John Hawks responds to the new paper in PNAS, Close correspondence between quantitative and molecular-genetic divergence times for Neandertals and modern humans.
I read Christmas: A Candid History walking home last night. It’s a small compact book so walking and reading works well. In any case, there was some surprising information here. The basic outline that Christmas, as we understand it, is in large part a co-opted pagan complex of festivals is there. No surprise. But the author claims that the suppression of St. Nicholas and his festival during the Reformation in northern Europe had the side effect of enabling the resurgence of pagan supernatural folk-heroes! In other words, without St. Nicholas the rural peasantry of German and Scandinavia simply drafted a replacement from their own folk history for their mid-winter celebrations, and that replacement naturally manifested many more pagan elements than St. Nicholas the Christian bishop because it was outside of church control.
But St. Nicholas as Santa Claus remains robust in the United States. Why? Turns out that this figure was a creation of the circle around Washingtin Irving in New York during the early 19th century. New York was of course once a Dutch colony, and many of the elite families still proudly declared such antecedents. Iriving’s circle simply asserted that the festival of Sinter Klaas had once been very prominent in New Amsterdam despite no evidence to support this, and the rest is history….
…Basically, this joke breaks down as “Congratulate a white person and they will feel smugly good about themselves.” It’s the perfect go-to punchline for Stuff White People Like, because it’s really what the site is all about. Because if there’s one thing white people really like, it’s pretending to poke fun at themselves while actually being allowed to feel superior.
My friend Reiham Salam is not a fan. I have only read a few entries on Stuff White People Like over the past month. I don’t have a visceral dislike of the site, but it is definitely more mass-market than boutique in terms of its product, and as an honorary white person I prefer the latter to the former.
There is one thing about the Stuff White People Like phenomenon which I think is important to point out: it isn’t just white people who are subject to this dynamic, it’s a human universal. It is the tendency to want to show you are superior all the while denigrating that same superiority or dismissing it, showing that you are so superior that you don’t even care about your superiority! For example, one of the few weblogs where I’m a regular presence as a commenter, and have been for nearly 4 years now, is Sepia Munity. It is mostly brown American-centric in its orientation. Here is Wikipedia on Asian Indians:
First he couldn’t hold Natalie Portman’s hand – and now a Williamsburg Hasidic Jew-turned-actor has to give up his chance to hit it big in a Hollywood movie.
“I am backing out of the movie,” said Karpen, a kitchen cabinet salesman. “It’s not acceptable in my community. It’s a lot of pressure I am getting. They [the rabbis] didn’t like the idea of a Hasidic guy playing in Hollywood.
Sounds kind of meshugana to me. But there’s more:
Then came the howls of protest about his unorthodox job.
“This is when I woke up and saw that I made a big mistake. My kids mean everything to me and my community where I live means everything to me,” said Karpen, who comes from a prominent Williamsburg, Brooklyn, family.
His longtime friend Levi Okunov said the Karpens had to flee the city for the weekend. “The community wants to kill him,” he said.
OK, the title is somewhat of an exaggeration, but not much. Out of Africa, Not Once But Twice:
Modern humans are known to have left Africa in a wave of migration around 50,000 years ago, but another, smaller group — possibly a different subspecies — left the continent 50,000 years earlier, suggests a new study.
While all humans today are related to the second “out of Africa” group, it’s likely that some populations native to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia retain genetic vestiges of the earlier migrants, according to the paper’s author, Michael Schillaci.
The paper is forthcoming in The Journal of Human Evolution. The article weirdly keeps saying this was a genetic analysis, which I think will confuse people since it seems clear that the author was doing cladistics on the 28 fossil samples. I’ll wait for what the bones people have to say when the paper comes out, but I have to admit a bit of fatigue about the whole issue about whether they would be a subspecies or not. I dread a lumper-splitter fight if more data comes to light of relict alleles or traits in modern populations from archaics. Why the fixation on vehicles?
Daniel Larison says:
Reliable information is a bit hard to come by, but it seems as if the policy of increased Han Chinese colonisation in Tibet has finally run up against a violent popular backlash. I haven’t anything very insightful to say about this, but it is one of the major foreign affairs stories this week and merits some mention here.
Made me wonder. Wikipedia says that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is still a little over 90% Tibetan. In contrast, in Xinjiang at least 40% of the population is Han. The main city, Urumqi is 3/4 Han. So comparatively Tibet is actually not much colonized. Why? Well, as you might know Xinjiang has oil…possibly. Tibet? I doubt it. Additionally, Lhasa is at a high altitude, very high. Tibetans have some physiological adaptations to this altitude, and from what I have read Han Chinese who settle in the Tibetan heartland are eager to rotate out.
Our old friend Noah Feldman has a new article in The New York Times Magazine exploring the subtly of shariah law. I know that Feldman is exceedingly bright, and as someone raised as an Orthodox Jew and a law professor, he is very well placed to explore this topic and translate to a Western audience. There are many resemblances between Rabbinical Judaism and Islam when it comes to civil jurispurdience. But details do matter to me, and Feldman oversimplifies the nature of Islam and underestimates its boundary conditions in my opinion. For example, he says, “All Muslims would agree, for example, that it prohibits lending money at interest — though not investments in which risks and returns are shared; and the ban on Muslims drinking alcohol is an example of an unequivocal ritual prohibition, even for liberal interpreters of the faith.” On the point about the banning of interest, the way it seems to work out is that Muslims follow the letter of the law without honoring the spirit. The readership should know that I would think. In regards to alcohol, the prohibition is not universal to Islam. The heterodox Bektashi Sufi order includes wine consumption as part of its ritual, as do their cousins the Alevis of Turkey. This does not mean this practice is normal, but unlike the Druze these groups are considered Muslim, if marginally and grudgingly so, it likely exceed at least 10 million numbers.
So the article is worth reading. But be careful about taking it too literally….
I generally skim only a few political/public policy weblogs via my RSS to get a sense of the Zeitgeist. M. McArdle and M. Yglesias are two of the blogs I sample. Anyway, if you read their blogs, check out the latest installment of The Table, the intro is really hilarious. Most-def trying to do the Gen-X ironic thing.
A few days ago I mooted the possibility that balancing selection may be more common than we had assumed, and that much of the recent evolutionary action in our species’ history might be characterized by non-fixed allele frequencies which exhibit the signatures of positive selection because of their shallow time depth. I was interested in the idea for an important reason. Below the fold are are a range of data for two loci implicated in skin color variation in human populations; SLC24A5 and SLC45A2.
Steve Waldman has been blogging some of the major arguments from his new book, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. He says:
As for their religious beliefs, someone in the comment thread said I was being incoherent or contradictory by saying the Big Five (Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Washington & Madison) were neither Deists nor orthodox Christians. Again, we’re viewing this through a somewhat warped lens. “Deist” and “Orthodox Christian” were not the only two spiritual choices. For one thing, each Founder was slightly different from each other, and changed throughout their lives. But if I had to pick a religion, I’d say they were sort of militant Unitarians. In other words, they had rejected or become uncomfortable with key parts of Christian doctrine and institutional behavior but they did believe in an active God, who intervened in their lives and the lives of the nation.
This is a serious problem. History is messy because people are messy. Do your opinions remain invariant? Are you always unequivocal about your beliefs? Have your personal circumstances and social contexts remained unchanged over your life? Why do people expect that historical dynamics and personages would exhibit any of these characteristics? The opinions of the Founding Fathers regarding religion must be assessed in the context of the full framework of their times as well as the sum totality of their writings. Unfortunately, those with modern axes to grind distort their overall stances by selectively presenting a few opinions of these men which might confuse contemporary audiences.
A new story highlighting the waxing of Creationism within modern Turkey. A depressing tidbit:
Education Minister Huseyin Celik, an AKP member, said he has an open mind over the debate about evolution, but in 2005, the Ministry reportedly suspended five teachers for advocating evolution too strongly.
“In my school three out of five science teachers only teach creationism and I face pressure from them everyday. They also try to turn the children against us in their classes, saying we are atheists,” a teacher told ISN Security Watch on the condition of anonymity.
The AKP is a moderate Islamist party attempting to resell itself as a block of Muslim Christian democrats. The analogy with European political traditions makes sense, since the time of Ataturk Turkey has been trying re-brand itself as the southeastern frontier of Europe as opposed to to the northwestern frontier of the Islamic world. From what I have read Ataturk was not personally a believer in religion, but he could only go so far. As it is, in comparison to what came before he went far indeed, enforcing radical ruptures with the past such as switching from Arabic script to the Roman alphabet! Abolishing the fez, which was originally picked up from Balkan Christians, is one thing, but by this act Ataturk made much of the documentary material of the Ottoman period temporarily inaccessible (one assumes that essential material would be translated by now).
Scientist calculates an equation for the common cold: “Ten percent of your life is spent fighting colds.” Wow. That makes sense though. I’ve read that common cold viruses need at least the population density of agricultural societies to persist endemically. No wonder the recent work on natural selection among humans shows that immune related loci exhibit strong signatures of recent evolution.
Chris at Mixing Memory has a post up, Respecting the Religious (or the A-Religious), pointing to a Simon Blackburn working paper, Respect and Religion. I enjoyed Blackburn’s Think, but the chapter on God left me a bit cold. Blackburn is a philosopher, and his thoughts reflect that training. If I believed that religiosity was grounded in the sorts of arguments presented in Summa Theologica, I would take more interest in philosophical deconstructions of theism. As it is, I doubt that this is the case, a reality which Summa Theologica‘s author, St. Thomas Aquinas, acknowledges as well. Philosophical reflection is for those who have the ability, will and marginal time. A few thoughts about the whole Religion thing….