this is more a hypothesis than a definitive conclusion derived from the research. With that in mind, here is the debate in rough chronological order….
Update: Final, final, final response from John (he promises).

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Graham Hancock, expert in bulls*it

By Razib Khan | June 20, 2006 9:42 am

EurekAlert obviously doesn’t have quality control, as of right now their top press release in the Biology category is Graham Hancock, international expert on lost civilizations. If you don’t know, Hancock is a pseudoarcheologist. Basically he is just Robert E. Howard with a little more world-creation talent and more literary panache. Hancock reminds us of an important point: quackish beliefs are not the monopoly of religous fundamentalists. In fact, I would argue that religious fundamentalism, for whatever reason, reinforces quackish beliefs, but those beliefs are somewhat innate in most human beings (ergo, Creationist appeals to “common sense”).


10 questions for David Haig

By Razib Khan | June 19, 2006 5:34 pm

A few weeks ago I was posting on genomic imprinting. I will continue that series in the near future, but until then, I point you to my 10 questions for David Haig, the theorist who originated many of the ideas which I discussed and will discuss. Though Haig is not a popularizer himself, he shows up in Matt Ridley’s work, as well as Mother Nature by Sarah Hrdy and Natural Selection and Social Theory by Bob Trivers. You may read many of his papers without academic access, so I highly recommend readers to go straight to the source in this case!


Heritability and the mind….

By Razib Khan | June 19, 2006 12:44 pm

Jake at Pure Pedantry has a lengthy post on heritability. It makes concrete (using real psychological illneses, etc.) some of my points in my previous post where I discuss the complexity of behavioral genetics.
Two issues of note. First, Jake used the example of Huntington’s Disease as “100% heritable.” I think this is going to confuse people. There is often a distinction between “broad sense” and “narrow sense” heritability, the latter includes dominance effects into the genetic variation component,1 while the latter is focused on additive genetic variation.2 In most genetic discourse “heritability” is actually narrow sense heritability in the context of quantitative traits, that is, those that are distributed along a rough normal distribution. This is because (as Jake notes) behavioral traits are polygenic, so the central limit theorem implies that the trait will be normally distributed along a graph of frequency vs. trait value. The main reason that I think the nitpick about Huntington’s is relevant is that introducing a Mendelian trait into the picture takes the focus off the overwhelming importance of distributions and expectations within behavior genetics.

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Donors Choose Matching – let's crank this up!

By Razib Khan | June 19, 2006 9:16 am

As most of you know, SEED will be matching the money we’re raising here at Science Blogs. Thanks to the many who’ve already given. If you haven’t, I encourage you too! Step up!


Nation Building

By Razib Khan | June 19, 2006 12:44 am

I will be contributing to the new blog Nation Building, which was the weblog “Dean Nation.” Though I am generally of the opinion that the 4-year-election-cycle is generally characterized by transient epiphenomena on a substantive level (though there’s a lot of tribalism and “my team won!” going around), I do think the long-term health of the republic (long term as in 20-40 years) is important. My opinions will be more philosophical and historical, but they will have some political relevance. I’ll be offering my idiosyncratic perspective as a libertarian/Burkean/transhumanist/evolutionist (not necessarily in that order!).


Conservatives against Intelligent Design against Ann Coulter

By Razib Khan | June 18, 2006 5:24 pm

Conservatives against Intelligent Design addresses l’affaire Coulter.


Confucius [Kong Fuzi] say….

By Razib Khan | June 18, 2006 5:00 pm

This hilarious article about “confirming” your descent from Confucius is making the rounds.
Now, my understanding is that the patrilineage of Confucius remains to this day. So the people who would seek confirmation would often have a tradition of descent from the great sage himself. But, I note tradition. We all know that “ancestors” can be concocted, and, we also know that sometimes patrilineages can be “interrupted.” When English geneticist Bryan Sykes tested individuals with his surname across the British Isles he found that ~50% of individuals were of the same Y chromosomal lineage. That means that half of these “Sykes” were actually descended from the same man in the recent past (~1000 years ago, or less). But, what of the other 50%? Turns out that they were descended from a host of various different men. In other words, the pie chart of “Sykes” lineages would have shown a modal haplotype, and a diverse array of non-modal haplotypes. A plausible explanation for this pattern is that the other 50% are due to lineage introgression, a polite way of suggesting cuckoldry on the order of 1-2% per generation.

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Mendel's Garden

By Razib Khan | June 18, 2006 3:48 pm

Mendel’s Garden is out!


Gettin' jiggy in Dhaka

By Razib Khan | June 18, 2006 1:39 am

These two performances are close to my heart.


I care about social justice!

By Razib Khan | June 17, 2006 2:32 am

I was hungry yesterday, and everywhere I went the lines were long, so I decided to visit a “fast food” restaurant. While I was waiting for my order a 7 year old child was adding more ice to the soda fountain machine. The child had to use a chair to climb up, and he was having a very difficult time with the task. I assumed this was the owner’s child helping out, but he was wearing a fanchise uniform. I couldn’t help it, I was outraged, so I blurted out “They let you work here?!” I mean, I was thinking, what is this, Pakistan? The child looked at me, and was like, “What?” And suddenly I realized that it wasn’t a young preadolescent male, it was a very short woman with a haircut that could only be termed ‘boyish.’ Secondary sexual characteristics were not in evidence, so I would not be surprised if this was a Turner’s Syndrome individual or someone with a hormonal pathology. Anyway, I was pretty embarrassed, but I saved myself, I was like, “Oh, I thought you were someone else.” But at least I found out that my egoistic self is moved by the possibility of child labor in fast food joints to express reflexive protest!
With that said, a few good causes…let’s do it people! (if you’ve donated somewhere, sometime, good for you, and ignore my nagging)

Of course I don’t want to be a pest about this, but I’m not forcing you to read the blog :)


Day of the Kat

By Razib Khan | June 16, 2006 9:51 am

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Deterministic within the stochastic…selection that is

By Razib Khan | June 16, 2006 9:37 am

The answers keep coming in for my query about “what is evolution?” RPM took me to task for basically answering “what is selection” with my initial response. This is a good criticism…honestly, I wanted to focus on selection because I think random genetic drift confuses many people, and it quickly turns into a black box incantation that explains everything and nothing. But here’s another point of interest: selection is stochastic as well! That is, selection favors fitness, and fitness tends to exhibit particular characteristics in particular environments (e.g., extremely fast vertebrate aquatic creatures seem to converge upon similar forms because of the constraints of physics), but at least in the short term there are often many solutions to the same problem. You want an example? High altitude peoples, different genetic and physiological responses. Now, I did say “short term,” because I am to understand that the Tibetans, for example, seem to have “better” strategies in regards to optimizing fitness than the peoples of the Andes. Why might this be? Well, Tibet and (or its environs) have been inhabited by modern humans for at least 50,000 years. In contrast, the Andes probably hasn’t seem human habitation for more than 12,000 years. Selection takes time. And, selection has to work with the variation it has on hand, and Tibet is demographically much more “hooked in” than the Andes, which had to replenish selection after the Beringian bottlneck. Of course, the Andeans have hit up a local fitness optimum, but given enough time it seems possible that would they keep ascending toward the Tibetan strategies (which are less stressful on the body). Or would they? Perhaps they would hit upon modifier genes and wander down an alternative developmental path from the Tibetans altogether…cycles within cycles, and so it never ends. My overall point is that sometimes selection simply reduces the sample space from nearly infinite opportunies to explore genetic variants (e.g., neutrality) to only having recourse to dozens of strategies. How does selection select from those strategies? God knows….


Stephen Hawking is not a dumb cripple

By Razib Khan | June 16, 2006 4:17 am

I too defend space cadets, what is mankind without a dream? I remember back in the late 1980s a speech by Joseph P. Kennedy II as he stood on the floor of the house of representatives and asked his fellow members if people here at home should eat less so that vessels could fly above them in the cosmos. Should we be forced to make this choice? (shall I point out that many Americans should eat a bit less!)
I’m not going to defend the details of Hawking’s argument, I think the time scale is a little compressed (I’m being generous). But, I am going to defend the dream, because to venture into space isn’t just a utilitarian decision, it is an artistic act. Yes, you heard me right. Human beings engage in a lot of peculiar and “wasteful” activities, from massive architecture to baroque entertainments, and yes, even to esoteric scientific projects. Calls to be more “practical” and “realistic” neglect the fact that we are fundamentally a race of nutcase dreamers whose “spark” of sentience can be gleaned 25,000 years ago via to ochre splashes in dark caves which were emblazoned by the imagination of man.

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Sweet selection!!!

By Razib Khan | June 15, 2006 10:46 pm

On the heels of the asinine review of Before the Dawn in Nature, I see Carl is linking to some recent papers that are coming out in regards to positive selection in our own storied lineage. I must say that the new one in Science is quite phat in its broad sweep. Pictures below the fold….

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