Archive for October, 2006

It isn't a dress

By Razib Khan | October 22, 2006 1:17 pm

Just for the record, that’s a pajama, not a dress. I don’t appreciate people I know making fun of me (you know who you are). If you are curious about the fact that I am beardless and singing, well, that was before I became a good Muslim.


What to do with European Muslims?

By Razib Khan | October 21, 2006 2:29 pm

The comments below about Muslims in Europe have continued to come in, so I figured I would put a new post up and allow further comments here on the front page. On my other blog I have another post on the veil. Two points:
1) It seems like “New Labor” has decided to drop the PC-veil, so to speak, and take a hard line on Islamic separatism. This is somewhat rich since the government itself in the 90s helped give succor to “community groups” like the Muslim Council of Britain which were retarding the process of assimilation (in fact, they had an interest to perpetuate separation since it increased their power as “mediators”).
2) This shows that Muslims should be cautious of assuming that any given majority political faction will always “support their side” in any principled manner, as opposed to a tactical alliance.
As I have outlined below, the “problem” with European Muslims, and the relative lack of problem with American Muslims can be decomposed into several issues:
Synergistic identities – In the United States Islam is a multi-ethnic religion, with large numbers of black American converts, South Asian Americans, Middle Eastern Americans as well as numbers of Africans, Southeast Asians and converts from other races (e.g., Latinos). In Europe Islam tends to have an identification with one ethnic group. In Norway Pakistanis, in the Netherlands Morrocans, in Germany Turks, in France North Africans, in England South Asians. In this way religious and ethnic identity are coupled together, and any ethnic revival or affiliation naturally implies a Muslim identity. Additionally, organizationally the Muslim community has an easier time in keeping up a “common” and insulated front because there is no ethnic diversity to contend with. In fact, Muslims in England might be ethnically diverse insofar as they are separated into “Pakistani” and “Bangladeshi” groups (the vast majority), but even these two clusterings are regionally biased within their own source localities: the Mirpur district of Punjab/Kashmir and the Syhlett district of Bangladesh. I have relatives in the UK and they attest ot the insularity of Syhlettis vis-a-vis those from other regions of Bangaldesh.

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Best science show of all time?

By Razib Khan | October 21, 2006 4:19 am

Ask a Science Blogger:

What’s the best science TV show of all time?…

No contest, NOVA.


Kat – the unbearable fluffiness of grey

By Razib Khan | October 20, 2006 4:14 pm

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What shade do you fancy?

By Razib Khan | October 20, 2006 11:54 am

alba.jpgVia The American Scene, Skin Color and Wages Among New Immigrants (Update: Steve Sailer an interesting critique of this study). The basic finding is that controlling for all variables that they could nail down darker skinned immigrants tend to make less bank. As someone of luscious brownitude (see picture to your far left) this does concern me, but mom always told me that true Übermenschen always have their burdens. In other, somewhat related news, Dienekes reports on an interesting finding that in regards to skin tone a lighter shade of brown is oh so sexy baby, more so than black berry or pink peach. You didn’t need to convince me, we’re talking mid-20s on the von Luschan scale baby.
Important note: If you are a kuffir and do not respect Ramadan soft-core fast, you may click the image to view the full cornucopia of fleisch.


Fisher and population size: II

By Razib Khan | October 20, 2006 12:35 am

David B continues his series on R.A. Fisher’s opinions regarding population size and evolutionary genetics (part I).
Update: Links fixed. Thanks John.


Pinker replies to Lakoff's reply

By Razib Khan | October 20, 2006 12:15 am

Steven Pinker has responded to Lakoff’s reply in TNR.


Erasing identity?

By Razib Khan | October 19, 2006 11:02 am

In the comments Fly states:

Within the next two decades it will become easy to modify skin color and hair characteristics. A person’s skin color may be a fashion statement much as a woman’s hair color is today. Rather than most people being brown, I expect some will opt for attention garnering colors more commonly seen in fruits.
I’m hopeful that racial group identifiers that energize identity politics will disappear.

Hopeful is a good word to describe how I feel, I do think that within a few decades racial identity will be far more malleable than it is today. In particular, I believe the one organ that is going to be easily altered first will be th tone the skin, perhaps the most visible racial characteristic. Judging by the popularity of Fair and Lovely whoever designs a cheap and non-toxic cream which renders skin white will make the profits from Viagra seem trivial. White skin may then no longer be a privilege, but a consumer accoutrement. And yet, this comment made me think of the cochlear implant controversy that has riven the deaf community. Though these implants do not mimic natural hearing, they do provide a modicum of “correction” for deafness. I use the quotes specifically because some deaf activists do not consider the lack of hearing a problem, and argue that these artificial devices may signal the death of their culture! As 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who will no doubt enthusiastically adopt these treatments I don’t dismiss these concerns. But this issue reminds us of the power of socially mediated identities of group and community. Myself, I put little stock in such things, and I am generally rather insensitive to the rights of “communities.” But the looming dilemmas posed by such technologies will force us to face our assumptions as a culture.


Necessity & sufficiency, The Long Summer

By Razib Khan | October 18, 2006 8:29 am

I really enjoyed The Long Summer by Brian Fagan. It’s a pretty interesting and multi-dimensional story, hitting all the evolutionary, archeological and climatological angles that you’d expect. Fagan’s central hypothesis is that our species has been responding to local climatic shocks with short-term strategies1 to buffer our societies against these ups and downs, but the tradeoff has been of possible massive catastrophic effects when hit by a major oscillation. Fagan points to several civilizational collapses which might have been triggered by climatic changes (the Mayan is the most famous). But there was something that always irritated me about Fagan’s narrative: he wants to really de-emphasize the role of our species in reshaping the planet and our control of our own fate. There isn’t much coverage of the fact that human fires and deforestation have resculpted whole ecosystems, but what gets me is that Fagan repeatedly dismisses the impact of humans on megafaunal extinctions. The data on this seems clear: humans were not sufficient, but they were clearly necessary, in knocking out species which were already stressed because of climate change. I think this is ironic in light of the fact that Fagan tends to think in terms of oscillations and thresholds for our own species.
1 – e.g., agriculture, cities, global trade and so forth.


Sunni vs. Shia (again)

By Razib Khan | October 17, 2006 9:36 pm

Sunn vs. Shia on the other blog. My conclusion:

Of course, this isn’t the sort of thing that is interesting to most people. It would obviously be best if government officials who played a role in making decisions where this knowledge would be critical would be aware of the details. But I’m not holding my breath, my own experience on this and other blogs is that when it comes to opinions about Islam and the Middle East research is deemed unnecessary and the empires of opinion conquer all (in fact, I have been told that knowing too much is an impediment to proper understanding, and though I accept this as true in some theoretically rigorous sciences where excessive acceptance of received wisdom blinds one to new findings and insights, foreign policy and such are it seems mostly empirical disciplines where a mass of facts exists without great theoretical scaffolding).


What's your utility function?

By Razib Khan | October 17, 2006 11:51 am

What is a Good Society? What values should we has a society hold to be Good and True? These aren’t light questions, but we often neglect them. I believe that many “political” differences can ultimately be traced back to the weights placed on these initial axioms of value. Ruchira Paul comments on a new book who explores happiness and amity from an economic and philosophical perspective:

I frequently irritate champions of the unbridled free market who trumpet the triumphs of nations such as India and China and the recent impressive rise in their GDP, economic growth indices etc. I keep whining about lack of infrastructure, rampant governmental corruption, unequal access to education and other civic amenities, disparities in income and civil rights.


Question the "experts" sometimes….

By Razib Khan | October 17, 2006 11:04 am

This is the shape of things to come for mankind is an article which claims that “Variations in skin colouring are expected to be smoothed out, with most humans moving towards a brown tone.” The source of this is an evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Oliver Curry, but, it seems to me that Dr. Curry is passing off what he read in science fiction as science. Genetics is not blending. I have posted on skin color enough to make clear why humans won’t turn uniformly as beautifully brown as some privileged people! A small number of loci (4-5) control skin color variation, and though random mating can reduce the multi-modality (so “peaks” of light and dark skin may diminish) the variation will be maintained beacuse genetic information is not destroyed, and the alleles which result in dark and light skin will still remain extant in the genetic background. So perhaps all the rest about 6′ 6″ males and mega-cocks might be viewed with some caution (correlated response anyone?).
Update: Wilkins offers his Australian dollar (i.e., 2 American cents).


What makes us human (genetically)?

By Razib Khan | October 17, 2006 2:21 am

JP has an interesting post, Why the regulatory changes vs. coding sequence changes debate is inane:

Here’s the question we’re supposed to answer: which are more important– protein-coding changes or regulatory changes? And here’s the problem with that question: how do you define important? Let’s make a list of the ways humans differ from chimpanzees– we walk on two feet, we have bigger brains, we have less hair, etc. etc. You can add your own if you like. If a protein-coding change gives us the bigger brain, but a regulatory change the lack of hair, who wins? Sure, you could argue about which trait contributes more to some notion of “human-ness”, but frankly, who gives a shit? Both are pretty important.

Some of the comments are of interest. The “big picture” is that these debates about “sequence vs. regulation” or “selection vs. neutrality” are probably good for driving scientific research programs, and providing a nice backdrop for popularizations, but on the granular fine scale and the grand scale they are pretty irrelevant. The answer almost certainly is “somwhere in the middle,” and partitioning the underlying parameters as purely (or predominantly) sequence or regulatory is probably semantic juggling in an era where such categories are going to be broken down by more fundamental levels of understanding.1 But of course, there is the existential question, what does it mean to be human? Honestly, I don’t think science is ever going to be up to answering the question with the sort of answer that this question truly begs for. Unfortunately, the sort of “essences” that humans need to believe in don’t exist anywhere but in our heads.
1 – I think Dan Dennett did hit upon something when he asserted that natural selection is “substrate neutral.”


Tired Kat

By Razib Khan | October 17, 2006 12:51 am

Thoughts from Kansas on The God Delusion

By Razib Khan | October 16, 2006 11:24 pm

Josh Rosenau has a review of The God Delusion which is, I think, a little bit harder on Richard Dawkins than I. The comments are hopping, so you should check it out!
Let me reiterate my general position re: Dawkins & The God Delusion:

  • My own personal assessment of the universe as it is resembles that of Dawkins
  • My own assessment of the nature of religious belief is similar to that of Dawkins, insofar as I believe it is a byproduct of proximate cognitive features which have their ultimate origins in our evolutionary history
  • My own attitude is one of general hostility toward religious fundamentalisms, particularly of the monotheistic stripe
  • But, I differ with Dawkins in that I tend to put more weight on the reality that religion is here to stay in some form, and as a matter of tactics am not willing to endorse a wholesale attack on religion qua religion as anything but a quixotic quest
  • Though I agree that religion is the necessary precondition for extremist religion, I see the difference between moderate and fundamentalist religion as less a difference of the magnitude of an essential religiosity as a modulation of underlying parameters which characterize the distribution of a religion. To use an analogy, I do not believe that democratic socialism is any less socialist that revolutionary socialism, it simply has a different attitude toward violence and democratic institutions as a means or barrier to social justice
  • Though I agree that individuals like Dawkins are essential in the marketplace of ideas, I do not see any remote possibility that humans will ever exhibit a Dawkinsian attitude toward the world around us
  • Unlike Dawkins I do not hold to the universal importance of truth for all humans. Unlike Christians I do not believe that all must know the Good News of scientific materialism, and I am not inclined toward giving a drowning man a life jacket
  • I tend to think that the good and evil in the name of religion is not ascribable to religion per se. I get the sentiment from Dawkins that he wants to decouple the good from religion, and yet still pin the evil on religion. I don’t think this is plausible, if religion increases the magnitude of negative behavior it seems as if it should also increase the magnitude of positive behavior (unless one tautologically defines religion as evil behavior axiomatically)

Creationism in Poland

By Razib Khan | October 16, 2006 10:13 pm

Polish MEP calls for ‘scholarly debate’ on evolution:

‘I am a scientist, I am a geneticist, my specialty is population genetics and I reject the theory of evolution on the basis of the field of science I represent. I find that in many fields of science there are scientists who reject the theory of evolution because in their fields they also find evidence against the theory.’ says MEP Maciej Giertych.

I won’t go through the blow-by-blow. Only two points:
1) It exhausts my creativity how one could reject evolution because of population genetics, seeing as how population genetics as a field emerged in large part as a formalization of Darwinian evolutionary theory assuming a Mendelian model of genetics. To me this is kind of like claiming that the calculus led one to the conclusion that Newtonian Mechanics was a false theory. It might not be logically false, but there is something really peculiar about it all.
2) Poland is of course a Roman Catholic nation, and European Catholicism has had little issue at the commanding heights with the general hypothesis of evolution (the recent flirtation with Intelligent Design I view cautiously, and mostly an issue of bad philosophical communication). Nevertheless, in nations where populist Catholicism is powerful Creationism seems to emerge. To me this illustrates the reality that Creationism exists as a populist inclination invariant of the elite religious tradition.


All 'dem Saracens are the same!!!

By Razib Khan | October 16, 2006 12:33 pm

The cover of this month’s SEED has a small blurb on the bottom front left (your left as you face the cover) which refers to “Intelligent Design on the Arab Street.” My first thought was, “Interesting, the only Muslim Creationists I know are those weird Turkish groups.” So I open up the article and it’s about Turkish Creationists! Now, I know that the term “Arab Street” is common lingo, but there is the problem that Turks are not Arabs. Not a big deal, except that knowledge about the details of the Middle East seem to be a serious problem seeing as how our nation is pretty heavily involved in geopolitics of that region….


Impending Tripoli Six trial

By Razib Khan | October 16, 2006 11:59 am

It’s been a few weeks since I posted on the Tripoli Six, but while I’ve been busy with other things there are still six lives in the balance. Revere has more details, and Janet has a long post on the importance of writing letters. The trial starts October 31st, so let’s raise some consciousness as a lead up!


Mendel's Garden #8

By Razib Khan | October 15, 2006 3:25 pm

Mendel’s Garden #8 is up at Discovering Biology in a Digital World.


A change in the Zeitgeist regarding Islam

By Razib Khan | October 14, 2006 4:46 pm

The New York Times has an article titled Across Europe, Worries on Islam Spread to Center. It is a string of anecdotes and examples which show that criticism of Islam is now becoming acceptable in non-extremist circles. I am frankly pleased by this. Consider:

Whatever the motivations, “the reality is that views on both sides are becoming more extreme,” said Imam Wahid Pedersen, a prominent Dane who is a convert to Islam. “It has become politically correct to attack Islam, and this is making it hard for moderates on both sides to remain reasonable.” Mr. Pedersen fears that onetime moderates are baiting Muslims, the very people they say should integrate into Europe.

Attacking Islam, or more generally religion, is important. I am not one who believes that supernaturalism or religiosity will be banished from society, but, over the past 10,000 years with the rise of mass societies organized religion of some form has become a handmaid of the powers that be, and the cordoning off of religious ideas from critical examination was one of the major changes over the last 2,000 years in Western Civilization. Between 1700 and 1800 this consensus was shattered and atheism became a tolerated, if not normative, position. Criticism and analysis of religion is an accepted part of Western culture now, and obviously I support this. Comments from “moderate” Muslims strongly suggest to me that they simply refuse to partake of the bargain that Enlightenment liberalism made with organized religion several centuries ago, believe as you will, but do not expect the state to protect your sensitivities. For example:

Many Europeans, she said, have not been accepting of Muslims, especially since 9/11. On the other hand, she said [a native born Belgian married to a Muslim man], Muslims truly are different culturally: No amount of explanation about free speech could convince her husband that the publication of cartoons lampooning Muhammad in a Danish newspaper was in any way justified.

This is a man married to a Western woman who lives in the West, and he simply can not comprehend why the principle of blasphemy must be banished in a civilized society. I do not doubt that there are many in the Christian community who have the same instinctive feeling about blasphemy, and I have listened to William Donohue of The Catholic League express similar views to many Muslims when it comes to the sanctity of his own particular religious tradition and barring it from ridicule. But while Donohue is an activist outside of the mainstream of American Catholic thought in his positive attitude toward enshrining his own religious sensibilities through the action of governmental fiat, this attitude is common and normative among Muslims. It is the consensus within the Muslim world, and many Muslims who immigrate to the West seem reluctant to give up their values and compromise with the Enlightenment dispensation. Finally:

“I think the time will come,” said Amir Shafe, 34, a Pakistani who earns a good living selling clothes at a market in Antwerp. He deplores terrorism and said he himself did not sense hostility in Belgium. But he said, “We are now thinking of going back to our country, before that time comes.”

It seems that individuals such as the ones above hold to Robert Nozick’s formula that the state is simply the means toward mediating capitalist transactions between consenting adults. This individual does not consider Belgium his country from the way he speaks, and he clearly does not hold the values of Belgian society dear enough to shed aspects of his religious worldview to accommodate the Zeitgeist in which he finds himself. This is not abnormal, religious values have a deep and powerful psychological resonance, and certainly the transition toward the acceptance of profaning sacred truths in the public discourse was a difficult one. There are still large expanses of this planet where Islam has a special and cherished role in the polity, where the truths propounded by the Prophet Muhammad are sacrosanct and inviolable. Those who wish to live by such consenses should move to those nations, and leave the lands of the West. It is not like I am of course an innocent bystander in all of this, by the very fact of who I am I blaspheme, by the fact of what I hold dear I blaspheme. Between the rise of Christianity and the destruction of Christendom during the Wars of Religion a skeptical attitude toward religion was banished from the West. This was not a fragile order, or a sentiment kept in place against human nature, banishing those who violate the sacred canons of the tribe, who transgress upon taboo, is an ancient human practice. Christianity and Islam have simply enshrined in their own philosophies this tribal sense of solidarity and line-drawing. The collapse of this order was not effortless or without horror and bloodshed. There is no shame in “political incorrectness” in the interests of preserving the right to inquiry won these past centuries. When idols are placed in the town square one must be free to mock, laugh and dismiss, lest the idol worshippers assume that their wooden gods have dominion over all.


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